Shes an ardent feminist and I agree with her in all her positions. They are mine as well Auster with his wife, Siri Hustvedt Photograph: Carlos Alvarez/Getty Images
Ive been building up to this in my recent books, he continues. And I felt a certain liberation in writing a sentence that goes on for three pages. It creates such a forcefield of energy. Its not stream of consciousness, but as a reader you are following the thought processes of the characters; the aim is to be propulsive. He has Ferguson 4 dismiss the usual writing advice of show not tell in favour of tell and tell and tell, and Auster says 4321 is itself a case of telling and telling. As such, the novel contains a lot of the things Ive been thinking about over all these years, and yet presented in a wholly different way.
This is not to say 4321 abandons his themes or all of his metafictional trickery. In the detailing of Fergusons involvement in the Columbia University sit-ins, for instance, other characters from Auster novels who are graduates from his alma mater make an appearance Marco Stanley Fogg from Moon Palace, David Zimmer from The Book of Illusions, Peter Aaron from Leviathan, Adam Walker from Invisible. The reader, as so often with Auster, steps momentarily into a hall of mirrors. Yes, they are all there, he confirms. I wanted to bring back all my boys and have them there at the same time just for fun. Its a link in my work.
Similarly, in the novels final pages, a crucial sentence refers to the endlessly forking paths a person must confront as he walks through life. This is a nod to Jorge Luis Borges a writer often cited in discussions of the New York Trilogy and his story The Garden of Forking Paths, at the centre of which is, appropriately enough, a novel where all possible outcomes of an event take place simultaneously. For those so inclined, there are plenty of other references to spot (for example the Princeton professor Nagle is an homage Austers friend, the celebrated translator Robert Fagles). More significantly, 4321 ends with a characteristic piece of illusionism that changes the nature of the novel entirely.
4321 is also typical in drawing on Austers own experiences. We know from reading his memoirs that he, like Ferguson 3, lived in a top floor maids room in Paris as a young man; that he, too, visited prostitutes the examples are too numerous to mention. In fact for readers familiar with Austers work, the novel seems to be almost an echo chamber, with familiar themes and episodes including the lightning story, which he has told elsewhere reverberating within the multiple Ferguson narratives. The author has, it seems, poured his whole life into this book.
I borrowed some things from my own life, but what novelist doesnt? Unlike other writers, however, he rarely shuts down such conversations with a weary reminder that fiction involves making things up, but tends instead to volunteer exactly what in each book has been lifted from his own life. One instance from 4321 is a basketball match, played by Ferguson 4, which ends with a miraculous fluke of a shot and a fight between black kids and white kids. He was at such a match, and it was very demoralising for me, he remembers, I was 14 and filled with idealism. He mentions a character who is a direct representation of a friends father a man full of wonderful stories of sea voyages and womens stockings and wireless, and his first martini. And I used my grandparents apartment, he adds, in a building on the corner of Central Park that wraps around to 58th St right to Columbus Circle.
The borrowings go beyond incidents and places to include enthusiasms. Auster is able to indulge his well-known love of Laurel and Hardy when a troubled Ferguson 2 watches their films repeatedly at home on a projector screen. The novelist resurrects his own past as a student translator of French poetry (Ferguson 1 has a similar inclination) with a new rendering of a poem by Apollinaire. He even inserts into the narrative a text he wrote aged 19 called The Droons described as Ferguson 4s most crackpot effort so far which includes the incomparable line: After three days and three nights, I arrived at the village of Flom. It is pretty much word-for-word, Auster says: I thought: this is what I sounded like at 19, so why meddle with it?
The narrative of the Columbia sit-ins is accurately told done as straight history. In 1967 Auster himself took part in the protests, got arrested, got kicked by the cops: Im very glad I did it. At one heady moment of student insurrection, he knew seven out of 10 men on the FBIs most wanted list.
The retelling of anecdotes in Austers different books and the repetition of episodes from his own life have attracted some flak. Given Fergusons intellectual sparkle and progressive views, he might be said to have opened himself up to the charge, made by an early reviewer of 4321, that he has written a very long chronicle of his own genius. Another review has referred to the magnetic pull of Austers fascination with his own biography. Readers of the new novel who dont know his work simply wont care, and the novelist, who always has mischief on his side against the critics, knows there is no simple correspondence between himself and Ferguson, and cares little about any overlappings in his work: I am trying to represent in my fiction the world that I know the reality that I have lived through and experienced, which is so full of surprises, and befuddling, and just not what one expects at all.
Auster likes to pinpoint his beginnings as a writer to the day when, aged eight, he met his baseball hero Willie Mays at a New York Giants game and, mustering all his courage, asked him for an autograph. But neither his father nor his mother had a pencil, and eventually the player shrugged and walked away. Auster cried, and hated himself for crying, but from that day on so the story goes never left home without a pencil: If theres a pencil in your pocket, theres a good chance that one day youll feel tempted to start using it (52 years after the game, Mays gave him a signed ball).
Austers breakthrough with the New York Trilogy came when he was in his late 30s (and even then City of Glass was rejected by 17 publishers). He has written engagingly about the long years before that success, particularly in the memoir Hand to Mouth, which is subtitled A Chronicle of Early Failure (his early jobs included working on an Esso oil tanker). From 1971, he lived in France with the writer Lydia Davis, whom he had met in college. They eked out an existence as critics and translators and shared a belief that their poverty was romantic until the situation grew desperate. They eventually returned to the US, with nine dollars to their name, and were married in 1974. The following year, expecting a child their son, Daniel the couple bought an old house in Duchess County, New York. On their arrival, Auster knew they had made a mistake. On the back porch were old pro-Nazi pamphlets and a copy of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and when moving a wardrobe Auster found a desiccated crow a classic omen of bad tidings.
The following years were the bleakest of his life. He was so hard up, he touted around a baseball game he invented using playing cards and considered responding to an ad that promised Make Money Growing Worms in Your Basement. I had spent my whole life avoiding the subject of money, he writes in Hand to Mouth, and now, suddenly, I could think of nothing else. His turbulent marriage to Davis ended in 1978, and Auster faced what he has called a very bad crisis: the ground was opening up the things you clung to were no longer there.
The death of his father, Sam, the following year (he had a heart attack while having sex with his girlfriend) triggered a change. Not only did a small inheritance enable Auster to keep writing, but he immediately embarked on a book of prose written in search of his remote, absent father, which became the superb memoir The Invention of Solitude. Most shocking was his discovery that in 1919 his grandmother had shot and killed his grandfather. She was acquitted on grounds of temporary insanity and her five children never mentioned the scandal; Sam Auster was eight years old at the time: A boy cannot live through this kind of thing without being affected by it as a man.
In 1981, the year before The Invention of Solitude was published, Auster met Hustvedt at a poetry reading. The family joke, she has said, is that it took me about 60 seconds to fall really hard, and it took him several hours. It was a really fast bit of business. Auster has often said that she saved him: It sounds sentimental, because weve been together now 36 years, he tells me, but she is far and away the most intelligent person Ive ever known. She is always his first reader, and hasnt made a suggestion that I havent followed. Hustvedt has recently published a collection of essays entitled A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women, and I ask Auster whether she has ever picked him up on his representations of women. Never, he replies. Ive learned so much from her over the years. Shes an ardent feminist and I agree with her in all her positions. They are mine as well.
Austers life-changing meeting with Hustvedt is, for him, a perfect example of the befuddling workings of contingency. In the same vein, he says that had he not received a wrong-number phone call (twice) from a man asking for the Pinkertons detective agency, he would never have written City of Glass. Such an interpretation of events can be pushed too far, but Auster has a deep affinity for tales of coincidence and the uncanny. People who dont like my work say that the connections seem too arbitrary. But thats how life is.
As if to prove it, between 1999 and 2001 he took part in the National Story Project on American public radio, in which he read out yarns submitted by ordinary people across the country true stories that sounded like fiction. His original call was for tales that defied our expectations about the world, anecdotes that revealed the mysterious and unknowable forces at work in our lives. It was a success; thousands of stories were submitted and a selection published as True Tales of American Life. Auster found confirmation that reality is truly as strange and incomprehensible as I thought it was, and that others too felt the pull of improbability: Im happy to report that Im not alone, he told the Paris Review. Its a madhouse out there.
At the very beginning and end of 4321 is a joke about chance. Its an adaptation of an old joke about a Jewish immigrant to the US that is apparently used by tour guides to Ellis Island. Before being interviewed by the immigration official, Archies grandfather, Isaac Reznikoff, is advised by a fellow Russian Jew to choose a new, American-sounding name, such as Rockefeller. But when the interview takes place, he forgets the name, slaps his head in frustration and blurts out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (Ive forgotten). The official thus writes his name down as Ferguson a single moment with major consequences. (Auster says he originally intended to call the novel Ferguson, but had to change the title following the controversial shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri Now its a name thatll be in American history for a long time.)
Auster produced 4321 keeping to his celebrated old-school habits in particular his dedication to writing in longhand, and his use of the trusty Olympia typewriter that has been on his desk since 1974. He has even published a book, with the artist Sam Messer, called The Story of My Typewriter, some of the original artworks from which hang above Auster as he talks to me. He likes the sound the keys make, he has said, but turns to the Olympia only once a paragraph he has worked on in his quadrille notebooks seems finished. He dislikes computers and thinks Amazon is the enemy. Each day, having worked for six hours on the new novel, he felt depleted: writing books is exhausting, physically and mentally. With Hustvedt, he would usually unwind by watching a classic film.
According to Auster, only a person who really felt compelled to do it would shut himself up in a room every day When I think about the alternatives how beautiful life can be, how interesting I think its a crazy way to live your life. Dwelling again on Trump and the state of America, he remarks that he has often been tormented by the question he puts in the mouth of Ferguson 4: If the world is on fire, what use are works of fiction? When you have a social conscience, there is a great push and pull inside of you about how to spend your time and he has never really come up with an answer. But there remains the hunger to write, he insists, to keep doing it, even if the good sentences refuse to come. The excitement, the struggle, is emboldening and vivifying. I just feel more alive writing.
4321 is published by Faber on 31 January. To order a copy for 15 (RRP 20) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over 10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of 1.99.