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.

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53 Comments »

  1. Lee Monks said,

    ‘Donkey plus monkey equals turkey.’

    Pretty equivocal there, John! Get off that fence! ETC.

    Firstly, great review. Secondly, let me draw a comparison between Yann Martel and M Night Shamalyan. Both seem to be operating out of the delusion that they are exceptionally special conjurers of unique, magisterial magic. Both seem to feel that studio/publisher meddling is an affront that they should be exempt from (despite such meddling, in this case, being entirely sane and rightheaded). Both did rather well on one occasion and then believed their own press, rewrote it with self-reverential embellishments aplenty and cut themselves off entirely, thus losing any kind of perspective or self-perception (disastrous for those of limited talent). Both, in works directly following a huge success, included very thinly veiled defences of their folly in car-crash efforts. Both are now figures of fun, and I can only assume that Martel is waiting for the airbrush of time to prove him right.

  2. I agree with you – this book was terrible!

    I’m going to see Yann Martell talk tonight, so will be very interested in what he has to say about this book. You are lucky you have reached the pity stage – I am still feeling rage at the awfulness of this book.

  3. I’ll admit that I have been looking forward maliciously to reading your thoughts on this one. I was one of the few people who hated Life of Pi, throwing it across the room at one point, I didn’t like the conceit, the execution or the conclusion. All of which means that I was never going to be interested in reading this but it seems that he really has made a big mistake with this one. I love the comparison with Shyamalan, Lee, that seems about right to me. Neither are nearly as clever or original as they think they are, or perhaps Jackie will find out what he really thinks tonight. Do come back and let us know, Jackie!

  4. I have to admit, when I got to the bit about being silenced by the holocaust I thought of all those Central European authors I’ve come to know and love through Pushkin Press who died in camps or committed suicide in the face of the Nazi advance.

    They’re writers who were silenced, along with millions of other people brutally killed and forced to see the destruction of their families and communities. Struggling with your publisher really isn’t up there with dying horribly and in the knowledge that your family are being killed along with you. You did well to get to the end from the sound of it, I suspect I might have bailed at that point.

    Oh well, the name and the hype will help sell it. Still, the holocaust is very difficult territory for a writer, about as tricky as it gets. If you’re struggling at all for god’s sake write a different book.

  5. shigekuni said,

    Max, your comment reminded me of John Boyne’s excreable YA novel published a few years ago, the boy in the striped pajamas. *shudder*

    As for this book: thanks, John, for reading it so we won’t have to. Ha.

  6. Oh shigekuni, I’d forgotten that one. A complete lie of a novel.

    You remind me though, thanks from me too John for taking one for the team.

  7. John Self said,

    Thanks for the comments everyone. I very rarely give negative reviews, simply because I rarely finish a book I’m not enjoying, but Beatrice and Virgil was such a quick read that I decided I would carry on. Plus, after my initial curiosity to see where the book would go (it’s at least not boring, or not to begin with), I was driven by the same sort of compulsion that makes people divert their route to look at a really horrific road accident.

    It also occurs to me that I have a couple more negative – or at least no more than lukewarm – reviews lined up, so maybe this book has breached some sort of floodgates.

    Yes Lee, the Shyamalan comparison is perfect, though I feel more Jackie’s anger towards Shyamalan than the pity I feel for Martel.

    Jackie, do let us know what Martel says – and whether anyone offers a negative opinion to him of his book (probably not, as it would be a bit impolite) – and I look forward to reading your own review in due course.

  8. Skip said,

    I didn’t realize it until I got the end of your review, but I did feel something like pity for Martel at the end. Clearly, he is rich and successful and not to be pitied in a material way, but as an artist it seems especially painful to have built up a huge following and then come up so short. What a wasted opportunity.

  9. Lee Monks said,

    ‘It also occurs to me that I have a couple more negative – or at least no more than lukewarm – reviews lined up, so maybe this book has breached some sort of floodgates.’

    Intriguing…I wonder if one is the recent Galgut?

  10. John Self said,

    No it isn’t Lee, I haven’t read it. Is it disappointing? I must admit I don’t have any plans to read it, even though I loved The Impostor. Maybe because it started life as three individual stories (published in the Paris Review?), I feel it’s somehow not a ‘proper’ novel.

  11. Marieke said,

    Thanks for expressing your thoughts on this — I think a negative review sounds perfectly justified in this instance! I also hated Life of Pi but could never adequately explain why.

  12. Lee Monks said,

    I haven’t read it either, John, for precisely the same reasons. And I, too, loved The Impostor.

  13. John Self said,

    For the record, I liked Life of Pi, though it’s not a book I’ve held any desire to revisit in the future.

  14. Here is my explanation for why I think Martel should be treated with some version of disgust, rather than pity. I will admit that I am of the view that his appropriation of the Holocaust goes beyond bad taste and moves into the territory of grandiose self-promotion.

    Which is part of Martel’s history. Those outside of Canada may not know it but he has been amusing himself with a project called “What is Stephen Harper Reading?” — he recommends a book that the prime minister should read every two weeks. I’ll admit when it started I thought it was kind of fun but the programme became an exercise in dogmatism (Martel’s selections aren’t ones that I would welcome) and then — ta da — he published a book about the whole experience.

    So, from my perspective, Martel appropriates both the Holocaust and Canada’s PM to serve his own ends. Neither project results in a worthwhile book. Does that make him a subject for pity — or scorn? I’d vote for scorn. Actually, I would most vote for that American Protestant device: shunning; Martel should be “shunned”. Which is why I will not be reviewing his book. And I do appreciate that John has been scrupulous in this review — as I have noted elsewhere, it is fair to the point of being overly generous.

  15. Trevor said,

    I’ll take KFC’s advice and shun this book. I had been looking forward to it a bit as I enjoyed Life of Pi. But I fell into the trap last year when I read Atwood’s newest. Though many loved that book, I hated it (but who am I kidding? I loved hating it) — its failings look tame in comparison to Beatrice and Virgil.

    Kevin, is there any possibility that this will be on the Giller longlist? Well, I imagine anything is possible — but this? What I’ve read about Beatrice and Virgile has been American or British reviewers. How is the Canadian press taking it?

  16. kimbofo said,

    Oh dear. I may possibly be the only person in the world who has not read The Life of Pi, so when a review copy of the new one thudded through the door I wasn’t in an immediate rush to read it. Now, having seen your review and read Kevin’s comment, I’m not much inclined to bump it up the queue.

  17. You’re not alone, kimbofo. I plan to stay far, far away from both novels.

  18. Robert Hanks said,

    Good review of a bad book, John.

    Footnote: I gather Henry’s falling out with his publishers over a Holocaust book is pretty much what happened between Martel and Canongate. Imagine how Canongate feel, publishing a book that sets out to portray them as a band of insensitive cretins. (But perhaps they realise that most readers, on encountering that passage, will think “What sensible publishers: what an awful man this author is.”)

  19. I’ve not read Life of Pi either kimbofo. We are legion, we non-readers of Martel.

    And going on this there’ll be more of us in future…

  20. Robert Hanks said,

    Do you think there’s a way of un-reading Life of Pi if you’ve already read it?

  21. John Self said,

    That’s right Robert, the interview I linked to in the body of the review confirms that Martel’s experience is almost precisely the same as Henry’s (I should probably have been more definite in the way I worded my review).

    And I think people will certainly think that Canongate and others were sensible to take the view they did, although it’s hard to see how the original book could have been worse than Beatrice and Virgil; apparently it consisted more or less of the essay backed by the donkey-monkey play.

    I am reminded in all this of a superb piece in the Times a few years back on Michael Bamberger’s biography of M. Night Shyamalan, The Man Who Heard Voices. It was supposed to be a supportive biography, but turned out unintentionally hilarious, with the reader siding with Disney as they cut Shyamalan’s wings (rather than siding with the man himself, as Bamberger apparently intended). The Times piece will presumably disappear behind a paywall later this month, so here’s an extract:

    In fact, the book is unintentionally hilarious as it quickly crosses the lines from biography into hagiography, then into outright sycophancy. Typical is Bamberger’s description of meeting Shyamalan for the first time at a party. “Night’s shirt was half-open — Tom Jones in his prime,” the breathless author writes. His wife, Bhavna, he adds, “had the stillness and quietness of a princess. She had a delicate beauty, like that of an idealised Miss India, with glossy lips and the figure of a swimsuit model”. Phew.

    The book is shot through with instances that purport to show Shyamalan’s astonishing, instinctive genius — even his ESP. “What kind of power could he have over me?” the tremulous Bamberger asks at one point. He reveals how Shyamalan knew Giamatti was the right actor for [Lady in the Water] when he saw his brown shoe coming down the restaurant stairs when they first met. Describing the director’s sense of purpose as he wrote the script for Lady in the Water, Bamberger says Shyamalan felt that: “If it came together, it would be like Dylan and Clapton and Springsteen and Eminem and Kanye West and Miles Davis and Bonnie Raitt and Joan Armatrading and Jerry Garcia and every musician you’ve ever loved joining George Harrison and belting out the opening chord of ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ at the same time.” And, yes, Shyamalan did read The Man Who Heard Voices before it was published and, says his publicist, “totally supports the book”.

    There has been a backlash in Hollywood at Shyamalan’s egocentricity. “Just the fact that Shyamalan, whose last four movies display a stultifying commercial sameness, refers to himself as an ‘iconoclast’,” says the producer Gavin Polone, “gives a glimpse of how stars can become overcoddled, the result being bad and expensive movies like The Village.” One screenwriter said it was “astonishing he felt that what were evidently intelligent and honest script notes were an affront to his delicate sensibility. What’s worse, though, is that his childish posturing shows a terrible disrespect to all the writers and directors who have had to fight to defend their vision against the studios. It would be funny if it weren’t grotesque”.

    Here’s another piece on the book. Of course Martel doesn’t need anyone to write the embarrassing defence for him: he’s done it himself.

    • Robert Hanks said,

      Sorry, John, teaching my grandmother to suck eggs. Should have followed your links. Having said that, my grandmother’s eggsucking technique was terrible.

      The other thing I meant to say is that Life of Pi transformed Canongate from a small independent to a biggish player; so they have plenty of reason to be grateful to Martel. But the way they have pushed B&V – the bare fact that they printed it – surely pays all debts.

  22. Deb said,

    This is the reason I love reading this blog and the associated comments: I never know where the conversation is going to go. I bet when John posted his review of BEATRICE AND VIRGIL, he never thought that a good portion of the comments would be about M. Night Shyamalan.

    And I’d like to add one more comment about the Martel/Shyamalan parallel: Both of them took exactly the wrong message from their first major successes. Shyamalan apparently decided that the “twist” of “The Sixth Sense” was made it so popular and, thus, with diminishing results, has tried to work a “twist” ending into all of his subsequent movies. Martel apparently felt that the fables & the animals were what made LIFE OF PI so intriguing and, therefore, this lumbering clunker of animals and holocaust myth has been offered.

    I haven’t seen a Shyamalan movie since “The Village” and I won’t be reading BEATRICE AND VIRGIL either.

  23. nicole said,

    Another non-fan of Life of Pi here, though I briefly considered trying this one out—before reading a ton of negative reviews. I really appreciate this one though, John, as you really dig into the seeming awfulness.

    I also totally agree with KevinfromCanada; the Stephen Harper thing is just ridiculous and I thought so ever since I first heard about it.

  24. Gadi said,

    I don’t think that Yann Martel should be mocked in the same way people love mocking Dan Brown (as if not liking him is an extension of their personality) . It seems like the story of a middle-class Canadian kid who did rich-kid stuff (whiling the time away in India) and accidentally wrote a book that others decided to champion (in those two years of aberration – Life of Pi and Vernon God Little back to back). Now he’s stuck in his author role, and churning out chaff. But even so I prefer the masses to read mediocre books like Life of Pi which at least display a bit of empathy rather than read the best-selling airport thrillers.
    Maybe instead of sending book to the Canadian PM one of us could do him a favour and send him a biography of Harper Lee.

  25. tolmsted said,

    I reviewed Beatrice & Virgil when it first came out in the U.S. I had seen some early reviews, decided nothing could be that bad, and got in touch with the publisher requesting a review copy. How wrong I was! I’m curious, though, how you felt about the actual writing? I found it to be a very easy read, and I got through it very fast because of how well Martel writes (in my opinion) – my problem with the novel was that the plot was so horrible and disjointed and disorganized and completely pointless (I won’t even get into my opinion on the “twist” at the end). The contrast between the two really threw me off.

    I heard about the book recommendations to the Canadian PM and thought it all sounded terribly pretentious. I had no idea that he’d taken the next step and collected them in a book. It’s a cringe-inducing move… do you know if anyone is actually buying copies?

  26. John Self said,

    I don’t object to the Stephen Harper project in principle (and he does, on his website for the project, have words of praise for Bookseller Crow, and I can’t argue with that). But I don’t see the merit in making a book out of it, when the entirety is up there on his website. Take away the political and public window-dressing and all Martel is doing is publishing a regular blog of slim books he thinks should be more widely read – and how could I, doing a very similar thing in my much smaller way, dispute the value of that? I notice he has now corralled other writers into his project, presumably while he travels the known world promoting Beatrice and Virgil.

    Tolmsted, I agree that the book was well-written in the sense that it was easy to read and the prose was mostly clear and unobstructive. I got through it in a day, and a day when I had plenty of other things to do. I did however struggle a bit in the last third or so, when it became clear to me that the book was not going to ‘come good’, and I just started to wonder what the point was.

    Thanks for the other comments too, Deb, nicole and Gadi. Still waiting for someone to defend the book!

  27. I came across the following in Sam Lipsyte’s The Ask, a novel featuring a hapless univesity fund-raiser, and can’t resist sharing it given the debate about treatment of the Holocaust above:

    Would Cooley mention the Teitelbaum ask had once been mine? I’d screwed that one up good at a lunch, made the mistake, in listing the kinds of exhibits that might be mounted in a proposed gallery space, of mentioning the work of a Polish artist who built a model of Treblinka with Tinker Toys. The camp guards were freeze-dried ants. Teitelbaum, a Holocaust orphan, was not amused.

    “What did he make the Jews out of?” the old man snarled over his salade Nicoise.

    “Vintage coins from the Weimar Reublic,” I mumbled.

    “Money? He made them out of money?”

    “It was a point about historical perception. The artist is Jewish himself.”

    But Teitelbaum, who’d made a fortune in optics, was not so intrigued by this notion of perception.

  28. Linda Grant said,

    That is a fantastic quote, Kevin.

  29. John Self said,

    I picked up The Ask myself last week, Kevin, and hope to read it soon. I trust you will be blogging on it?

  30. JS: Post will be up on Friday or Saturday. It is not perfect by any means but has some wonderful bits to it (the quote I cited continues on for a while) — a lot of set pieces work but quite a number don’t. I do note in the review (and wrote it before seeing your note) that parts of it do compare to Money.

  31. I’m not surprised that Dyer likes it — there is a certain similarity to both the style and attitude of Dyer and Lipsyte. I would also like to note that Dyer also makes comparisons to Money and I hadn’t read his review before I did my draft.

  32. Lee Monks said,

    Yann Martel:

    “I use animals in my books because they’re effective literary devices,” he says. “We’re cynical about our own species, but with animals, there’s less disbelief, less cynicism. Readers are willing to give animals the benefit of the doubt. The donkey is like the Jews in that she’s likeable, hardworking and stubborn. The Jews have endured despite centuries of adversity, but like Beatrice, they’re clever and nimble and have contributed to civilization far more than their numbers would suggest.

    “With Virgil, I chose a howler monkey because the Holocaust should make us howl. … Virgil is wild, as are the Jews in a way. They’re urbanized and civilized, but their religion makes them a little wild. People want them to forget their Middle Eastern roots, but they refuse.”

    Am I the only person that thinks this sounds like a teenage writing competition entry explanation? If I didn’t know better, I’d say the whole thing was a send-up.

    • Ronak M Soni said,

      http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0109830/

      Top 250: #36

      So, he’s not only being juvenile but also patently wrong.

      • Well done Martel, what harm could possibly come from stereotyping a people and reducing them from a group of individuals to a neat series of generic characteristics. Surely history contains nothing to suggest that depersonalising people in that way could be problematic.

  33. Steerforth said,

    Yann Martel was on BBC Radio Four’s “Start the Week” on Monday:

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006r9xr

    He came across as a bit of a smart-arse, patronising his fellow guests with rather platitudinous generalisations, which were uttered with a world-weary air of authority.

  34. Lee Monks said,

    Is he Chris Martin in disguise?

  35. Ronak M Soni said,

    I have a question for all you commenters, as well as John: what does Martel mean when he says he wants a “portable metaphor for the Holocaust”? First, metaphors don’t have weight, so they are all, by definition, “portable”. Second, who on earth would want to use someone else’s metaphor? We pick up phrases from literature we love, but I’m yet to see someone pick up a large-scale metaphor.
    This sort of writing seems to me alarmingly common in (print) criticism, as if literature is a science and the unveiling of a new metaphor is a new discovery we should all gasp at. A book I just finished has, on the back cover, “she is clearly engaged in finding metaphors for different states of being.”
    I’d appreciate someone making sense of this to me.

  36. John Self said,

    I assume your question is rhetorical, Ronak, since Martel’s idea is absurd. However I think he intended the portability to apply as much to the Holocaust as to the metaphor. So his story could, in his opinion, be equally applied to situations such as Rwanda in the 1990s. Keep the metaphor, but slide the purpose along to the next available genocide. This seems even worse than the silliness of the metaphor in the first place – to say that all such events are comparable and interchangeable. It removes specificity and depersonalises the subject – but then, Martel complains about the abundance of stories which do personalise the Holocaust (as opposed to those which ‘reimagine’ it), so I suppose that suits him just fine.

    The short answer to ‘what made Martel do this?’ is: hubris. And we all know what follows that.

  37. Ronak M Soni said,

    John, if it was just Martel who talked like this, I would have just laughed it off, but everyone seems to think that metaphors are, as you explain it, portable.
    It makes no sense to me at all, and I was hoping the people here would help (and your comment has, now I know my specific problem with the idea, metaphors aren’t portable).

  38. Alan said,

    John, just a brief comment: thanks for reading this and warning us off. A service as valuable as highlighting great books. (I was not particularly enamoured with Life of Pi so was never going to read this.)

  39. Linda Grant said,

    I bought The Ask for holiday reading on the strength of the quote above and I do not like it at all.

  40. Linda Grant said,

    Boys’ book

  41. [...] with it that I don’t think I’ll be able to write a review myself so please read John Self’s. I very sadly agree with everything he [...]

  42. Lee Monks said,

    Worry not, everyone, because “Martel is already deep into his next novel, which is set in Portugal and features three chimpanzees.”

  43. andi said,

    for some reason I loved Beatrice and Virgil. It was incredibly thought provoking to say the least. I loved Life of Pi and i love Beatrice and Virgil, and honestly I can’t choose which one I like more.

  44. leemonks said,

    Yann/andi – you fool no-one!

  45. [...] is an example of someone who liked it, someone who didn’t, and someone who really hated it. Other reviews can be found here. Probably the only way of [...]

  46. Hafeez said,

    I am so regretting reading your review on Beatrice & Virgil and the ensuing comments. Unfortunate (or should it be fortunate?), I was hooked from the moment I started reading during a book-browsing moment what I thought was the book’s foreward only to find out that the story’s started.

    Guess what though? I found a handy (large) pocket size edition of B&V so am going ahead with getting it bad press or no.


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