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Monday 19 July 2010

Beatrice and Virgil


Animals are good to think with. — Claude Lévi-Strauss

After a gap of nine years, and taking five years to write, Yann Martel’s follow-up to the hugely popular Life of Pi is the slim — barely 200-pages-long — novella, Beatrice and Virgil. Needless to say it was eagerly expected and much was expected and so it’s not unsurprising that many of his readers were disappointed with what was presented. Not only did they feel short-changed by the word count but also by the content. Canongate’s cover is very similar to the one used for Life of Pi. That cover had a boy and a tiger adrift on the sea. This new one shows a monkey on the back of a donkey wandering through what looks like a desert. So one can forgive readers for assuming that this book would be the same but different.

Life of Pi I’ve never read Life of Pi. My wife has. She recommended it to me but I never got round to it. And that's a good thing because it meant that I could read Beatrice and Virgil on its own merits, which I did. I actually remember very little about what my wife told me about Life of Pi anyway. The only expectation I had was that this was clearly a man who could write and engage with his readers so I expected a well-written and entertaining book and in that respect I have no real complaints; many of the passages were a joy to read, in fact. I felt it ended a little quickly and unpleasantly but then there is an addendum, Games for Gustav, which comprises thirteen cards printed one to each page which ends the book. The game is referred to within the body of the text but it was nice to have it included and it provided the perfect coda to the work. This took a bit of the bad taste out of the ending for me. Let me just qualify that remark: it was not the unpleasantness that left a bad taste in my mouth — I had worked out pages beforehand where this was all heading — but the fact that after taking such care to build up to the book’s climax it was handled so badly. My feeling was that he’s said all he has to say and needed to find a way to end the book. Benjamin Secher, writing in The Telegraph, described it thus:

A climactic scene that could have been lifted straight out of a second-rate television drama produces, too late, a burst of action.[1]

With a few exceptions, the book has not been well received by critics, one reviewer, Edward Champion, calling it “the worst book of the decade;”[2] I’ll come back to him. There were a few glowing reviews – USA Today said that it was “dark but divine” and “it just might be a masterpiece”[3] – but the majority were reserved at best. Most chewed it over for a bit and then spat it out.

I’m not sure what I felt when I’d finished it. The subject matter didn’t bother me; that he’d chosen to use animals rather than humans didn’t bother me; that he was as subtle as a sledgehammer in his literary references didn’t bother me; that it was clearly self-indulgent and self-referential didn’t bother me. Two things niggled at me: 1) the revelation of who the taxidermist really was and 2) that I only got to read snippets of his play. I felt the first was badly handled and, as regards the second, if Martel had scrapped the book and only published the play in its entirety I’d pay good money to go and see it but I’d still probably walk out five minutes before the end.

Let’s start at the beginning:

Henry’s second novel, written, like his first, under a pen name, had done well. It had won prizes and was translated into dozens of languages. Henry was invited to book launches and literary festivals around the world; countless schools and book clubs adopted the book; he regularly saw people reading it on planes and trains; Hollywood was set to turn it into a movie; and so on and so forth.

That could be Martel. Indeed Life of Pi is currently being made into a film to be directed by Ang Lee.

Eventually the business of personally promoting his novel died down, and Henry returned to an existence where he could sit quietly in a room for weeks and months on end. He wrote another book. It involved five years of thinking, researching, writing, and rewriting. The fate of that book is not immaterial to what happened next to Henry, so it bears being described.

And that’s how long it took Mantel to finish Beatrice and Virgil.

The book Henry wrote was in two parts, and he intended them to be published in what the publishing trade calls a flip book: that is, a book with two sets of distinct pages that are attached to a common spine upside down and back-to-back to each other. If you flick your thumb through a flip book, the pages, halfway along, will appear upside down. A head-to-tails flip of the conjoined book will bring you to its fraternal twin. So the name flip book.

Now I’m not sure if Mantel pitched his book to his publishers this way but in a television interview he did confirm that he had intended that Beatrice and Virgil be published along with an accompanying essay. His (or should that be ‘Their’?) publishers were not keen:

[F]iction and nonfiction are very rarely published in the same book. That was the hitch. Tradition holds that the two must be kept apart. That is how our knowledge and impressions of life are sorted in bookstores and libraries—separate aisles, separate floors—and that is how publishers prepare their books, imagination in one package, reason in another.

The actual subject matter is also a problem:

It should be mentioned, because it is central to the difficulties Henry encountered, to his tripping and stumbling and falling, that his flip book concerned the murder of millions of civilian Jews—men, women, children—by the Nazis and their many willing collaborators in Europe last century, that horrific and protracted outbreak of Jew-hatred that is widely known, by an odd convention that has appropriated a religious term, as the Holocaust.

Henry’s publishers reject the book. Martel’s talked him out of trying to include the essay but he still has it and hopes it will be published at a future date.

This is where fact and fiction start to diverge. Henry gives up writing, moves out of Canada to a new (unnamed) city and passes his days answering fan mail; he also joins a fraternity of dedicated amateur thespians, the Greenhouse Players, takes up the bassoon but then, because “the crazy arrangement of the finger holes defeated him”, promptly switches to the clarinet; he inveigles his way into working part-time at The Chocolate Road, a local café with “rotating art exhibits, good, usually Latin music and a southerly exposure so it was often lit up by sunlight” and lastly, to complete the picture, Henry and his wife, Sarah, acquire a small puppy, Erasmus, and a kitten, Mendelssohn, from a local animal shelter. And, for several years, this is the contented life he chooses to live. His days pass pleasantly and were it not for the regular dribble of correspondence from readers often reaching him by the most circuitous of routes he might have forgotten that he was ever a writer.

Henry’s second novel, the one that made him famous, featured wild animals, as does Martel’s second novel Life of Pi. Martel incidentally is now at work on a novel about gurus and disciples, starring three chimpanzees. But why? Henry answers but it is Martel that is speaking:

The use of animals in his novel, he explained, was for reasons of craft rather than sentiment. Speaking before his tribe, naked, he was only human and therefore—possibly—likely—surely—a liar. But dressed in furs and feathers, he became a shaman and spoke a greater truth.

Beatrice and Virgil You can imagine Henry’s interest being piqued then when a package arrives containing a short story by Flaubert called ‘The Legend of Saint Julian Hospitator’ that he had not heard of (a tale of animal butchery and religious redemption), an extract from a play where the protagonists are a donkey (Beatrice) and a howler monkey (Virgil) and the briefest of letters:

Dear Sir,

I read your book and much admired it.

I need your help.

Yours truly,

The signature is barely legible but it looks as if the sender has the same first name as him: Henry. Henry-the-writer always makes a point of replying to his correspondence even if it does take him a while to do so but on learning that the letter originated within the city in which he now resides he decides to deliver his response by hand. The address turns out to be a business, Okapi Taxidermy, and the Henry who has written to him is the taxidermist himself, a tall, dour, laconic octogenarian. The help he requires is in finishing his play, Beatrice and Virgil, a play he has apparently struggled with for decades. Intrigued Henry agrees but soon discovers that what is being attempted here is the very thing his publishers told him he could not do: to represent the Holocaust through means other than historical realism, to “represent the Holocaust differently so that its terrible spirit might not be forgotten." In the taxidermist's hands, the anthropo-morphised Beatrice and Virgil become stand-ins for the Jews exterminated during World War II or, if not all of them, then a least two of them, a representative sample.

This is where the cover of the book is misleading because Beatrice and Virgil aren’t wandering through a sandy desert. No, they’re wandering over a striped shirt; they talk about a country called “The Shirt.” The imagery in the play is transparent but then it’s not being written by a professional writer, just an old man who’s trying to work something out. So it’s easy to criticise Martel for producing a third-rate Beckett rip-off and many have. Beatrice and Virgil are Didi and Gogo. The taxidermist’s play is set on a country road, near a tree, and its two main characters talk about themselves, their sufferings and ways to pass the time:

Beatrice: What should we do?

Virgil: Is there anything we can do?

Beatrice (looking up the road): We could move on.

Virgil: We’ve done that before and it didn’t get us anywhere.

Beatrice: Maybe this time it will.

Virgil: Maybe.

(They do not move.)

Virgil: We could just talk.

Beatrice: Talk won’t save us.

Virgil: But it’s better than silence.


This approach kept me entertained for page after page. I just love that kind of banter even if it does feel like pastiche. The problem is that the taxidermist has co-opted, animalised and renamed Didi and Gogo for his own ends. Whereas we learn very little about the pasts of the two tramps we soon discover that the donkey and the monkey are fleeing for their lives from something they call ‘the Horrors” and godot3the only thing they’re waiting on, because they are starving, is death.

Would Waiting for Godot[4] work without Godot? What do you mean? Godot isn’t in the play. True but he is a character nevertheless in exactly the same way that Orwell’s Big Brother is a constant presence. Beatrice and Virgil do nothing but talk. There is a lack of expectation. This is a weakness that Henry points out to the taxidermist and so it’s perhaps unfair of critics of Martel to pick at the play-within-the-book for this:

If Henry hadn’t seen it earlier, he was starting to see now where the problem lay with the taxidermist’s play, why he needed help. There seemed to be essentially no action and no plot in it. Just two characters by a tree talking. It had worked for Beckett and Diderot. Mind you, those two were crafty and they packed a lot of action into the apparent inaction.

Apart from Waiting for Godot there are two other works that clearly have had an influence on Martel (ignoring the obvious Dante reference[5]) – George Orwell, whose Animal Farm[6] was an allegory of the Russian Revolution and Art Spiegelman’s Maus: A Survivor's Tale[7],Maus a graphic novel in which in which Jews are depicted as mice, while Germans are depicted as cats. These books would seem to set a precedent for using anthropomorphised animals to tackle difficult subjects and each is highly regarded.

Many of the objections to this book are things that the book itself predicts: "Winnie-the-Pooh meets the Holocaust", scoffs the author's wife when she learns of the taxidermist's play. So why do it? Because Mantel is trying to make a point about the, to use his word, “normalisation” of the Holocaust. In a television interview (the one that appears at the end of this article) he had this to say:

Martel:I think we have yet to normalise our relationship with the Holocaust. Now I use that word carefully. I’m not saying banalise, I’m not saying trivialise, I’m saying normalise. In a normalised relationship you approach something with ease, you talk to it, it replies to you, you are in dialogue with it. I don’t think we’re fully in dialogue with the Holocaust. We are beset by apprehensions and people will say, “Of course, six million innocent people died, one quarter of whom were children.”

Interviewer: How could we normalise our relationship with something like that?

Martel: Well we have a normalised relationship with war. The Second World War to give an example cost the lives of twenty million people and that’s a conservative estimate and that’s excluding the Axis deaths, all the German and Italian deaths and that’s excluding the Jewish deaths ... and yet we have a normalised relationship with war. If I said my novel is set during the Second World War I don’t think there would be these radars going up saying, “Oh, this is a touchy issue.” ... If we are afraid to speak of the event we’ll stop speaking about it.

Interviewer: Do we normalise it through fiction though? Some people would argue that history speaks for itself. Why do you think we would need more fiction about the Holocaust?

Mantell: Because I think that is one of the ways in which we normalise it. Because history is too vast. ... Historians, they’re not generalists, they’re specialists; there are Holocaust historians as there are medieval historians. It’s a highly specialised trade and they spend a whole life examining it. Most of us don't have that much time. ... Art is very good at getting at the essence of things.

The interviewer inevitably brought up the bad reviews that the book had received. Mantel, who in the past has been sensitive to criticism, appeared more philosophical this time. What he has done with this book is raise a question and leave it up to others to debate it. The simple fact is that what the Germans did in their concentration camps was felt to be unique, an event unparalleled in human history; it soon had its own name, the Holocaust, and for a while everyone knew what people meant when that expression was used. That’s no longer the case. Since then we’ve had the "Rwandan Holocaust" of 1994, the "Cambodian Holocaust" which refers to the mass killings by the Khmer Rouge regime and for a long time people have been anticipating a nuclear holocaust. Would we need nuclear_holocaust the latter to happen to finally put what happened in the concentration camps into perspective? Will — should — the “Final Solution” ever become ‘just another holocaust’?

These are questions that are not asked in the book and so I think it’s important to draw a line between what the book talks about and what people have begun to talk about because of the book. The taxidermist’s play is not about the Holocaust. It is about animals:

[The taxidermist] was seeing the tragic fate of animals through the tragic fate of Jews. The Holocaust as allegory. Hence Virgil’s and Beatrice’s incessant hunger and fear, their inability to decide where to go or what to do.

At one point the taxidermist reads from an essay he's written:

When I work on an animal, I work in the knowledge that nothing I do can alter its life, which is past. What I am actually doing is extracting and refining memory from death.

But it’s not that simple. There is a whole transference thing going on here too that I’m not going to go into.

I said I would come back to Edward Champion’s comments. He lists eight bullet points:

1. A Terrible Protagonist

2. Overwriting to Expand Word Count

3. Nonsensical Riffing

4. Dissonant Repetition

5. Redundant Description

6. Imprecise Description

7. Lazy Exposition

8. Recycling Text to Fill Up Space

None of these you’ll note are about subject matter which is what most reviewers gripe about. You could also add

9. Poor research

but I personally found most of his examples nitpicky. Okay, he’s entitled to his opinion and his arguments have some validity but most of what Champion regards as ‘wrong’ I took to be stylistic choices. A lot of it depends on how charitable you feel. Julie Martis writes that “the jumbled narrative reflecting Henry’s somewhat confused attempts to make sense of his book’s rejection, his life, and the taxidermist’s play.”[8] That’s another perfectly valid point of view. In her review Caroline Moore writing in The Spectator was also critical, accusing Mantel of “lazy writing”:

The grotesque torture of animals described in the play within the novel could have a point. It is certainly horrible; but the most repellent thing about it is that it falls short of proper imagining. Beatrice the donkey is seized by humans, who grab her mane and tail, and truss her back legs. Her animalness is emphasised; yet, when she is tortured by near-drowning, she ‘coughed and vomited water’.

Donkeys can’t vomit. That is lazy writing. This is neither a proper attempt to imagine the tortures suffered by humans in the Holocaust, nor a truly thought through re-imagining of animal pain. Beatrice is denied even the dignity of being a real donkey.[9]

I did not know that and I’m sure that 99% of readers didn’t know that. So donkeys can’t vomit. They also can’t talk. The real question is whether the taxidermist would have known that. Or cared. Probably not. He doesn’t come across as someone who is especially interested in live animals so it’s unlikely that he would know something like that nor does he seem the kind of person who would go to great pains to research his subject.

When did the Holocaust begin? Does it include what happened before the camps? Where do you draw the line? Jews have been subjected to persecution and pogroms for years. Beatrice is captured and tortured, yes, but then released. Peter Kemp in his review in The Times[10] picked ujan09-2 p on a phrase in which the monkey’s world is described as having been “shattered like a pane of glass”, which brings to mind the Nazis’ Kristallnacht pogrom (literally "Crystal Night" or The Night of Broken Glass) of 1938 which many historians regard as the beginning of the Final Solution leading up to the Holocaust. But trying to draw exact parallels between the events in the war and the events in the play is not the point.

It is [just as] possible to read Beatrice and Virgil as a book about environmentalism and animal rights, the interpretative slant that the taxidermist-playwright himself seems to prefer. Or as a story about human responsibility and human culpability. Or as a story about the uses and misuses of storytelling. Or as a story about writer’s block and the creative enterprise.[11]

Is Beatrice and Virgil flying the flag for animal rights or is it asking questions of how the story of a tragedy can or should be told? This, according to Martel, is up to the person holding the book. In an interview with Alden Mudge, Martel says:

Great art works because it tells an emotional truth. I suppose great histories could be both factually and emotionally true, but history is very cumbersome. What’s wonderful about art is that it gets at the emotional essence of things and it plays around with the facts. There’s a danger to that; you can manipulate things and you can peddle gross lies. It can be a dangerous tool, but also a very powerful one [which] if well used can deliver more than a history can. A work of art is the beginning of a discussion. It’s part of a dialogue. It doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to say, ‘Listen, this is what I’m saying; what do you think?’[12]

A lot of people have ‘listened’ and said what they thought. Not everyone liked what they ‘heard’ and said so. But, as I’ve said before, I like books that make me think. Does Mantel get it right? No, absolutely not. But he has a damn good shot at it and after watching the entire hour-long interview with him that you’ll find at the end of this article what I can’t say is that he wasn’t sincere. People learn from their mistakes. We also learn from the mistakes of others. A flawed argument is a good a basis for debate as a sound one.


Yann Martel was born in Salamanca, Spain, in 1963, of Canadian parents who were doing graduate studies. Later they both joined the Canadian Foreign Service and he grew up in Costa Rica, France, Spain and Mexico, in addition to Canada. He continued to travel widely as an adult, spending time in Iran, Turkey and India, but is now based mainly in Montreal. He obtained a degYann Martelree in Philosophy from Trent University in Ontario and then worked variously as a tree planter, dishwasher and security guard before taking up writing full-time from the age of 27.

In 1993 he published two books, Seven Stories and The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios which is a collection of short stories, dealing with such themes as illness, storytelling and the history of the twentieth century; music, war and the anguish of youth; how we die; and grief, loss and the reasons we are attached to material objects. This was followed by his first novel, Self (1996), a tale of sexual identity, orientation and Orlando-like transformation. In 2002 Yann Martel came to public attention when he won the Man Booker Prize for Fiction for his second novel, Life of Pi which has now been published in over forty countries and territories, representing well over thirty languages. In 2004, a collection of short stories was published entitled We Ate The Children Last.

Mantel lives with writer Alice Kuipers and their son, Theo, in Saskatoon. Theo deserves special mention because Henry in Beatrice and Virgil also has a son called Theo.

Interview on Q TV


Random House

Wall Street Journal


Gavriel D Rosenfeld, The Politics of Uniqueness: Reflections of the Recent Polemical Turn in Holocaust and Genocide Scholarship


[1] Benjamin Secher, Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel: a review’, The Telegraph, 8th June 2010

[2] Edward Champion, Why Yann Martel’s Beatrice and Virgil is the Worst Book of the Decade, Ed Champion’s Reluctant Habits, 12th April 2010

[3] Deirdre Donahue, ‘Yann Martel's 'Beatrice and Virgil' is dark but divine’, USA Today, 16th April 2010

[4] Mantel has been working on a project entitled What is Stephen Harper Reading?, where he has been sending the Prime Minister of Canada one book every two weeks that portrays "stillness" with an accompanying explanatory note; Waiting for Godot was #24

[5] The single most impressive book I've ever read is The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri. Some classics are dull and lifeless, but I think this work is absolutely astounding. It's chock-a-block full of fascinating stories, portraits of a medieval Italy, and such artistry of language. — Exclusive Interview - Life of Yann Martel, AbeBooks

[6] Animal Farm was #2 in his What is Stephen Harper Reading? project.

[7] Maus was #12 in his What is Stephen Harper Reading? project.

[8] Julie Martis, Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel’, Bookgeeks, 3rd June 2010

[9] Caroline Moore, ‘Stuff and nonsense’, The Spectator, 9th June 2010

[10] Peter Kemp, ‘No animal magic’, The Times, 23rd May 2010

[11] Alden Mudge, ‘Martel's moving follow-up to Life of Pi, Bookpage, May 2010

[12] Ibid


Sandra said...

I enjoyed your review very much. My own thoughts on the book:
"An allegory of the Holocaust involving a writer and a taxidermist. Original, if flawed and somewhat self-indulgent, therefore disliked by many professional critics. I appreciated what he was trying to do and enjoyed it and recommend it despite all that. (When in doubt, borrow from your public library first).
Marie at The Boston Bibliophile said it better than I can. 'This is a book about understanding the Holocaust, not reliving it. Despite the many negative reviews I believe that in time Beatrice and Virgil will be
appreciated for the important work that it is.'"
Thank you for reviewing it.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thank you for the feedback, Sandra. I tend to agree. I think the most important thing about this book is that it encourages discussion. Never a bad thing. I personally would have preferred that the taxidermist had had no direct connection with what went on there and that Martel had kept the question to: Is it okay to use the Holocaust as a metaphor? because I think that’s the more important question here, how our perspective has changed over the years, and I think he muddied his own waters a little by how he chose to wrap things up (which I didn’t talk about in the review even though I was dying to). But, yes, a thought-provoking book.

Art Durkee said...

Martel has always seemed to me to be an accidental success (rather like this character Henry). His writing style is incredibly heavy-handed and obvious; it just clunks along telling you things you're supposed to know. I never finished "The Life of Pi," which after awhile just felt like reading children's alphabet blocks.

Sure, we can agree that it's a matter of taste in style, that his writing style is just one choice among many. But Martel keeps defending his style as intentional when it just reads as inept. Is it intentionally inept? Martel himself, by defending his style in public, opens the door to the criticisms that have been made of his style. It seems a naive and amateurish move. But he keeps making that same move.

Martel seems to think that art's purpose is to be didactic, to teach, to raise questions. I'm not convinced of that by his arguments. This is not to say that all didactic fiction is bad, just that this is ham-fisted didactic fiction, and that Martel's justifications for it are unconvincing. I wonder if Martel ever wrote something just for the pleasure of writing, that didn't have a didactic purpose. If so, I've never seen it.

That the book is about something doesn't excuse it being poorly executed: in other words, it's the classic beginner's mistake of thinking that if the subject matter is important enough then it's okay if the writing is poor. That's the same mistake a lot of political (politicized) poetry and fiction often makes. That being thought-provoking excuses bad writing.

I don't find that an acceptable excuse, though. Bad writing doesn't support the argument when good writing might have framed it even better. (Which is why "Maus" is a great book, even if I find it impossible to re-read because of the difficult subject matter.)

Good writing might have framed the didactic points even better. And so we arrive at the aspect of Martel's ham-fisted style I find most problematic: Time after time he sets up what could be a beautiful metaphor, a lovely analogy—but then he has to explain it, he has to tell us what it is, he has to demystify it. (This was the biggest flaw in "Pi.") As if the reader was too stupid to understand the beautiful metaphor, here let me explain it to you. That's the difference between an effective didactic style (like in "Maus") vs. an ineffective style (like in "Pi"): the lovely metaphor gets turned into a dull lecture. That's another beginner's mistake that Martel not only keeps making, but he keeps defending it too. Again, is he being intentionally sophomoric, intentionally inept? Is this all a game he's playing?

And since Martel himself effectively paraphrases the purpose and content of the book in a paragraph or less, I feel no need to go read the book itself.

Rachel Fenton said...

I remember a bobby telling me and my class (think I was eight) that horses can't vomit. They brought this huge poppo in for us to pat. Scared the bug eyes out of me as, a short time previously, a foal left by the gypsies in the field by our house chewed my sleeve (my gran had knitted that cardi) and I thought it was going to eat me. I ran and cleared a six foot fence.

I'd like very much to read this book.

Kass said...

An excellent review. You cover so much and are so thorough that I can't help wondering as I'm reading your reviews if you have other outlets for them besides your blog. Are they published somewhere else?

I wrote a response to a letter to the editor once because a man had referred to a bird having a bowel movement. It was a Mormon-owned newspaper so he couldn't say the other expression. I wrote in, "Ha. Birds don't have bowel movements. They "vent" from their cloaca." My high school self felt so indignant and righteous.

Jim Murdoch said...

I’m wondering, Art, if Mantel is not a bit like Mitch Albom, another of those love-‘em-or-loathe-‘em writers who writes in a simplistic style. As I said I’ve not read Life of Pi and so I’ve judged this new book based purely on its own merits. I don’t think he succeeds in his goals. I’d love to say that it’s a flawed masterpiece but it’s not a masterpiece. What it was for me was interesting. It made me think and in that regard I didn’t feel like I’d been cheated at the end. I think he botched the ending but since I’ve decided not to reveal all in this review that’s all I’m going to say here.

I agree that he does feel a need to state the obvious. As soon as I read “striped shirt” I knew what he was on about. But the question for me was whether he succeeded in using the Holocaust as a metaphor and I don’t think he did. Too many people still think the book is about the Holocaust that our understanding of the Holocaust is deepened by what we see the two animals go through when it should be the other way round. It works in expressions like the ‘Rwandan Holocaust’ because we’re using what happened to the Jews and others to come to terms with what happened to the Tutsi.

Whether the book succeeds as a whole there are interesting bits in it. If a copy comes your way I’d still check it out. At the speed you read it should only take you a couple of hours.

I did think the criticism about the donkey was missing the point, Rachel. An interesting fact in passing but I’d never have thought to check it. I’d be interested to hear what you thought of the book if you ever get found to reading it. So many books, so little time.

I think you’ve asked me this before, Kass. No, I don’t post my reviews anywhere else with the exception of the monthly review I do for Canongate for their World Tour. I post my review on their site and then eventually I repost it on my own. Sometimes the one on my site is an expanded review.

Rachel Fenton said...

I was at a publishing talk recently, Jim, and there is a big drive at the moment to publish more accassible literary fiction - would explain the over egging you describe - basically because the market for high end lit fic is so small. Also, not all readers are as well read as you and many of your bloggers yet want to be - but wherre do they decide to begin their reading - how far back - to "get" the lit allusions?

I will definitely be getting this book but the reading pile is high and it may take me some time to get back with a response.

Kass said...

I guess I just can't believe you do this much work for no pay.

Jim Murdoch said...

I suppose the real question here, Rachel, is: What decides if a text is literary or not? I guess the simplistic way of looking at it is that it’s the degree of style that’s employed. Mainstream fiction is concerned with telling a story, tying up loose ends. Literary fiction generally leaves more scope for the reader to contribute. I think calling literary fiction ‘serious’ does a disservice to all the other writers out there implying that they’re not serious about what they do.

So what is “accessible literary fiction”? Some sort of no man’s land between the two? I wonder if the simple answer is that it’s a regular novel that doesn’t fit into the popular categories of Romance, Horror, Crime, War and so on. I’m reading a book at the moment set in the Mesolithic Age but at the end of the day it’s still a story with a beginning, a middle and an end and the only different thing about it is that it uses multiple narrators. The language is straightforward but I suspect that it’s still just going to be ‘a story’ which is how I basically draw the line between ‘literary’ and ‘general’ fiction – if I finish a book and feel like I just read a story then I usually decide it’s not a work of literary fiction.

And I’m far from well read. Very far indeed. I’ve read probably less than 500 books in my whole life. Not that I’ve kept a list. Actually I did have a list in my twenties but I lost it.

And, Kass, I never went to university and, as I’ve just pointed out to Rachel, I’m not very well read. I’m too old to be jugged getting a degree. This is my degree. I’m educating myself. That’s the payoff. I’m improving as a writer and becoming more knowledgeable at the same time.

Art Durkee said...

Even at the speed I read, though, there's a matter of choosing what to read, and what not to. There are some books that I just don't want to read. In some cases, such as this one, because that's two hours I'll never get back that I could have spent reading something I actually liked and wanted to read. There are other books that I don't want to read just because I can only read so many deep, dark, depressing novels about the fragmentation of postmodern daily life, filled with characters either adrift or bored or lost—which is what most literary fiction seems to be anymore. If there isn't an existential crisis, it's not a literary novel anymore. Not to mention that the vast majority of literary fiction is dominantly about urban angst, as opposed to small-town verities.

It makes one think of the great if hoary old joke: Q. Why did Ernest Hemingway's chicken cross the road? A. To die. Alone. In the rain.

I love that joke partly because it's a savage parody of Hemingway, whose short stories I actually do like re-reading; but also because it epitomizes a lot of literary fiction's attitude towards life anymore.

By contrast, yesterday I read a great John D. McDonald novel, one of the Travis McGee series of mysteries. The writing style in McDonald is so much better and more fun to read than almost anything being published today in mainstream literary fiction; I was transported, and the novel stayed with me the rest of the day. It was "The Turquoise Lament."

Jim Murdoch said...

The difference, Art, is that I didn’t find I’d wasted my time on this book and it’s stayed with me for all its faults. I choose to believe that Mantel is sincere in what he does and that goes a long way with me. I’d be upset if I thought he was trying to put one over on me. It may well be though that he turns out to be a one hit wonder and I’m rather disappointed to see that he’s continuing with animals in his next book. He’s going to end up like M. Night Shyamalan if he’s not careful. He certainly doesn’t seem in a rush to churn out books to capitalise of the success of Life of Pi and I see that as a good thing.

As for whether contemporary literary fiction has backed itself into a corner and only deals with characters that are either adrift or bored or lost you’re probably right. The difference again is those books appeal to me. Hell, I’m trying to write one.

I’ve only read one book by Hemingway, a novel, which I wasn’t impressed with. I suspect the subject matter was a part of the problem but from what I’ve read about him I don’t think there’s much he’s likely to have written that I’d been too keen to read even if he did win the Nobel Prize.

Brent Robison said...

I appreciate the in-depth review. And I'm glad to know the book is short, so good chance I'll read it (if I can get past the talking animals). I doubt I'd tackle a long one in which the Holocaust figures at all. Just can't go there again. I enjoyed Helsinki Roccamatios a lot, and Life of Pi is still high on my list of respected works... perhaps because I did make it to the end, which I thought was brilliant. I was tempted to stop, as Art did, but for different reasons. For me the biggest flaw was the sitcom-style dialogue in two key scenes.
As for Martel's didacticism, it's true it could be done better, but it could also be done so much worse. I see him tackling deep philosophy in entirely unpredictable ways, which I like. And, while I can also find stylish crime fiction ala McDonald much more "transporting," in the end it doesn't satisfy me because it doesn't serve anything I care about. I may be more like you, Jim, and choose flawed work that tackles important thought over perfect work that just aims too low for my taste.

Jim Murdoch said...

As I said, Brent, I’ve not read Life of Pi, and I have mixed feelings now if I want to read it. The talking animals I could take or leave. It’s not something you see very often outside the world of cartoons – the film A Man and his Dog being a noteworthy exception. The fact that the author is a taxidermist makes it believable probably more so than Pi; this is a man who has only written one thing in his life – he is not a writer in the same was Henry is, not even an amateur – and so he has written about what he is familiar with. He has given the stuffed animals around him a voice. That I get. That he chose to use the Holocaust as a metaphor for what he wants to say on behalf of his animals is the contentious issue here. And this is where I think a lot of people have got the book back to front. The book is not about the Holocaust per se but the taxidermist uses to Holocaust to help us understand his message. That he has lived through the rise and fall of the Nazis is what muddies the waters for me. I’d rather he only knew about it as the rest of us do through the media.

Some of the dialogue in this book . . . the banter to be honest . . . could be straight out of a sitcom but then what is Waiting for Godot but an episode from a sitcom that goes on an infinitum?

I have no problems with didacticism. Writing doesn’t need to have a plot but it does need a point. If that point turns into a moral then I can live with that.

Art Durkee said...

No offense to anyone, and the argument that "it could have been done better, but it could also have been done so much worse" is just not an argument that's ever going to make we want to read something. LOL It's an excuse for bad writing, and it still doesn't make me want to read the book.

I'm glad you didn't feel reading the book was a waste, and that you got something out of it. I think that's great. For me, though, Martel's track record doesn't put this new book even on the bottom of my list.

As for Hemingway, if you ever did decide to spend some time there, I'd recommend the short stories over the novels any day. They're much better, perhaps because they ARE shorter in form.

And if you think McDonald is aiming low in terms in literature, or literary quality, wow LOL, I can't tell if that's the usual anti-genre snobbery or just if you haven't read any McDonald. Calling is escapist lit is also dead off the mark. LOL For one thing, McDonald wrote "literary fiction" too.

Brent Robison said...

Art, you're right, I haven't read McDonald. I love things like the way Paul Auster subverted the detective genre with The New York Trilogy. And Raymond Chandler was big for me when I was young. But now, I have to confess to genre snobbery. I actually don't like that trait and I have a sincere interest in recovering from it. So I would appreciate you saying a few words regarding what The Turquoise Lament is "about" -- beyond crime or plot. I'd like to try it.

Jim, sorry if this dialogue is hijacking your fine Martel review...

Jim Murdoch said...

No problem, Brent, but you might want to have a wee read of Art's latest post on his own site.

Essay Papers said...

I enjoy reading the book review a lot and after reading this I can't wait to go and buy the book. Thanks for sharing.

Thesis Papers

Jim Murdoch said...

Thank you Essay Papers. I hope you're not disappointed.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your review, I enjoyed it and the comments as well. I found you through the Blog Carnival.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks Man of La Books for dropping by and also for following me. Always appreciated.

DB Stewart said...

I loved Beatrice & Virgil and I really appreciated reading your thoughts too. Thanks.

Jim Murdoch said...

And I appreciate you taking the time to drop a comment too, dbs. Hope to see you again.

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