Close brush with death

As a teen, author Paul Auster witnessed a boy struck dead by lightning in front of him. His epic book, 4 3 2 1, is a way for him to come to terms with this experience

When American author Paul Auster began his mammoth epic 4 3 2 1 four years ago, Mr Barack Obama had just begun his second term as United States president and the turmoil of the 2016 presidential election had yet to cross the horizon.

But as he progressed on the book, which charts the troubled years of the US from after World War II in the late 1940s to the 1970s, the conflicts of half a century ago began eerily to mirror the present.

"America was a divided country then and a divided country now," says the 70-year-old over the telephone from London, where he is on a book tour.

"These are dangerous times," he goes on. "Americans believe in their institutions and we thought they were solid granite buildings that would not crumble or weaken.

"Now, with (President Donald) Trump's election, we have learnt that these buildings are actually made of soap, and when Mr Trump and his team turn their hoses on, they could very well dissolve into suds and run through the streets."

That was an enormous experience for me. It changed how I thought about the world and it has haunted me all my life.

PAUL AUSTER, who has never gotten over how he would be the one dead if the lightning that killed a boy in front of him had struck a few seconds later

Auster, one of the stars of postmodern fiction, rose to literary prominence in the 1980s with the metafictional The New York Trilogy, three loosely connected noir-ish novellas.

4 3 2 1 is his 17th novel and his first in seven years. At 866 pages, it is literally his greatest.

Its heft, says Auster, is necessary because the novel traces the four parallel lives of Archie Ferguson, a boy born to Jewish parents in Newark, New Jersey, after World War II.

Chance variations in Ferguson's early life lead him down four different paths.

One Ferguson loses his fingers in a car accident; another loses his father in a fire. They all love the same woman, although in different lives she is to him a girlfriend, cousin or stepsister. "It was like writing four novels in one book," says Auster.

The sprawling sentences of 4 3 2 1 are a far cry from his earlier, more minimalist work, an elongation which he describes as a natural progression.

"Over the last 10 years, something has been expanding within me. I started gravitating towards different kinds of sentences - longer, spinning, more propulsive dictions - that gradually accumulated into this big, big book."

He wrote the tome over 3½ years in a "series of sprints, rather than a long marathon", treating each chapter as if it were a separate work and taking breaks after each one to recover.

He does all his writing by hand in notebooks, which he thinks of as "small houses of words", and which he has filled by the hundreds since his childhood.

He favours large ones with more than 100 sheets and "little quadrille lines that look like graph paper". The entire manuscript of 4 3 2 1 fits in eight notebooks.

Fittingly, notebooks - red ones, usually - are the trademark accessory of his characters, including one of 4 3 2 1's Fergusons, who writes a book called The Scarlet Notebook.

Born a month after Auster himself, the Fergusons live through the same historic events as their author: the civil rights movement, the assassination of former US president John F. Kennedy and the Vietnam war draft, among others.

Despite the wealth of similarities, Auster insists the book must not be confused with an autobiography. "I use my geography and my chronology, but there's really nothing in the book directly related to my own life."

He allows, however, that the book hinges on one unmistakable autobiographical element. When he was 14, he and some other boys at summer camp were caught out in the woods during an electric storm.

As they were crawling single file under a barbed wire fence to get to a clearing, the boy immediately ahead of Auster was struck by lightning and died in front of him.

"That was an enormous experience for me," says Auster, who has never gotten over how he would be the one dead if the lightning had struck a few seconds later.

"It changed how I thought about the world and it has haunted me all my life. The book is in some way an attempt to come to terms with that long-ago event."

In 4 3 2 1, he experiments with two variations on the event. One of the Fergusons witnesses the sudden death of his friend at summer camp, although from a brain aneurysm instead of a bolt of lightning.

Another Ferguson is killed by a falling branch during a similar lightning storm, giving the title 4 3 2 1 the more sinister meaning of a countdown.

It was not the original title of the novel, which Auster had planned to call Ferguson. He named his character after a Yiddish joke he heard two years before he started work on the book.

In this joke, which opens the novel, a Russian Jewish immigrant entering the US is advised to rename himself Rockefeller, which is more "American-sounding". When the immigration officer asks his name, however, he cries out in Yiddish, "Ikh hob fargessen (I have forgotten)", and begins his new life in America as "Ichabod Ferguson".

"I love this joke," says Auster. "It's all about the misunderstandings of language and culture that happen among immigrants who come to the US.

"America is an invented country. It's a nation of immigrants more so than any other in the world, and that has been its strength and is what makes the country interesting."

He had to change the title, however, after it was conferred new significance in American history following the 2014 shooting of an unarmed black teenager by a police officer in the town of Ferguson, Missouri.

"Ferguson joins Selma, Birmingham and Montgomery as part of a litany of names we use to talk about the history of race relations in the US," he says.

"These remain problematic today as they were 50 years ago."

But he notes that Mr Trump's presidency has also spurred those who oppose his views to express themselves vociferously. "We are seeing a rebirth of activism in the US, something that has not been true in all the years since the 1960s."

4 3 2 1 covers historical protests such as the 1968 Columbia University student demonstrations, which Auster took part in as a young man and was arrested for.

Asked what he is proudest of in the past 70 years and he names not any of his numerous works, but his wife, novelist Siri Hustvedt, to whom he dedicates 4 3 2 1. "She's as important to me as my own heart."

They have been married for 36 years and have a daughter, singer- songwriter Sophie Auster. Paul Auster also has a son, Daniel, with his first wife, writer Lydia Davis.

He is too exhausted from 4 3 2 1 to speculate on what his next novel will be or even if there will be one.

"I am so hollowed out right now that I have no thoughts about what's next."

He adds: "I'm sure it's not the last thing I'll write. Something always happens and I count on that."

AN EPIC CELEBRATION OF THE MUNDANE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 28, 2017, with the headline 'Close brush with death'. Print Edition | Subscribe