There are those books and authors we tend to identify as “Jewish”: Bernard Malamud, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Irene Nemirovsky, Nicole Krause, Jonathan Safran Foer, Philip Roth, Nora Ephron, for example. We consider these books Jewish because the protagonists exhibit characteristics we are familiar with, they interact with other Jewish people or the set of cultural events reflect our religion or history. Often the authors use their own Jewish lives as reference points in the stories they are sharing.
Interestingly, Paul Auster, the author of 4321, is himself born in New York to Jewish parents, four grandparents Eastern European Jews. Facts regarding his own background are woven into his tome, such as being close to his mother, distant from his father, his work as a translator of French poetry, passion for writing and writers, and even a childhood friend being struck by lightning. Yet, I would not have believed that Auster nor his protagonist Archie is Jewish.
In fact, on reflecting on the catalyst of the unravelling of 4321, – only the opening vignette of the book appears to be a Jewish one- Reznikoff from Russia arrives at Ellis Island and is counselled to give the name Rockefeller to the border agents, a name more worthy of respect and able to provide a smooth transition into the new world.However unable to recall the name when questioned, the haggard immigrant mutters, “Ikh hob fargessen” and so he is renamed Ichabod Ferguson. Seemingly it is a cynical not so funny tale story we’ve heard before, and we let it go, shaking our heads, familiar that in our own lineage the family moniker “ Yskervotiz”had been rechristened “ Ash” as an insensitive or uncaring agent unable to understand a foreigner’s accent had altered the names of Jews coming to America.
So, anticipating more Jewish- ness to the book after this incident, I’m surprised to find none, deciding the author has merely decided to use the anecdote as a structural moment that will unravel the tale he will so expertly relate. There is no bris, bar mitzvah, no Jewish geography, except New York, no get togethers at Passover, no Yom Kippur atonement, yet the names of the people with whom Archie associates are all Jewish: Adler, Marx, Blumenthal.However, I no longer expect that this book will be Jewish.
Yet, eventually I realize the enormity of this single joke, for the theme of the book concerns the identity of Auster’s hero, grandson of Ichabad, that will unfold into four chronological parallel tellings , each similar but different, meaning four boys all named Archie with the same parents, dreams, aspirations and predilections, but each living in a different house in differing economical circumstances in Manhattan, Montclair, Millburn, and Maplewood. In the voice of Archie, Auster writes,
One of the odd things about being himself..that there seemed to be several of him…a collection of contradictory selves. And each time he was a different person, he himself was different as well.
Jewishness aside, if you were a baby boomer as Archie is, born March 1947, 4321 will recreate for you the terrible sixties which you may have mythologized as a Woodstock love fest complete with love beads. Rather, this socialist- realist novel reminds us of the Viet Nam war, the anti war protests, Rosenberg Trials, Kent State, Columbia sit- ins, Chicago brutality, murder of Martin Luther King and the Kennedys, all in precise, factual riveting detail. Archie’s involvement varies as reporter or witness, certainly aware of the trajectory , but except for a stance associated perhaps with a Jewish concern, philanthropy and belief in the democratic process, he is not in the trenches of these world altering events. Even Philip Roth in American Pastoral situates the daughter, Merry Levov, of his main protagonist, “ Swede” in the Newark riots, yet Auster’s protagonist although swept up in the tide of politics, repercussions and fallout, is not an instigator, more bystander to the history in the 60’s.
The stories of the four Archies resemble Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, although her protagonist Ursula seems to skirt around from country to country, her personality changing as she plays central roles in say, an attempt on Hitler’s life, etc. Our likeable Archie is less a risk taker, adoring his photographer mother, the beautiful Rose Adler, as Auster did. All Archies are fascinated by Amy Schneiderman, alternately love interest, step- sister or cousin. Archie immediately mesmerized states,”…there it was, a feeling, an intuition, a certainty that something important was happening and that he and Amy Schneiderman were about to set off on a long journey together.” In all four stories, he exudes deep love and affection for the politically- committed girl he first encounters as a toddler so they both grow up together, stories entwined, no matter which university each attends: Princeton, Columbia, Bryn Mawr or Brooklyn College.
Coming of age accompanied by a search for life’s meaning is a constant feature in 4321. From disabling car crashes, insurance fraud, involvement in sports, a father who is burnt alive in one section while simultaneously growing an empire of appliance stores in another to diverse sexual partners, an ongoing love for New York, a sojourn in Paris, the novel amplifies the twists and turns, the happenstance that results in paths and journeys to unanticipated destinations for the main character.
Other reviewers have commented on the initial confusion in sorting out which Archie is which, evoking Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken”, roads that are pursued, those ignored, this novel certainly providing multiple pathways. But again, nothing suggests anything particularly Jewish in the routes Archie explores. We do not conceive of him growing up as a Jew, for Jews alone do not hold a monopoly in developing moral consciousness as a liberal minded Archie does, his positive attitudes exemplified towards race and gender, for example when he is colourblind to a young prostitute, insulted when questioned if he would like another black girl for his teenage trysts.
There is much sweetness in Rose and Archie’s escape to the movies when his father dies, and his mother’s attempts to put their life back together, his raucous joy at watching the antics of Laurel and Hardy that wind up underpinning a first book. There is a charming first endeavour at writing a novella about the inseparable shoes “Hank and Frank” when Archie is only 14. There is a palpably intense scene as the older Archie awaits the Vietnam Nam draft lottery determined by birthdates, the sudden death of his doppelgänger friend Artie Federman and camp relationships that catalyze into lifelong friendships.
All of this is intriguing, recognizable and written in a way that in spite of 800 pages or more never bores. As Archie himself refers to his delight in studying a plethora of new authors and thinkers and translating French poetry to make it his own, we think of Jonathan Franzen, Borges, Dickens and Salinger, so many authors who have followed their heroes through the spirals, curves and initiations into adulthood.The following line,
The sun was stuck in the sky, a page had gone missing from a book and it would always be summer as long as they did not breath too hard or ask for too much, always the summer when they were 19, finally almost finally perhaps almost on the brink of saying goodbye to the moment when everything was still in front of them.
Conjuring F. Scott Fitzgerald as the great Gatsby gazes at the green light at the end of the pier, these nostalgic thoughts suggest an overlay of longing in this Bildungsroman that prepares us for the quests and follies our own lives will follow.Or ironically, we as Archie’s peers, have ourselves all ready experienced.
Perhaps Archie is a modern Jew, raised in a loving home with Jewish values of respect and responsibility post World War II, primed to be educated and fully assimilated in America, the home of freed immigrants and refugees like his grandfather, people who did not want to be differentiated by faith or religion at all, desirous to fit in, work hard and achieve the American Dream. I want to claim Archie as Jewish because in all of his manifestations, I really do like him. I can identify with his passions and pursuits, his fallibility and his attitudes towards life.
Yet unlike Jonathon Safan Foer in Here I Am, the very title from Abraham’s biblical response to G-d in the wild, triggering the novel of modern Jewish angst, his character, Jacob Bloch’s contemplation, strong connection to Israel, daily Jewish observances, the holocaust, all fictionally realistic, perplex and make me want to distance myself as his Canadian cousin, so I pine for something Jewish to connect me to Archie, but sadly , Archie’s thoughts about anything Jewish never figure in 4321, except as a structural stylistic note to bring the novel full circle, a tool, a device manipulated by a clever writer.
And although I too have assimilated, I carry with me Jewish connections- to family holiday celebrations, beyond Kafka to Jewish literature, an understanding of basic Jewish practices, a respect for the travel of my ancestors who brought us here, a link to Jewish worlds of repression and oppression, Jewish humour, even anxieties and neuroses because I am Jewish although many would scoff that I have created a stereotypical image rather than one that penetrates a Jewish sensibility. 4321 severs the ties with all of that, only leaving the names of his friends and some family as indicative of our origins, wisps of torn paper to be carried off in the wind.
In the end, we are left with the cumulative incident, the joke- Archie’s name “ Ferguson” or ” Ikh hob fargessen” which isn’t a joke because without your name, your identity has been banished and young Archie moves among his four identities, none that tackles, unriddles or comes to grips with his birthright. I cannot help but recall Eva Hoffman’s memoir, Lost in Translation, in which she searches to resurrect her past lived in her first language Polish. It is true that Archie grew up in English, however, the vestiges of a communal past have the power to reach out and shape who we become, an epilogical ghost from the past perhaps. So like the Jews of old, our Archie wanders among four deserts, searching. Without a past, we exist only in the present, no matter how charitable, how charming or charismatic we may be, twisting in that cold and bitter wind.
Maybe that is why I yearned for a speck of Jewish connection in a tale that is predicated on a Jewish joke so that Archie might come to know his roots and travel on to a secure future where he might confront and acknowledge his past, muttering, I did NOT forget.