1 Character, 4 Different Lives In Paul Auster's '4 3 2 1'
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
The hero of Paul Auster's new coming-of-age novel, "4 3 2 1," is Archie Ferguson, born in 1947 in New Jersey to middle-class, Jewish parents. In fact, the heroes of Auster's novel are four different Archie Fergusons, each born to the same circumstances, the same parents but each with his own story.
In each story, Archie Ferguson's life takes a set of distinctive turns. His parents may divorce or stay married. In one story, Archie's father's business thrives. In another it collapses. He may die young or live. He may go to college or not go to college. Auster has dealt his baby boomer protagonist four different hands and each set of cards leads Archie Ferguson to a different place by the book's end. Paul Auster, welcome to the program once again.
PAUL AUSTER: Thank you, Robert. That was a very precise and apt description of the book - the structure of it - so thank you for that.
SIEGEL: (Laughter) You're welcome. Like Archie Ferguson, you were born in New Jersey in 1947...
AUSTER: True enough.
SIEGEL: ...To a middle-class, Jewish family.
AUSTER: True enough.
SIEGEL: Like all the Archies, books and writing matter a lot to you. And like more than one of them, Paris is some place special to you. Is "4 3 2 1" a kind of fractured mirror that reflects different versions of Paul Auster?
AUSTER: It's really not me at all, even though the interest of the Fergusons seemed to overlap with mine. I think of this book as sharing my geography and sharing my chronology, but it's really not at all my story. These Fergusons are so much more precocious than I was. They seem able to do things at astonishingly young ages that I was not capable of doing, for example.
SIEGEL: I think people may be struck by the fact that a character born to middle-class, Jewish parents would not logically be named Ferguson. So I want you to share with us - actually, this is from the very start of the - of the book - a wonderful, old Jewish joke...
SIEGEL: ...That gets us into this novel.
AUSTER: Yeah, the novel does begin with a joke.
(Reading) According to family legend, Ferguson's grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with 100 rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, traveled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China. While waiting to be interviewed by an immigration official at Ellis Island, he struck up a conversation with a fellow Russian Jew. The man said to him, forget the name Reznikoff. It won't do you any good here. You need an American name for your new life in America - something with a good American ring to it. Since English was still an alien tongue to Isaac Reznikoff in 1900, he asked his older, more experienced compatriot for a suggestion. Tell them you're Rockefeller, the man said. You can't go wrong with that.
An hour passed, then another hour. And by the time the 19-year-old Reznikoff sat down to be questioned by the immigration official, he had forgotten the name the man had told him to give. Your name? - the official asked. Slapping his head in frustration, the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, ikh hobn fargesn (ph) - I've forgotten. And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.
AUSTER: It's a wonderful joke.
SIEGEL: In the joke as I'd heard it, it was another Yiddish phrase - shoyn fargesn (ph) - and he became Rabbi Sean Ferguson - was the other story.
AUSTER: But I didn't hear it until a year or two before I started writing the novel. I had missed it.
SIEGEL: We're struck by the role that chance and odd events play in these different stories and lead to different consequences. The differences in Archie Fergusons include everything from diligence at school to sexual orientation. Do you still have a sense that there's something at the core of us? Is it the love that each one of these guys feels for his mother that's so strong? What do we have - what do we all have in common?
AUSTER: The idea that you really cannot become a fully formed human being unless you do receive love as a child from at least one parent - and Archie certainly gets that from his mother. And in all four instances, the mother and son are close. It takes different forms, of course. Number four tends to be angry, sullen, at times is not interested in seeing his mother or talking to her. Number three, the one whose father dies when he's just a little boy, is very close to her. So it depends.
I think what inspired me to write this book was an incident that occurred when I was 14 years old, and it's been haunting me all my life. It's the...
SIEGEL: This was at summer camp?
AUSTER: Exactly. Seeing a boy inches away from me being struck and killed by lightning as we were out on a hike in the woods - this overturned all my certainties about the world. Understanding that anything can happen to any of us at any moment - it's an astonishing revelation. And that event is told in a different way in this book. It's not the autobiographical version.
SIEGEL: Why does this story end at, say, age 21 or so of Archie Ferguson?
AUSTER: I thought that - at first, when I came up with the idea - that I would carry them through a much longer portion of their lives, but I began to understand that, essentially, the book is a story of development. One of my friends who read it and liked it very much said that the thing they liked most was the book conveys the idea of what it feels like to be four years old and eight years old and 12 and the vast differences in us at these different moments in our lives. And I thought early adulthood was about as far as I wanted to carry the characters because after that the whole nature of the book would have changed. I think it would have been a different project altogether.
SIEGEL: In writing so many different versions (laughter) - four different Archie Fergusons who share your geography and who share being influenced by the events of your life - has the experience clarified your sense of your own geography and your appreciation of what you grew up with?
AUSTER: What I finally came away with is this - things haven't changed very much in the United States in the last 50 years. Originally, I was planning on calling the book "Ferguson" - just simply that. Well, about a year and a half into writing the book, this terrible event took place in a town in Missouri that I had never heard of - Ferguson. And it would have been impossible to publish a book today with that title without misleading people into thinking it was about what had happened in Missouri.
So here was history continuing to happen as I was writing a book about 50 years ago, and the parallels were eerie, I have to say. And so many of the things that were dividing us 50 years ago are dividing us again today. What we didn't learn in the '60s was that while we thought the left was in the ascendance, it was actually the right. And now, again, the right is again taking over the country in ways that eight years ago, when Obama came into office, we wouldn't have imagined could happen.
SIEGEL: Paul Auster, novelist, author of the new novel "4 3 2 1," thanks for talking with us once again.
AUSTER: Thank you, Robert. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.