Reading Paul Auster’s “4 3 2 1”

He wondered if he had it in him to write without a pen, if he could learn to speak instead, filling the darkness with his voice, speaking the words into the air, into the walls, into the city, even if the light never came back again. – Paul Auster, “City of Glass”, The New York Trilogy, p. 132

All I remember from “City of Glass” is somebody literally disappearing through the cracks of New York City towards the end – I’m not sure I remember even that right – and that there had been some sort of detective work involved. We were undergrads in our early twenties and the jagged thrill of post-modernism crackled through every tiny foamalite cup of strong milky instant coffee from the BJ’s snoepie across from the lecture hall. When I open Auster’s The New York Trilogy and catch a word here and there, I can feel the air from those lecture halls and the underground library we called “the coal mine” when we first saw it. I could hardly remember the story the next time I saw one of his books. I just remembered the excitement of those moments: we could be bleary-eyed philosophers under fluorescent lights, in damp shoes, digging out coins for coffee.

And that is why I picked up a Paul Auster title with the joy of meeting up with an old friend a couple of years later. I was studying in Germany this time and very earnest about improving my German. Trawling through German literature for my studies and reading only German books for fun too. And after a few months I was starved for reading anything that wasn’t German.

In the university library I wandered over to the English section and left clutching The Invention of Solitude. On a train through Salzburg to Vienna, Auster’s memoir of his relationship with his father and his experience of his own role as a father, coloured the grassy hills and neat villages that trundled past the windows.  Poignant isn’t a word I shell out very often, but it was that kind of story. And big part of why that book made such a lasting impression on me was due to the relief of sinking into some wonderfully slow, crafted, atmospheric English. English!

If there had ever been a time to fall back in love with a language, Auster was the way to do it.

In Zululand a few years later at a friend’s house, I met Timbuktu , the story of a homeless man and his dog Bones. The story is told from the dog’s perspective – a little bit like Jeanne Goosen’s ʼn Paw-Paw vir my darling.  It is filled with unusual moments of startling beauty, like when the homeless man, Willy, composes symphony for dogs made up of smells, especially for Bones – and the puzzled Bones indulges him.  I’m sketchy on the details, I may even have the names wrong, but I’ll never forget reading those scenes. Suddenly the visual world tilted and give way to a whole new layer of perception – and I never looked at my dog again the same way either.

A few more years lapsed and I ran into an Auster book again at an airport bookshop on the way back from a friend’s wedding.  Well, this time it was such a big book it was hard to miss. 4 3 2 1 was almost as big as my handbag and I shifted my bulging, spilling hand luggage around so that I had a free hand to turn over the book and read the description.  It’s the life story of one man, told in four different ways, set in New York. I didn’t grab it then and there to read of all the ways Archie Ferguson’s life could have turned out because, as you could probably tell, I didn’t have the luggage space. But I “tagged” it right there in my head for a next time.

Next time arrived sooner than I’d expected and I was leaving for a long trip and trying to figure out what to load on my Kindle so I wouldn’t run out of something to read. The gigantic Auster came to mind. I was barely halfway through it before I zealously started badgering friends to read it too.

A message pinged back:

“You could have just told me the thing is over 700 pages.”


Wait… is it?

As with War and Peace the electronic version is much lighter on the arm muscles. But that’s only the one reason I didn’t always notice the length of this novel. In fact, I had wandered so far into that world I’d wanted it to go on. Funnily enough, it is actually a pretty straightforward novel to describe.

It basically tells the story of Archie Ferguson, grandson of immigrants to America, throughout the 1940’, 50’s, 60’s and so on, in New York and New Jersey. The language could seem plain, but just look at what he does with the final sentence of the chapter. Typical Auster he manages to take a seemingly ordinary event and just tilt a sentence here and there slightly – and suddenly it becomes something momentous:

Her sister-in-law picked up on the third ring, and thus it was Millie who came to fetch her. During the short ride to the maternity ward at Beth Israel, Rose told her that she and Stanley had already chosen names for the child who was about to be born. If it was a girl, they were going to call her Esther Ann Ferguson. If it was a boy, he would go through life as Archibald Isaac Ferguson. Millie looked into the rearview mirror and studied Rose, who was sprawled out on the backseat. Archibald, she said. Are you sure about that one? Yes we’re sure, Rose answered, because of my Uncle Archie. And Isaac because of Stanley’s father. Let’s just hope he’s a tough kid, Millie said. She was about to go on, but before she could get another word out of her mouth, they had reached the hospital entrance. Millie rounded up the troops, and when Rose gave birth to her son at 2:07 the following morning, everyone was there: Stanley and her parents, Mildred and Joan, and even Stanley’s mother. Thus Ferguson was born, and for several seconds after he emerged from his mother’s body, he was the youngest human being on the face of the earth. – Paul Auster, 4 3 2 1

After the first bit, the book splits up into four different versions of Archie’s life, told in alternating chapters. So instead of reading one version after the other, or reading along diverging paths like in the choose-your-adventure-type books we read as kids, the reader reads four versions of each stage of life before proceeding with the next one. And it’s not four versions as in four different perspectives. It shows four completely different lives, affected by different events and different outcomes of events. So that’s why it feels like four novels: because it actually could have been. It is as if the reader gets drawn even deeper into a certain period of American and World History because the variations allow a deep and multi-faceted experience of key events and movements. See how he draws together a few different recurring themes in the novel (movies, the link between past and present, the nature of reality, the way we shape places and places shape us…) with this description of Paris:

Paris was the movie of Paris, an agglomeration of all the Paris movies Ferguson had seen, and how inspiring it was to find himself in the real place now, real in all of its sumptuous and stimulating reality, and yet to walk around feeling that it was an imaginary place as well, a place both in his head and out in the air that encircled his body, a simultaneous here and there, a black-and-white past and a full-color present, and Ferguson took pleasure in shuttling between the two of them, his thoughts moving so fast at times that the two blurred into one. – Paul Auster,  4 3 2 1

After putting down the novel, I felt like I’d walked criss-cross through the streets of New York City or had gone time-traveling. The extraordinary detail of each version is reason enough to call this novel a masterpiece.

When I look back over my reading history, there are always some books that stand out like beacons on the way, lighting up a different direction or marking an important stage in life.

4 3 2 1 made it to that list within the first few chapters.

The books that become landmarks on the map of my reading landscape are not just there because they are exceptionally good, some are also on the list for making me see life or myself or a certain situation in a new light, books that opened up worlds or offered up moments of recognition and explanation, books that gather less dust than the many others because they get picked up and re-read and doled out like medication.

4 3 2 1 is one of those books that make you think about life. The massive expanse of events and fine details ram home the point that even the smallest, most insignificant-looking event can have vast consequences. But it also made me realise that if there’s something that you should be doing with your life, it won’t leave you. It will either fill up your existence or haunt you in vague taunts from the fringes.

Don’t know what I mean?

Go read the book first; I don’t want to spoil it for you. It is a grand piece of literature, and well worth the effort.

This morning I dusted-off my copy of The New York Trilogy. It’s time to visit an old friend and smell the rainy mornings and remember.

“Afspraak met Eergister”: Op reis in ou reisverhale

This post is in Afrikaans, but earlier this week I published a different one in English – so you don’t have to turn around if you don’t understand this one. Read here about the fun I’m having texting a novel. 

Ou reisverhale hou vir my ‘n besondere bekoring in. Kyk, natuurlik is daar iets te sê vir die gemoedsrus wat ‘n blink boek, of dingetjie op jou foon met splinternuwe inligting, verskaf wanneer jy natgereën in ‘n vreemde land ‘n slaapplek soek. Maar deesdae gaan ek ook swaar êrens heen sonder ‘n reisverhaal of ‘n roman wat afspeel by my bestemming. Vandag sal  Springbok round the Corner  jou kwalik die regte pad deur  sommige dele van Suid-Afrika kan beduie, maar, ai, jy sal nie spyt wees as jy deur die Vrystaat ry met ‘n paar van die dinge wat Basil Fuller daar te siene gekry het in jou voosgevatte notaboekie nie.

Betrand Westphal skryf in La Géocritique. Réel, fiction, espace (2007), hoe die belewenis van ‘n spesifieke plek verryk kan word deur daarna te kyk deur die oë van skrywers en karakters. In die volgende aanhaling vertel hy hoe Parys, byvoorbeeld, gelees kan word as ‘n reeks lae van “Paryse” deur verskeie skrywers se uitbeeldings van Parys bymekaar te sit:

Dans le Paris de Calvino et de Eco, il y a, comme autant de poupées gigognes, le Paris de Balzac, de Dumas ou de Outrillo. La géocritique permet de reconstituer le cheminement intertextuel qui mène à ce travail de représentation de l’espace. Le coefficient d’impact serait plus élevé encore si, plutôt que de percevoir ce qu’il y a de textuel dans un espace donné, on considérait le lieu comme un texte. –  bl. 247

[Binne die Parys van Calvino en Eco is daar, soos binne Russiese poppies, die Parys van Balzac, Duma of Outrillo. Die geokritiek maak dit moontlik om die intertekstuele weg wat lei na hierdie voorstelling van ruimte te herkonstrueer. Die koëffisiënt van die impak sal selfs hoër wees, indien die plek as ʼn teks bekou word, in plaas daarvan om die tekstuele elemente in ʼn bepaalde ruimte te beskou.]

Met ander woorde: elke beskrywing van ‘n plek voeg ‘n laag , of selfs ‘n paar lae, tot die bestemming. Dis wat my opgeval het in Berlyn destyds: hoe die geskiedenis in lae opgeslik lê teen mure vol koeëlgate en brokkies sementmuur – die elektriese geraas van ‘n wêreldstad in jou ore. Jy staan op een plek en draai stadig in die rondte: barok – Wêreldoorlog – Stasi – WiFi – soveel Berlyne van soveel eras. En dit is maar net wat in die strate te siene was: in my agterkop was die Berlyn van Goodbye Lenin, Berlin: Alexanderplatz… en voor my was die Alexanderplatz en die bolronde televisietoring. Wanneer ‘n mens, soos Westphal voorstel, ‘n plek as ‘n teks lees, bring die lees van ouer tekste die lae wat in die hedendaagse landskap onsigbaar geword het, na vore.

Die Afrikaanse skrwyer Abraham H. de Vries het vanjaar 80 geword en ons kan gerus ‘n slag gesels oor een van sy boeke.  Ek kom van die Klein-Karoo af en het onlangs met die deurryslag in Ladismith, dié plaaslike skrywer se Afspraak met eergister: Griekse reisjoernaal Oktober 1965 tot April 1966 (Tafelberg, 1966), in die hande gekry (Daar is ‘n tuisnywerheid by die vulstasie op linkerhand, soos jy Kaap se kant toe ry, wat altyd van sy boeke aanhou).

Met die intrapslag is dit reeds duidelik dat ek nooit as ek na Griekeland sou reis dieselfde land sal aantref as hy en sy vrou, Ri, nie. Inteenteendeel, die sestigerjare is eergister genoeg – laat staan nog die antieke tye. Maar geen generiese reisgids vir bekpekkers kan die Griekse landskap meet aan die Klein-Karoo se koppies nie. Die boek is ryk aan Suid-Afrikaanse verwysings en bied aan die leser ‘n eiesoortige toegang tot hierdie bestemming:

Daar word vertel dat Apollo in die hawetjie Krisa (Itea) voet aan wal gesit het, nadat hy van sy geboorte-eiland, Delos, af weg is om die hele Griekeland te verower. By hom het hy ʼn dolfyn as lyfwag gehad en hyself was vermom as ʼn ster. Van Krisa af het hy opgeklim tot by die skuilplek van die draak wat oor Delphi gewaak het, en nadat hy dié doodgemaak het, het hy aan al die gode verkondig dat dit wat sy oë kon sien, van toe af syne was. Wat hy gesien het, is wat besoekers aan die tempel in die ruïnegebied vandag nog sien – waarskynlik een van die mooiste vergesigte wat daar bestaan – vir wie nog nooit vantevore op Towerkop naby Ladismith in die Klein-Karoo gestaan het nie. – bl. 69

Saam met hom op reis is ook die werke van ander skrywers, onder andere antieke beskrywings en legendes, wat hy in Afrikaans laat saamvleg om skerp draaie en laat rondkyk in die straatkafees:

Links van ons speel die see wegkruipertjie agter lae rotsformasies in en regs kom die berg Olumpos stadig los uit die vroegoggendmistigheid. Vir die ou Grieke was daar geen twyfel dat dit die hoogste berg in die wêreld was nie. Daarom het hulle dit beskou as die woonplek van Zeus, die oppergod. ʼn Jakkals loop oor my graf terywl ek doen wat die Grieke van vroeër nie sou gewaag het nie – ek kyk na die pieke wat nog toe lê onder die mistigheid. Omdat die gasstofie (wat ek elke keer met ʼn gaatjiesoekende ritueel aanmekaar moet sit) stadig kook aan die water, kry ek kans om my sagtebanduitgawe van Homerus rustig te sit en deurblaai. – bl. 21

Sy vrou se, dikwels droë, kommentaar dra by tot die humor wat die toon aangee soos landskap, mitologie, filosofie en politiek mekaar afwissel tussen koppies koffie, tempels en eilande. Die kleurvolheid van die tonele word slegs oortref deur die kleurvolheid van die Afrikaans waarin dit beskryf word:

Links van ons sit ʼn boepens-Griek en eet met sy servet onder sy boordjie ingedruk. Sy vrou sit met haar hande op haar skoot en die dogtertjie tussen hulle hou vir die musikante tyd met haar witpuntskoentjies. Die eienaar van die kafee is ʼn maer man wat sonder enige emosie alles gadeslaan. Teen die muur het hy nagemaakte oudhede gehang, ʼn ou seemanspet en ʼn foto van sy vader.

“En as jy alles neerskryf soos iemand wat ʼn wasgoedlys maak; watter sin het dit?” vra Ri.

“Dit hoef nie sin te hê nie,” antwoord ek. Met my neus tussen die jasmynblare. “Tot nou toe was alles bont genoeg!” – bl. 40

Vroeg in die boek, dink ek aan ‘n episode van Vetkoekpaleis waar Spira vir Antie Poppie, “καλή μέρα ” gegroet het – en ek soos ‘n kind in ‘n speelgoedwinkel gevoel het. Gedurende my eerste gefaalde pogings om Grieks te leer, het ek die opwinding meegemaak ons twee reisigers ervaar met hulle ontsyfering van die Griekse alfabet:

Ons sit en spel soos kinders die woorde op die advertensies uit, want die Griekse alfabet het 24 letters, waarvan net 10 as hoofletters en 9 in gewone skrif ooreenstem met dié van ons. Die res is letterlik en figuurlik Grieks, totdat ʼn mens agterkom dat daar maar ongeveer ʼn dosyn letters oorbly om te leer en dat jy die vermoëns wat jy as ʼn tjokkertjie in die laerskool gehad het, nie kwyt is nie: dit duur hoogstens ʼn paar minute om hierdie letters te leer, en Grieks is daarna nie meer so Grieks nie, want die bewoording van byvoorbeeld advertensies is nou eenmaal internasionaal. Dan, op ʼn aand, laat ʼn Griek vir jou ʼn notatjie en begin die plesier van voor af, want hulle verwag dat jy nog ʼn handskrifdeskundige ook moet wees! – bl. 18

Die boek trek mens in by gesprekke en stories langs die pad: die avontuur van ‘n ander taal,’n dorpsbegrafnis, ‘n kerkie so klein dat daar net plek is vir ‘n kat, ‘n bakleiery op straat na ‘n motorbotsing.  En maak nie saak watter Griekeland daar is as ek dit die dag besoek nie, Afspraak met Eergister se oezoe en grotte en handgebare sit reeds daar vir my en wag.

Daar is sekere plekke, net soos mense, wat die vermoë het om al die brandnekels wat ʼn mens in jou het, te laat verwelk. Daphni is so ʼn plek. Toe ons daar wegry, pluk Ri ʼn paar lourierblare af en steek dit in my baadjie se bosak, soveel te sê: bly nou om hemelsnaam die res van die dag ook kalm. – bl. 60

Ook ‘n boek soos hierdie laat die brandnekels verwelk. Watter reisboek staan op jóu stowwerige rak?