The novelist on Trump’s America and publishing the book of his life at 70Paul Laity
Friday 20 January 2017
|Photograph: Tim Knox for the Guardian|
Auster didn’t 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 boy’s tongue so he didn’t 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 boy’s 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. “I’ve 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 Auster’s 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”.
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.
In 4321 the young Fergusons react to landmark events of 1960s US history: the civil rights movement and JF Kennedy’s 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 weren’t as depressing as what’s 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 we’re 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 a few 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 author’s 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 don’t think 4321 would have occurred to me.”
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 4’s “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?”
Auster’s 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 had 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”.
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: “I’m happy to report that I’m not alone,” he told the Paris Review. “It’s a madhouse out there.”At the very beginning and end of 4321 is a joke about chance. It’s 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, Archie’s 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 (“I’ve 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 it’s a name that’ll be in American history for a long time”.)