June 25, 2010

Jon McGregor: Even the Dogs

Posted in Bloomsbury, McGregor Jon at 8:00 am by John Self

A confession first: I have previously had a prejudice against Jon McGregor on the basis that his titles (If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, So Many Ways to Begin) were so precious and pompous that I would never be able to see whatever good was in the books (if any). The high praise which Even the Dogs attracted among many sympathetic readers made me see past my prejudice … only to find that it wasn’t so far off after all.

I was interested to read in dovegreyreader’s interview with McGregor that he conceived the book, and wrote the first chapter, while stuck on his previous novel, then put it away. I thought the first chapter was terrific, grim but bright-eyed and full of life (albeit not the sort of life many of us would want to experience). It opens with the death of Robert, a drug addict.

We all crowd into the room and look at the body. The swollen and softening skin, the sunken gaze, the oily pool of fluids spreading across the floor. The twitch and crawl of newly hatched life, feeding.

(The ‘we’ is a choral narrative voice, as in The Virgin Suicides or Then We Came to the End, seemingly comprising fellow drug users who have gone the same way as Robert.) I speculate that the force of this opening chapter came from the fact that McGregor was writing it ‘casually’, not as his main project, and that the book suffered when he turned his full attention to it to write the rest of it; it became important.

Even the Dogs is well written, and mostly free of effortful ‘fine writing’, and there are some nice cadences and repetitions (“what else can we do”) in the voice of the invisible crowd which narrates the book. And the subject matter is dramatic and (again) ‘important’. But the characters are all – or almost all – junkies or alcoholics or both, and people addicted to drugs are not very interesting, being pretty one-note in their motivations and repetitive in their actions. (“The man hours that go into living like this. Takes some dedication, takes some fucking what, commitment.”) I didn’t find the characters easy to tell apart either, other than the deceased Robert and his daughter Laura, so the voices, already an impressionistic blur, merged almost indistinguishably.

There were certainly lovely moments, like the the touching page or so where Robert fantasises about the sort of life most of us take for granted, and the time-lapse description of Robert and Yvonne’s parenting of Laura, which doubles as a record of innocent life being corrupted.

Crayon scribbles appear, low on the wallpaper by the heaps of shoes and boxes of toys. Dated felt-tip stripes creep up the wall by the doorframe, tracking their daughter’s growth a thumb’s width at a time. Tiny shoes nudge in alongside the adult-sized ones, and bigger shoes take their place. Tea stains the colour of old photographs splash across the wall, lingering long after the broken cups are cleared away. A dent the size of a fist or forehead is hidden by a framed school portrait. The damp patches spread further, and the paper sags away from the wall, and the ceiling stains a darkening nicotine yellow. The door is kicked from its hinges, and rehung. More framed pictures are put up on the wall.

There is a lovely observation about the rare pleasure for some of these social ‘untouchables’ of having direct human contact. (“Same with the nurses, changing your dressings or taking your blood pressure or listening to the crackling in your lungs, they got to touch you with their clean soft hands and no one says nothing about it but it all helps oh Christ but it helps.”) I also thought the last chapter good, with the state’s attempts, having failed to stop Robert’s descent into chaos during his life, to impose order at least on his death through post-mortem and inquest proceedings. There is even the odd decent joke.

Straight up, I don’t think I’d even have mental-health problems in the first place if the voices were just a bit nicer to me, you know what I’m saying?

All in all though, I thought the book too frequently seemed to be a series of exercises in style – a chapter with unfinished paragraphs, ten pages of unbroken text – in which McGregor was at pains to display his research and his virtuosity. Recurring ideas (“And then getting up and doing it all over again. We get up, and we do it all over again”) owe their power to a debt to Beckett or Kelman. Even the Dogs seemed to be one of those books which, claiming importance because of a weighty subject matter, doesn’t actually match up to that in the reading; it was mostly dull. I think it’s possible that if it hadn’t been published in a lovely ‘bendyback’ format – so easy to read handsfree! – I might not have finished it at all.

June 21, 2010

Joe Moran: On Roads

Posted in Moran Joe at 8:00 am by John Self

Book chains like Waterstone’s (I say ‘like’, but Waterstone’s is the only one we have left in the UK) often come in for criticism, and it’s true that my local branch currently stocks just one copy of one novel by J.M. Coetzee but, in the next bay, two and a half shelves of Clive Cussler.  Nonetheless, delight is still possible, as proved by this book, which I picked up from the 3-for-2 tables.


On Roads: A Hidden History is catnip for anyone, like me, who regrets that the Black Box Recorder song ‘The English Motorway System’ was actually a metaphor for a stagnant relationship and not just about the roads. The geek in me is never far from the surface, and anything which celebrates the overlooked, and investigates “the compulsive habits and accidental poetry of the commonplace” is to be celebrated.

The dual status of roads is a key issue in the book: they are massive feats of engineering, difficult to plan and expensive to build, and once completed, they are unregarded unless hated.  The Mancunian Way, one of the first motorway-like roads built in Britain, was planned after the war to form part of a new road system “as grandly elegant as one of Baron Haussman’s Parisian boulevards.” When finally built, in 1967, its only official recognition was an industry award for “outstanding merit in the use of concrete.”

On Roads deals mainly with the motorway era, beginning with the first stretch of the M1, completed in 1959 and the subject of such excitement that it had four press openings. (Later the same year, Jayne Mansfield would officially cut the ribbon on the Chiswick Flyover.) On the M1’s first weekend, “nearly all its overbridges were crowded with sightseers”, and the transport minister, Ernest Marples, sounded a note of Mr Cholmondeley-Warner when he advised that “on this magnificent road the speed which can easily be reached is so great that the senses may be numbed and judgement warped.” Yet once again, as subsidence bumps and cracks appeared on the asphalt within a month of the motorway’s launch, it “was soon forming part of a more resilient national narrative: the ham-fisted, cheese-paring British bodge.”

This is a story of governments desperate to be ‘modern’.  Moran cites Christopher Booker, who argued that “in the late 1950s, Britain had suffered a kind of collective psychosis in which it became fanatically obsessed with newness” (and this was before governments prefixed their party names as such). This all-change regime was brought about with the assistance of gifted engineers and designers, the real heroes of the book. There was Henry Criswell, a surveyor who devised a system to create roads with the perfect “clothoid curve, a graceful arc with slowly increasing curvature that kept motorists permanently on their toes,” to avoid the risk of drivers nodding off on long straight miles of tarmac, and “create flowing alignments that stitched themselves smoothly into the topography.”  There was Richard ‘Jock’ Kinneir, who designed the Transport typeface which is still used today on British road signs, and was initially controversial for its lower case and sans-serif style.

On Roads is not just a catalogue of fascinating minutiae by a man who can write, straight-faced, of a “gripping history of font design“. There are shades of Geoff Dyer or Gordon Burn as Moran extends the particular into the general, and textualises the fabric with other voices. So Kinneir’s motorway signage play “a small but significant part” in the creation of our national “imagined communities – countries of the mind, gossamer confections of flags, anthems and invented traditions which persuade us that people whom we will never meet are like us.” And no cultural investigation of the road would be complete without reference to J.G. Ballard, to whom “the motorway flyover was a modern manifestation of the sublime: something that combined aesthetic awe with existential dread.” Satnav earns comparisons with both mediaeval rites (“where to be ‘lost’ was an existential as well as geographical condition – it meant to be destroyed, spiritually damned, overcome with a sense of futility”) and classical mythology:

Like Ariadne’s thread, [satnav] will guide you through the labyrinth, but you will forget everything it tells you so you will need to rely on it indefinitely.

Moran is equally appealing on the psychology of driving, the “terra nulla of the roadside verge”, and motorway service stations with their “rich seam of English ordinariness and gone-to-seed glamour”. These interests are well served by his cultural references, many of which (Patrick Hamilton, Morrissey, and he even quotes that Black Box Recorder song on the last page) reinforced just how closely attuned the book was to my own tastes.

On Roads is not perfect (though it is a white-line’s breadth away). The sections on signage and motorway design would have benefitted from a few illustrations, to avoid my having to keep putting the book down to google for Gravelly Hill Interchange and the like. The penultimate chapter, about road protests, seems largely to abandon the more reflective elements of earlier chapters and stick to a more linear (albeit engaging) narrative. Most curiously, Moran builds a framework for the book around ambivalence: the notion that we feel “self-disgust” at our “addiction” to roads, that they are a “guilty pleasure.” Yet I suspect that, while I may share his view – a liberal orthodoxy – that driving is a necessary evil, I suspect it is a minority position. If most people hate roads, it’s not because they represent an assault on the environment, but because they’re too often busy.

Above all, On Roads is a witty, digressive charm, where the back cover review (“Every page contains something enthralling or bizarre or funny or perceptive”) is, for once, literally accurate. One of my greatest reading pleasures of the year so far, it’s the best guide one could wish for to the clogged arteries of our city lives. A better guide, anyway, than that offered on a tour bus to the Staffordshire section of the M6 when it was opened in 1962.  “And on our right, we have Trentham gravel pit.”

June 17, 2010

Edmund Wilson: Memoirs of Hecate County

Posted in NYRB Classics, Wilson Edmund at 8:00 am by John Self

I make no secret on this blog of my fetish for the NYRB Classics series.  But with more or less every title in their range exuding varieties of temptation, the decision on which ones to buy is always difficult: I mean, you can’t get them all. (Actually, you can.)  It was in the LRB Shop, where more or less everything on their fiction shelves pushes my buttons, where this title caught my eye.  How could it not?  The cover seemed to be one of the campest things I’d ever seen: it turns out to be an installation by Salvador Dali (“Dream of Venus“) at the 1939 World’s Fair.  These are the seemingly random influences which determine the books we read.


Memoirs of Hecate County
(1946) has the following CIP data on its copyright page:

1. Manhattan (New York, N.Y.)—Fiction. 2. Suburban life—Fiction. 3. Intellectuals—Fiction. 4. Middle class—Fiction. 5. Sex customs—Fiction.

My appetite for reading about the suburban life (and, well, sex customs) of middle-class New York intellectuals is not what it once was, though I retain a fair tolerance for it. In fact this offputting breakdown doesn’t really summarise the book’s most interesting aspects at all. It is a collection of six stories, linked by their narrator, a Wilson-like writer and critic who begins by reporting the idiosyncracies of his fellow Hecate County residents in a patrician manner, and ends up being the story himself.

The opening story, ‘The Man Who Shot Snapping Turtles’, is a little piece of perfection, from its sneaky title to its classical ending, which seems to have Wilson flexing his fictional muscle to show the objects of his literary criticism how it should be done. I will say no more about it because the assumptions which the reader brings to the story from knowing only the title are part of the quality of the experience. It seems to deserve a place among the best American short stories of the 20th century (and probably already has it, as it’s been widely anthologised).

Perfection is easy in the short form, however – easyish – and the remaining stories in Memoirs of Hecate County are longer. ‘Ellen Terhune’, about “the first woman composer who had ever contributed anything to music of authentic value,” brings in unexpected elements which may be an attempt by Wilson to show H.P. Lovecraft (whose writing he called ‘hackwork’) how it’s done. But what strikes the reader is not the clever conceit, but Wilson’s insistence on having the narrator explain the purpose of the story in the closing pages, as though this literary critic cannot bear to his own fiction second-guessed.

Throughout, the setting is not really ‘middle-class’ at all, but of the moneyed, of society’s movers and shakers. In ‘Ellen Terhune’, our narrator looks forward to “one of those gatherings where great quantities of tan-backed girls and scarlet-faced men, with highballs fizzing in their hands, lift laughing and strident voices among glass-topped cocktail tables and lamps that give indirect lighting.” In the third story, ‘Glimpses of Wilbur Flick’, the title character is the heir to “a big baking-powder fortune” who “had really no notion of the existence of anyone but himself.” The story describes the narrator’s occasional encounters with Wilbur, from school to later life as an arch-conservative and capitalist (“that’s the trouble with all you liberals: you think that people ought to be kept alive just because they happen to exist”). Naturally, it’s simple for Wilson to set Wilbur up as a straw man in order to defeat his snobbery with snobbery of his own, as when he describes his collection of ostentatious glassware:

I thought it was characteristic of Wilbur that, in aiming to become a connoisseur, he should have gone for a kind of rarity which is not easily distinguishable from rubbish.

Yet even among the cheap shots (Wilbur thinks fascism “perfectly sound”), the writing and detail are always lovely (“he looked very smooth and soft, as if he had been bathed in milk and always kept at the right temperature”) and there is something like backhanded sympathy toward the character.  Wilbur’s father

was the son, as I afterwards learned, of a well-to-do Methodist minister; and poor Wilbur had behind him, I fear, no tradition of reckless adventure: his real heritage was a vague bourgeois feeling that he ought to be busy about something – an impulse which nobody had ever done anything to encourage or train him to satisfy.

This brings us to the central story (in fact, at 200 pages, a novel), ‘The Princess with the Golden Hair’, a story of erotic obsession. “I had found, in the course of the summer, that I was watching Imogen Loomis at parties.” I said above that Memoirs of Hecate County was published in 1946, but it was prosecuted shortly afterwards for obscenity because of the content of ‘The Princess’, and unavailable until Wilson reissued it himself in 1959. It’s easy to see why, when a central scene sees the narrator describe in exquisite detail his lover’s genitalia, and elsewhere the language is pretty frank for the times (“She is now so responsive to my kissing her breasts that I can make her have a climax in that way”). Louis Menand, in his introduction, tells us that the characters and lovers (our busy narrator has more than one) were based on real figures in Wilson’s life, and indeed that Wilson in his diaries recorded his own “amorous encounters in passages that no reader has ever thought insufficiently detailed”. Perhaps it is the story’s self-indulgence that led to disappointment for me, or its meandering length, or just the claims made for it on the back cover (“one of the great lost works of twentieth-century American literature”). It is filled with reliably fine writing, and even when describing post-crash 1930s New York, the prose is gluttonous and luxuriant. With its length, the story works like the tease the narrator himself experiences with his beloved, wanting her but not wanting to sully her (“I idealised her now as a wife; but she was actually the wife of Ralph Loomis; and if she had been unfaithful to Ralph, she would no longer have been the ideal wife”). The presence in the story of his other lover, Anna, enables the inclusion of a vivid portrait of immigrant America in the 1920s and 30s.

The difficulty for any collection with a major central story is how to follow it. (See David Vann’s Legend of a Suicide for a recent example.) This is an issue for the reader too; after reading a novel-length story within a collection, the most I want after that is a coda. But here we get another two stories totalling 140 pages. ‘The Princess with the Golden Hair’ seems to have softened Wilson up for making himself the centre of the remaining stories. They are set in the literary and publishing world, though with a devilish twist or two. One short passage describes a publisher being prosecuted for obscenity, which I took to be one of the ‘additions’ Wilson made to the book when he revised it for publication after its own legal wrangles. In ‘The Milhollands and their Damned Soul’, about a family hierarchy of publishers, we get an enticing glimpse at how things were, when our narrator suffers from the dumbing-down of mass culture:

when I proposed a new life of Thomas Eakins, they had asked me to do, instead, a short survey of American painting that could be disposed of more easily in the drug stores, the cigar stores and the railroad stations.

A short survey of American painting? Now, presumably, it would be a short survey of American Idol. Elsewhere, in the final story, ‘Mr and Mrs Blackburn at Home’, we are reminded of evergreen themes when one character speaks of “the iniquities of investment banking.” In this story, Wilson gives us twelve pages of untranslated French, which (albeit a sort of joke) at least made the process of getting through those last two stories a little briefer. One of ‘Wilson’s’ friends tells him:

The trouble is that in literature, just as in anything else that’s serious, nothing’s really any good at all that isn’t based on the recognition of the very best that’s ever been possible.  … The most immoral and disgraceful and dangerous thing that anybody can do in the arts is knowingly to feed back to the public its own ignorance and cheap tastes.

Memoirs of Hecate County, erudite, scintillating, overlong and self-indulging, combines the best and worst of this advice.

June 10, 2010

Karel Čapek: War with the Newts

Posted in Capek Karel, Penguin Modern Classics at 8:00 am by John Self

Every so often a book comes along that leaves you dizzy with wonder that you haven’t read it before.  Why haven’t people been pressing Karel Čapek’s War with the Newts on me since I was old enough to read?  (Yes, you see: it’s all your fault.)  In fairness, people who did know the book were enthusiastic when I said I was reading it.  Now I’m doing my bit.

War with the Newts (1936; tr. M and R Weatherall, 1937) is published as part of Penguin’s Central European Classics series.  And what a series it is! Three hits out of three so far makes me sound like a bit of an uncritical fanboy, so I had better point out that I was disappointed by the lack of introductions or other critical apparatus to the ten books in the series, and the fact that most had not been reset but used the old type from earlier editions.  (Contrast with the Penguin Decades, all reset and with new introductions.)  No doubt cost control is a part of this, and I’d rather have the books like this than not at all. However the absence of the first contents page in this volume seemed to go beyond quirky.

‘Quirky’ – wash my mouth out – is probably how a committee of studio executives would describe a major motion picture adaptation of War with the Newts.  Dammit, it is quirky, but by that I mean funny, satirical, unexpected, pithy and possessing the strange quality of being both precisely of its time and bang up to date.  It keeps the reader on their toes by introducing new characters, and a new narrative style, in almost every chapter, with only a mischievously satirical air uniting them.

The plot of the book, the conclusion of which is revealed in the title, takes us through a history of man’s discovery of an advanced species of newt on an island “right on the equator, a bit to the west of Sumatra,” a species whose ability to learn quickly and use tools makes them ideal workers for the global pearl industry.  Čapek shows – shows off, I suppose – his dazzling range, in chapters which lampoon everything pop-cultural from Hollywood starlets to the modern media: “It was a newspaper man’s dog days when nothing, absolutely nothing, happens, when there are no politics, and not even a European crisis.”  It is through the agency of a motley range of these characters – the desperate, the ruthless and the lazy – that the newts come to be used around the world as cheap labour.  Throughout the book, underneath the stylistic tricks (typeface switches, footnotes, people who speak in newspaper headlines, fake academic articles), the real subject of Čapek’s scorn is modern commerce and capitalism.

Today we simply cannot wait some hundreds of years for something either good or bad to happen in the world.  For instance, the migration of peoples, which used to drag on for ages, can now be managed with the organised transport of today and be all completed in three years; otherwise there is no money in it.  It was the same situation with the liquidation of the Roman Empire and the colonization of the continents, the killing off of the Red Indians, and so on.  All that could be accomplished today in an incomparably shorter stretch of time if it were entrusted to contractors with plenty of capital behind them.

(75 years ago? It might have been written next week.)  To preserve the lives of this valuable commodity while they carry out their pearl fishing, the businesses have come up with a brilliant solution.  “Certain inevitable losses which the Newts used to suffer from sharks ceased almost completely when the Newts were provided with underwater revolvers shooting dum-dum bullets for defence against rapacious fish.”  See?  Čapek is even giving us a bit of dramatic irony and foreshadowing.

The deluded humans blunder on toward their self-inflicted disaster, even as some speculate that “our history has already been played … and we shift our figures with the same moves to the same checks as in times long past.” Sure enough, there are direct references to black slavery.  This seems not to trust the reader to pick up such parallels for himself, but there is good reason for it.  War with the Newts was written in central Europe in the 1930s, and the obviously and dominating analogy, with hindsight engaged, is with the plight of the Jewish people. Yet the book is broad enough to be open to numerous, and even contradictory, interpretations. (See here [PDF link], where the editor of Penguin’s Central European Classics series, emphasises the equally powerful impression of the Newts representing the Nazis.) Enthusiasm for the Newts, this imported species – these immigrants providing cheap labour – does not last.

As soon as the Newts became a collective and commonplace phenomenon, what we may term their problems altered.  The truth is that soon the great Newt sensation passed off to make way for something else, and to some extent something more substantial, that is the Newt problem.

So it’s science fiction, comedy, satire, social commentary, warning, a scrapbook of pastiche – War with the Newts has pretty much everything.  I even wondered, when reading the Newt leader’s address to the the human population (“Let us know your price for the south part of Lincolnshire along with Wash”), if Douglas Adams had been inspired by it before writing the Vogons’ “People of Earth, your attention please” speech in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It’s a book which contains multitudes, and should be read by multitudes.

June 7, 2010

Austin Wright: Tony and Susan

Posted in Wright Austin at 8:00 am by John Self

Someone has high hopes for Tony and Susan. It was first published in the USA in 1993, arrived in the UK straight into paperback the following year, and was quickly forgotten. That should have been that. The book remains out of print in the US other than as an ebook, but Atlantic Books in the UK have taken the (I think) unprecedented step of reissuing it in hardback. High praise has come from almost all quarters, including several friends of this blog. And, “the most astounding lost masterpiece of American fiction since Revolutionary Road,” says the publisher’s website. It’s a wild claim for a book which disappointed me almost from the start.

Tony and Susan describes a woman – Susan – reading a novel about a man named Tony, and we also get the full text of the novel. The novel, Nocturnal Animals, has been written by Susan’s ex, Edward, and sent to her in manuscript form. After a few pages to set up this framing device, we are plunged into the novel-within-the-novel, which takes all but about a hundred pages of Tony and Susan‘s 375-page length.

This, for me, was where the problems began. Nocturnal Animals is not a very good book. It has an explosive opening, where a ‘good’ family make a chance night-time encounter on a deserted highway with a bunch of bad guys who try to run them off the road. Immediately we are thrown into a violent thriller, complete with renegade cop, revenge dilemmas and climactic shootout. If this sort of thing appeals to you, then it’s likely that the whole book will build on this (because the whole is more complex than this) and find favour. I don’t tend to that view, feeling instead that this sort of pulp-by-numbers is not even a guilty pleasure but a waste of time; and that if an author can’t rely on a reader’s sustained interest without placing characters’ lives in peril to create suspense, then he shouldn’t bother. (Which is not to say that suspense fiction and thrillers can’t be done well, as the likes of Patricia Highsmith or Eric Ambler have shown.) So my strong dislike of the opening scenes of Nocturnal Animals fatally undermined the rest of Tony and Susan for me.

That is not to say that the book is without interest; even Nocturnal Animals has its moments. Elements of Tony’s psychology are nicely drawn, such as his tendency to a sort of protective neuroticism (“It was the habit of his mind to know the worst case, the ultimate”), his guilt as a victim (“Boy, how could you let them do that to you?” says a man whose house he goes to for help), and his very human confusion at what he wants to happen to the bad guys and why he wants it.

‘I’d like them to know what they did. I’d like them to be shown exactly what it was they did.’

‘They know what they did, Tony.’

‘They don’t know what it means.’

‘Say Ray did learn that. He’d be a different person. Shouldn’t he then go free?’

‘He mustn’t go free.’

‘He knows he hurt you, Tony. Count on it, he knows.’

‘I’d like to hurt him back.’

‘Hurt him. But not kill him?’

‘Kill him too. Both.’

But these agonies don’t strike me as being especially novel or groundbreaking. What is supposed to give Tony and Susan its depth is the fact that, running in parallel with the traditional thriller featuring Tony, we have a more subtle thriller involving Susan as she reads the book. Edward is coming to visit and Susan works herself into a lather wondering if the violence in the book is a message to her, whose marriage to Edward ended after she was unfaithful to him. (Wright is good too on the psychology of reading a thriller, where the reader eagerly anticipates the suffering of the characters: Susan “awaits the horrible discovery her spirit deplores, she awaits it avidly.”) Is the book a form of, or prelude to, revenge? Susan feels herself to be in Edward’s control: “As she follows Tony Hastings down his trail of terror she knows she sees what Edward wants her to see, feels what he feels.” This is the aim of every writer: but how much more piercing can it be when the writer is known to the reader? An interesting idea, to be sure, and one to inspire thoughts on the ways of knowing people: through personal contact, through their works.

When I did find something to like in the book it always felt inchoate, even when Wright delivers a commentary by having Susan reflect on how much she likes certain passages. Too much of the strength of Tony and Susan lies in its potential: throughout most of the book I was thinking, “This could yet come good if…” But the real-life collision between Susan the reader and Edward the writer never comes, and the interest is all in Susan’s tortured response to the book, her expectations and fears, which has no universality because of the unique relationship in the story between writer and reader. As distinguished a figure as Saul Bellow called Tony and Susan “marvellously written,” though I suspect he didn’t have in mind sentences like these:

When that young Susan on Edward’s bed saw Arnold Morrow’s alarming penis suddenly come into view with swollen purpose, she heard a gong in her head. She heard another soon after, when she decided to let it in.

I seem to be alone in my resistance to this book. Many people will regard it as an enjoyable thriller with intellectual bite, and it may well become the “living, breathing, knock-out classic” that one author expects it to. For me, though, there is less to Tony and Susan than meets the eye.

June 3, 2010

Yann Martel: Beatrice and Virgil

Posted in Martel Yann at 8:00 am by John Self

Yann Martel’s new novel comes with two kinds of expectations. First, those created by the bestselling Booker winner in the history of the prize, his previous novel Life of Pi. Then there are the expectations that come from several highly negative reviews in other countries, where this book has already been published. (“Fundamentally misconceived” is a kinder comment from one.) My inclination to give an author the benefit of the doubt (why not, when they spend a few years on a book and we spend only a few days on it?) means these brickbats make me want to like the book, through sheer perversity if nothing else. In the UK, Canongate has given the book a luxurious treatment – sewn-in ribbon bookmark, illustrated boards – which enhance its status as a Big Release and make it, in a bibliophilic sense at least, a pleasure to read.

Beatrice and Virgil has been a long time coming – eight years since Pi.  When I was younger (and more naive), I thought a long gestation period meant the writer was crafting an epic, polishing a masterpiece.  Now I know it’s more likely to mean that the book didn’t fly, and had to be scrapped, or undergo major furnace work.  There is little doubt that the latter is what happened here. Martel had planned a novel like this, a Holocaust allegory featuring animals, back while Pi was the toast of the literary world:

[N]ext project is an allegory of the Holocaust featuring a monkey and a donkey. It will be set on a country (with trees, rivers, etc) that is also a shirt.

It sounds grim, but I want to create a portable metaphor for the Holocaust that we might apply in other circumstances, such as Rwanda.

(It does sound grim, but not in the way he meant.) However Martel got stuck, and the opening of Beatrice and Virgil (the names of the donkey and monkey in question) relates a version of how this happened. In the book, the Canadian author of the highly successful second novel about animals is called Henry, and he plans his follow-up as a flip-book, one of those back-to-back reversible volumes which contains two books in one. They would comprise a fictional allegory of the Holocaust, and an essay on the subject. He has many good reasons for doing this – it’s a clever idea – but we are told how Henry’s publishers balk at the idea, send him off to rework it, or get rid of it. As a reader with a good deal of interest in writing about writing (and writing about publishing), I liked this introduction. However here we also get the first doubtful use of the Holocaust in Beatrice and Virgil.  We are told that fewer than two per cent of Holocaust survivors ever tell of their ordeal. And so:

For his part, Henry now joined the vast majority of those who had been shut up by the Holocaust.

Oh really? This author of a “fundamentally misconceived” idea he couldn’t let go of, being given sage advice by his publishers – save yourself, save your reputation, the idea is terrible, the book is a car-crash – is now comparing himself to those who suffered in the Final Solution? Elements like this challenge the reader’s attempt to give the book a fair hearing.

Henry, seized by writer’s block, shifts to another way of living: becomes a father, works in a coffee shop, distracts himself from his difficulties. The fan letters for his previous novel keep coming, though, and one letter contains an odd note (“I read your book and much admired it. I need your help”) accompanied by two texts. They are the Flaubert story ‘The Legend of Saint Julian Hospitator’ and a scene from a play which explicitly recalls Waiting for Godot. It was at this point that another doubt struck me. Beatrice and Virgil is a short book – barely 200 pages – but there is a lot of padding. Martel takes twelve pages to excerpt and paraphrase Flaubert’s story, and another seven on the Beckett pastiche. (Together, that’s 10% of the book.) Once I noticed this technique, it was everywhere: another seven pages on describing the art of taxidermy, two on a list of stuffed animals in a shop, and so on.

The animals are stuffed by the author of the Godot-like dialogue, the fan who sent Henry the letter and the story.  He is a taxidermist, also called Henry, who has been writing a play which is (where’s that interview again…?) “an allegory of the Holocaust featuring a monkey and a donkey … set on a country that is also a shirt”. Beatrice and Virgil. We have a story within a story which is a refracted version of real life: like Martel’s intentions for his original book. The scenes from the play come frequently from here on, and it must be said that as Beckett pastiche, they are pretty good: stark and funny and desperate. But pointless. The Holocaust current is frequently in evidence:

VIRGIL: How can there be anything beautiful after what we’ve lived through? It’s incomprehensible. It’s an insult. Oh, Beatrice, how are we going to talk about what happened to us one day when it’s over?

It’s an insult? You said it. Henry (who is stuck with his play) tells Henry the author that he became a taxidermist “to bear witness”. To emphasise the point, within the play, comparison is drawn between the Holocaust and the mass extinction of animals under man. Donkey plus monkey equals turkey.

But tacking horrendous reality onto a silly story (and you ain’t seen nothing until you get to the thirteen cards of ‘Games for Gustav’ that close the book) is not Beatrice and Virgil‘s only, or even main, problem. It’s a confused mess. Martel never seems to get a clear run at what he wants to say, or gives any indication that he knows what that is. One of a novelist’s greatest gifts should be to hide from the reader the furious toil that goes into writing a book, to make it appear as though it was published just as it was conceived. But in Beatrice and Virgil, the effort, the edits, the repeated returns to the drawing board, are all visible, a palimpsest on the page. In fairness to Martel, he has self-awareness, and there are repeated references in the book that suggest he knows what a failure it could be interpreted as. His intentions no doubt are good, but even a donkey knows where good intentions lead. It’s a terrible shame when the most positive response you have to a book is pity: not for the characters, but for the author.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,705 other followers