Struggling to comprehend the incomprehensible

April 15, 2010 by · 2 Comments 

Beatrice & Virgil. Yann Martel; Knopf Canada, $29.95 cloth, 220 pp., 978-0-307-39877-2.

First, a bit of context. Following the monumental worldwide success of his 2001 novel, Life of Pi, Yann Martel spent a great deal of time deliberating on his follow-up. Not one to lack for ambition, Martel eventually settled on a flip book, printed back to front, with two covers. One half of the flip book would be a novel, the other half would be an extended essay. The subject of both would be the Holocaust. Martel presented this idea to his editors, all of whom balked.

Flash forward to 2010. Yann Martel’s new novel, Beatrice & Virgil, opens with a writer named Henry, who has experienced huge success with his second novel, a book that concerned itself with wild animals. In the wake of that novel’s broad acclaim, Henry spends five years conceiving, researching, and writing its successor. The book he delivers is … a flip book containing a short novel and an essay about the Holocaust.

In Beatrice & Virgil, as in real life, the flip book idea meets with resistance. Henry partakes in a “catastrophic” lunch during the London Book Fair, at which Henry attempts to justify his idea to four editors, a bookseller, and an historian:

Fiction and nonfiction are not so easily divided. Fiction may not be real, but it’s true; it goes beyond the garland of facts to get to emotional and psychological truths. As for nonfiction, for history, it may be real, but its truth is slippery, hard to access, with no fixed meaning bolted to it. If history doesn’t become story, it dies to everyone except the historian. Art is the suitcase of history, carrying the essentials. Art is the life buoy of history. Art is seed, art is memory, art is vaccine.

All of which sounds very philosophical and weighty, but Henry’s listeners have much more prosaic concerns, such as where to put a bar code on a book with two front covers.

By the end of the lunch, Henry’s book has been completely dismantled, and the author is utterly demoralized:

That was the whole meal, a blundering lurch from the frivolity of over-refined food to the dismemberment of his book, Henry quibbling and squabbling, they reassuring and wrecking, to and fro, back and forth, until there was no more food to eat and nothing left to say. It all came out, wrapped in the kindest words: the novel was tedious, the plot feeble, the characters unconvincing, their fate uninteresting, the point lost; the essay was flimsy, lacking in substance, poorly argued, poorly written. The idea of the flip book was an annoying distraction, besides being commercial suicide. The whole was a complete, unpublishable failure.

The result of this disastrous meeting is that Henry stops writing, packs up his wife and new son, and moves to an unnamed city, where he takes up the clarinet and begins acting in a local theatre troupe. It is at this point that he receives a package from an anonymous correspondent, containing a copy of Flaubert’s story “The Legend of Saint Julian Hospitator,” a scene from a play, and a short note asking for Henry’s help. The letter turns out to be from a local taxidermist who is stuck writing a play about two characters named Beatrice and Virgil.

By now, even the least attentive reader will be reeling from all the levels of metafictional gamesmanship that Martel is engaging in. Beatrice and Virgil are Dante’s guides through the afterworld in The Divine Comedy, but here they are, respectively, a donkey and a howler monkey. Henry’s popular second novel featured wild animals, and the taxidermist – who is also (and not accidentally) named Henry – has highlighted all the sections dealing with cruelty to animals in Flaubert’s story.

As Henry (the novelist) becomes more deeply involved with Henry (the taxidermist), it becomes apparent that the latter’s play, entitled A 20th Century Shirt, is in fact an allegory about the Holocaust. In other words, Henry (the taxidermist) is writing the story Henry (the novelist) proposed for his flip book. The irony here is obvious, but also somewhat vacant; at best, it involves an authorial thumbing of the nose at all those people who told him his idea was unworkable.

The snippets of the play that are interspersed into the narrative are clearly modelled on Beckett’s Waiting for Godot: two characters on a stage that is bare but for a lone tree, expounding dialogue that is spare and absurdist:

VIRGIL: But speaking of which, what day is it today?
BEATRICE: Saturday.
VIRGIL: I thought it was Friday.
BEATRICE: Maybe it’s Sunday.
VIRGIL: I think it’s Tuesday.
BEATRICE: Is it possibly Monday?
VIRGIL: Perhaps it’s Wednesday.
BEATRICE: It must be Thursday then.
VIRGIL: God help us.

If there is any doubt about the literary provenance of the play, it should be put to rest by a short passage a bit further on in Martel’s novel:

VIRGIL: We should go then?
BEATRICE: We should.
(They do not move.)

It also becomes apparent that Beatrice and Virgil are figures on a striped shirt, a shirt of the kind that Jews were forced to wear in camps during the Holocaust. What we have, then, is a series of metafictional conceits, literary and historical allusion, narrative and drama all abutting one another. Martel has created not so much a novel as a pastiche of forms and approaches, all of them circling his central subject: how to approach the appalling fact of the Holocaust through the prism of art.

“My book is about representations of the Holocaust,” Henry tells his inquisitors at that London Book Fair lunch. “The event is gone; we are left with stories. My book is about a new choice of stories.” As a mission statement for his novel, Martel could hardly have chosen something more grandiose, but his book fails in the execution. It never finds a cogent mechanism for translating the horrifying events of the Second World War into allegory, in the way Art Spiegelman did in his groundbreaking graphic novel, Maus (one of the books Henry name-checks as inspiration for his project). Henry (the taxidermist) fixates on cruelty to animals, both in the highlighting of Flaubert’s story and in an horrific scene of violence that befalls Beatrice, but in so doing he calls the book’s moral centre into question: there is a revelation late in the novel that comes perilously close to intimating that Henry (the taxidermist) is more moved by the fate of abused animals than he is by the deaths of six million Jews during the war.

It may be the case that the Holocaust is one of the events in human history, so excoriating in its horror, so incomprehensible in its cruelty, that it resists translation into an artistic form such as allegory or fable (think of Jerry Lewis’s unfinished film The Day the Clown Cried or Roberto Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful). “In addition to the knowledge of history,” Henry says, “we need the understanding of art. Stories identify, unify, give meaning to. Just as music is noise that makes sense, a painting is colour that makes sense, so a story is life that makes sense.” True enough, but what is equally inescapable is that the fact of the Holocaust doesn’t make sense, can’t make sense. Martel struggles valiantly to wrestle art out of his subject, but is ultimately defeated by the subject’s own enormity.

The new mixologists

February 17, 2010 by · 13 Comments 

You may not have heard of Helene Hegemann, but the 17-year-old German writer is at the centre of a brewing storm around the subjects of copyright and the nature of authorship in the Internet age. Hegemann is the author of a book titled Axolotl Roadkill, which has become a bestseller in her native country and was recently nominated for the fiction prize at the Leipzig Book Fair. What makes this book noteworthy is that it apparently contains passages – including one that allegedly runs an entire page – that have been lifted from the work of another writer, a blogger who goes by the online nom de plume Airen.

Hegemann, a child of the Internet age, does not consider what she has done plagiarism; she prefers to call it “mixing.” An article in The New York Times quotes the German teenager as saying that “Berlin is here to mix with everything.” Which sounds very DIY and cutting-edge, until you realize that Hegemann lifted that line from Arien’s blog. Hegemann claims to represent a new generation with new ideas about proprietorship vis à vis intellectual property. Essentially, for Hegemann (and, by extension everyone in her demographic cohort), in the Internet age, everything is up for grabs. “There’s no such thing as originality anyway,” Hegemann says, “only authenticity.” (How one can claim “authenticity” if one’s work is largely the creation of another is a mystery to me, but we’ll let that go for the moment.)

The current farrago puts yr. humble correspondent in mind of two other famous cases of “borrowing” material. In the first, Harvard sophomore Kaavya Viswanathan was roundly excoriated when it became apparent that her 2006 novel How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life contained passages that were lifted verbatim from two novels by Meg McCafferty. The second case, however, turned out rather differently. In that case, not only was the “borrower” not vilified, he went on to win the 2002 Booker Prize. When some perceptive readers noticed that Yann Martel’s novel The Life of Pi bore a suspicious similarity to a lesser-known 1981 novel called Max and the Cats, by Brazilian author Moacyr Scilar, Martel freely acknowledged the debt. At the time, Mobylives quoted Martel:

“This is how it happened,” he writes in an e–mail interview with Orin Judd at BrothersJudd.com. “Ten years ago. Review in New York Times Book Review by John Updike of a Brazilian novel by one Moacyr Scliar … Not a good review. Did nothing to Updike. But premise sizzled in my mind. I thought ‘Man, I could do something with that.'”

Martel went so far as to say that Scilar provided the “spark of life” for Pi, and told the Associated Press, “I don’t feel I’ve done something dishonest.”

That being the case, one might imagine that Martel would have a certain sympathy for Hegemann. But if Axolotl Roadkill represents the thin edge of the wedge, what can we expect the future of books to look like in a world where everything from current releases to classics in the public domain is available for remix, refashioning, and reuse? We’ve already seen a glut of Jane Austen-inspired “mash-ups,” thanks to last year’s unlikely Quirk Classics bestseller Pride and Prejudice and Zombies; can we now expect that similar revisions (or, more properly, “re-visionings”) of canonical works will be forced upon us by writers with a clever idea and access to cut-and-paste computer software? For modern works, will copyright have any practical value at all?

In an interview with Hugh Maguire for Open Book: Toronto, Sean Cranbury envisions a “ridiculously dystopic” future in which source texts become collages at the hands of Internet users employing the digital equivalent of scissors and a glue stick:

People are going take text that they like or want to use for a specific purpose from wherever they can find it, and they are going to manipulate it to whatever ends they desire. Then they’re going to slap it into some kind of digital container and probably cross-pollinate the work with video, stills, music, scans of random junk found lying around and then they are going to share it. That content will then be reconstituted by others who have picked it up somewhere in the digital aether.

In this new world, Cranbury posits, “Digital content will have a universal currency rate of 0. It will simply be given away, shared, remixed and reconstituted, and the only way to determine anything like our common sense of ‘worth’ will be by its buoyancy and popularity on the P2P networks.”

In his book The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet Is Killing Our Culture, Andrew Keen quotes cyberpunk author William Gibson as saying that the words “appropriation” and “borrowing” are in fact outmoded terms that don’t mean anything to the participatory culture of the Internet. “The record,” Gibson says, “not the remix, is the anomaly today. The remix is the very nature of the digital.” To which it is tempting to point out that without the record, there is nothing to remix in the first place (hence the term remix …), but again, we’ll let that one go for now.

Keen goes on to write:

A survey published in Education Week found that 54 percent of students admitted to plagiarizing from the Internet. And who is to know if the other 46 percent are telling the truth? Copyright and authorship begin to lose all meaning to those posting their mash-ups and remixings on the Web. They are, as Professor Sally Brown at Leeds Metropolitan University notes, “Postmodern, eclectic, Google-generationists, Wikipediasts, who don’t necessarily recognize the concepts of authorships/ownerships.”

Given Hegemann’s comment that there is no such thing as originality, it may be that the word “necessarily” in Professor Brown’s assessment is de trop. What makes me nervous, however, is not that the generation coming of age with the Internet has no conception of the importance of authorship. What makes me nervous is that they do recognize this – they just don’t care.

Yann Martel sends Stephen Harper his own book, then disappears into his own navel

October 14, 2009 by · 2 Comments 

41jf6MwWJRLFor those of you unfamiliar with Yann Martel’s ongoing project, What Is Stephen Harper Reading?, a quick recap: The Booker Prize-winning author of The Life of Pi, feeling slighted because our Prime Minister apparently wasn’t sufficiently fawning when Martel and a group of other artists appeared in the House of Commons to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Canada Council for the Arts in March 2007, decided to send Harper one book every two weeks for the duration of his tenure as Prime Minister. Each book is inscribed by Martel and accompanied by a note of explication. “The purpose,” Martel writes, “was and is to remind Stephen Harper of the life-shaping marvel contained within books.”

That quote comes from the introduction to the newly published book What Is Stephen Harper Reading? Yann Martel’s Recommended Reading for a Prime Minister and Book Lovers of All Stripes. The book, which is a collection of the letters Martel sent to Harper between April 2007 and May 2009 (and thus, an incomplete record of his “ongoing” project: can a sequel be far behind?), is a print version of material that is already available, for free, online.

Give Martel credit for this much: to this point, the books he has chosen for his “lonely book club” have been interesting and eclectic: The Epic of Gilgamesh, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Waiting for Godot, and The Bluest Eye are all represented. But, in an act of unbridled solipsism, Martel felt it necessary to send Harper a different title to remind him “of the life-shaping marvel contained within books” – Martel’s own. That’s right: book number 66 is none other than What Is Stephen Harper Reading? by Yann Martel.

Martel justifies the move this way:

There’s safety in being published in book form. Who knows what might happen to the letters I sent you? I print an extra copy of each before mailing it to you, and the originals are I hope gathering in an archive box, but these physical traces are subject to the erosion of time or might simply be lost. As for the website which bears public witness to our book club, despite the easy access anyone has to it on a computer, it too is ephemeral. Though a website may appear on a limitless number of screens at the same moment, its underlying support is far more limited: just a virtual memory somewhere that, despite all the safeguards and backups, could be compromised and its contents destroyed.

Now, I obviously agree with Martel that books are practically sacred objects (I fetishize books just as much as the next guy), containing within them material that is both intellectually and, yes, even spiritually edifying. The problem with Martel’s project lies in its evident narcissism. It began with a grudge* and has reached its current apogee with an instance of blatant self-promotion. If there was any doubt about this, Martel’s gives the game away in his accompanying letter, which includes a mention of Harper’s response to journalist Chantal Hébert, who sent the PM a copy of Brian Lee Crowley’s book Fearful Symmetry: The Fall and Rise of Canada’s Founding Values (the title of which Martel gets wrong in his letter, incidentally). Hearing that Harper wrote back to Hébert (something he has not done for Martel) and told her that he read Crowley’s book, Martel responds:

Well, I don’t have to ask what she has that I don’t. I know the answer: I haven’t sent you a single book on economic or political theory, or, for that matter, much non-fiction of any sort. Good of you to have read Fearful Symmetry. I’m not familiar with it. I hope you liked it. But is there any space on your reading list for a novel, a play or a poem?

The patronizing tone not only masks an apparent petulance, but probably underscores for Harper the notion that artists are a whiny, entitled bunch who need not be bothered with, except as annoyances. Which, needless to say, is precisely the wrong message to be sending to our leader at this precarious point in our country’s artistic development.

*From Martel’s introduction to the book edition of What Is Stephen Harper Reading? (Vol. 1):

The moment had come. The Minister for Canadian Heritage, Bev Oda at the time, rose to her feet, acknowledged our presence and began to speak. We artists stood up, not for ourselves but for the Canada Council and what it represents. The Minister did not speak for long. In fact, she had barely started, we thought, when she finished and sat down. There was a flutter of applause and then MPs turned to other matters. We were still standing, incredulous. That was it? Fifty years of building Canada’s dazzling and varied culture, done with in less than five minutes? I remember the poet Nicole Brossard laughed and shook her head as she sat down. I couldn’t quite laugh.

Here’s to a new literary genre: office lit

June 1, 2009 by · 1 Comment 

Alain de Botton, he of the philosophical consolations and the life-changing affinity for Proust, has just released a new book called The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work and, certainly not coincidentally, contributed a piece to Sunday’s Boston Globe in which he laments the fact that today’s novelists don’t write about work to the degree that Zola or Dickens or Kafka did. In de Botton’s view, contemporary writers have been “notably silent” about the one aspect of our lives that consumes better than 50% of our waking hours.

Today’s writers, de Botton claims, have “lost their nerve” where the subject of work is concerned:

There has been an unfortunate inward turn. Attention, brilliant though it might be, too often falls merely on the domestic and the natural. Consider some of the great Booker Prize-winning fiction writers of the last two decades: Anne Enright, John Banville, Yann Martel, Peter Carey, Kazuo Ishiguro – fine writers and deserving winners, yet all of them writing to one side of the working realm. The territory of the novel seems inevitably to be defined by the domestic subject matter tackled by Pulitzer Prize-winning writers like Anne Tyler or Michael Cunningham. When a new writer like Joshua Ferris does finally devote a novel to tracking the antics inside a corporation, the critical reaction is peculiar and telling: he attracts renown and praise for his courage in tackling the fresh and entirely unexpected subject matter of going to the office.

While yr. humble correspondent is inclined to agree that “the domestic and the natural” account for a distressingly disproportionate amount of modern literature, particularly here in Canada, de Botton’s claim that writers have abandoned the field suffers from the same problem that any such sweeping generalization does: the moment it’s uttered, at least a dozen exceptions spring to mind. De Botton himself mentions Joshua Ferris, whose debut novel, Then We Came to the End, takes place in a Chicago ad agency. But Ferris is by no means the only author to take up such subject matter. Dana Vachon’s 2008 debut, Mergers and Acquisitions, is set in the world of investment banking. Douglas Coupland has set not one but two novels – Microserfs and JPod – in the cubicles of hi-tech companies. Leah McLaren’s The Continuity Girl and Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter (when was the last time you saw those two books referenced in the same sentence?) have their protagonists’ jobs embedded in their very titles. And going back a bit – though not so far as to abandon the realm of the “contemporary” novel – one of CanLit’s certified canonical works, Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion, tells the story of the immigrant labourers who built Toronto’s Bloor Street Viaduct.

Of course, Ondaatje’s characters may not be precisely the workers that de Botton has in mind. In his Boston Globe piece, he writes that “much modern work has become white-collar work, almost totally without obvious heroism or romanticism.” The manual labourers who built the Bloor Viaduct are more romantic figures, members of a group whose occupation is “rich in anecdotes and color.” The modern office, de Botton suggests, is boring, “merely a place for degrading and banal labor out of which no one could spin anything of value other than (at best) a satirical or nihilistic commentary.” De Botton would likely view the television sitcoms 30 Rock and The Office – both successful prime-time series – as falling into the camp of “satirical or nihilistic commentary.” Likewise Clerks, the 1994 comedy that launched Kevin Smith’s career, or Mike Judge’s 1999 cult hit Office Space.

There also seems to be an internal inconsistency in de Botton’s own argument. He mourns the lack of writers who are willing to focus on the modern workplace – which he avers is increasingly a soul-destroying white-collar environment – then argues that what we need are more broad Dickensian canvasses that provide portraits of a wide spectrum of toil, both white-collar and blue:

We need an art that could function for our times a little like those 18th-century cityscapes that show us people at work from the quayside to the temple, the parliament to the counting house, panoramas like those of Canaletto in which, within a single giant frame, one can witness dockworkers unloading crates, merchants bargaining in the main square, bakers before their ovens, women sewing at their windows, and councils of ministers assembled in a palace – inclusive scenes that serve to remind us of the place that work accords each of us within the human hive.

Certainly, work is central to the human experience, at least in the capitalist West, and should consequently have a place in our literature. If contemporary writers eschew the offices and cubicles in which most of us while away our days in front of a computer screen, perhaps it is because work, like sex, is an experience that is at once universal and deeply individual, and therefore a daunting subject for any but the most intrepid novelist to tackle.