Wednesday, June 2, 2010
Beatrice & Virgil by Yann Martel *review*
Beatrice & Virgil
by Yann Martel
-information taken from RandomHouse.ca
About this Book
Henry’s second novel, written, like his first, under a pen name, had done well.
Yann Martel’s astonishing new novel begins with a successful writer attempting to publish his latest book, made up of a novel and an essay. Henry plans for it to be a “flip book” that the reader can start at either end, reading the novel or the essay first, because both pieces are equally concerned with representations of the Holocaust. His aim is to give the most horrifying of tragedies “a new choice of stories,” in order that it be remembered anew and in more than one way.
But no one is sympathetic to his provocative idea. What is your book about? his editor repeatedly asks. Should it be placed in the fiction section of a bookstore or with the non-fiction books? a bookseller asks. And where will the barcode go? To them, Henry’s book is an unpublishable disaster. Faced with severe and categorical rejection, Henry gives up hope. He abandons writing, moves with his wife to a foreign city, joins a community theatre, becomes a waiter in a chocolatería. But then he receives a package containing a scene from a play, photocopies from a short story by Flaubert – about a man who hunts animals down relentlessly – and a short note: “I need your help.”
Intrigued, Henry tracks down his correspondent, and finds himself in a strange part of the city, walking past a stuffed okapi into a taxidermist’s workshop. The taxidermist – also named Henry – says he has been working on his play, A 20th-Century Shirt, for most of his life, but now he needs Henry’s help to describe his characters: the play’s protagonists are a stuffed donkey and a howler monkey named Beatrice and Virgil, respectively, and Henry’s successful book was in part about animals. He wants help to finish his play and, we may suspect, free himself from it. And though his new acquaintance is austere, abrupt and almost unearthly, Henry the writer is drawn more and more deeply into Henry the taxidermist’s uncompromising world.
The same goes for the reader. The more we read of the play within the novel, the more we find out about the lives of Beatrice and Virgil – in a series of initially funny, and then increasingly harrowing dialogues – the more troubling their story becomes. As we are drawn deeper into their disturbing moral fable, the relationship between the two faltering writers named Henry becomes more and more complex until it can only be resolved in an explosive, unexpected catastrophe.
Though Beatrice & Virgil is initially as wry and engaging as anything Yann Martel has written, this book gradually grows into something more, a shattering and ultimately transfixing work that asks searching questions about the nature of our understanding of history, the meaning of suffering and the value of art. Together it is a pioneeringly original and profoundly moving accomplishment, one that meets Kafka’s description of what a book should be: the axe for the frozen sea within us.
Watch this video:
20 Writerly Questions with Yann Martel
1. How would you summarize your book in one sentence? Writer meets taxidermist meets Holocaust.
2. How long did it take you to write this book? With interruptions, nine years.
3. Where is your favorite place to write? No favourite place. I just need a chair, a table, my computer and a little peace and quiet.
4. How do you choose your characters’ names? Carefully, with a mind to what significance the reader might give them.
5. How many drafts do you go through? Countless. Every day I re-read what I've written and make some small changes. But beyond these countless mini-drafts, Beatrice & Virgil was entirely rethought and rewritten three times.
6. If there was one book you wish you had written what would it be? Dante's Divine Comedy.
7. If your book were to become a movie, who would you like to see star in it? Anthony Hopkins.
8. What’s your favourite city in the world? No favourite. Every great city of the world, big or small, has something to offer. Having said that, Paris, Lisbon, Cracow, Mumbai and Montreal are just some of the cities I've loved.
9. If you could talk to any writer living or dead who would it be, and what would you ask? J. M. Coetzee. How do you do it?
10. When do you write best, morning or night? No preference.
11. Who is the first person who gets to you read your manuscript? It varies, but usually a selection of friends and family.
12. Do you have a guilty pleasure read? I don't feel guilt in reading anything.
13. What’s on your nightstand right now?
Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe.
14. What is the first book you remember reading? Can't remember.
15. Did you always want to be a writer? No. I fancied myself going into politics when I was a teenager. I would have been a disastrous politician. I'm not patient enough.
16. What do you drink or eat while you write? Herbal tea, usually.
17. Typewriter, laptop, or pen & paper? Laptop when I'm actually writing, pen and notepad when I'm travelling for research. I don't see why anyone would want to write without a computer. It's so fast and versatile.
18. What do you wear when you write? Whatever I happened to put on that day, which is usually what I've been wearing for the last week.
19. How do you decide which narrative point of view to write from? With difficulty.
20. What is the best gift someone could give a writer?
Say "I loved your book."
I loved Life of Pi by Yann Martel so I was super excited to get Beatrice & Virgil in the mail to review! I was not disappointed. I loved it. Martel's unique writing style kept me totally engaged from start to finish. The characters were absolutely fascinating. I also love that he is a Canadian author- YAY!!
I highly recommend Beatrice & Virgil to anyone!
Thanks so much to RandomHouse.ca for sending me a review copy of this book.
Posted by Tara Robertson at 9:30 PM