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4 3 2 1: A Listening

4 3 2 1 : une écoute
Priyanka Deshmukh

Résumés

Au cours des dix dernières années, la critique austérienne s’est principalement attachée aux enjeux narratifs de l’écriture de Paul Auster, à ses modalités thématiques et formelles. Le nombre relativement faible de travaux consacrés aux jeux stylistiques et linguistiques d’Auster s’explique peut-être par la langue conventionnelle et prosaïque, en apparence, déployée par l’auteur : des phrases grammaticalement stables qui n’attirent pas l’attention sur elles-mêmes. Et pourtant, cette langue banale est abondamment musicale. Dans son roman 4 3 2 1, en nous faisant compter à rebours pour accéder à la première page, presque à la manière de l’ouverture d’une œuvre musicale en 4/4, Auster nous sensibilise aux sons que produisent ses mots, à leur musique, et à l’oralité de sa prose. Cet article tentera d’écouter les sons émanant de 4 3 2 1, pour y lire une musicalité, un rythme qui structure la séquence d’événements qui organisent le récit, mais étudiera aussi les divers jeux entre musique, mots, sons, silence et langage, qui font de ce roman une œuvre unique dans le corpus austérien.

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Entrées d’index

Index de mots-clés :

son, rythme, langue, silence, musicalité

Index by keywords :

sound, rhythm, language, silence, musicality
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Texte intégral

  • 1 See Paul Auster’s conversation with I. B. Siegumfeldt “Paul Auster appointed honorary alumnus”, 13 (...)
  • 2 Paul Auster, Winter Journal, New York: Henry Holt, 2012, 225.

1It was no coincidence that during a 2011 ceremony at which Paul Auster was appointed honorary alumnus of the University of Copenhagen, a reading aloud of the text of White Spaces by the author preluded his conversation with his audience, his readers. The same conversation opened with Auster’s commenting on his writing process – the complex physical process that involves first experiencing language within the body, through its rhythms, its movements, and then shaping it into existence as words that bear the trace of that original bodily rhythm. He told his audience that as a writer, he would strive for music, for “a certain kind of rhythm that will somehow echo the meaning [he is] intending to convey”1. Originating in his body, in his voice, in his speech at the ceremony, this idea was articulated in an autobiographical text published the following year: “Writing begins in the body, it is the music of the body, and even if the words have meaning, can sometimes have meaning, the music of the words is where the meanings begin.”2 Through the act of reading, then, the reader enters into contact with the author’s body, and meaning is produced.

2Auster views the process of writing as an intimate relationship with music, for music is inseparable from the process of reading his works. In other words, while the author writes according to his own music, he also expects the readers to experience his prose musically in order to create meaning, urging his readers not to read, but to listen to his texts, to the sounds made by the words he arranges on the page. This study aims to analyze how this process is at work in 4 3 2 1, to listen to the music of Auster’s most recent novel, that from its very title – a countdown, a sequence of figures in motion, rather than a static number – invites the reader to recite the text, to experience it acoustically and therefore musically. But because 4 3 2 1 has an auto-fictional dimension, the four Fergusons of the novel’s four parallel timelines, who are all writers of sorts, echo Auster’s writing process. A close reading of this novel significantly tunes into sounds, pace, and structure, highlighting music’s relationship to language in the novel.

4 3 2 1 as an account of Auster’s writing process

3The novel’s central and plural figure, Archie Ferguson, is born in the same place as Paul Auster (in Newark, New Jersey), and on nearly the same date, Ferguson being born on March 3rd 1947, a month after Auster. The four Fergusons are all writers, not only like Auster himself, but also like the plethora of other characters that inhabit Auster’s fictional world. The fourth Archie Ferguson, who is in the process of writing his own 4 3 2 1 within the novel, seems to share Auster’s writing process. As such, the novel could be read as both an exposition and an execution of Auster’s writing and story-telling techniques.

  • 3 See François Hugonnier, “The Physicality of Writing in Paul Auster’s White Spaces and Winter Journ (...)
  • 4 Paul Auster, 4 3 2 1, op. cit., 250.
  • 5 Ibid., 864.

4Auster’s writing process is governed by a binary rhythm that stems from the experience of his body in motion, mostly through the experience of walking. In his reading of White Spaces and Winter Journal, François Hugonnier says of Auster’s writing that it “is an outgrowth of physical symmetry and binarity.”3 Calling Auster’s writing an “outgrowth,” further underlines the inextricable link between the author’s body and his writing, as if words grew on the soles of the writer’s feet, as a result of walking. In 4 3 2 1, Auster returns to and toys with the idea of walking as a metaphor for writing through Ferguson 4 who writes a story about a pair of shoes: “Not Archie and Artie as he had been tempted to use at first, but Hank and Frank, those were the names of the principal characters, a rhyming pair rather than an assonant pair, but a lifelong pair for all that, in this case a pair of shoes, which was how the story got its title: Sole Mates.”4 Ferguson’s writing echoes that of Auster, and is likewise given to an auto-fictional impulse. The choice of a pair of shoes as characters seems to gesture obliquely to the binary rhythm of walking that functions as a metonymy for the process of writing. The “rhyming pair rather than an assonant pair” invites the reader to say out loud both pairs of names, Hank and Frank and Archie and Artie, and experience them acoustically, as rhyme and assonance respectively, through their differential relationship to each other. Later in the novel, the author of Sole Mates has grown into an adult and is described in the process of writing his 4 3 2 1: “Ferguson took a pause. He stood up from the desk, pulled out a cigarette from his shirt pocket, and walked around and back and forth between the two rooms of the small flat, and once he felt his mind was clear enough to start again, he returned to the desk, sat down in the chair, and wrote the final paragraphs of the book.”5 The binarity of walking returns here in the binary gestures (standing up from the desk and pulling out a cigarette, walking around and walking back and forth), the binary direction (back and forth), as well as the two-room structure of the “small flat.”

  • 6 The reader hears this sound in Travels in the Scriptorium: “I am sitting at the table, listening to (...)
  • 7 Evija Trofimova, Paul Auster’s Writing Machine: A Thing to Write With, New York: Bloomsbury, 2014, (...)
  • 8 Paul Auster, “The Story of My Typewriter”, in Collected Prose, New York: Picador, 2010, 291.

5The binary rhythm of writing, however, is not the only source of music in Auster’s prose-writing process. Music is to be heard in the very gesture of producing words on the page, in the sound of a pen scratching on paper,6 or through the act of typing, through the sound made by the typewriter – the mediator between the writer and his text in what Evija Trofimova calls the “typewriting situation”,7 the indispensable device that also becomes the subject of writing. In the essay entitled “The Story of My Typewriter,” Auster describes his experience of the sounds made by the electric typewriter: “I didn’t like the noise those contraptions made: the constant hum of the motor, the buzzing and rattling of loose parts, the jitterbug pulse of alternating current vibrating my fingers.”8 The music of the electric typewriter is unpleasant, perhaps because it clashes with the musicality of the words within the body as they try to make their way out through the writer’s fingers impeded by the vibration of the alternating current. Conversely, Ferguson 4’s experience of typewriting is a pleasant one:

  • 9 Paul Auster, 4 3 2 1, op. cit., 263.

How he came to love that writing machine, and how good it felt to press his fingers against the rounded, concave keys and watch the letters fly up on their steel prongs and strike the paper, the letters moving right as the carriage moved left, and then the ding of the bell and the sound of the cogs engaging to drop him down to the next line as black word followed black word to the bottom of the page. It was such a grown-up instrument, such a serious instrument […].9

  • 10 Ibid., 821.

6The music of young Ferguson’s typewriter, with the “ding” of its bell and the sound of its cogs, is melodious. His experience of writing is a double experience of sound: the sound made by the act of writing, and the sound produced by the words written. The use of the term “instrument” further likens the art of writing to the art of playing a musical instrument: the writer plays the typewriter. The repetitive structure of “black word followed by black word” reproduces the repetitive sounds and rhythm of typewriting, presenting writing in all its sonorous materiality. In Ferguson’s adulthood, the pleasurable experience of producing a stream of black words on paper becomes “his compulsion for filling up white rectangles with row after row of descending black marks.”10 But this gesture might as well be one made by a composer inscribing black notes within white (ruled) rectangles to produce sheet music. Writing and composing music become indistinguishable for Ferguson. Let us note in passing that the terms “writing” and “composition” are commonly used as synonyms in English: one may write or compose an essay.

  • 11 Paul Auster, The Red Notebook, London: Faber, 1995, 144-145.

7If words begin as sounds within the body, and are experienced through the act of writing or typing, it is because for Auster, there seems to be an inner music that exists prior to the music of words, of writing. In his “Interview with Larry McCaffery and Sinda Gregory,” published in The Red Notebook, Auster says: “Each book I’ve written has started off with what I’d call a buzz in the head. A certain kind of music or rhythm, a tone.”11 The “buzz in the head” here is not to be confused with the above-mentioned “music of the words” that begins in the body and that Auster writes about in Winter Journal. The “buzz” is a mere sound. It is not yet a word, or at best, it is one that is inarticulate. It is the inmost, continuous, and static sound of writing, even if Auster chooses to call it “rhythm,” which implies the perception of discrete musical events. As such, the “buzz” is the prior stage of Auster’s writing, the earliest state of words as sounds, existing before the beginning of the event of writing words.

  • 12 Paul Auster, 4 3 2 1, op. cit., 453.

8In 4 3 2 1, Archie Ferguson experiences music and rhythm by attempting to imitate “inimitable writers from the past”: “(take a paragraph from Hawthorne, for example, and compose something based on his syntactical model, using a verb wherever he used a verb, a noun wherever he used a noun, an adjective wherever he used an adjective—in order to feel the rhythms in your bones, to feel how the music was made).”12 This parenthesis performs, in a way, the writing exercise of substitution that is being described: in the three repeated clauses, the terms “verb,” “noun,” and “adjective” oppose and substitute each other on what Saussure calls a sentence’s paradigmatic or vertical axis. Ferguson experiences rhythm by inhabiting Hawthorne’s sentences, by incorporating Hawthorne’s music. But “feel the rhythms in your bones” presents an ambiguity, suggesting that Ferguson’s own inmost rhythm can only be felt when it comes into contact with the rhythm of the “writers from the past.”

9Hawthorne, however, is not the only writer from the past that Ferguson turns to. Commenting on the “perfection” of Thoreau’s prose, he says:

  • 13 Ibid., 456.

the thrill of reading such prose was never knowing how far Thoreau would leap from one sentence to the next—sometimes it was only a matter of inches, sometimes of several feet or yards, sometimes of whole country miles—and the destabilizing effect of those irregular distances taught Ferguson how to think about his own efforts in a new way […].13

  • 14 “The dancers saved you. They are the ones who brought you back to life that evening in December 197 (...)

10If writing is likened to or carried out through walking, it is also experienced through the spatial movement of leaping. Ferguson’s reading of Thoreau’s prose, his style, calls to mind Auster’s experience of watching the dance rehearsal that he describes in Winter Journal,14 and that allows him “to think about his own efforts in a new way,” to start anew as a writer of prose. In 4 3 2 1, the musicality of Thoreau’s prose is made palpable through the “destabilizing” dance that it makes Ferguson perform.

114 3 2 1 corroborates in a way what Auster and his host of characters from other novels say about the process and the rhythm of writing. As such, it seems to serve as an additional guide, an encyclopedia of sorts, on Auster’s writing process – a text that also puts into practice or performs what it describes. Having examined and heard the self-referential musicality of writing in 4 3 2 1, our ears can now be tuned to how this musicality is put into practice in the novel.

The musical structure of 4 3 2 1

  • 15 A similar process is of course at play in music. In Emotion and Meaning in Music, Meyer theorizes h (...)

12It is in 4 3 2 1, more than anywhere else, that Paul Auster appears to toy around most with pace and rhythm—notions pertaining to music that could also be borrowed to identify the structure of a text. Yet, the framework within which he does so remains familiar to his faithful reader. For Auster, very often, what is worth narrating is the disaster or the accident (Nashe’s accident in The Music of Chance or Benjamin Sachs’s fall from the New York fire-escape in Leviathan, to name but two of a multitude). In order for these events to be perceived as disasters or accidents, they must be unexpected, unforeseeable to the reader. The magnitude of their unforeseeability then depends on their being inscribed against a background of regular and repeated events: the disaster that befalls a character stands out as such in contrast to the regular pace of a chain of events.15 In 4 3 2 1 (1.2), such an accident is the young Ferguson’s falling out of a tree, which leads Ferguson 2 to question the causal relationship between the events that led to his “stupid” fall:

  • 16 Paul Auster, 4 3 2 1, op. cit., 54.

but if the branch had been one particle of an inch closer to him, it wouldn’t have been stupid. If Chuckie hadn’t rung his doorbell that morning and asked him to come outside and play, it wouldn’t have been stupid. If his parents had moved to one of the other towns where they had been looking for the right house, he wouldn’t even know Chuckie Brower, wouldn’t even know that Chuckie Brower existed, and it wouldn’t have been stupid, for the tree he had climbed wouldn’t have been in his backyard.16

13Each event in this chain is presented to the reader within (and perpendicular to) the regularity of the phrase “it wouldn’t have been stupid.” Against the regularity of this rhythmical and predictable sequence, the fall stands out as an accident worth narrating.

  • 17 Ibid., 4, 19-20.
  • 18 Ibid., 184, 707-709, 808-809.

14What also gives 4 3 2 1 its own pace and what imparts rhythm to the act of reading is the alternation of long and short sentences. Long sentences in the novel at first tend to structure the narration of a character’s banal personal history or routine: for instance, information about Stanley Ferguson’s life accumulated in a single sentence, or the description of Rose Ferguson’s daily commute to Schneiderman’s studio in New York from Newark.17 Then, long sentences tend to make a more prominent appearance for the telling of the deaths of the Archie Fergusons.18 This alternation of long and short sentences as well as of the narration of trivial or banal events (routine) and significant events (death) create and impact the pace of the narrative.

15In addition to the binary alternation of trivial and significant events, and long and short sentences, the musical structure of 4 3 2 1 is also to be noticed in the leitmotifs (a term commonly used in reference to both, a musical work and a literary work). Leitmotifs in the novel’s structure seem to manifest on three modes: intra-, meta-, and inter- textual.

  • 19 “It took another thirty or forty seconds for him to understand that the bad news he had been expect (...)

16The recurring motifs may first take the shape of what may be called intra-textual echoes—their most common form, that is to say, motifs occurring repeatedly over the course of the narrative. In 4 3 2 1, motifs from one life are echoed in others: for instance, the recurrence of Ferguson’s relationship with Amy or his encounter with Howard in the parallel lives. That such echoes will be noticed by the astute reader is not surprising, but Archie Ferguson himself is not oblivious to them. When in 7.4 the publisher Ron says “A contract, an advance, royalties. Surely you’ve heard of those things,” Archie Ferguson replies “Vaguely. In some other world where I don’t happen to live” (822). One may wonder whether Ferguson 4 is saying that he is ignorant of the notion of royalties and all that goes with it, or whether he is alluding to his existence in the third parallel timeline, in relation to Ferguson 3’s receiving royalties for the publication of his book How Laurel and Hardy Saved My Life.19

  • 20 Ibid., 863.
  • 21 Ibid., 452.

17The motif of Ferguson’s allusion to his parallel lives in 7.4 is also echoed in the use of the term “shadows”: “the visible people and the shadow people,”20 hinting at the idea of one Archie Ferguson being at all times “visible” and a “shadow” of all of the other Archie Fergusons of the novel, the life of each Archie Ferguson lurking in the shadows of the life of every other, as its very shadow. This motif is perhaps best summarized in Ferguson 3’s being classified “4-F,” unfit for military service due to his criminal record in 4.3: “a new draft card was issued to him later that summer with his new classification typed onto the front: 4-F. Feckless—frazzled—fucked-up—and free.”21 Each adjective seems to correspond to each of the four Fergusons, the 4 Fs. But the alliteration makes each adjective correspond to all four Fergusons at once—each repeated sound /f/ calling out to all of the Archie Fergusons of the novel, and the disyllabic rhythm of the adjectives (the rhythm of the monosyllabic “free” is regularized by its being preceded by the monosyllabic “and”) echoes the original—originary—binary rhythm that sets writing into motion for Auster.

  • 22 Ibid., 863.
  • 23 Ibid., 346.

18These allusions made by one Ferguson to the other Fergusons coincide with another modality of leitmotifs in the novel, which might be referred to as the novel’s meta-textual echoes. 4 3 2 1 documents the writing of 4 3 2 1. This phenomenon becomes most obvious in 7.4, when it is revealed that the Ferguson of the fourth parallel timeline is the author of a book entitled 4 3 2 1 that tells the story of four “identical but different” boys,22 summarizing by the same gesture the premise of Auster’s own 4 3 2 1. But this revelation prefigures rather alarmingly in 3.4, when the narrator says: “Everyone had always told Ferguson that life resembled a book, a story that began on page 1 and pushed forward until the hero died on page 204 or 926, but now that the future he had imagined for himself was changing, his understanding of time was changing as well.”23 The deaths of Ferguson on page 184 or 709 are echoed here. While the page numbers in Auster’s 4 3 2 1 and Ferguson’s 4 3 2 1 pertaining to the episodes of death do not coincide, they do bear a certain resemblance and suggest a certain proximity, given that Ferguson’s manuscript is 1133 pages long, that is, 266 pages longer than Auster’s published version.

  • 24 Ibid., 857.
  • 25 Ibid., 15.
  • 26 “The eggs landed with an ugly splat. I remember standing there in horror as they oozed out over th (...)
  • 27 As Henri Bergson reminds us in his essay on the comic, the mechanical is what produces laughter (H (...)

19Beyond 4 3 2 1’s self-referentiality is to be found another modality of reference: intertextual echoes, or, allusions to other texts from Auster’s body of work. A first listen to what could be called Auster’s magnum opus already exposes the reader-listener to familiar sounds, familiar echoes: characters born, raised, and living in New Jersey or New York, characters attending Columbia University to study English Literature, characters traveling to Paris, from early works such as The Invention of Solitude and The New York Trilogy, to Brooklyn Follies, or Report from the Interior, all haunt 4 3 2 1. These specters from Auster’s past works are also accompanied by other ghost-like images, at times overt, as in the reference to the restaurant “Moon Palace” that lends its name to Auster’s 1989 novel (“Howard met him at the West End to begin the evening with a round of drinks before going off to a celebratory Chinese dinner at the Moon Palace, just two blocks south on Broadway”),24 and at times veiled: through the image of Stanley Ferguson’s “juggling three raw eggs, keeping them aloft in a dazzle of speed and precision for a good two minutes before one of them went splat on the floor, at which point he let the other two go splat on purpose, apologizing for the mess with a silent comedian’s shrug and a one-word declaration: “Whoops.”25 While the onomatopoeia (“splat”) and the exclamation (“Whoops”) point to the novel’s acoustic, oral, or more generally, musical dimension, this passage also reads as an oblique reference to Fogg’s (whose name already prefigures that of Ferguson) accidentally dropping his last eggs on the floor at a time of meager means and near-starvation.26 The “splat” of Fogg’s eggs is echoed in the “splat” of Stanley’s. While Fogg experiences the breaking of the eggs as a disaster of cosmic proportions causing him to break down and cry, Stanley merely shrugs off the profoundly trivial event in the comic gesture appropriate to it, uttering what is more of a sound than a word “Whoops”, which itself could be seen as echoing the “splat” of the eggs he drops. Through Stanley’s repeating not only this particular episode from Moon Palace, but also his mechanically27 repeating the breaking of his first egg, Auster seems to rewrite the Moon Palace episode to the point of parodying his own writing.

Modes of music: sound, noise, language, silence

20The musical structure of 4 3 2 1 hides underneath its overarching surface another layer of music, in the form of sounds represented in the novel. In the early pages (1.2), the injured Ferguson is taking pleasure in listening to the sounds of birds:

  • 28 Paul Auster, 4 3 2 1, op. cit., 53.

the motor [of the air conditioner] was perpetually running, he couldn’t hear the birds singing outside, and the only good thing about being cooped up in his room with a cast on his leg was listening to the birds in the trees just beyond his window, the twittering, chanting, warbling birds who made what Ferguson felt were the most beautiful sounds in the world.28

  • 29 “I will not have my eyes put out and my ears spoiled by its smoke and steam and hissing,” writes Th (...)

21The drone of the cooling instrument drowns out the euphony of the birds’ “twittering, chanting, warbling.” This also recalls the chapter “Sounds” from Thoreau’s Walden where Thoreau, lamenting the sounds of civilization (namely the sounds made by the railroad cars29), attempts to describe and transcribe in language the sounds of the natural world (animals, birds). Confined to his room after having fallen out of the tree in his parents’ backyard, Ferguson’s only contact with the outside world, with nature, is through the melodious sounds made by the birds. The natural world is then made to enter his room through a metaphor: like a bird, he is “cooped up,” in his room. The euphonic experience allows Ferguson to enter into communion with nature, much like Thoreau in Walden, although Ferguson’s only remains metaphorical.

  • 30 Paul Auster, 4 3 2 1, op. cit., 319.

22By contrast to the sweet singing of the birds, the novel also renders audible the less pleasurable sounds of civilization, in the form Ferguson 3’s recollection of the spectators’ cheers at his basketball game in 3.3: the description of his playing and his skill is interlaced with the cheers such as “Rah-rah-sis-koom-bah! Rebels! Rebels! Yah-yah-yah!” and “Ho-ho-tic-tac-toe! Rebels! Rebels! Go-go-go!30 The memory of Ferguson’s games is revived through the return of the background sounds – the music of the basketball games – which in the text are the transcribed sounds of the cheers, rendered in all their musicality, their regularity and rhythm. Sounds, noise and music become storytelling devices in the text: the texture of reality is rendered through them.

23Music and storytelling are also brought together in 7.1 when the narrator tells of Ferguson’s years as a journalist. Referring to the various episodes of Ferguson’s personal life as “concentric circles,” Auster uses an extended metaphor in which the uninterrupted stream of tragedies occurring throughout the year 1969 is experienced by Ferguson as music of varying rhythm and intensity:

  • 31 Ibid., 791-792.

Last year, the concentric circles had fused into a solid black disk, an L.P. record with a single blues song playing on Side A. Now the record had been turned over, and the song on the flip side was a dirge called Lord, Thy Name Is Death. The melody entered Ferguson’s head just days after he started his job at the Times-Union, and as the first bar floated in from California on August ninth with the words Charles Manson and the Tate-LaBianca murders, it wasn’t long before it modulated into the suicide on Halloween night of young Marshall Bloom […] which segued by the middle of fall into a verse about Lieutenant William Calley […], and then as the last year of the 1960s went into its final month, the Chicago police belted out a loud staccato refrain by shooting and killing Black Panther Fred Hampton […] and two days after that, as the Rolling Stones mounted the stage at Altamont to sing the rest of the song, a crew of Hells Angels jumped a young black man waving a gun in the crowd and stabbed him to death.31

  • 32 Ibid., 1.
  • 33 Paul Auster, Winter Journal, op. cit., 225.

24While words produce a metaphorical musicality in 4 3 2 1, the novel also draws attention to the sounds made by the words. Play on the sounds of words abounds in the novel. In fact, the play on the sound of the name “Ferguson” becomes the very founding act of 4 3 2 1. When Archie Ferguson’s grandfather Isaac Reznikoff arrives at Ellis Island from Minsk, he is told to forget his original Russian name, and to Americanize it to Rockefeller, which winds up being the name Reznikoff forgets. When the immigration official questions him, Ferguson’s grandfather, unable to speak English, “blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson”.32 The novel thus opens on a pun – a play on the sound of the Yiddish past participle “fargessen” (forgotten) and the name “Ferguson.” Forgetting here is performative; it becomes the founding speech act of Archie Ferguson’s name and personal history. Hiding behind this play between the spoken word and the written word could perhaps be a nod from the writer to his reader, a subtle gesture inviting his reader to listen to the text, rather than to read it, for “the music of the words”, Auster tells us, “is where the meanings begin”.33

  • 34 Paul Auster, 4 3 2 1, op. cit., 58-59.

25Archie Ferguson himself embodies and perpetuates this affinity for the music of the words. The play on the sounds of words reemerges in Archie’s learning to read and write: “he finally conquered the mysteries of letters, words, and punctuation marks, […] he struggled under the tutelage of his grandmother to master such oddities as where and wear, whether and weather, rough and stuff, ocean and motion, and the daunting conundrum of to, too, and two.”34 Ferguson enters into the structure of language through the sounds of words, through the repeated sounds of words—homophones and rhymes. The sounds of the words take precedence over their sense or meaning. But what starts out as a “daunting conundrum” soon becomes a source of pleasure. This is seen in Archie’s musical experience of JFK’s inaugural speech:

  • 35 Ibid., 120.

Then came the newly sworn-in president, and the moment he began to deliver his speech, the notes emanating from that tightly strung rhetorical instrument felt so natural to Ferguson, so comfortably joined in to his inner expectations, that he found himself listening to it in the same way he listened to a piece of music. Man holds in his mortal hands. Let the word go forth. […] But let us begin. Born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace. Let us explore the stars. Ask. Ask not. A struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself. A new generation. Ask. Ask not. But let us begin.35

26What Archie retains of the speech is its rhythm, its musicality. The speech transcribed for the reader is merely a string of select truncated sentences of the original speech. As such, they become mere words arranged in a sequence in the manner of musical notes on sheet music. In their being thus transformed, they also lose their historical context and significance and their original condition and situation of utterance. Their semiosis changes: they become mere signifiers, words that do not mean, but sounds that arouse pleasure. Language is experienced and explored in its euphonic dimension.

  • 36 Ibid., 666.
  • 37 “Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on (...)

27This pleasure of the repeated sound is not limited to Ferguson’s experience of sounds within his native tongue. It accompanies him well into adulthood, on his travels to Paris, and follows him into the foreign language he practices there: “Ferguson and Vivian walked to the post office on the Boulevard Raspail, their local branch of the state-run PTT (Postes, Télégraphes et Téléphones), which in French was known as the Pay-Tay-Tay, the triple initials that tripped off the tongue so euphoniously that Ferguson never tired of repeating them” (666).36 The phonetic transliteration of the French abbreviation PTT and the description of its “euphony” echo the opening words of Nabokov’s Lolita.37 This distant allusion to Lolita draws our attention to the corporeal and sensual experience of the repeated sound, but only to parody it: the sensuality of voicing, of erotically articulating the word becomes a comic gesture in 4 3 2 1. The comic emerges out of the displacement that occurs here: the French postal service makes for a rather unusual object of erotic desire.

28Thus far, we have listened to the sounds made by words in order to hear the musicality in the novel. In other words, the musicality we have encountered is the musicality of repeated sounds. The condition of possibility for such a musicality is the abundance of identical sounds and therefore the abundance of words. However, there are moments in the text where language falters. Does listening then become impossible?

29As much as Ferguson’s experience of sounds is linked to pleasure, it is also linked to pain. A striking instance of this is to be found in the description that tells of Archie and Albert’s repeatedly watching the Bresson film, Au Hasard Balthazar:

  • 38 Paul Auster, 4 3 2 1, op. cit., 694 (original emphasis).

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 […].38

30When pain becomes ineffable, when language falls short, Ferguson resorts to an animal cry: the braying of the donkey. While there is nothing inherently comic about the donkey’s bray, Ferguson’s appropriation of animal language to articulate his profound pain, and the narrator’s mechanical description of the braying, almost clinical in its precision (and therefore nearly audible), turns the character’s expression of a tragic experience into a comic one for the reader.

  • 39 Ibid., 364.

31While Ferguson resorts to the cry of an animal when words fail him, his father Stanley Ferguson resorts to silence. In 3.4, when an oversight on Stanley’s part leads to the misspelling and misprinting of the title of Ferguson 4’s story as “Soul Mates,” instead of its intended homophone “Sole Mates,” Archie’s mother, Rose, tries to console him: “your father felt so bad about it, so stupid for not having checked to make sure everything had been done right, he couldn’t bring himself to tell you about it. […] He just doesn’t know what to say or how to say it. He’s a man who never learned how to talk.”39 Stanley’s despair renders him speechless. His silence signals the inadequacy of language in the face of shame.

  • 40 Ibid., 184.
  • 41 Ibid., 184.

32Stanley’s lack of words echoes other instances of silence in the text, the most striking of which are the silences that surround the deaths of Ferguson. Ferguson 2 is struck dead by lightning in 2.2, and his death occurs amid a funereal and deafening cacophony of the shouting of his camp counselor Bill, the sounds of the storm, and Ferguson’s own ecstatic but inarticulate cries: “Bill […] seemed to be shouting at him […] but Ferguson couldn’t hear a word he was saying, not with the noise of the rain and the thunder, and especially not when Ferguson himself began to howl, […] wailing in exaltation at the thought of being alive […].”40 The long sentence that builds up to the moment of Ferguson’s death delays this very moment. Ferguson’s “wailing” at the idea of being alive is ironically interrupted by his death: “then he felt nothing, nothing at all or ever again, and as his inert body lay on the water-soaked ground, the rain continued to pour down on him and the thunder continued to crack, and from one end of the earth to the other, the gods were silent.”41 His death is presented not as his silence, but that of the “gods.” The silence of the “gods” cannot be understood as absolute silence here, since the sounds of rain and thunder continue past the moment of his death, in the manner of a wordless dirge. It is, instead, a displaced silence that metonymically elevates Ferguson to a mythical order.

  • 42 François Hugonnier examines this idea in his essay on the physicality of Paul Auster’s writing, quo (...)

33This silence in 2.2 is carried over into the subsequent corresponding chapters (3.2 through 7.2) that are left blank. While the blank pages of these chapters may suggest the absolute failure of language in the face of death, their silence may be called into question. The silence of these blank pages is articulate:42 it could be seen as telling the death of Ferguson 2 who in death will continue to exist throughout the novel, even if only as dead. Musically, these blank pages would be more akin to a sustained tone, a pedal point, continuing throughout the entire text, than to a rest or pure silence. Language, in other words, does not fail so much as it sheds the cloak of every last word, every last letter, every sound, to become silence, and indeed, silence and language are inextricably linked: silence can only be experienced in language. It is not the “gods” or the contiguous Ferguson 2 who become silent, but language itself.

  • 43 Paul Auster, 4 3 2 1, op. cit., 707-709.

34This silence also resonates all the way across the novel into Ferguson 3’s death in 6.3. The narrator in this chapter tells the episode of Ferguson’s death in another long sentence that spans across three pages.43 Ferguson gets run over by a car, which sends his body flying:

  • 44 Ibid., 709.

as if he were an air-borne 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. The gods looked down from their mountain and shrugged.44

35The reader hears three sounds in this passage: the “crack[ing]” of Ferguson’s skull that echoes the “crack” of thunder in the episode of Ferguson 2’s death; the sound of the reader’s own laughter at the misplaced metaphor of space exploration, and once again, the silence of the “gods” who here merely “shrugged.” Yet, the silence of the “shrug” is telling, although, unlike the previous episode studied above, it is not named as such. The silence of the shrug is broken by its being an eloquent gesture: in the gesture, the medium and the message coincide. As in the previous case, the subsequent chapter 7.3 is left blank, telling in silence the death of the Ferguson of the third timeline.

  • 45 Ibid., 809.
  • 46 Ibid., 864.

36A third death occurs: that of Ferguson 1 at the end of 7.1. A long sentence, followed by three shorter ones, narrate Charlie Vincent’s (Ferguson 1’s downstairs neighbor) settling into bed after his nightly routine of listening to the sounds emanating from the apartment above his. The final sentence of 7.1 describes the act that will cause the death of Ferguson 1: “Then, for the fifty-third time since that morning, he lit one of his long, unfiltered Pall Malls and began to puff...”45 The chapter ends in ellipses, but the death remains untold at this point. It is only much later that this death is revealed, through the narrator’s telling of the difficulty faced by Ferguson 4 in writing the death of Ferguson 1 in 7.1.46 The silence of the ellipses tells of Ferguson’s death only after the fact, in the final pages of the novel. His death is not mentioned, nor even alluded to, in the chapter in which it occurs. And since it occurs in the final series of chapters, there is no corresponding blank chapter that tells this death. This seems to be the most extreme form of silence in the novel. A certain progression is to be observed in the narration of the three deaths: first an explicitly named silence, then an obliquely conveyed silence (a “shrug”), and finally a silence that is completely omitted from narration. Failing to narrate the death thus becomes the most articulate way to represent it, to name it, rendering the progression of the three deaths even more powerful. Auster does not hesitate to use silence in places where one would expect words. For him, in order to complete a sequence of words, an absence of words is, paradoxically, far more fitting.

Conclusion

37In listening to the rhythm and the sounds of 4 3 2 1—the sounds of the text itself, of its textures, the sounds represented in the text, the sounds that govern its writing, the sounds produced by the very act of writing—we have attempted to study the musicality of Auster’s writing in this most recent, and perhaps his most experimental, novel. In so doing, we might have discovered some of the elements that make 4 3 2 1 unique in the context of Auster’s œuvre.

38Its sheer length, 866 pages, makes it Auster’s longest novel, and hints at a unique relationship with musicality. Only the body of a text of such size offers room enough for all the intra-, meta-, and inter- textual echoes to reverberate, without disturbing the narrative thread, without muddling the prose or turning it into a dazzling experiment. Meta-textual or meta-fictional elements are not written for their own sake: they are not the very purpose of the narration, but are part of its texture as much as the allusions to the cheers at a basketball game. Conversely, traversing so many pages of text and years of history would have been tedious for the reader if it were not for Auster’s musical sense of structure, rhythm and counterpoint—all of which play with the reader’s process of expectation, gratifying it or shaking it up. Thus, the size of the novel, and its musicality, appear to be the condition of possibility of each other.

  • 47 On the question of this shift, particularly in the context of Auster’s relationship to his Jewish r (...)

39Paul Auster’s writings have followed a certain trajectory, moving from a focus on the author’s personal history, to greater attention to collective history.47 Works like Man in the Dark, that deals with the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, or Sunset Park, an instance of credit crunch fiction, confirmed this trend, but 4 3 2 1 is undoubtedly the novel in which personal and collective history interact the most. Music serves as a means of articulation between story and history: the enumeration of artists and composers to which Archie and Anne-Marie listen (126-127) is not merely an illustration of the bond between the two adolescents; it also anchors the text in a specific era. Music is perhaps what hints at Auster’s newfound maturity in his treatment of history.

  • 48 Paul Auster, The Invention of Solitude, London: Faber, 1982, 173.
  • 49 In an interview with Nathalie Cochoy and Sophie Vallas in 2014 (possibly at the time of 4 3 2 1’s c (...)

40Finally, 4 3 2 1 marks a shift in Auster’s stylistic practice. In his earlier works, Auster’s sensitivity to “rhyming events” or “the grammar of existence”48 led to poetic and stylistic concerns entirely oriented towards events: the figures of speech were not to be found in language itself, but in what was being narrated. The only similes were the coincidence of events, and Auster’s prose was held to the highest standards of fluidity and limpidity, with sentences never spanning more than a few lines. New stylistic avenues are opened up in 4 3 2 1, where Auster toys with the rhythms created by the alternation of long and short sentences,49 where he finally revels in rhymes, assonances or puns, but also explores what can be expressed by silence. Whether this is a genuine evolution in Auster’s style, or just another meta-fictional trick revealing his own writing process and obsessions, is yet to be found out, but it nonetheless makes 4 3 2 1 stand out in his œuvre. Identical, but different.

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Bibliographie

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

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

AUSTER Paul, Moon Palace, London: Faber, 1989.

AUSTER Paul, The Music of Chance, London: Faber, 1990.

AUSTER Paul, Leviathan, New York: Penguin, 1992.

AUSTER Paul, The Red Notebook, London: Faber, 1995.

AUSTER Paul, The Brooklyn Follies, New York: Picador, 2006.

AUSTER Paul, Collected Poems, London: Faber, 2007.

AUSTER Paul, Travels in the Scriptorium, London: Faber, 2007.

AUSTER Paul, Man in the Dark, London: Faber, 2008.

AUSTER Paul, Sunset Park, London: Faber, 2010.

AUSTER Paul, Collected Prose, New York: Picador, 2010.

AUSTER Paul, Winter Journal, New York: Henry Holt, 2012.

AUSTER Paul, Report from the Interior, New York: Henry Holt, 2013.

AUSTER Paul, 4 3 2 1, New York: Henry Holt, 2017.

AUSTER Paul and I. B. SIEGUMFELDT, “Paul Auster appointed honorary alumnus”, 13 May 2011, <http://hum.ku.dk/auster/>, accessed on April 13, 2019.

AUSTER Paul and I. B. SIEGUMFELDT, A Life in Words: In Conversation with I. B. Siegumfeldt, New York: Seven Stories Press, 2017, E-Book available via Google Books <https://books.google.fr/books?id=tGKuDgAAQBAJ&source=gbs_navlinks_s>, accessed on April 14, 2019.

BERGSON Henri, Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic, Trans. Cloudesley Brereton and Fred Rothwell, 1911, E-Book available via Project Gutenberg <http://www.gutenberg.org/files/4352/4352-h/4352-h.htm>, accessed on April 14, 2019.

COCHOY Nathalie and Sophie VALLAS, “An Interview with Paul Auster”, Transatlantica, 2015, online journal, <http://journals.openedition.org/transatlantica/7408>, accessed on April 20, 2019.

DESHMUKH Priyanka, “‘The catastrophe strikes’: Reading Disaster in Paul Auster’s Novels and Autobiographies” (unpublished doctoral dissertation), Northwestern University (USA) and Université Paris Est – Créteil (France), 2014, <https://tel.archives-ouvertes.fr/tel-01186124/document>, accessed on April 14, 2019.

HUGONNIER François, “The Physicality of Writing in Paul Auster’s White Spaces and Winter Journal”, Angles – The journal | New Approaches to the Body”, 2015, <http://angles.saesfrance.org/index.php?id=334>, accessed on April 14, 2019.

MEYER Leonard B., Emotion and Meaning in Music, Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1956.

NABOKOV Vladimir, Lolita (1955), New York: Vintage International, 1997.

SAUSSURE Ferdinand de., Course in General Linguistics, Trans. by Wade Baskin. New York, Toronto, London: McGraw-Hill, 1966.

THÉVENON Marie, “Les ‘avatars du moi’ chez Paul Auster : autofiction et métafiction dans les romans de la maturité” (unpublished doctoral dissertation), université de Grenoble, 2012, <https://tel.archives-ouvertes.fr/tel-00843663/document>, accessed on April 14, 2019.

THOREAU H. D., Walden: Or, Life in the Woods (1854), New York: Dover, 1995.

TROFIMOVA Evija, Paul Auster’s Writing Machine: A Thing to Write With, New York: Bloomsbury, 2014.

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Notes

1 See Paul Auster’s conversation with I. B. Siegumfeldt “Paul Auster appointed honorary alumnus”, 13 May 2011, <https://humanities.ku.dk/auster?get_rss=1>, accessed on April 13, 2019.

2 Paul Auster, Winter Journal, New York: Henry Holt, 2012, 225.

3 See François Hugonnier, “The Physicality of Writing in Paul Auster’s White Spaces and Winter Journal”, Angles - The journal | New Approaches to the Body, 2015, http://angles.saesfrance.org/index.php?id=334. On the question of Auster’s “binary rhythm,” also see Priyanka Deshmukh, “‘Then catastrophe strikes’: Reading Disaster in Paul Auster’s Novels and Autobiographies” (unpublished doctoral dissertation), Northwestern University (USA) and Université Paris Est – Créteil (France), 2014, 340. <https://tel.archives-ouvertes.fr/tel-01186124/document>, accessed on April 14, 2019. Auster himself addresses the binary rhythm of his writing in a conversation with I. B. Siegumfeldt: “There is a rhythm in walking, a binary rhythm, as with so many things that pertain to the human body: two eyes, two hands, two legs, two feet, and the heartbeat, which is a kind of thump-thump thump-thump. Walking seems to create a rhythm that is conducive to the production of language […]. So much is churning inside me while I write that I find it difficult to sit still for long. I get up and pace around the room a lot, and just that, the act of moving around, the act of walking, seems to generate the next gust of words.” Paul Auster and I. B. Siegumfeldt, A Life in Words: In Conversation with I. B. Siegumfeldt, New York: Seven Stories Press, 2017.

4 Paul Auster, 4 3 2 1, op. cit., 250.

5 Ibid., 864.

6 The reader hears this sound in Travels in the Scriptorium: “I am sitting at the table, listening to the pen as it scratches along the surface of the paper.” Paul Auster, Travels in the Scriptorium, London: Faber, 2007, 33.

7 Evija Trofimova, Paul Auster’s Writing Machine: A Thing to Write With, New York: Bloomsbury, 2014, 83. For a closer and substantial investigation of the typewriter’s process of mediation between writer and text and its function of unification of the various parts of a text, see Evija Trofimova, Paul Auster’s Writing Machine: A Thing to Write With, op. cit.

8 Paul Auster, “The Story of My Typewriter”, in Collected Prose, New York: Picador, 2010, 291.

9 Paul Auster, 4 3 2 1, op. cit., 263.

10 Ibid., 821.

11 Paul Auster, The Red Notebook, London: Faber, 1995, 144-145.

12 Paul Auster, 4 3 2 1, op. cit., 453.

13 Ibid., 456.

14 “The dancers saved you. They are the ones who brought you back to life that evening in December 1978, who made it possible for you to experience the scalding, epiphanic moment of clarity that pushed you through a crack in the universe and allowed you to begin again. Bodies in motion, bodies in space, bodies leaping and twisting through empty unimpeded air […].” Paul Auster, Winter Journal, op. cit., 220, original italics; emphasis in bold is mine.

15 A similar process is of course at play in music. In Emotion and Meaning in Music, Meyer theorizes how the perception of a musical event depends on the context in which it appears, how unpleasantness or beauty can be suggested through the ambiguity, or the resolution of the carefully-crafted sequence of events that lead up to it. Leonard B. Meyer, Emotion and Meaning in Music, Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1956.

16 Paul Auster, 4 3 2 1, op. cit., 54.

17 Ibid., 4, 19-20.

18 Ibid., 184, 707-709, 808-809.

19 “It took another thirty or forty seconds for him to understand that the bad news he had been expecting was in fact good news, that for an advance of four hundred pounds against royalties it was Io’s enthusiastic intention to publish How Lauren and Hardy Saved My Life […].” Ibid., 672; original italics.

20 Ibid., 863.

21 Ibid., 452.

22 Ibid., 863.

23 Ibid., 346.

24 Ibid., 857.

25 Ibid., 15.

26 “The eggs landed with an ugly splat. I remember standing there in horror as they oozed out over the floor. The sunny, translucent innards sank into the cracks, and suddenly there was muck everywhere, a bobbing slush of slime and shell. One yolk had miraculously survived the fall, but when I bent down to scoop it up, it slid out from under the spoon and broke apart. I felt as though a star were exploding, as though a great sun had just died. The yellow spread over the white and then began to swirl, turning into a vast nebula, a debris of interstellar gases. It was all too much for me – the last, imponderable straw. When this happened, I actually sat down and cried” Paul Auster, Moon Palace, London: Faber, 1989, 41-42; my emphasis.

27 As Henri Bergson reminds us in his essay on the comic, the mechanical is what produces laughter (Henri Bergson, Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic. Trans. Cloudesley Brereton and Fred Rothwell, 1911, E-Book available via Project Gutenberg http://www.gutenberg.org/files/4352/4352-h/4352-h.htm, accessed on April 14, 2019.

28 Paul Auster, 4 3 2 1, op. cit., 53.

29 “I will not have my eyes put out and my ears spoiled by its smoke and steam and hissing,” writes Thoreau. Henry D. Thoreau, Walden: Or, Life in the Woods (1854), New York: Dover, 1995, 80.

30 Paul Auster, 4 3 2 1, op. cit., 319.

31 Ibid., 791-792.

32 Ibid., 1.

33 Paul Auster, Winter Journal, op. cit., 225.

34 Paul Auster, 4 3 2 1, op. cit., 58-59.

35 Ibid., 120.

36 Ibid., 666.

37 “Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta” (Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita [1955], New York: Vintage International, 1997, 9).

38 Paul Auster, 4 3 2 1, op. cit., 694 (original emphasis).

39 Ibid., 364.

40 Ibid., 184.

41 Ibid., 184.

42 François Hugonnier examines this idea in his essay on the physicality of Paul Auster’s writing, quoted earlier, and concludes that: “Ultimately going back to the blank page to embrace silence illustrates Auster’s will to accept non-verbal meditation and linguistic failure.” François Hugonnier, “The Physicality of Writing in Paul Auster’s White Spaces and Winter Journal”, op. cit.

43 Paul Auster, 4 3 2 1, op. cit., 707-709.

44 Ibid., 709.

45 Ibid., 809.

46 Ibid., 864.

47 On the question of this shift, particularly in the context of Auster’s relationship to his Jewish roots, see Thévenon, Marie, “Les ‘avatars du moi’ chez Paul Auster : autofiction et métafiction dans les romans de la maturité” (unpublished doctoral dissertation), Université de Grenoble, 2012, <https://tel.archives-ouvertes.fr/tel-00843663/document>, accessed on April 20, 2019.

48 Paul Auster, The Invention of Solitude, London: Faber, 1982, 173.

49 In an interview with Nathalie Cochoy and Sophie Vallas in 2014 (possibly at the time of 4 3 2 1’s conception and execution), Auster says “I’m writing long sentences now, something I didn’t use to do. I had some kind of breakthrough, five or six years ago, in Invisible, and in Sunset Park after that. I discovered a new way to write sentences. And I find it exhilarating. Sometimes a sentence goes on for a page or three quarters of a page, two pages—each sentence a kind of musical composition.” Nathalie Cochoy and Sophie Vallas, “An Interview with Paul Auster”, Transatlantica, 2015, online journal, <http://journals.openedition.org/transatlantica/7408>, accessed on April 20, 2019.

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Priyanka Deshmukh, « 4 3 2 1: A Listening », Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [En ligne], vol. 18-n°50 | 2020, document 5, mis en ligne le 02 juin 2020, consulté le 15 juillet 2020. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/lisa/11497 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/lisa.11497

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Priyanka Deshmukh

Priyanka Deshmukh est agrégée d’anglais et titulaire d’un double doctorat en littérature comparée et en littérature américaine de Northwestern University (Evanston, Illinois) et de l’Université Paris Est – Créteil. Soutenue en 2014, sa thèse a pour titre « ‘Then catastrophe strikes’: lire le désastre dans l’œuvre romanesque et autobiographique de Paul Auster ». Ses recherches s’intéressent à la littérature américaine des XXe et XXIe siècles, ainsi qu’à la théorie critique. Elle est auteure d’articles sur Paul Auster et Djuna Barnes. Elle est également chargée de cours de littérature anglo-américaine à l’Université Sorbonne Nouvelle – Paris 3.

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