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Paul Auster’s 4 3 2 1. Past Paradigms

4 3 2 1 de Paul Auster. Dépasser les paradigmes
I. B. Siegumfeldt

Résumés

Une distribution de personnages en tétrades centrée sur des protagonistes dupliqués mais différents aux noms identiques est assez étrange, et les critiques affirmant que le roman mastodonte 4 3 2 1 marque un retour au réalisme ne tiennent pas compte de la tonalité fabulaire appuyée qui sous-tend le récit. Si Paul Auster n’en est pas à son premier essai avec l’alternativité, 4 3 2 1 pousse son attrait pour l’insondable encore plus loin. Un élément constitutif d’hétérogénéité s’installe au centre du texte et les attentes du lecteur sont sabotées. Il ne semble pas exagéré d’avancer que 4 3 2 1 crée une stratégie littéraire où convergent le « mythe » et le « quotidien », en accord avec un nouveau type de fiction au vingt-et-unième siècle que la critique contemporaine s’efforce de définir.

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  • 1 Paul Auster, The Invention of Solitude, London: Faber, 1982.

“This death has owned this life all along.”1

  • 2 Peter Brook, qtd. by Paul Auster, in Paul Auster and I. B. Siegumfeldt, A Life in Words, New York: (...)

1“According to family legend…” So begins Paul Auster’s latest novel, the titan bildungsroman, 4 3 2 1, which tells a strangely counterfactual story in which four young people live different versions of the same life. The story is embedded in a new type of heterogeneous narrative that, in some respects, embodies the complexity of adolescent life in urban America of the nineteen fifties to seventies. The opening line inscribes the inflated tone of the fabular which then recurs at intervals in an otherwise fairly straightforward semblance of the grand narrative as a reminder of the fact that this text does not conform to standard expectations of the novel. It turns, rather, on ontological instability and introduces a composite mode of writing that eminently captures one of Auster’s favourite dictums about art – “to combine the closeness of the everyday with the distance of myth. Because, without the closeness you can’t be moved, and without the distance you can’t be amazed.”2 4 3 2 1 does both, playfully, skillfully, and takes us beyond the literary paradigms of the twentieth century.

  • 3 Except number Two who perishes in a storm as a child.
  • 4 No doubt with reference to one of Auster’s influential precursors, the poet Charles Reznikoff. See (...)
  • 5 Paul Auster, 4 3 2 1, London: Faber, 2017, 29.

24 3 2 1 is a modular book with four parallel stories divided into seven chronologically organized cycles. They trace the development from birth to early adulthood3 of four boys bearing the same DNA and name, Archie Ferguson. The first chapter, 1.0, serves as a kind of genealogical account tracing the arrival in New York of the boys’ grandfather, a Russian Jewish immigrant by the name of Reznikoff,4 notably on the first day of the twentieth century – a date which underscores the fabular dimension to the book – and ends with the birth of the protagonist(s) in a similarly inflated tone: “and for several seconds after he emerged from his mother’s body, he was the youngest human being on the face of the earth.”5

3The Ferguson name was given at Ellis Island on the basis of a comic misunderstanding. This renaming upon arrival instills an element of inherent severance in the texture of the protagonist’s family. An inner disconnect, or, as Auster’s infamous character from The New York Trilogy, the maniacal linguist, Professor Stillman, would no doubt argue, a breach between signifier and signified. Fragmentation at inception, and indeed, two generations down the line, the grandson, Archie Isaac Ferguson, is quadrupled. Henceforth, each cycle divides into four sections, 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, 1.4; 2.1, 2.2. 2.3, 2.4, etc. And the novel becomes a homology.

4It is principally set in secular Jewish urban America in the politically formative decades of the nineteen sixties and seventies, and, as the face of the United States is shaped by such events as the Kennedy assassination, the student uprising at Columbia University, Black Power, the riots in Newark and Attica prison, the Vietnam War, etc., so are the Ferguson boys – each in his own way. 4 3 2 1 remains at all times in the domain of the particular even as it delves into the universe of alternativity and crosses ontological boundaries with such natural ease as were parallel lives a commonly accepted fact of life.

5The novel is self-reflexive at all levels of the narrative and, as we learn towards the end, Ferguson number Four is the somewhat unlikely author of the entire construction, through which he has sought a way to embody

  • 6 Ibid., 863.

[…] the persistent feeling that the forks and parallels of the roads taken and not taken were all being traveled by the same people at the same time, the visible people and the shadow people, and that the world as it was could never be more than a fraction of the world, for the real also consisted of what could have happened but didn’t, that one road was no better or worse than any other road, but the torment of being alive in a single body was that at any given moment you had to be on one road only, even though you could have been on another, traveling toward an altogether different place.6

  • 7 “I rolled my eyes at the fact that each Archie was so brilliant, and so confident in his writing,” (...)

6At this point, the protagonist is in his early twenties and remarkably precocious, even unrealistically so, as reviewers have pointed out,7 mature beyond his years to have been able to pull off such a sustained mastodon of alternativity. But then, this is not a realistic coming-of-age story. It belongs equally in the realms of myth and the everyday, a motley world in which young heroes may be identical and different at the same time, each gifted with special talents that, when honed by dedication and hard work, turn them into skilled writers: Number One a journalist, Number Three a film-critic and celebrated autobiographer and Number Four, well, the future author of this book.

  • 8 “So gut was Paul Auster noch nie” M. Schiller and T. Andre in Hamburger Abendblatt, February 1, 20 (...)
  • 9 Michael Schaub, “4 Lives in Parallel Run Through Ambitious 4 3 2 1”, NPR Book Reviews, February 1, (...)
  • 10 Blake Morrison, “4321 by Paul Auster review – a man of many parts”, The Guardian, January 27, 2017
  • 11 Tom Perotta, “Parallel Lives”, The New York Times Book Review, February 5, 2017, 8. A reviewer eve (...)

7Unlike the majority of Auster’s twenty-first century books which have come out in translation prior to publication in the original English, 4 3 2 1 was first published by American Henry Holt and British Faber in January 2017. Auster had completed the manuscript sooner than expected, that is, in the late summer of 2016, and Rowohlt Verlag managed to have it ready for publication in German by February 2017 to mark Auster’s seventieth birthday. They put four translators to work simultaneously – one for each voice –, had the first chapter set a common tone for the translator quartet, and the eleven-hundred-page English manuscript was promptly turned into thirteen hundred pages of German prose. Other translations followed soon after. And the reception was almost unanimously ecstatic: “Auster was never this good,”8 the headline in a German review read. “It’s a stunningly ambitious novel, and a pleasure to read,”9 said another, a novel “of panoramic Dickensian scope.”10 Even so, the structure of 4 3 2 1 has clearly challenged reviewers and critics alike. Perotta finds it “original and dauntingly complex” and claims that “the virtues of this unwieldly strategy take a while to announce themselves.”11 It is true that the first Cycle offers no easy directions of how to navigate through what may initially appear to be aimlessly shifting perspectives, but then, as Cycle Two begins with the recurring of chapter numbers one to four, typographically marked by frames, the structure becomes transparent. Moreover, there are clues indicating how to read this book which become more explicit as we go along, for instance in Archie’s reflections on a multiplicity of selves:

  • 12 Paul Auster, 4 3 2 1, op. cit., 241.

One of the odd things about being himself, Ferguson had discovered, was that there seemed to be several of him, that he wasn’t just one person, but a collection of contradictory selves, and each time he was with a different person, he himself was different as well.12

  • 13 Sonja Longolius, “Becoming”, in Performing Authorship, Transcript Verlag: Edition Kulturwissenscha (...)
  • 14 Paul Auster in interview w. Larry McCaffery and Sinda Gregory, The Art of Hunger, London: Penguin, (...)
  • 15 Conversations between Paul Auster and I. B. Siegumfeldt, New York, September 2016. Unless otherwis (...)

8It does not alter the fact, however, that there is something strange indeed about a cast of characters that comes in tetrads centering on duplicate yet different protagonists with identical names. It installs a constitutive element of heterogeneity at the core of the text and thus sabotages readerly expectations. But then, Auster’s characters have never had stable identities, least of all his “performing authors,” as Longolius points out.13 There has always been a desire to implicate “that mysterious other who lives inside me and puts my name on the cover of books,”14 Auster pointed out in 1989, and, in hindsight, we might argue that perhaps something like this four-fold homology was imminent given the remark by the novelist, Renzo, who, in Auster’s previous novel, Sunset Park, 2010, is contemplating a counterfactual book about the things that did not happen. “I’ve been thinking about this kind of thing for years,” Auster said in our conversation about the manuscript, “I had never found a way to do it. Now I finally sat down and did this.”15

9Auster has worked with alternativity before, but never quite like this. In Man in the Dark, 2008, a counterfactual world is invented by the protagonist, August Brill. Here, the text crosses boundaries between ontological levels in the striking scene when one character learns that he is the invention of another,

  • 16 Paul Auster, Man in the Dark, New York: Henry Holt, 2008, 70-71.

And he invented you, Brick. Don't you understand that? This is your story, not ours. The old man invented you in order to kill him […] and every night Brill lies awake in the dark, trying not to think about his past, making up stories about other worlds.16

  • 17 Ibid., 88.

10Soon after, Brill comments on his own narrative, “Fret not. I’m treading water because I can see the story turning in any one of several directions, and I still haven’t decided which path to take.”17

11The parallel world in Man in the Dark was contained within the fiction. In 4 3 2 1, however, it constitutes the narrative structure and is inscribed in the very marrow of the characters:

  • 18 Paul Auster, 4 3 2 1, op. cit., 455.

[…] the world around him was continually being shaped by the world within him, just as everyone else’s experience of the world was shaped by his own memories and while all people were bound together by the common space they shared, their journeys through time were all different, which meant that each person lived in a slightly different world from everyone else. The question was: What world did Ferguson inhabit now, and how had that world changed for him?18

  • 19 Paul Auster, The New York Trilogy, London: Penguin, 1987, 92, 94.
  • 20 Paul Auster, The Book of Illusions, New York: Henry Holt, 2002.

12Ontological mutability has always been part and parcel of Auster’s work. Readers will recall the iconic moment in The New York Trilogy when the antagonist, Peter Stillman, splits into two identical characters in Grand Central Station who walk off in opposite directions. “The world is in fragments,” he later insists, “the brokenness is everywhere.”19 The indeterminacy of Stillman’s postlapsarian world was inscribed in subsequent novels. In Leviathan, the spouses, Fanny and Ben Sachs, offer each their own version of the same events, equally plausible but contradictory, and so, both the narrator and the reader are left to contend with the problem of ambiguity. Similarly, in The Book of Illusions, Hector Mann “has many lives placed end to end” (heralded by the epigraph)20 and in Travels in the Scriptorium, 2006, the collapse of a paramount reality is taken to a new extreme.

  • 21 Even if Auster himself objects to any form of categorization of his work. See Auster and Siegumfel (...)
  • 22 See for instance Jeremy Green, Late Postmodernism: American Fiction at the Millennium, NY: Palgrav (...)

13Auster’s penchant for indeterminacy and hence his refusal to assume knowledge of unequivocal truths placed his work in the vanguard of postmodern literature21 already in the nineteen-eighties, especially in the body of narrative prose. Since then, it has won many accolades as a literary prism which vividly reflects the complexity of modern life. In many ways, 4 3 2 1 is but a natural continuation of this œuvre. At the same time, it moves into a world Auster has never explored before: the family replete with parents, grandparents, siblings, cousins, uncles and aunts. So far, almost all of Auster’s protagonists have been severed from relatives, and in time the present exploration of these formative bonds coupled with the heterogeneity of composition may well be seen as a manifestation of a ‘new humanism’ which seem to increasingly propel twenty-first century American literature. 22

  • 23 Paul Auster, 4 3 2 1, op. cit., 103.
  • 24 It may or may not allude to another fiction within the fiction by Auster, Oracle Night, where the (...)

14Thematically, the novel reiterates the syndrome of absence most frequently rehearsed in Auster’s work through the ‘invisible father,’ and the plot revolves around two poignant deaths: Ferguson number Four’s friend and almost-namesake, Artie Federman, at the age of fourteen; the other in his early twenties when his estranged father suddenly passes away: “Artie’s death and his father’s death, those were the memories he dwelled on most as he sat in his hot little room bleeding out the words of his book.”23 As the countdown title implies,24 there are three more deaths of equal importance, albeit at a different ontological level of the novel: Archie Ferguson’s true namesakes, invented versions of himself, that must perish at the hand of their maker. According to Auster, the deaths of the three others are “obsessive reenactments” of young Artie Federman’s death. It is the “fundamental story,” Auster explains, “the very heart of the book. Each time one of the Fergusons dies, it replicates that death, which for me is enormously important and, by extrapolation, enormously important to Ferguson Four.” The narrator explains,

  • 25 Paul Auster, 4 3 2 1, op. cit., 863.

the essential thing was to love those boys as if they were real, to love them as much as he loved himself, as much as he had loved the boy who had dropped dead before his eyes on a hot summer afternoon in 1961, and now that his father was dead as well, this was the book he needed to write – for them.25

  • 26 Described in the memoirs, The Red Notebook, 2002, and Winter Journal, 2012 and echoed in the ficti (...)

15Auster here weaves an autobiographical thread into the fiction: at the age of fourteen, he witnessed the passing of a friend killed by lightning at summer camp.26

  • 27 Paul Auster and I. B. Siegumfeldt, A Life in Words, op. cit., 48.

It’s one of the most important things that has ever happened to me—perhaps the most important. It absolutely informs the way I think about the world. The arbitrary nature of things—one minute you’re alive, the next minute you’re dead.27

16The death of Ferguson Four’s father seems to affect him less than the deaths of his imaginary characters, here the tragic accident of Ferguson number Three described in all its horrifying detail:

The car slammed into Ferguson’s body, it hit him so hard that he went flying into the air, as if he were an airborne human missile launched into space, a young man on his way to the moon and the stars beyond, and then he reached the top of his trajectory and started to come down, and when he touched bottom his head landed on the edge of the curb and he cracked his skull, and from that moment on every future thought, word, and feeling that would have been born inside that skull was erased.

  • 28 Ibid., 709. Auster himself is affected by this passage. See conversation at the University of Cope (...)

The gods looked down from their mountain and shrugged. 28

  • 29 See also Roger J. Porter, “The Men Who Were Not There”, in Bureau of Missing Persons. Writing the (...)

174 3 2 1 is clear on the absence of providence. If there are gods, they are irrational. There are no absolutes, no transcendental truths. This has always been Auster’s position, and when critics of his early work convinced themselves they had detected a metaphysical side to Auster’s work, they were, in fact, looking at a writer in the process of coming to terms with ambiguity and the absence of certainties. This is reflected also in the recurrent figure of the absent father.29 Here in 4 3 2 1, it becomes a kind of linchpin for the entire composition, for the point at which the story splits into four parallel tracks is precisely the moment when Stanley Ferguson is suspended between life and death. It is a scene which at once connects and divides the narrative, the only one, in fact, rendered from the point of view of a character other than the boys. The father must decide between right and wrong, that is, whether to allow the torching of the family business in order to cash the insurance money to pay off his brother’s gambling debts. Needless to say, there are four different outcomes of the father’s predicament which change the complexion of the family and directly impact the development of the boys. Hence the alternative worlds also at plot level.

18Naturally, the edifice of parallels also mirrors the predicament of the writer contemplating the consequences of different narrative moves, for 4 3 2 1 is ultimately a book about the provenance of a book, “more so,” Auster insists, “than any of [his] other books.” It ends with Ferguson going off to write the novel we have just read. “Why not simply invent another story and tell it as any other writer would?” the narrator asks rhetorically.

  • 30 Paul Auster, 4 3 2 1, op. cit., 725.

Because Ferguson wanted to do something different. Because Ferguson was no longer interested in telling mere stories. Because Ferguson wanted to test himself against the unknown and see if he could survive the struggle.30

  • 31 W. Smith, “What If”, Publishers Weekly, November 28, 2016, 26.
  • 32 Paul Auster, The Invention of Solitude, op. cit.; Mr. Vertigo, London: Faber, 1994; The Book of Il (...)

19It is true that Auster has never before used the origin and structure of a text as its own overarching subject, but metacommentary is the backbone of many of Auster’s texts and, as his readers will know, the majority of his novels and memoirs stage at least one character who comments on the mechanisms and processes of writing, albeit of texts embedded in the story and not the story in which they appear. 4 3 2 1 is profoundly aware of itself at all levels. Not just structurally and thematically: auto-reflection is felt down to the smallest details in the careful synchronization of tone, mode, rhythm, grammar, syntax with emotion, character development, inner and outer movements, in shifts and hinges throughout the text. It features prominently in one of the book’s most remarkable features: the vastly extended sentences which run sometimes over several pages. Auster began to experiment with these run-on lines in Sunset Park, 2010. It was a new development, left largely unaddressed by reviewers and critics despite the fact that it stands in stark contrast to what is often regarded as the Austerian signature, the short, concise sentences of “subversive and powerful clarity”,31 which account for the fame of such iconic texts as The New York Trilogy and The Invention of Solitude and coined such opening lines as “One day there is life,” “I was twelve years old the first time I walked on water,” “Everyone thought he was dead.”32

  • 33 Blake Morrison, “4321 by Paul Auster review – a man of many parts”, op. cit.; sentences “gallop li (...)

20In 4 3 2 1, however, a large proportion of the text is composed of sentences that are so protracted that this new development in Auster’s writing could no longer go unnoticed. Morrison, for instance, notes that a “new expansiveness is reflected in the sentences,”33 but many other reviewers have pronounced on the length of lines without a moment’s reflection on their structural and semantic bearing upon the novel. Even so, they not only mirror the size of the book itself, they also seize the narrative and roll it along meticulously paced rhythms to match the inner workings of the protagonists. A fine example is the sentence in Cycle Six that captures the combination of joy and suffering which characterizes the relationship between Ferguson number Three and his African-Canadian male lover:

  • 34 Paul Auster, 4 3 2 1, op. cit., 693-694.

Albert was the first person he had ever known who shared his double but unified passion for the mental and the physical, the physical being first of all sex, the primacy of sex over all other human activities, but basketball and working out and running as well, running in the Jardin des Plantes, pushups, situps, squats, and jumping jacks on the court or in the apartment, and the ferocious, bruising games of one-on-one, which were challenging and fulfilling in themselves but also served as an elaborate kind of erotic foreplay, because now that he knew Albert’s body so well, it was hard not to think about the naked body hidden under Albert’s shorts and T-shirt as he moved around on the court, the splendid and deeply loved particulars of Mr. Bear’s physical self, and the mental being not just the functions and cognitive efforts of the brain but the study of books, films, and works of art, the need to write, the essential business of trying to understand or reinvent the world, the obligation to think about one’s self in relation to others and to reject the enticement of living just for one’s self, and when Ferguson discovered that Albert cared about films as well as books, that is, cared about them as much as he himself now cared about books, they fell into the habit of going to films together on most evenings, all kinds of films because of Ferguson’s eclectic tastes and Albert’s willingness to follow him into any theater he chose, but of the many films they saw none was more important to them than the new film by Bresson, Au Hasard Balthazar, which opened in Paris on May twenty-fifth and which they sat through together on four consecutive nights, a film that roared into their hearts and heads with the fury of a divine revelation, Dostoyevsky’s Idiot transformed into a tale about a donkey in rural France, the downtrodden and cruelly dealt with Balthazar, emblem of human suffering and saintly forbearance, and Ferguson and Albert couldn’t get enough of it because each one of them saw the story of his own life in Balthazar’s story, each one of them felt he was Balthazar while watching the film play on screen, and so they went back three more times after the first time, and by the end of the last showing Ferguson had taught himself how to replicate the piercing, discordant sounds that burst from the donkey’s mouth at crucial moments in the film, the asthmatic keening of a victim- creature struggling for the next breath, a horrible sound, a heartbreaking sound, and from then on, whenever Ferguson wanted to tell Albert that he was down in the dumps or aching over some injustice he had seen in the world, he would dispense with words and do his imitation of Balthazar’s atonal, in-and-out double screech, the bray from beyond, as Albert called it, and because Albert himself was incapable of letting go to that extent and therefore could not join in, every time Ferguson became the suffering donkey, he felt he was doing it for both of them.34 (693-694)

21Here all elements of the text are synchronized as the rhythm sustained over thirty-five lines subtly instills the undertone of the fabular, “and so they went back three more times after the first time” and transports the specific into the context of the universal. The mode bolsters the mood. For example, to convey the single-minded insistence of Ferguson number Four to turn himself into a writer, relevant sections of Cycle Four are paced like the steady, grinding rhythm of a steam train going uphill:

  • 35 Ibid., 454.

He mostly hated what he did. He mostly thought he was stupid and talentless and would never amount to anything, but still he persisted, driving himself to keep at it every day in spite of the often disappointing results, understanding there would be no hope for him unless he kept at it, that becoming the writer he wanted to be would necessarily take years, more years than it would take for his body to finish growing, and every time he wrote something that seemed slightly less bad than the pieces that had come before it, he sensed he was making progress, even if the next piece turned out to be an abomination, for the truth was he didn’t have a choice, he was destined to do this or die […]35

22He is driven by the exalted, romantic aspirations of the adolescent who aspires “to combine the strange with the familiar.”

  • 36 Ibid., 455.

He wanted to disturb and disorient, to make people roar with laughter and tremble in their boots, to break hearts and damage minds and dance the loony dance of the dizzy-boys as they swung into their doppelganger duet.36

23Sound, alliteration and pace are attuned in a dancing rhythm that testifies to the inner state of the protagonist. Not surprisingly, Auster describes the process of writing 4 3 2 1 as a dance, a string of melodious sequences in which he, as a writer, felt exceptionally liberated from constraints:

In terms of the style, the prose I felt I was dancing. I’ve reached this old-age period of my life, I’ve been writing for so many decades now, that I feel freer than I’ve ever felt before.

24Later, in contrast to the sustained run-on sentences, the frenzy and chaos of the student uprising at Columbia University is captured in the fragmentation of lines hand-in-hand with the generic heterogeneity installed by the allusion to iconic poems by Blake and Yeats,

  • 37 Ibid., 645.

Spring 1968 (III). Never before in the annals of. Never before so much as thought. The widening gyre, and all at once everyone turning within it. Nobodaddy doubled over with stomach cramps, the shits. Hotspur hopping, a shape with lion body and the head of a man, a horde. How who, who what, and all suddenly asking him: Why darkness & obscurity in all thy words and laws? The centre could not, the things could not, the horde could not not not do other than it did, but anarchy was not loosed, it was the world that loosened, at least for a time, and thus began the largest, most sustained student protest in American history.37

  • 38 Paul Auster, “Ghosts”, The New York Trilogy, op. cit.
  • 39 Paul Auster, 4 3 2 1, op. cit., 136, 139, 159.
  • 40 Ibid., 184.

25Also repetition is employed in the service of rhythm. In Auster’s previous work, repetition is used almost exclusively either for emphasis or for supplementation, as in the recurrence of colour names in “Ghosts”.38 In 4 3 2 1, however, the iteration not just of sounds but also of full words and phrases becomes a powerful tool that lends pulse to emotion and thought: “[H]ow strange, how deeply strange it was to be alive”; “that moment he knew, knew beyond any doubt that they were destined to be friends”; “things might have ended badly, quite badly for everyone concerned”.39 There is the fateful moment when Ferguson number Two runs towards the oaks in the thunderstorm: “Ferguson felt happy, happier than he had been […]”,40 and here Ferguson riding high on his adolescent illusion of immortality:

  • 41 Ibid., 530.

It could never end. The sun was stuck in the sky, a page had gone missing from the book, and it would always be summer as long as they didn’t breathe too hard or ask for too much, always the summer when they were nineteen and were finally, finally almost, finally perhaps almost on the brink of saying good-bye to the moment when everything was still in front of them.41

26These two sentences keep deferring at all levels, syntactically, semantically, acoustically: “finally, finally almost, finally perhaps almost on the brink…” “It’s in the language. It’s in the language,” Auster explains. At the same time, of course, the illusion of immortality, the moment stands still and “It could never end” is a comment on the nature of fiction: characters do not age beyond the frame of the text. Auster here weaves in his own sentiment that his protagonists, even if he has some of them recur in several books, will never develop beyond the words that form them, and, if they are strong, they will survive their maker.

  • 42 i.e. “By writing about myself in the first person, I had smothered myself and made myself invisibl (...)

27The richly textured story of 4 3 2 1 called for simplicity in narrative perspective. In his twenty-first century work, Auster has increasingly explored new ways of tailoring points-of-view to match character, mode and mood and has often commented on the considerations that go into this part of the writing process.42 In Invisible, 2009, most notably, first, second and third person angles are interlocked, and in Sunset Park, 2010, Auster employs a doubly narrated perspective to install a radical subjectivity in the representation of characters and events. Now, in 4 3 2 1, a unremarkably uncomplicated narrative perspective echoes the simplicity of that of the fairy tale. After the introductory chapter 1.0 which focuses principally on the early development of the Ferguson boys in conjunction with the maternal figure who remains entirely benevolent throughout the seven Cycles, and apart from the pivotal moment when paternal absence is about to take on four different directions, the stories are told exclusively from the point of view of the Ferguson boys, one at the time in orderly progression. Not even Amy, the female counterpart of Ferguson, who recurs as a crucial formative figure in three of the four lives, is granted her own voice, even if, Auster points out, “she contributes a great deal to the cohesion of the narrative. Without her it wouldn’t have worked.” In this way, simplicity enables the kaleidoscopic perspective particular to this novel.

  • 43 Paul Auster, 4 3 2 1, op. cit., 700.

28Tone and voice shift between radical omniscience and restriction and sanction the strange interplay between divine insight and the explicitly articulated circumscription determined, as always in Auster’s work, by a fundamental awareness of the fact that ‘we just don’t know.’ Omniscience and the inflated tone of the fable concur in comments parading supreme knowledge of the future for instance in the remark that the premonition that Ferguson number Three would never see his mother again “had not been wrong” and indeed in the forewarning about his imminent death “[…] and because Ferguson had only forty-five days left to live on the day of Albert’s departure from Paris, they never saw each other again.”43

29Several critics have taken the omniscient perspective in 4 3 2 1 to mean that Auster has now returned to realism. They fail, however, to take into account the formative element of metacommentary that crops up regularly and increasingly towards the end of the novel more often than not by “Ferguson, whose name was not Ferguson […]” who

  • 44 Ibid., 862.

would invent three other versions of himself and tell their stories along with his own story (more or less his own story, since he too would become a fictionalized version of himself), and write a book about four identical but different people with the same name: Ferguson.44

30Self-reflection hand-in-hand with the element of the fabular remind the reader that this novel belongs more in the realm of difference and subjectivity than in any traditional mimetic universe. As Auster explains,

Obviously any notion of realism is rescinded here. I don’t use these slightly inflated modes of narration often, but the groundwork is laid at the beginning. Think of The Book of Terrestrial Life. It’s that. Of course, there is no Book of Terrestrial Life, but the title has the flavor of the legend or the epic, as if all the world was in a book, everything that ever happened. Ferguson Four says, “I realized that the world was made of stories, and if you put them all together in a book, the book would be 900 million pages long.” So I believe I establish a certain tone in the first chapter. It has a kind of 18th century feel to the language, even though it’s entirely modern, it’s entirely of our moment. There are enough of these little things that I felt I was expanding the range of the vocabulary and the emotional resonances in such a way that I could more or less get away with anything.

  • 45 Boyd Tonkin, “Alternate Selves”, Financial Times, London, February 4, 2017, 10; Blake Morrison, “4 (...)
  • 46 Ruth Ronen, Possible Worlds in Literary Theory, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994, 22.
  • 47 Derek Littlewood and Peter Stockwell, Impossibility Fiction. Alternativity-Extrapolation-Speculati (...)
  • 48 David L. Ulin, “Paul Auster’s 4 3 2 1”, The Washington Post (January 24, 2017).

314 3 2 1 may thus seem to convey a kind of classic realism in quotes, and it does mime the grand narrative – but one that turns on indeterminacy and ontological instability. So, when reviewers portray 4 3 2 1 as “postmodern sorcery and social realism” or a “social-realist novel,”45 they are somewhat off the mark. More precisely, it is a heterogeneous, self-reflexive book that “allows various conceptions for possible modes of existence”46 along the lines of Ronen’s ‘possible worlds’ and which meets Littlewood and Stockwell’s call for a new literary mode to cope with “ideas in fiction that are both impossible and realistically constructed and presented as the ultimate contemporary challenge. Our society and scientific understanding is not so much meaningless any longer as having an apparent infinity of chaotic and complex meanings.”47 In fact, 4 3 2 1 not only depicts the complexity of the human self and diversity of modern life in urban America, it embodies it – structurally, thematically, stylistically, emotionally – and thus “reminds us of its own conditionality,” as one reviewer points out, “the mutability of narrative, the notion that stories, like lives, are only fixed when they are done.”48 Ferguson

  • 49 Paul Auster, 4 3 2 1, op. cit., 708.

had several selves inside him, even many selves, a strong self and a weak self, a thoughtful self and an impulsive self, a generous self and a selfish self, so many different selves that in the end he was as large as everyone or as small as no one, and if that was true for him, then it had to be true for everyone else as well […].49

  • 50 Mary K. Holland, “Writing Postmodern Humanism”, in Succeeding Postmodernism. Language and Humanism (...)
  • 51 Brian McHale, The Cambridge Introduction to Postmodernism, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2015, 181.
  • 52 Aliki Varvogli, “‘The Worst Possibilities of the Imagination are the Country You Live in’: Paul Au (...)

32It would not be far-fetched to argue that 4 3 2 1 forges a literary strategy, in which ‘myth’ and ‘the everyday’ converge, that is consonant with a new type of twenty-first century fiction critics are currently at pains to define. Holland records a ‘poststructural realism’ that salvages “much missed positions of humanism, such as affect, meaning, and investment in the real world and in relationships between people, while holding on to postmodern and poststructural ideas about how language and representation function and characterize our human experience of this world.” Indeed, a ‘return to human interests, human relationships and family’ that produces “‘reality effects’ not by repressing the machinations of fiction, as does traditional realism, but by making them visible via metafiction” and reminds us “of the powerful ways in which acts of reading and writing impact the real world.”50 McHale identifies an ongoing literary shift into a ‘hyper-modern’ mode of writing in which “the erosion of ontological stability and the toppling of paramount reality, staples of the postmodern imagination since at least Borges, are becoming sober facts.”51 Auster’s latest three novels, Invisible, Sunset Park and 4 3 2 1 have done that, and more. As Varvogli points out, “Literature, for Auster, does not get written while ‘the weird world rolls on’: it participates in that weird world and alters it just as it is itself altered by it.”52 In my view, 4 3 2 1 is best described as a post-paradigmatic bildungsroman coupled with the premise of indeterminacy: a serious reflection on the formation of a young life in urban America of the nineteen fifties to seventies.

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Bibliographie

AUSTER Paul, The Invention of Solitude, London: Faber, 1982.

AUSTER Paul, The New York Trilogy, London: Penguin, 1987.

AUSTER Paul, “The Decisive Moment,” in Ground Work, London: Faber, 1990.

AUSTER Paul, The Art of Hunger, London: Penguin, 1992.

AUSTER Paul, Mr Vertigo, London: Faber, 1994.

AUSTER Paul, The Book of Illusions, New York: Henry Holt, 2002.

AUSTER Paul, Oracle Night, New York: Henry Holt, 2003.

AUSTER Paul, Man in the Dark, New York: Henry Holt, 2008.

AUSTER Paul, Invisible, London: Faber, 2009.

AUSTER Paul, 4 3 2 1, London: Faber, 2017.

AUSTER Paul and I. B. SIEGUMFELDT, A Life in Words. Paul Auster in Conversation with I. B. Siegumfeldt, New York: Seven Stories Press, 2017.

AUSTER Paul and I. B. SIEGUMFELDT, “Dialogue”, University of Copenhagen, 25th Aug. 2017. <http://humanities.ku.dk/news/2017/paul-auster/>, accessed on March 14, 2019.

DEAN Michelle, “Review: For a doorstopper, Paul Auster’s 4 3 2 1 is surprisingly light”, LA Times, 20 February, 2017.

GREEN Jeremy, Late Postmodernism: American Fiction at the Millennium, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.

HOBEREK Andrew, “Introduction: After Postmodernism”, Twentieth Century Literature, vol. 53, no 3, Fall 2007, 233-247.

HOLLAND Mary K, “Writing Postmodern Humanism”, in Succeeding Postmodernism. Language and Humanism in Contemporary American Literature, NY: Bloomsbury, 2013.

JAMES David and Urmila SESHAGIRI, “Metamodernism: Narratives of Continuity and Revolution”, PMLA 129.1, 2014, 87-97.

KIESLING Lydia, “The Novel as a Math Problem”, Slate Book Review, January 10, 2017.

LITTLEWOOD Derek and Peter STOCKWELL, Impossibility Fiction. Alternativity-Extrapolation-Speculation, Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1996.

LONGOLIUS Sonja, “Becoming”, in Performing Authorship, Berlin: Edition Kulturwissenschaft 98, 2016: 1-43.

McHALE Brian, “Afterword: Reconstructing Postmodernism”, Narrative, vol. 21, no 3, October 2013, 357-364.

McHALE Brian, The Cambridge Introduction to Postmodernism, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2015.

MORRISON Blake, “4321 by Paul Auster review – a man of many parts”, The Guardian, January 27, 2017.

PEROTTA Tom, “Parallel Lives”, The New York Times Book Review, February 5, 2017.

PORTER Roger J, “The Men Who Were Not There”, in Bureau of Missing Persons. Writing the Secret Lives of Fathers, Cornell: Cornell UP, 2011.

RONEN Ruth, Possible Worlds in Literary Theory, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994.

SCHAUB Michael, “4 Lives in Parallel Run Through Ambitious 4 3 2 1”, NPR Book Reviews, February 1, 2017.

SCHILLER M and T. ANDRE, Hamburger Abendblatt, February 1, 2017, 19.

SMITH Wendy, “What If”, Publishers Weekly, November 28, 2016.

TONKIN Boyd, “Alternate Selves”, Financial Times, February 4, 2017.

ULIN David L, “Paul Auster’s ‘4321”, The Washington Post, January 24, 2017.

VARVOGLI Aliki, “‘The Worst Possibilities of the Imagination are the Country You Live in’: Paul Auster in the Twenty-First Century”, in S. Ciocia and J. A. González (eds.), The Invention of Illusions: International Perspectives on Paul Auster, Cambridge SP, 2011, 39-53.

WAGNER Erica, New Statesman, March 24-30, 2017.

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Notes

1 Paul Auster, The Invention of Solitude, London: Faber, 1982.

2 Peter Brook, qtd. by Paul Auster, in Paul Auster and I. B. Siegumfeldt, A Life in Words, New York: Seven Stories Press, 2017, 10-11.

3 Except number Two who perishes in a storm as a child.

4 No doubt with reference to one of Auster’s influential precursors, the poet Charles Reznikoff. See his essay, “The Decisive Moment”, Ground Work, London: Faber, 1990.

5 Paul Auster, 4 3 2 1, London: Faber, 2017, 29.

6 Ibid., 863.

7 “I rolled my eyes at the fact that each Archie was so brilliant, and so confident in his writing,” one reviewer writes and wonders “whether Paul Auster has not written a very long chronicle of his own genius.” Lydia Kiesling, “The Novel as a Math Problem”, Slate Book Review, January 10, 2017.

8 “So gut was Paul Auster noch nie” M. Schiller and T. Andre in Hamburger Abendblatt, February 1, 2017, 19.

9 Michael Schaub, “4 Lives in Parallel Run Through Ambitious 4 3 2 1”, NPR Book Reviews, February 1, 2017.

10 Blake Morrison, “4321 by Paul Auster review – a man of many parts”, The Guardian, January 27, 2017.

11 Tom Perotta, “Parallel Lives”, The New York Times Book Review, February 5, 2017, 8. A reviewer even finds it “tediously repetitive.” Michelle Dean, “Review: For a doorstopper, Paul Auster’s 4 3 2 1 is surprisingly light”, LA Times, February 20, 2017.

12 Paul Auster, 4 3 2 1, op. cit., 241.

13 Sonja Longolius, “Becoming”, in Performing Authorship, Transcript Verlag: Edition Kulturwissenschaft 98, 2016, 1-43.

14 Paul Auster in interview w. Larry McCaffery and Sinda Gregory, The Art of Hunger, London: Penguin, 1992, 301.

15 Conversations between Paul Auster and I. B. Siegumfeldt, New York, September 2016. Unless otherwise stated, all quotations of Auster derive from these conversations.

16 Paul Auster, Man in the Dark, New York: Henry Holt, 2008, 70-71.

17 Ibid., 88.

18 Paul Auster, 4 3 2 1, op. cit., 455.

19 Paul Auster, The New York Trilogy, London: Penguin, 1987, 92, 94.

20 Paul Auster, The Book of Illusions, New York: Henry Holt, 2002.

21 Even if Auster himself objects to any form of categorization of his work. See Auster and Siegumfeldt, A Life in Words, op. cit., 15-17.

22 See for instance Jeremy Green, Late Postmodernism: American Fiction at the Millennium, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005; David James and Urmila Seshagiri, “Metamodernism: Narratives of Continuity and Revolution”, PMLA 129.1, 2014, 87-97; Brian McHale, “Afterword: Reconstructing Postmodernism”, Narrative, vol. 21, no 3, October 2013, 357-364; Andrew Hoberek, “Introduction: After Postmodernism”, Twentieth Century Literature, vol. 53, no 3, Fall 2007, 233-247; Mary K. Holland, “Writing Postmodern Humanism”, in Succeeding Postmodernism. Language and Humanism in Contemporary American Literature, NY: Bloomsbury, 2013, 1-23.

23 Paul Auster, 4 3 2 1, op. cit., 103.

24 It may or may not allude to another fiction within the fiction by Auster, Oracle Night, where the last four digits in a phone number elicit this remark: “How odd. I just noticed that the numbers go down in order, one digit at a time. I’ve never seen a telephone number that did that before. Do you think it means something? Probably not. Unless it does, of course. I’ll let you know when I find out.” Paul Auster, Oracle Night, New York: Henry Holt, 2003, 68.

25 Paul Auster, 4 3 2 1, op. cit., 863.

26 Described in the memoirs, The Red Notebook, 2002, and Winter Journal, 2012 and echoed in the fiction for instance in the pivotal death of the younger brother in Invisible, 2009, that shapes the relationship between the protagonist and his sister and propels them into an obsessive imagining of the life the absent sibling might have led.

27 Paul Auster and I. B. Siegumfeldt, A Life in Words, op. cit., 48.

28 Ibid., 709. Auster himself is affected by this passage. See conversation at the University of Copenhagen, August 15, 2017. Paul Auster and I. B. Siegumfeldt, “Dialogue”. <http://humanities.ku.dk/news/2017/paul-auster/>, accessed on March 14, 2019.

29 See also Roger J. Porter, “The Men Who Were Not There”, in Bureau of Missing Persons. Writing the Secret Lives of Fathers, Cornell UP, 2011, 99-202. See also the interview by Erica Wagner, New Statesman (March 24-30, 2017, 48).

30 Paul Auster, 4 3 2 1, op. cit., 725.

31 W. Smith, “What If”, Publishers Weekly, November 28, 2016, 26.

32 Paul Auster, The Invention of Solitude, op. cit.; Mr. Vertigo, London: Faber, 1994; The Book of Illusions, op. cit.

33 Blake Morrison, “4321 by Paul Auster review – a man of many parts”, op. cit.; sentences “gallop like the very passing of time.” Lydia Kiesling, “The Novel as a Math Problem”, op. cit.

34 Paul Auster, 4 3 2 1, op. cit., 693-694.

35 Ibid., 454.

36 Ibid., 455.

37 Ibid., 645.

38 Paul Auster, “Ghosts”, The New York Trilogy, op. cit.

39 Paul Auster, 4 3 2 1, op. cit., 136, 139, 159.

40 Ibid., 184.

41 Ibid., 530.

42 i.e. “By writing about myself in the first person, I had smothered myself and made myself invisible, had made it impossible for me to find the thing I was looking for. I needed to separate myself from myself, to step back and carve out some space between myself and my subject (which was myself) […].” Paul Auster, Invisible, London: Faber, 2009, 89.

43 Paul Auster, 4 3 2 1, op. cit., 700.

44 Ibid., 862.

45 Boyd Tonkin, “Alternate Selves”, Financial Times, London, February 4, 2017, 10; Blake Morrison, “4321 by Paul Auster review – a man of many parts”, op. cit.

46 Ruth Ronen, Possible Worlds in Literary Theory, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994, 22.

47 Derek Littlewood and Peter Stockwell, Impossibility Fiction. Alternativity-Extrapolation-Speculation, Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1996, 9.

48 David L. Ulin, “Paul Auster’s 4 3 2 1”, The Washington Post (January 24, 2017).

49 Paul Auster, 4 3 2 1, op. cit., 708.

50 Mary K. Holland, “Writing Postmodern Humanism”, in Succeeding Postmodernism. Language and Humanism in Contemporary American Literature, NY: Bloomsbury, 2013, 7-8.

51 Brian McHale, The Cambridge Introduction to Postmodernism, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2015, 181.

52 Aliki Varvogli, “‘The Worst Possibilities of the Imagination are the Country You Live in’: Paul Auster in the Twenty-First Century”, in S. Ciocia and J. A. González (eds.), The Invention of Illusions: International Perspectives on Paul Auster, Newcastle: Cambridge SP, 2011, 52.

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I. B. Siegumfeldt, « Paul Auster’s 4 3 2 1. Past Paradigms », Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [En ligne], vol. 18-n°50 | 2020, document 3, mis en ligne le 02 juin 2020, consulté le 15 juillet 2020. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/lisa/11459 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/lisa.11459

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I. B. Siegumfeldt

I. B. Siegumfeldt is an Associate Professor of English, Germanic, and Romance studies at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark. She is the co-author of a book of conversations with Paul Auster (Paul Auster and I. B. Siegumfeldt, A Life in Words: Conversations with I. B. Siegumfeldt, New York: Seven Stories, 2017). She chairs The Paul Auster Research Library. https://austerlibrary.ku.dk/

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