I’ve returned from a longer than anticipated blogging absence. I went on a relaxing 9 day vacation to Michigan, thinking that I would probably catch up on some book review posts there. I wound up barely touching a computer the whole time. I did finish six books while I was there, which was lovely.
So I’m back with many posts and reviews to catch up on, and I might as well start by throwing my two cents into the book blogosphere about what’s sure to be a much read & reviewed book this year, Yann Martel’s new novel Beatrice and Virgil.
A Little Backstory:
In late 2007, my friend Laura and I went to a book event for the Illustrated edition of Life of Pi. It was fantastic to meet Yann Martel, and he told us about his upcoming book. He said it was called The Twentieth Century Shirt, and it was a Holocaust book that featured a monkey and a donkey having a conversation on a shirt. It was to be a “flip-book” – a novel on one side, and then if you flipped it over, there would be an essay on the reverse side, “upside-down” and with it’s own cover. Here is my original post from 2007 about the event.
News & release date info about Yann Martel’s new book came out earlier this year, and the title was not The Twentieth Century Shirt, but Beatrice and Virgil. When I finally held it in my hands I saw that it was not a flip book. I realized he must have completely changed his mind about the title and format of the book, or this was a different book altogether.
So I began reading Beatrice and Virgil, not really knowing what to expect. A few pages in, the reader learns that the main character, Henry, is a famous Canadian author. He then begins working on a second book (this info is not really any sort of spoiler, it all occurs within the first few pages), and the book he’s writing is a flip book about the Holocaust. At this point I became incredibly curious about how the book Yann Martel told us he was writing in 2007 became what seemed to be a book inside the book I was reading. On Friday last week I went to see Yann Martel again at a book signing at Borders, and I had a chance to ask him about the writing process that changed the book he described in 2007 into Beatrice and Virgil. Notes about his reply are at the end of this post, but first I’ll post a few thoughts about the novel.
My thoughts on Beatrice & Virgil:
I really don’t want to say too much about the plot of the novel, because it’s unlike anything I’ve ever read and I think part of its power comes from going into it not knowing much about the plot.
This book is inevitably going to get compared to Life of Pi. “Is it as good as Life of Pi?!” people will prod those they know who’ve read it first. In my opinion, no, it’s not. Life of Pi is one of the best books I’ve ever read. An author would be lucky to write a book half as good as Life of Pi, and they would still have written an excellent book. So it’s unfortunate for Yann Martel that he has to be compared to himself, because Beatrice and Virgil is a great book.
I really enjoyed reading it. It’s unusual (in a good way), and opens up your mind to a new way of thinking about what a “Holocaust Book” is, and what it should or can be. The ideas presented in the novel are its most compelling atributes. Looking back on the experience of reading it, I wasn’t really reading to find out what happens next. It was a page turner because the ideas and thoughts that the characters have are so interesting. I wasn’t reading to find out what becomes of the characters, but rather to find out what they’re thinking. It’s an unusual reading experience but it’s one that works in this case.
If I had one problem with the novel, it would be the ending. It felt a little hurried to me, and it didn’t move me quite as much as I expected. (I’m talking about the ending of the prose, not the end section of “Games for Gustav,” which is incredible and kind of genius.)
Beatrice and Virgil is a thought provoking novel that is also a very enjoyable read. It would serve very well for discussions, and I’m excited that my book club has selected it for June.
Notes from the book event:
-When I asked Yann Martel about the process of turning his flip book concept into the book published today, he immediately said, with a smile but serious nonetheless, that the process was torturous. He started off with a play, the same play that’s partially featured inside Beatrice and Virgil. He wrote an essay to accompany the play, and did intend to publish them as a flip book. His publishers then advised him that the essay seemed to weigh down the play, and so he did away with it. The play eventually became part of the overall novel. The beginning of the novel and the character of Henry seem autobiographical, but he only used a few main similarities, and only so far as they suited his purpose in the novel.
-The audience also asked him more about his project called “What is Stephen Harper Reading?” This is a completely awesome project & website, where Yann (concerned about Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s disregard for the Arts) sends a book and a letter to Stephen Harper every two weeks. More (extremely interesting) backstory can be found on the About page, and the site contains all 79 books sent thus far, as well as the letters that Yann wrote to accompany each book.
-Yann Martel is awesome.
An interview with Yann Martel that also talks a bit about the process of changing his flip book into the novel Beatrice & Virgil.
A video introduction to the book, from Yann Martel: