Review: Beatrice & Virgil

Most of those reading this are likely already aware of the enormous firestorm that Beatrice & Virgil has raised. For those that are unaware, Beatrice & Virgil has been controversial in almost every respect from the size of its advance (a reported $3 million) to its roman à clef nature (more on that later) to its purported topic (the Holocaust and its fictional representation) to the reviews themselves (the very good, the very bad and one vicious enough to not even warrant a link.) So how to review a book that has already has so much said about it?

First, a brief summary of the origins of the book. In 2001 Yann Martel wrote The Life of Pi, a book in which some of the characters were animals, that went on to win the Booker Prize and became an enormous international best-seller. According to report, five years later he approached his publishers about his follow-up book. It was to be a flip book with one side a non-fiction essay and the other side some sort of fictional story, both to be related to the Holocaust. Ultimately, the publishers vetoed the idea and thus we have the novel Beatrice & Virgil instead.

Beatrice & Virgil begins with Henry, an author who wrote a famous novel about animals that went onto become a prize-winning international best-seller. Five years later he meets with his international publishers, a historian and a bookseller to discussed his next planned book: a flip book where one side would be an essay and the other side a fictional representation, both to be about the Holocaust. In one of the best scenes in the book his publishers deconstruct the idea with the practicalities and logistics of publishing such a book:

“Where do you see the book being displayed?” asked the bookseller, as he chewed on his food with an open mouth. “In the fiction section or the nonfiction?”

“Ideally both,” Henry replied.

“Not going to happen. Too confusing. Do you know how much stock a bookstore handles? And if we have to worry about turning the book every which way so the right cover is facing out, we’ll never see the end of it. And where are you going to put the bar code? It always goes on the back cover. Where do you put a bar code on a book with two front covers?”

“I don’t know,” said Henry. “On the spine.”

“Too narrow.”

“On the inside flap.”

“Cashiers can’t be opening the book up, looking for it everywhere. And what if the book is plastic-wrapped?”

“On a little wraparound band.”

“They tear and fall off. And then you don’t have a bar code at all – a nightmare.”

“I don’t know then. I wrote my book on the Holocaust without worrying about where the fucking bar code would go.”

Beatrice & Virgil, page 14

Needless to say, this comes as a great blow to Henry, who abandons writing and moves with his wife to an unnamed, presumably European, city. While in that city he receives an envelope from a reader of his previous book with an excerpt from the short story “The Legend of Saint Julian Hospitator”, by Gustave Flaubert, with all of the passages containing the murder of animals meticulously highlighted, and a short excerpt from a play where two characters, Beatrice and Virgil, discuss a pear. Realizing that the author of the letter is residing in his city, Henry pays the man a visit. The man he meets is crusty octogenarian taxidermist also named Henry. Henry-the-author works with Henry-the-taxidermist on his play, which Henry-the-author realizes is an allegory for the Holocaust, as told by Beatrice, a donkey, and Virgil, a howler monkey, and is the very story he himself was trying to tell.

Early on in the book, Henry is asked te question “but what’s your book about?” and the same could be asked of Beatrice & Virgil. If you look at it the book from a plot perspective, it certainly isn’t incredibly strong. Is the important story that of Henry-the-writer and the Henry-the-taxidermist, or is the important story that of the play contained within, A 20th Century Shirt, with Beatrice and Virgil? Despite it’s overly climactic ending, this certainly isn’t a plot-driven novel by any standard. Nor can it be said that there a great deal of character development. Where this book appears to be neither plot-driven nor character-driven means that it isn’t the best book I’ve ever read, it certainly isn’t the worst. I definitely wouldn’t nominate it for worst book of the decade, despite others’ cry for it to take that mantle. There are some beautiful sections in this book that defy expectations, namely a seven page description of a pear, that are truly fantastic and worth reading. The final section – Games for Gustav – is chilling and thought-provoking set of thirteen statements that kept me up late thinking and pondering. I think perhaps this is part of what rankled most of the strong critics – it feels like it is a book about nothing that received a $3 million advance. (An advance which I think upset people more for its sheer size than anything else. What does it really matter how much a publisher gives him? They certainly wouldn’t have given him that much if they didn’t think his book would sell, as – contrary to popular opinion publisher’s actually do build profit and loss sheets and base their numbers on sales estimates. Heck, Nora Roberts is certainly pulling in bigger advances, but no one is complaining about her and her books certainly won’t be shortlisted for the Booker any time soon.) And perhaps there is a certain amount of bitterness that people feel like Martel got away with something. It certainly is cheeky to thumb his nose at the publishers who turned down his original book by then incorporating that story here in this finished novel, but wouldn’t we all like to get away with something like if we were critiqued?

Here’s what I think Martel got right in addition to the beautiful descriptions and passages: It was most definitely an interesting portrayal of what gets published and what doesn’t and why, and a small peek at the literary world behind the books. The first 20 pages are a master-class in literary rejection and would have made a fantastic short story. And perhaps most importantly, even if I found the medium itself was flawed, it made me think, at length, about the portrayal of the Holocaust in fiction. Henry (Martel?) asks why we can’t find a different way to talk about and represent the Holocaust. Why it was always represented through “historical realism” and no “poetic license” is taken with the events of the Holocaust (page 10)?

Some time ago my friend, kgirl, wrote this post on her blog about witnessing the meeting between three Holocaust survivors. [Really, go read it. It is beautiful and amazing and I thought about it for weeks after reading it.] And here’s the thing – that story, those words, uttered by survivors, shared with those of us who can only begin to understand the horror of what happened, are more important now than any attempt to change the tone of portrayal. To answer Henry’s (Martel’s?) question: as long as we can still hear those stories, hear the voices of those that experienced it and lived to tell their story, in their own voices, there can’t be room for anything except realism. To co-opt that event for artistic purposes – allegorical tales or fantasies or other artistic “expressions” – while there are still people who can tell the truth, in all its horrific realism, is almost an insult. (And here I digress, for he does mention the terrific book Maus by Art Speigelman, which I argue, despite its using cats and mice and pigs to represent various groups of the Holocaust, is still a historical realism portrayal of the Holocaust coming as it does from the story of Speigelman’s own father’s experience during the period.) The book somewhat proves this point: when reading the sections of play with Beatrice and Virgil, despite knowing that it was an allegory for the Holocaust, and despite their graphic representations of evil, it felt in no way connected, for me, to the events of Holocaust. There comes a point later when Beatrice and Virgil attempt to talk about the phrases and signs that they will use to discuss these events when it is all over – ultimately a list of random words like a howl, a food dish, a tattoo, games for Gustav – but even this felt forced, many of these obviously drawn from imagery of the Holocaust. Ultimately, I came away feeling that Martel proved that it isn’t possible to talk about the Holocaust in a non-realism manner without minimizing the events themselves, or at least not yet. I think this, perhaps, is what Martel can be criticized for his – his arrogance in believing that the Holocaust – that almost-incomprehensible event – can be represented by artists in a non-realistic fashion. I fully believe that for those of us that have not, nor had family that have, lived through those events (like Martel, who is himself not Jewish) the closest we can ever come is a simple attempt at realism, based on the known facts. Any attempt otherwise just can not resonate the same way, much as the sections with Beatrice and Virgil failed to resonate with me. It just doesn’t carry the same force of feeling, and the Holocaust is an event that should reach far down in you and grab the most primitive of your emotions – fear, anger, horror. Perhaps someone who has lived through it might be able to find a different means of talking about those events and have it carry the same depth of feeling, but only because of the experience that supports it. Despite all of that, while I may disagree with his point of view, it made me think long and hard about the issue, and there is certainly value in that.

All that said, is the book good? I think there will be as many answers to that as there are readers. It certainly is a book to spur debate and a passionate response, and that’s never a bad thing. From a story perspective, the book is flawed, with its long sections of description of something seemingly trivial to its lack of character development to its final (ridiculous) climactic ending. This is a book that bumps along, and reflects its beginnings in its prior form. At times it feels like Martel is so anxious for us to get the philosophical point he is trying to make that the story – the heart of a novel – suffers as a result, and that is truly a shame. Where critics have become so wrapped up in dissecting and critiquing the writing and the story and the value of the $3 million advance, what could have been a good discussion about the Holocaust and its artistic portrayal has fallen to the wayside. So while I didn’t love the story itself, I definitely rated it higher for making me think long and hard about the purpose of fiction and art and its representation of events so horrific they can never be fully understood by those of us who didn’t experience them. For that, I give him higher marks than the story, and its telling, alone warranted.

Rating: B-

Beatrice & Virgil by Yann Martel
Knopf Canada, 2010
Advance Readers Copy (paperback), 211 pages
Review copy provided by Random House Canada

Those of you who have read the book, or those that have an opinion on the artistic portrayal of the Holocaust, feel free to sound off below. This certainly a book to inspire controversy and discussion, and I’m curious as to your opinions.

Review: Cool Water

Cool Water tells the story of the fictional town of Juliet, Saskatchewan, a small farming town of approximately 1,000 people near the Little Snake sand hills. Set over the course of a single day, it interweaves the stories of several of the town’s inhabitants – Vicki, a harried mother of six struggling with, and failing at, being the good farm wife as her family faces financial disaster, Norvel, a middle-aged bank manager overwhelmed by the responsibilities of his job and the impending marriage of his pregnant teenage daughter, and Marian and Williard, the past-middle-aged couple facing their feelings for one another after more than a decade of living in the same house, among others.

This is a book that definitely cannot be judged based on its cover (which, lets face it, is less than stellar. Let’s hope it is something they work on for the paperback edition.) It is a book that defies expectation, really, as there is no one single protagonist and no clearly defined problem to overcome/evil character to defeat/pitched climax. It is a book that is startling for what it is: a good and gentle book about average, everyday people, and how a single day can affect those lives. It doesn’t rely on excessive drama or over-the-top revelations to sell itself. Cool Water is a book that sneaks up on you, starting slowly and without great fanfare. Somewhere towards the middle of the book you find yourself caring, truly caring, about the fate of the characters. I found myself desperately hoping that Vicki, the mother of six, would get her housework done for a change instead of heading into town on a misbegotten errand trip, and I sighed in exasperation when she gets in the car anyway, knowing that this cannot bode well. I found myself cheering when Marian, middle-aged and living a quiet and restrained existence with Williard, the brother of her deceased husband, finally makes her first restrained move towards admitting her feelings for him. Simply put, you’ll like these characters and want to see them safely to their homes at the end of a long day.

What I found most interesting about the book, and part of the reason I feel it succeeds so well, is that Warren has a tremendous sensitivity and respect for her characters. She never falls back on the clichés so common to books set in rural locations and she seems to have a unique sensitivity to the challenges and change facing those who live their lives outside of large cities. The people are not hicks, they aren’t dumb, they aren’t trapped. They are people who have chosen this life, difficult though it may be at times. In telling her story she illustrates beautifully how, for the people who live off the land, sometimes there are times of bounty and sometimes there are lean times. It would be easy to make mockery of her characters, to give them the same small town treatment as, say, the TV show Corner Gas, where each character is a character. Even the character of Lila, the banker Norval’s wife, who initially comes across as “the nag” is redeemed, as we see the depth of character when faced with unexpected tragedy. And that is the greatest gift of Warren’s writing, she has a powerful sense of humanity in her writing, and she draws each character as a complete person with hidden depths (without needing to resort to deep, untold secrets or some other device).

Not that she doesn’t understand the gravity of their situation and the extreme actions Blaine has been forced to take. He’d first sold off his herd of Charolais-Hereford cross cattle, and then the bank had insisted on the dispersal of his machinery, and then the sale of all his land except the home quarter. But Vicki’s position is that they should be thankful they still have their house and they can rent out the pasture for a bit of income, every dollar helps. The bank did allow Blaine to keep an old stock trailer and one saddle horse – although not the good mare who would go all day for you, and Blaine claims the horse he kept requires an instruction manual to operate – so at least he can still drive up to Allan Tallman’s place on a Sunday for a little team roping.

Cool Water, page 84

Cool Water is a simply told book – there isn’t a great deal of dramatic description or drawn-out dialogue (it also made it somewhat difficult to find a good quote to pull for a review). I think that it is this simplicity in writing that is part of reason that the book creeps up on you so quietly. There is no gimmick here, and there’s no fancy writing to hide behind. Warren also refrains from the tendency to have a major life-altering event or revelation for each of the characters – yes, for some of the characters this day will bring about great change, but for others the events of the day will cause smaller shifts and the day will just fall back into a landscape of days that make up a life. I think this ability to leave here characters with some resolution – but not too much resolution – is why this book stayed with me long after I had closed the cover.

There are other reviews that compare this book to Annie Proulx or Carol Shields. Oddly enough, I have no desire to compare this book to anything that I’ve read recently – and I think that’s a good thing. It is an unpretentious, understated book about the basic goodness of people. I feel like a better person for having read it, and how often can you say that of a book? I highly recommend it, and can’t wait for Diane Warren’s next book.

You can read Dianne Warren’s terrific guest post here.

If you want a taste of the book, you can read the first chapter here.

Rating: A

Cool Water by Diane Warren
HarperCollinsCanada, 2010
Hardcover, 328 pages
Review copy provided by HarperCollinsCanada

Guest post: Diane Warren, author of Cool Water

About a month ago I was fortunate enough to receive an email asking if I was interested in participating in an author tour for the new (and, I might add, terrific) book Cool Water by Diane Warren. I quickly read the synopsis of the book and eagerly replied yes. Not only was I excited about reading the book as it sounded quite interesting, but this was the first time I had been approached by a publisher to participate in an author blog tour.

Cool Water is the story of Juliet, Saskatchewan – a small rural town of approximately 1,000 people. In the space of a single day it tells the overlapping and intertwined stories of several people who live in or near the town, giving the reader an intimate portrait of a farming town and is people stumbling towards change and the future.

In preparing for this guest post, I had noticed that Diane lives in Saskatchewan, and I had found her description of modern farming and the decline and difficulties of modern rural life to be compassionate and realistic (so much that is written either looks down on the people who live their lives from crop to crop, or is filled with clichés or incorrect information). I suggested that perhaps Diane could discuss how farming has changed from when she was young, and what she saw for the future of rural life in Saskatchewan

And here is Diane’s fantastic response. First, I want to thank HarperCollinsCanada and Diane Warren for providing a review copy of the book and for having me participate in this book tour. It’s been a wonderful experience. Tomorrow I’ll be posting my review of Cool Water.


Change in Rural Saskatchewan

I’ve been asked about farming in Saskatchewan, how it has a changed, and what I see as the future of rural life here. Since I am not an expert on agriculture, and the whole business seems to be so complicated these days no one knows what the future holds, I will talk about the metaphor for change in Cool Water.

I did not grow up on the farm but I am of the first generation in my family not to do so.  My maternal grandparents were homesteaders and their farm is still in the family, 100 years later.  As a child, I spent a lot of time there, in fact, every chance I could get.   I was crazy about my grandparents.  They were heroes to me for their sense of adventure in coming west, and for what they had done to turn a small, piece of prairie into a family farm.

A few years ago, one of my uncles sold a half section that had belonged to my grandfather.  My uncle and his wife were ready to downsize and none of their children wanted to farm this piece of land, so selling it was the best thing to do, the only thing to do.  Still, I felt sadness that the “King Place”, as it was known, was leaving the family. The sale was symbolic of impending bigger changes in our family and in the farming landscape.

When I was working on Cool Water, I was very aware of the deep attachments people have to family land here, and that became a part of the story.  I did a lot of thinking about how an ancestor’s dream affects the descendent who inherits it. The last decades have not been kind to the family farm and many young people have grown up knowing that the work and responsibilities of farming do not pay financial rewards to match.  When young people don’t want to take over the farm, there’s a crisis related to a family’s attachment to a piece of land, and the recognition that a way of life in the family is coming to an end.

Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem Ozymandias kept coming back to me, partly because my story is set in an area of Saskatchewan that is extremely arid and does, in fact, host sand dunes and flats, but also because the poem is about the mistaken belief that an empire will last forever.  Not that family farms are empires, but the message holds true, as does the image of a monument – or a dream – covered by sand.  If you visit the Great Sand Hills in Saskatchewan, you can see how the sand is held in place tenuously by the roots of plants, and how the landscape constantly shifts and changes shape.

It’s interesting that Canada is now talking about Saskatchewan as a “have” province.  Although people of my generation grew up believing that our province was the “world’s breadbasket”, the prosperity being talked about has nothing to do with farming or ranching.  It’s about natural resources such as minerals, gas and oil, some of the same resources that made our neighbour, Alberta, a have province long before us.  The changes we might see in the near future, and the effects they might have on what we’ve come to know as a traditional way of life in rural Saskatchewan, are hard to imagine.

What I wanted to do in Cool Water was write about a contemporary farming community in a time of transition: a story in which the ancestors’ ghostly dreams hover, both a comfort and a burden.  And although Juliet is a farming community in a particular prairie landscape, I hope the story is about the inevitability of change and the resilience of people in its face.


About Diane Warren

Dianne Warren is the author of three books of short fiction and three plays. Her play Serpent in the Night Sky was shortlisted for a Governor General’s Award for Drama in 1992. Her most recent collection, A Reckless Moon, was a Globe and Mail Best Book of 2002, and in 2004 she won the Marian Engel Award for a woman writer in mid-career.