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: Sunflowers: A Novel of Vincent Van Gogh

I saw this book ages ago, and the cover grabbed me immediately. However, like so many books, every time I went to pick it up some other book ended up taking priority. Fortunately for me, I found a brand new copy of it on my library shelf not long ago.

Sunflowers, by first-time author Sheramy Bundrick, is the story of Vincent Van Gogh’s time in Arles, France. It begins when Rachel, a local brothel prostitute, escapes to a nearby park one afternoon and falls asleep in the garden. She awakens to find Van Gogh sketching her and shortly after, Van Gogh visits the brothel and strikes up a relationship Rachel. Their relationship is an intense one, and both of them find some of the peace and happiness they are searching for until terrible events threaten their happiness.

I don’t feel I can say too much about these events, but if you have a basic knowledge of Van Gogh (or quickly peruse Van Gogh’s Wikipedia page), you will know that his time in Arles, and his story, do not end well. You will also know that the character of Rachel is more or less fictional. Even knowing the outcome of the book and that Rachel is not necessarily real does not make this book any less of an enjoyable read.

Bundrick, who is an art historian and professor, has a wonderful grasp of Van Gogh’s paintings, and her imagining of the events surrounding the painting of each picture is like reading a beautiful story about each one, even if it may not necessarily be true. She covers many of his paintings, including some of his more famous paintings such as Sunflowers, Starry Night over the Rhône (my personal favorite) and Night Café in the Place Lamartine.

I had imagined his paintings to be sweet and calm and gentle, like he was with me. Not sinister and brooding like this. Bright colors shouted from the canvas – red walls, green ceiling, yellow floor – yet the mood in his café scene was anything but bright. The clock in th background read ten minutes after midnight, and most customers had gone home. Empty chairs and mostly empty glasses said they’d been there, but only dregs of absinthe and the dregs of society remained. Faceless figured hunched over tables; a pimp chatted up a whore. The billiard table sat ready, but no one was playing. Monsieur Ginoux stood there instead, staring out from the painting, and the gaslamps overhead watched too like unblinking eyes. The gay pink bouquet on the sideboard struck the only note of innocence, the only note of hope.

Sunflowers, page 29

Night Café in the Place Lamartine

The story is not without its problems. The entire book is told from Rachel’s first-person perspective. While this allows Bundrick to avoid certain muddy areas (for example this allows her to avoid entirely the difficulty of ascribing intent to certain key events) it does make for some rough writing at times. Later in the book Van Gogh leaves Arles for an extended time and Bundrick has to resort to a series of letters exchanged between Rachel and Van Gogh to fill us in on what happens to him. While seeing Van Gogh through Rachel’s eyes and his interactions with her is interesting, there are far too many times in the book where I found myself wanting to know less about Rachel and her life in the brothel and more about Van Gogh. This is actually a compliment to Bundrick’s, as her depiction of Van Gogh is so compassionate that I wanted to spend more time with him, “watching” him paint and seeing the beauty of the world through his eyes.

Starry Night Over the Rhône

Sunflowers was an interesting historical fiction read, and much better than so much of the historical fiction out there (and certainly it is nice to read some solid historical fiction that is not set in Tudor-era England). Bundrick is so good at describing the setting and people and social structure of late-nineteenth century Arles, describing it so richly that you could almost paint a picture from her words. (As an aside, Bundrick also includes a detailed Author’s Note describing changes and events that she moved around. Personally, I like and appreciate when the author acknowledges that they have fiddled with some of the historical details and where they have done so. She also includes a detailed list of the paintings she mentions and information about some of the key locations. All of this further led to my understanding of the time and place.) Most importantly, Bundrick’s description of Van Gogh lingered long after I ended the book – I felt terribly sad for this talented yet troubled man, and wished to know more about both his life and his paintings. Despite some small issues with the structure of the book, the fact that it stayed with me meant that I found the book to be an overall success.

Rating: B+

Sunflowers by Sheramy Bundrick
Avon, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers, 2009
Paperback, 401 pages
Reviewed from library copy

Review: The Toss of a Lemon

I recently finished Padma Vaswanathan’s terrific first novel The Toss of a Lemon, which I received some time ago from Random House. I would have to say that this has been one of the best books I’ve read recently.

This is the story of Sivakami, a Brahmin woman who comes to her husband’s house as a child bride in turn-of-the-century India. As foretold in their horoscopes, her husband passes away only a few years after their marriage, plunging her into widowhood at the age of eighteen. As is custom during that time and for a woman of her caste, she shaves her hair, clothes herself in a white sari, refuses all touch from sunup to sundown and removes herself from public life (for a widow is considered a bad omen). While she is considered a most devout widow, she breaks from tradition in one crucial way – she moves back to her husband’s house instead of remaining within her brothers’ household, maintaining the lands and wealth through a lower-caste assistant hand-chosen by her husband prior to his death. She does this for her son, to give him the secular education that he would not have had otherwise. This decision gives her bright but troubled son the direction he needs, but will ultimately set him on a path in complete opposition to that of his mother.

The book covers a broad period of Indian history (roughly 1890-1950s). The period was one of tremendous unrest, where the caste system in India began to break down. Historically Brahmins were considered the highest caste – the morally superior intellectuals. Leading up to independance and partition, their influence and wealth began to fade as the caste system began to break down (although, arguably, it is still in existence today).

One of the most difficult things about writing (or reading) anything historical is the tendency to look at customs or traditions through today’s North American standards. Far too often in historical fiction, characters speak or act in manners that would be wholly inappropriate for the time and place. Even more unfortunate, there is often a not-so-subtle rebuke in the author’s writing style – as though they will have the character act in a period-appropriate manner, yet still make it abundantly clear that they, as the author, do not agree with it. Perhaps the greatest strength of this book lies in Viswanathan’s ability to be non-judgmental about customs that were wholly typical of that time, such as child-brides, arranged marriages and the caste system. We see some of the characters moving away from these practices, but as a reader I never had the impression that Viswanathan agrees with either point of view or that she was siding with one character over another, rather that she was merely illustrating the social changes that occurred during that time period. The neutrality of her writing allowed me to more fully immerse myself in the story, to reflect on the practices and draw my own conclusions instead of constantly being reminded that many of the practices are considered wholly-inappropriate by today’s Western standards.

The story itself moves along at a good pace. At 600+ pages, this is not a short book, and yet I never felt that the story wasn’t moving. Despite the jacket copy, which lead me to believe the story is told only through the eyes of Sivakami, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the book changes focus several times to other characters, as the story requires. Through each of these women’s eyes we see the subtle way that social change is altering the structure of their families and their caste traditions. Because the focus of the novel is on the story of the family first, and history second, this is not as heavy a novel as some historically based stories. The historical events are never so overt as to become confusing. That said, those readers with no historical background on the events in India around independence or partition or understanding of the caste system could find the book confusing, but I felt that Viswanathan subtly relayed any information that was an absolute necessity for understanding the story, particularly with regards to caste customs.

I only found two aspects of the novel disappointing. First, there were times in the book where I wished we had spent more time with a certain character to better understand their motives or reasoning, particularly in the case of Vairum, Sivakami’s son. Perhaps the book was already too long, or more likely it was deliberate. Like in any family, we are left to wonder at another’s words or actions, seeing them as an enigma. That said, we are often given subtle hints or clues as to the cause of a character’s behaviour. The best example of this would be Sivakami’s son-in-law, who we can only infer from his behaviour and from our modern understanding that he likely has some disorder such as ADD or mania.

My other issue was the rather abrupt ending to the book. While I understand that as the story of a family, that there may not be a specific end to the story per se, I wish that the last chapter and epilogue had been handled a little differently. I found the last page of the last chapter particularly choppy, as though Viswanathan and her editor had difficulty in nailing down a final sequence of events that felt climactic enough to be an ending while still reflecting that this was a family with a story that would continue long after the final page.

Overall, I would highly recommend this book. Despite my disappointment with the ending the book stands on its many other strengths. Particularly, the writing is excellent and highly evocative of the time and place. Reading it I could almost believe I was there, something I find occurs all too rarely in historical fiction. I am looking forward to Viswanathan’s next novel, and hope that her sophomore effort builds upon the foundation she’s laid here.

Grade: B+