Paul Auster shows me a picture of his grandmother. It hangs in the front floor hallway, opposite the stairs of the Park Slope home he shares with novelist Siri Hustvedt, his wife. His grandmother, Anna Auster, sits in black and white, a severe, striking woman. She’s the one, he explains, who murdered his grandfather. Later I find a write up in a January 1919 issue of the Chicago Tribune. “KENOSHA WOMAN CONFESSES SHE KILLED HUSBAND.”
Auster writes about this in “Portrait of an Invisible Man,” the first half of his 1982 memoir and debut, and it’s refracted (if not replicated) in his latest novel, 4 3 2 1: The main character’s grandmother is rumored to have drowned an unwanted baby and her husband is murdered by someone else. The novel is Auster’s first in seven years and seventeenth in total. It’s also his longest, clocking in at nearly 900 pages. 4 3 2 1 is both a return and departure for the writer who made his name in the 1980s with his genre splicing attention to both pulpy plot and metafictional questions of chance and identity—it’s a book that’s organized along postmodern ideas but sprung from and written with an attention to reality and realism. “So much of my work has been stripping things out,” Auster tells me. (His books have run to the slimmer end of the bookshelf.) But “in the last ten years or so,” he describes finding “a new kind of prose,” one filled with “long, long run-on sentences.”
“There’s a physicality to them, a whirling, dancing sensation. It mirrors the movements of thought, creates a sense of interiority. The words are physical.” This is the style, and effect, of 4 3 2 1.
On the one hand, the novel is easy to describe: Archie Ferguson is a bright young man and budding writer growing up middle class and Jewish in the midcentury New Jersey suburbs. On the other, difficulties arise: there is not one but four Archies (hence the title), each alike in genetic code and background before birth, but each different in the circumstances that follow. It’s bildungsroman and formal experiment: a single life—ricocheting through the 1950s and 60s—riven into four.
“I’ve been thinking of this idea all my life,” he says. It’s connected in part to one of his most central experiences: when he saw lightning strike and kill a boy in front of him at age fourteen. He was in summer camp, and his group got stuck in a storm in the woods on a hike. They decided to make their way from the trees to the relatively safety of a clearing, but they had to crawl single file under a barbed wire fence to do so. One boy—Auster was just behind him in line—was under it when lightning struck the metal. “I don’t know how long I’ll be alive,” he says, and in part he’s talking about bad luck, which killed a child, and the limits of good luck, which cannot keep anyone alive forever.
“His Grandmother, Anna Auster, sits in black and white,
a severe, striking woman. She’s the one, he explains,
who murdered his grandfather.”
Before the interview, on the walk to Auster and Hustvedt’s house, my phone rings and it is Paul Auster. The interview has me nervous—Auster is, after all, a big deal—and here he is already in my ear. He’s called, curious more than anything, to make sure he has his schedule straight. When he answers the door, he’s wearing a sweater with an enormous hole in one elbow. I think, oh, there is Paul Auster’s elbow. As we talk, he regularly puffs away on an e-cigarette, its little blue light glowing with each inhale. These things help. Pictures on the internet, and indeed the photos hung in Auster and Hustvedt’s photo-laden front hall, often show Auster in a brooding aspect. When he was younger (he turns 70 this February) Auster looked something like a poet Buster Keaton: heavy on the cheekbones, the same large, mournful eyes. There is no author-photo chiaroscuro here, just a man and his elbow and his e-cigarette. He invites me to come see his daughter’s show at Rockwood Music hall the following Monday. (Sophie Auster, a singer-songwriter, has a new album coming out this year.) He tells me the person I should be really writing about is Hustvedt.
I ask him about his long association with the borough he’s made his home. “Brooklyn was always part of the mythology of my childhood,” he says. His mother was born here. Auster arrived at the end of 1979—“I was just about flat broke”—and hasn’t left since. Even as he’s watched the borough transform dramatically, he’s still smitten with the place. “There’s an immense variety of people here,” he says. “It’s become more expensive, but the human traffic on the sidewalks has remained the same. The sheer variety of it.”
“Ultimately, Auster says, ‘the artist’s
role is to make art.’ how grotesque would
the world be without it?”
Auster offers two recent neighborhood experiences: the longtime clerk at his local stationary store noticed Auster’s nose was running in the day’s extreme cold and, without saying a word, “she leaned over the counter and wiped my nose for me.” And at one of his favorite local restaurants, he had some schmutz (as we all sometimes do) on his face after a meal. An employee “wiped my mouth for me.” Auster leans forward in his chair to mime the action: it’s the gesture of a parent. “It’s almost like being in a small town,” he says, smiling.
I read 4 3 2 1 in the run up to and immediate aftermath of the presidential election. Though comparisons to the 1930s were frequently in the air (and uncomfortably apt), the various Archies’s struggles to make sense, on an individual level, of the chaos and moral imperatives of the 1960s felt closer to home. What are we supposed to do when we know something is wrong? Auster studies his fingernails when he mentions the then president-elect—he won’t use Trump’s name. Ultimately, he says, “the artist’s role is to make art.” How grotesque would the world be without it? Novels, Auster insists are “the most democratic art possible,” because they celebrate the importance of the individual. (I, biased, am inclined to agree.) This too is the lesson of 4 3 2 1: “We have to do our work, first and foremost.” ♦
Photos by Jane Bruce