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.”

Oops.

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.

4 thoughts on “Reading Paul Auster’s “4 3 2 1”

  1. It does make me want to go out and read it! You give the feeling of the book without giving away spoilers. And your chatty style is always pleasant and easy to read!

    • Thanks, Pat! I tried really hard to not give away spoilers, because I often avoid reviews for exactly that reason. That book stayed with me for a long time after I put it down.

  2. Ahhh, now THIS is a book report! I was hanging on every word and your phraseology is unforgettable. Fabulous!

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