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"Each individual should allow reason to guide his conduct, or like an animal, he will need to be led by a leash."
Diogenes of Sinope

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Thousand Flowers tapestry (15th Century) - Beaune, France (detail)

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Yann Martel gets taken to the woodshed

In today's National Post, Mark Medley reports on a sound spanking delivered to Booker Prize winner Yann Martel, author of Life of Pi:
The review spread across Twitter like wildfire. On April 12 at 5:57 p.m. the noted literary blogger Edward Champion posted a link to his evisceration of Yann Martel's new novel, Beatrice and Virgil. Under the headline "Why Yann Martel's Beatrice and Virgil is the Worst Book of the Decade," Mr. Champion exhausted some 2,400 words surgically picking the novel apart.

It was, he wrote, a book "that contains a moral vision less sophisticated than the dribbling one might encounter from a human vegetable." And in one of the critique's more restrained passages, he compared the reading experience to "walking the Bataan Death March."
This is the same Yann Martel who, miffed at being snubbed at a Canada Council reception on Parliament Hill by the knuckle-dragging Conservative government, has taken it upon himself to deliver an education in culture to our supposedly semi-literate Prime Minister by sending him a book every two weeks and writing about it on his website, What is Stephen Harper reading?:
The Prime Minister did not speak during our brief tribute, certainly not. I don’t think he even looked up. The snarling business of Question Period having just ended, he was shuffling papers. I tried to bring him close to me with my eyes.Who is this man? What makes him tick? No doubt he is busy. No doubt he is deluded by that busyness. No doubt being Prime Minister fills his entire consideration and froths his sense of busied importance to the very brim. And no doubt he sounds and governs like one who cares little for the arts.But he must have moments of stillness. And so this is what I propose to do: not to educate—that would be arrogant, less than that—to make suggestions to his stillness.

For as long as Stephen Harper is Prime Minister of Canada, I vow to send him every two weeks, mailed on a Monday, a book that has been known to expand stillness. That book will be inscribed and will be accompanied by a letter I will have written. I will faithfully report on every new book, every inscription, every letter, and any response I might get from the Prime Minister, on this website.
This is the same Yann Martel who acted like a teenage girl at a Jonas Brothers concert when he got a fan letter from Barack Obama (who according to Martel is the anti-Harper):
In February, Martel received an envelope from the White House.

It contained a quick two paragraph note: “My daughter and I just finished reading Life of Pi together. Both of us agreed we prefer the story with animals. It is a lovely book — an elegant proof of God, and the power of storytelling. Thank you.”

It was signed Barack Obama.

“It blows me away,” said Martel. “There’s nothing [Obama] can gain from it politically.”


While he’s not sure Obama’s response to Life of Pi will influence Canada’s leader, Martel does believe the note creates a tidy comparison between the two.

“I don’t think it’s going to make any difference, but it’s startling to the extent which it sets up a contrast between Stephen Harper and Barack Obama,” he said. “Not only does the man know how to speak, with an oratory that has inspired not only the U.S. but the world ... he reads.”
So what is all the fuss about Martel's new book, Beatrice and Virgil? I haven't read it, but based on this plot description from the National Post, one wonders what possibly could have gone wrong?
The novel concerns a writer named Henry, who at the book's outset is planning on writing a flip book about the Holocaust. His publishers reject the idea--something that happened to Mr. Martel in real life -- and, dejected, he flees to an unnamed city, where he meets a taxidermist who is writing a play about the Holocaust about a donkey named Beatrice and a howler monkey named Virgil --which did not happen to Mr. Martel in real life.
I'll leave it to Edward Champion to criticize Martel's new novel. In his blog he answers the question Why Yann Martel's Beatrice and Virgil is the Worst Book of the Decade. You have to read the whole thing to believe it, but here's a taste:
There comes a rare time — perhaps once every ten or fifteen years — when you read a book with such dreadful syntax, without even a fiber of merit, so libertine in the manner it insults the audience, and so producing the literary equivalent to being completely submerged into a vat of shit, that the reader, having embarked on the fetid journey, begins to pine for a brutal throng of vigilantes to chop off the author’s hands and prevent the hopeless hack from ever holding a pen or setting foot near a laptop again.

Yann Martel’s Beatrice and Virgil is such a tome. And Martel himself is such an author. Yes, last year, I spoke considerable ill of Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones. But while Mr. Littell is a dreadful writer, I did not harbor retributive fantasies. I merely screamed out in pain and spent most of the day on the floor. Mr. Martel, however, is an altogether different specimen. Here we have a man who has written a book that is more crudely formed than a schoolboy’s primer, that contains a moral vision less sophisticated than the dribbling one might encounter from a human vegetable. And Beatrice and Virgil deserves to be severely reviled because this book, which should not have even been permitted even the fourth-class method of self-publication, earned its bumpkin author a six figure sum through indolence and incompetence. When I finished reading this book, I threw it with such force against the wall that a hairline crack formed in the plaster. And even if you have the basest literary taste (no judgment from me, I assure you), that is the kind of thing that this book will do to you. This book will fill you with such vileness that you will find yourself instantly ruminating about what an AK-47 might be able to do when fired in the right direction. And I contend that when an author conjures up such violent fantasies, he should hang up his hat and call it quits for good. Even when he has won, as Mr. Martel has, the Booker Prize.
If I were Prime Minister Harper, I would send a little note to Mr. Martel and politely state that, "while I found your novel a little tedious, I in no way condone vigilante action to cut off your hands. PS - love your website."


Patrick Ross said...

I doubt the King of Saudi Arabia would be quite so generous. ;)

rabbit said...

"And no doubt he sounds and governs like one who cares little for the arts."

As we all know, Harper is a passable musician. And Obama?

Funny how we project on to people our preconceived notions.