The novelist on Trumps America and publishing the book of his life at 70
When Paul Auster was 14, a boy just inches away from him was struck by lightning and killed. Its something Ive never got over, he tells me. He was at summer camp: there we were, nearly 20 of us caught in an electric storm in the woods. Someone said we should get to a clearing, and to get there we had to crawl, single file, under a barbed wire fence. As the boy immediately in front of me was going under, lightning struck the fence. I was closer to him than you are to me now; my head was right near his feet.
Auster didnt realise the boy had died instantly. So I dragged him into the clearing. And for an hour, as we were pounded by intense rain, and attacked by lightning spears, I was holding on to the boys tongue so he didnt swallow it. Two or three other kids nearby had also been struck and were moaning; it was like a war scene. Little by little, the boys face was turning blue; his eyes were half open, half shut, the whites were showing. It took Auster a little while to absorb that, had the strike occurred just a few seconds later, it would have been him. Ive always been haunted by what happened, the utter randomness of it, he says. I think it was the most important day of my life.
A similar incident occurs in Austers new novel, 4321. Archie Ferguson, a 13-year-old full of promise, enthralled by The Catcher in the Rye and his first kisses, runs under a tree during a storm at summer camp. When lightning strikes, he is killed by a falling branch: as his inert body lay on the water-soaked ground thunder continued to crack, and from one end of the earth to the other, the gods were silent.
But this is the fate of only one of four Archie Fergusons in the novel. Austers fiction has always explored the moments in which lives, thanks to chance and circumstance, take different directions, and in 4321 this idea is presented in its purest form. The novel begins with the birth of Ferguson on 3 March 1947 to Stanley, who runs a furniture-appliance store in Newark, New Jersey, and Rose, who works for a photographer. What follows is four versions of Fergusons story. The four Archies have the same starting point the same parents, the same bodies, and the same genetic material but, as they gallop through childhood and adolescence, they take divergent paths. Each Ferguson lives in a different New Jersey town and has a different configuration of family and friends. As their stories unfold in rotating chapters, they become increasingly distinct people: the influence is felt of money, or the lack of it; divorce; education, and all the other factors that shape early lives. Auster presents four lovingly detailed portrayals of the intensity of youth of awkwardness and frustration, but also of passion for books, films, sport, politics and sex.
All the Archies are bursting with intelligence, and all are aspiring writers. All fall for the captivating Amy Schneiderman, though each relationship plays out in a different way. One Ferguson has a car crash and loses fingers; one is bisexual; one has a friend who dies suddenly; one lives in a garret in Paris rather than going to university; the father of one dies in a fire. It will already be clear that some of the four lives are shorter than others: after the storm in the camp, four Archies becomes three and, as the reader looks ahead, the title of the book takes on a more definite meaning.
As far as I know, no one has ever written a novel with this form, Auster says. Talking in his Brooklyn townhouse, we try to think of comparisons: I come up with Kate Atkinsons Life After Life; he mentions a film by Krzysztof Kielowski. But neither are exactly right. At first, I didnt know how many Fergusons I wanted to have, he continues, I just knew that it was an idea I have been puzzling over all my life. What he is driving at is not only the role of contingency and the unexpected, but the what ifs that haunt us, the imaginary lives we hold in our minds and that run parallel to our actual existence. How might things have turned out had I gone to a different school, or had I not run into the person I married? These are the shadows of our other possible lives (and deaths). It is a very powerful notion, Auster believes, and it drove me through the writing of the novel.
4321 is published to coincide with Austers 70th birthday. He regards it as the biggest book of my life and not just because, at 900 pages, its three times as long as any of his other 16 novels (its an elephant, he admits, but I hope its a sprinting elephant). In terms of his reputation, he is convinced, it is going to dominate everything. I feel Ive waited my whole life to write this book. Ive been building up to it all these years.
Its writing became urgent to him. I stayed downstairs in my bunker the basement of his brownstone and worked almost seven days a week. I wanted to live to finish it. He pauses to suck on an e-cigarette: two years ago he abandoned the small cigars he had always chain-smoked, and which have given him his much admired raspy voice (like a piece of sandpaper scraping over a dry roof shingle he has said). I started the book at 66, which is the year my father dropped dead of a heart attack. And once I passed that boundary, I began to live in a very creepy world. Ive settled into it now, but early on, there was a thought of sudden death in my head.
Auster has been a starry presence on the international literary scene for decades, ever since his New York Trilogy in the mid-1980s established him as fashionable writer who could deliver pacy plots with a dash of existentialism and literary theory. The first novel in the trilogy, City of Glass, features a writer, Quinn, who is mistaken for a private eye called Paul Auster: it is a postmodern tale of urban alienation, summed up by an editor as Kafka goes gumshoe. With his black clothes and expertise in French poetry, his love of baseball and Samuel Beckett, Auster offered a stylish and accessible intellectualism, East Coast meets Left Bank. He became the best example of an avant-garde writer who had found a mainstream audience.
Venerated in France and a bestselling novelist in the rest of Europe, he was less celebrated in his home country, though this changed when, in the mid-90s, he made, with Wayne Wang, the voguish film Smoke, and was involved in other movies. More attention then began to be paid to his delicate, thoughtful works of autobiography, and to such novels as The Music of Chance with its desolate solitary male, hardboiled thrills and its swerve into fable and absurdism. He published frequently, and began to amass a body of work distinctive in its themes and playfulness with form (the nesting of texts within texts, self-referentiality, and so on). His close literary friends Don DeLillo, Salman Rushdie, Peter Carey and also JM Coetzee, with whom he has published an exchange of letters are from the premier league, and he is married to the writer Siri Hustvedt. The couple Auster soulful and sunken eyed, Hustvedt blonde and elegant were once asked to appear in a Gap advert as the embodiment of metropolitan literary cool. These days, Auster is more of an old-timer, a Brooklyn institution, but his stature is unquestioned.
He has also been unafraid to make his voice heard politically, as a member of literatures left-leaning establishment, and its hard at this moment to avoid the subject of Americas new president: Its all Im thinking about right now. Auster has in the past stood against the Iraq war and George W Bush, and he got into a public spat with the Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoan over imprisoned writers. On the eve of the recent American election, he described himself as on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Donald Trumps message of Make America Great Again was, he argued, really Make America White Again Ive never been in more despair about who we are and where were going.
In the wake of Trumps victory, he says, I feel utterly astonished that we could have come to this. I find his election the most appalling thing Ive seen in politics in my life. The Russians hacking the Democratic party is almost like a declaration of war, without bullets. Ive been struggling ever since Trump won to work out how to live my life in the years ahead, he says. And he has decided to act: I have come to the conclusion to accept something that has been offered to me again and again over the years to become president of PEN America. I have been vice-president, and secretary, but Ive never wanted to take on the full burden. Ill start early in 2018. Im going to speak out as often as I can, otherwise I dont think I can live with myself.
In 4321 the young Fergusons react to landmark events of 1960s US history: the civil rights movement and JF Kennedys assassination, the Vietnam war and the student protests at Columbia University in 1968. I ask Auster if there any connections to be made between then and now. Tumultuous as those times were, they werent as depressing as whats going on today, he reflects. How little has changed in American life since then. Race is still a very big problem. Stupid foreign policy decisions are still being made. And the country is just as divided now as it was then. It seems as though America has always been split between the people who believe in the individual above everything else, and those people who believe were responsible for one another.
Auster has spent much of the last decade thinking about his childhood and the America he grew up in. When in his 50s, and after suffering his first bouts of ill health, he wrote a series of novels that centred on debilitated men (Timbuktu, The Book of Illusions, Oracle Night) and the presence of the dead in the thoughts of the living. During his 60s, however, Auster has gone back in time. (He has often mentioned a line from the poet George Oppen about growing old: what a strange thing to happen to a little boy.) His 13th novel, Invisible, featured a student at Columbia in the late 60s when Auster studied there. And the authors two recent fragments of autobiography, Winter Journal and Report from the Interior, are lyrical attempts to recall the sensations and thought patterns of his childhood self. I think those two books laid the groundwork for this novel, he says. Without having dwelt in that land of long ago, I dont think 4321 would have occurred to me.
Ferguson, as Auster did, begins his teenage years in 1960: I wanted to give a sense of what it felt like to grow up then, the writer says: the new novel is a story of human development and I worked hard thinking about the different stages of a young persons life. His mothers name was Rose, Ferguson 1s story begins, and when he was big enough to tie his shoes and stop wetting the bed, he was going to marry her. 4321 is intent on conveying the way Archie, in all his incarnations, is formed both by personal drives and public events. The day Kennedy is shot is also the day Ferguson 1 has sex with Amy for the first time: they watch the coverage for hours on TV and then tumble into bed. (Any conjuring of a teenagers life has to engage with the obsessive thinking about sex Auster recalls that its hard to get another thought in your head.)
History unfolds: one Ferguson reports that in Alabama state troopers have attacked civil rights demonstrators in Selma, and that the Vietnam draft quotas have been doubled. A stepfather arrives on the scene, sport takes centre stage, cars are driven for the first time, Candide is devoured, Lyndon Johnsons record is assessed. All the Fergusons are in a state of plasticity, on the way to being formed. They are all notably precocious, sensitive, likable and right-thinking: Auster wants to capture the nature of the havoc roiling inside Archie, the contradictory muddle of hard, unforgiving judgments and raging contempt for big-dollar American greed, combined with an overall gentleness of spirit his good-boy rectitude and out-of-step clumsiness with his own heart.
Austers urge to convey youthful intensity in 4321 has induced him to change his style (in the past his work has been criticised for being too formulaic). He describes it as the most realistic novel Ive written The structure has a speculative feel to it, but its very down to earth. There is nothing noirish about the book, there are no borrowings from genre fiction, and there is no evidence either of what used to be his trademark minimalism: 4321 not only teems with detail but is written in long, breathless sentences some spilling over pages.