January 29th, 2012

Rose-coloured reviews *Beatrice & Virgil* by Yann Martel

I was one of the many many people really who liked Yann Martel’s second novel, Life of Pi–I found it fascinating, completely engrossing, realistically weird, and warm-hearted. Though folks have since attempted to explain to me the ins and outs of the book’s symbolism, and though those explanations strike me as plausible, at the time I found it to be the most novelly of novels, completely consumed with its own characters and events, a world unto itself. I liked it very much.

I also liked Martel’s first, and less successful, novel, Self. I mean “less successful” in that fewer people read it than *Pi* (it feels like almost everyone in Canada read *Pi*) but also that it works less well as a book. There, the symbols and politics are much closer to the surface and the world seems a bit too much created for the reader’s benefit, but I was nevertheless interested in the characters and their lives. *Self* seemed an ambitious and adventurous experiment, and I wasn’t overmuch concerned that not every aspect worked out.

I have not read Martel’s first book, a collection of stories, but someone gave me his most recent, Beatrice & Virgil, and I decided to go with it. The novel starts with a frame story in which a novelist much like Martel but named Henry, who had great success with a novel about animals, much like *Life of Pi*, writes a new book that combines essay and novel in a single volume, both treating the Holocaust as their central theme. The Martel-like novelist is then totally shot down by his publisher, gives up writing, and moves to a new and unnamed city with his wife, Sarah.

There, with the financial success of his previous book allowing him to eschew the struggle to make a living, he abandons writing in favour of amateur theatrics, music lessons, work in a cafe, adopting pets, and answering his fan letters. One of these letters comes from a fellow writer also named Henry, who is working on a play but is stuck. He sends an excerpt from his play, a completely charming bit of dialogue where one character attempts to explain to the other what a pear is like. He also sends an exceptionally gory story about the murder of animals, by Flaubert.

From the return postmark, our Henry sees that the other one lives in the same city. For reasons that didn’t make complete sense to me, the protagonist answers his letter and decides to hand deliver it. He finds himself at an ornate (and ornately described) taxidermy shop, drawn into conversation with his correspondent.

On the one hand, I’m embarrassed that it has taken me so many words to describe this simple setup, but on the other hand, the novel could be seen as little more than what I’ve described above. The rest of the book consists mainly of descriptions of the taxidermy shop (I loved these until I hated them; they go on and on), dialogue with the taxidermist, and scenes from his play. The play, pear scene above notwithstanding, is a grim metafiction about two creatures–a howler monkey named Virgil and a donkey named Beatrice–who have endured horrific events perpetrated against animals in general and themselves in particular–trying to find a way to tell their story. They name the events “The Horrors” and compile a lists of ways to remember them.

Beatrice and Virgil are not exactly real to me, but Martel brings them into my head if not into life in a way that’s affecting. Affecting enough that at the terrifying end of their story, I turned my face from the page in genuine horror.

Michiko Kakutani’s NY Times review of this book makes much of Martel’s “derivative recycling” of Samuel Beckett’s *Waiting for Godot*, a play I think has enough spacious genius within it for many retellings (I’m glad Kakutani hasn’t read this). Martel’s characters have more obvious tenderness for each other (though I do believe Vladimir and Estragon love each other) but maybe the problem is that they aren’t different *enough* for some. I don’t know–because we only read snippets of the play, out of order and incomplete, I find it very hard to criticize these sections. Much as I liked them, it was hard to fully enter Beatrice and Virgil’s experiences, because of all the meta-y double-lensing.

I didn’t do much better understanding the life and experience of our protagonist, Henry. The literary blow from his publishers–and his confidence-bordering-on-cockiness beforehand–sets things up as a kind of satire. The book never goes farther with the satire than those opening chapters, but the depth–shallowness–of characterization would’ve worked with satire. We know little more of Henry than his hobbies–certainly not where his interests in animals and the Holocaust come from. His wife, Sarah has no character at all and indeed almost never seen. The only truly affecting scene in the Henry sections is the death of his pets–I found that devastating, though nothing in his human relationships touched me. I sense that that was, to some degree, the point.

I am not entirely certain what “a novel of ideas” is, but i think that this sort of demi-character–half reliant on what we already know of the author, half only a carrier of plot and opinion–might be a signifier of one. And in that, I do find *Beatrice and Virgil* lacking. I wished I’d cared as much about the human characters as about the animals or, failing that, that the human characters hadn’t been so a large percentage of the book.

I didn’t read the reviews when this book came out but I went back and read a few online in preparation for writing this one. One thing that surprised me is that no one mentioned another very strange, very meta-y novel about another novelist struggling in the shadow of an early bestseller, who also connects crimes against animals to the Holocaust. JM Coetzee’s *Elizabeth Costello* is, like Martel’s book, concerned with representation, though perhaps more with *what* than *how*. That book asks a lot of different questions, though, and comes at them from many angles, whereas I felt *B&V* was pretty much stuck on one. More importantly to an emotional reader like me, Elizabeth lived in my mind as a real person struggling with a hard matter, whereas Henry always seemed a construct to me.

I don’t think *Beatrice and Virgil* a failed book, just an incompletely successful one, like *Self.* The writing is deft and absorbing, the bits of the play sometimes truly lovely, and lots of white space on the pages ensured I finished the book well before I was tired. I liked this book, though the ending was horrific without making enough sense to me to think of it further in any meaningful way. I really don’t know what the final section, “Games for Gustav” was *for*, you know? And I do feel that loss, for I think this novel is above all for thinking about.

If you’ve read the book, you’ll know the inscription in my copy–“To Rebecca, May you never have to play Game #13, Yann Martel”–is not entirely friendly. I have never met Mr. Martel–the giver of the gift got this signature for me–so it’s not personal, but it does seem to be a kind of challenge, words offered by an author concerned with something very different than being liked. That, if nothing else, is courageous.

This is the first book of my 2012 Off  the Shelf Challenge.

One Response to “Rose-coloured reviews *Beatrice & Virgil* by Yann Martel”

  • Patrick Hallstein says:

    I’ve breakfasted with him; he wants to be liked. He knows he can come across as one who tests the universe, AND that he doesn’t in fact have it in him to shake the pleasures recondite recognition of this “heroism” affords him. Be sure he is one for “unaccountable” fits of rage. No one wants to live life denied the start being seen grants one (You exist to do more than fit my illusions.). At least, with the frontier so respected but also so triumphantly conquered, the world will for awhile longer proceed in neatly knitted fashion. Of course this 99% melee will spread, and there will be talk of wholescale revolution, which somehow involves manifesting blithely — no, BULLYINGLY — over these great pioneers, and it really will be (it will) freaking madness. But for now, the quiet to permit growth of a sort.

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