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.

4 thoughts on “Review: Beatrice & Virgil

  1. bea April 28, 2010 / 3:04 pm

    I haven’t read the book, but I don’t think it’s the case that all Holocaust fiction must be done in a realistic mode. To write a novel about the Holocaust will always, in some sense, be an act of presumption. That is especially the case right now, when we still have survivors with us to tell their stories, but it will still be true later on, because a Holocaust novel is always in some sense rubbing shoulders with the likes of Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel.

    I don’t think that realism solves the problem of writing a work of fiction about these events from a position of distance – the distance of not being a survivor or even the child of a survivor. To me, the best Holocaust fiction finds a way to encode that distance. Even something like Maus marries the authenticity of Vladek’s narrative with the inevitable distance from those events from which Art acts as the listener and conveyer of the tale. That’s part of what makes the cat and mice effective – they are a gesture acknowledging the gap between speaker and listener.

    I think it’s possible to say that this particular novel feels exploitive – and perhaps the problem is that, in this case, it is the symbolic elements that feel self-consciously art-y and thus create that feeling of exploitation. I think it is an act of respect for someone who has not been directly affected by the Holocaust to write about it – it’s an act of respect but also inevitably an act of hubris, and so the best novels offer some kind of argument for their own existence by saying something that cannot be said within the genre of autobiography. I thought Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow was a great example – a novel that justifies its existence precisely because it can work with tricks of narrative perspective that are not possible within the realism of the survivor narrative.

    • Elle April 28, 2010 / 4:21 pm

      Bea – I love your response. Again, because you’ve pushed my thoughts further and in different directions again. Like I’ve said, even if you don’t love the book it will likely make you think at length and is great for conversation.

      I think you’ve captured a lot of what I felt about this, but couldn’t put my finger on. As I read the book, and after as I pondered it, the word hubris jumped to mind many times (although did not make the final review). I’m not sure his intent was to be exploitive, but perhaps I definitely would say that he falls squarely into the category of “presumptive” (and you phrase it exactly, there will always be an act of presumption in writing about those events which we have no experienced). I think what bothered me is if you are going to say that you think that there can be a new language to speak of the Holocaust, then you should put forth a better effort at that language than was presented here.

      I’m still not sure about realism versus non-realism in Holocaust literature, and perhaps Martel’s effort here is, in part, what has led me to the conclusion that it can’t be done… or at least not yet. Or then again, perhaps in the hands of a different writer?

  2. Ronnica April 29, 2010 / 1:42 pm

    I read the first 50 pages (until the discussion of the pear) before I realized that it wasn’t worth my time. I can only read so much, and I decided that this wasn’t going to be it. Thank you for describing the rest of the book.

    I don’t mean to say that I found this awful. It’s not poorly written. It’s just that Martel didn’t prove to me in those 50 pages once why this was worth my time.

    I agree that the beginning would have made an excellent short story and as such, I would have been glad to read it.

  3. Jenny August 24, 2010 / 1:09 am

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