Yann Martel talks about autobiography, animals, and more in his new novel Beatrice and Virgil.
Yann Martel’s Beatrice and Virgil tells the story of a writer named Henry whose follow-up novel to a surprise smash hit is rejected. He moves to a large metropolitan city, gets a dog and a cat, takes clarinet lessons, joins an amateur theater group, and slowly forgets about writing fiction altogether. One day a stranger sends Henry a short story by Gustave Flaubert called “St. Julian the Hospitator.” The sender has highlighted passages about Julian’s delight in slaughtering animals and also included a few pages of an original manuscript, a Beckettian play featuring two characters, Beatrice and Virgil. There’s also a note asking for help. Intrigued, or maybe bored, Henry visits the mysterious author, an old, creepy taxidermist (also named Henry). His play features two characters, Virgil, a howler monkey, and Beatrice, a donkey, who are trying to come to terms with a series of events they call The Horrors. The taxidermist’s project reignites Henry’s passion for writing and he’s soon helping the would-be playwright with revisions, blind to the inconsistencies and gaps in the old man’s strange behavior.
Beatrice and Virgil is a page turner, engaging, propulsive, and quite easy to read. It injects the philosophical and artistic concerns of literary fiction into the frame and pacing of a book designed for broader audiences. Martel displays his keenest literary skill in the early part of the novel, flitting through the kinds of subjects that bookish nerds of a certain postmodernist bent tend to obsess over: the possibilities and challenges of writing in a particular language, the complexity of pseudonymous fame, the intellectual allure of the essay versus the power of fiction to narrativize higher truth. To address this latter problem, Henry proposes that his new book comprise two sections–a work of narrative fiction and an essay to explicate that work. Why the need for an essay? Henry proposes to write an artful, fictive account of the Holocaust. The essay, which Henry wants published on the flip side of the fiction, thus eliminating a front/back cover distinction, is meant to explicate the fiction. In many ways the first section of Beatrice and Virgil functions as counterpoint to Henry’s proposed essay, concisely addressing the problems of using anything other than historical facts to represent the Holocaust.
After Henry gets the taxidermist’s package and reads “St. Julian the Hospitator,”Beatrice and Virgil moves into a faster rhythm and continues to accelerate to its end, never sagging. At times, Martel relies on stock phrasing and overt exposition to afford this pacing. I found myself wishing a few times that he would trust his audience a bit more. Is it really necessary to directly explain the titular allusion to Dante’s Divine Comedy? He could also be a bit less free with his narrator’s everyman style of questioning, a device employed often to propel the plot, but one somewhat inconsistent with Henry’s obvious intellectual acumen. Martel’s occasional use of lazy devices of the Dan Brown school directly contrasts the more experimental or postmodern aspects of his book. There’s the book’s initial section, which reads very much like a lyric essay; there’s the exegesis of “St. Julian”; there’s the taxidermist’s play, Beatrice and Virgil; there’s the book’s final section, “Games for Gustav.” This final section comprises thirteen short epigrams written in second-person perspective. “Games for Gustav,” Henry’s Holocaust art, demands audience identification with the victims of the Holocaust. Its brevity and ambiguity correlate to the narrative’s ahistorical engagement with the Holocaust and communicate a sense of apprehension and distance toward the subject. Is that subject Martel’s or Henry’s? In a piece I wrote last month about Beatrice and Virgil and the challenges of an aesthetic response to the Holocaust, I suggested that “Henry, a young French Canadian with no Jewish roots is utterly divorced from any authentic response to the Holocaust. He could write an academic essay on the subject, or a navel-gazing bit of metafiction that dithered over storytelling itself, but he essentially already has an answer to his own question of why there are so few artistic responses to the Holocaust–that to re-imagine or re-interpret or otherwise re-frame the real events of the Holocaust in art is to, at once, open oneself to dramatic possibilities of failure.”
Is Beatrice and Virgil an authentic response to the Holocaust? I won’t accuse Martel of using the Holocaust as a mere prop in his novel; indeed, anticipation of such an accusation is precisely what leads Henry to suffer over an essay to explicate his fiction. Martel’s book is about murder, horror, and how one might witness to or otherwise narrativize murder and horror; Henry’s “Games for Gustav” is just one of those attempts to witness. The novel engenders multiple readings then. We can take Henry’s “Games” as part and parcel of Martel’s program, read them perhaps as Martel’s own attempt at poetry after Auschwitz. This reading would subscribe to a traditional narrative arc–Henry faces a challenge, endures a perilous task, and finds resolution in his art: a valid artistic response to the Holocaust is possible. I think, however, that there is another, more complicated reading available, one far more ambiguous, one that places any aesthetic response to the Holocaust under suspicion. If we scrutinize the elements of traditional narrative fiction at work in the novel, we can see multiple ironies in Henry’s “hero arc,” ironies outside of Henry’s otherwise perspicacious gaze. To write an authentic aesthetic response to the Holocaust, Henry must face some kind of deathly extreme that will license such art. But is such a licensing, a conferring of authority possible? I won’t point to spoilers here but will say that I read the novel’s climax ironically. I believe it complicates Henry’s (and perhaps Martel’s) attempt to engage the Holocaust via metaphor and artifice and calls the novel’s resolution into question.
But these matters are probably better reserved for the detailed dialogues the book will no doubt inspire. Beatrice and Virgil raises essential questions of post-postmodernity, exploring the porous boundaries between autobiography and fiction, history and myth, and the limits of allegory. Its rewards are not in its answers but in its questions.
Beatrice and Virgil is new in hardback from Spiegel & Grau on April 13, 2010.
Right after WWII, the German philosopher Theodor Adorno famously declared that to write poetry after Auschwitz was barbaric. Adorno later recanted on his knee-jerk reaction, stating that “‘Perennial suffering has as much right to expression as the tortured have to scream… hence it may have been wrong to say that no poem could be written after Auschwitz.” Still, his initial proscription is often invoked as something of an imperative, or at least guiding principle, in 20th and 21st century art. Often stated boldly as “no poetry after Auschwitz,” it’s usually taken to mean that, after the horrors of the Holocaust, art has no valid aesthetic response to history, or perhaps even humanity, at least not in any of its traditional forms. Even more tricky, of course, is just how to represent the Holocaust itself. The severity of the event seems to call for a witnessing limited to facts alone, one devoid of any artifice or metaphor.
Over half a century later authors still wrestle with this issue. I just finished reading Yann Martel’s forthcoming novel Beatrice and Virgil, his follow-up to 2001’s Booker Prize-winning book club favorite, Life of Pi, a novel I’ve never read. (Beatrice and Virgil comes out mid-April and I’ll run a full review then). Very early in the book the protagonist Henry, a successful author, describes the book he is writing, a follow-up to his bestseller. It’s about:
the ways in which that event was represented in stories. Henry had noticed over years of reading books and watching movies how little actual fiction there was about the Holocaust. The usual take on the event was nearly always historical, factual, documentary, anecdotal, testimonial, literal. The archetypal document on the event was the survivor’s memoir, Primo Levi’s If This Is a Man, for instance. Whereas war–to take another cataclysmic human event–was constantly being turned into something else. War was forever being trivialized, that is, made less than it truly is.
After waxing a bit more on artistic representations of war — romantic, epical, comedic, etc. — Henry seems to come about to Adorno’s point (never named in Martel’s text, for what it’s worth):
No such poetic licence was taken with–or given to–the Holocaust. That terrifying event was overwhelmingly represented by a single school: historical realism. The story, always the same story, was always framed by the same dates, set in the same places, featuring the same cast of characters.
Henry concedes a few exceptions to this rule, like Art Spiegelman’s Maus, before wondering:
why this suspicion of imagination, why this resistance to artful metaphor? A work of art works because it is true, not because it is real. Was there not a danger in representing the Holocaust in a way always beholden to factuality? Surely, amidst the texts that related what happened, those vital and necessary diaries, memoirs, and histories, there was a spot for the imagination’s commentary. Other events in history, including horrifying ones, had been treated by artists, and for the greater good.
Henry’s desire to write an artistic account of the Holocaust, or to write about how one writes about the Holocaust–to write a poetry (of sorts) after Auschwitz–does not, significantly, derive from any personal, historical, or cultural impetus. His concern seems, in many ways, an academic’s regard for aesthetic theory, leading him to envision his book as a split between fiction and essay, with the pieces being published in one book at “opposite” ends (i.e., one would have to flip the book upside down and over to access the text on the other side). What Henry fails to see–Henry, not Martel, let’s be clear–is that he has no legitimate response to the Holocaust. When pressed by a gang of editors, along with a bookseller and a critic, to answer the simple question “What is your book about?”, Henry retreats into a series of wonderfully vague literary generalities:
My book is about representations of the Holocaust. The event is gone; we are left with stories about it. My book is about a new choice of stories. With a historical event, we not only have to bear witness, that is, tell what happened and address the needs of ghosts. We also have to interpret and conclude, so that the needs of people today, the children of ghosts, can be addressed. In addition to the knowledge of history, we need the understanding of art.
But just what “the understanding of art” might mean here, Henry is unable to say. His book is shot down, and, thankfully, Martel’s book Beatrice and Virgil manages to be a novel-about-not-being-about-the-Holocaust-but-being-about-the-Holocaust-but-not-really-being-about-the-Holocaust, which is all for the better, really. (Did that sentence make any sense? No? Sorry. I promise to (attempt to) clarify in my full review of Beatrice and Virgil). Otherwise, Henry might have fallen into the sweet lull of what critic Lee Siegel has described as Nice Writing. Here’s an excerpt from Siegel’s 1999 essay “Sweet and Low”:
For at least the past decade, American writers have been pouring forth a cascade of horror stories about their condition or the condition of their characters. The Holocaust, ethnic genocide, murder, rape, incest, child abuse, cancer, paralysis, AIDS, fatal car accidents, Alzheimer’s, chronic anorexia: calamities drop from the printer like pearls. These are elemental events of radically different proportions, and the urge to make imaginative sense of them is also elemental. Some contemporary writers treat these subjects strongly and humbly and insightfully, but too many writers engaged in this line of production turn out shallow and distorted work. They seem merely to be responding to a set of opportunities created by a set of social circumstances. In their hands, human suffering goes unimagined, and the imagination goes hungry and deprived.
To return to Adorno’s dictum–no poetry after Auschwitz–the grim spectacle of history should not be fodder for “a set of opportunities created by a set of social circumstances.” Henry, a young French Canadian with no Jewish roots is utterly divorced from any authentic response to the Holocaust. He could write an academic essay on the subject, or a navel-gazing bit of metafiction that dithered over storytelling itself, but he essentially already has an answer to his own question of why there are so few artistic responses to the Holocaust–that to re-imagine or re-interpret or otherwise re-frame the real events of the Holocaust in art is to, at once, open oneself to dramatic possibilities of failure. Failure would derive from the radical inauthenticity of having merely used, rather than illuminated, one of history’s worst horrors (my verb “illuminate” here stands inauthentic, I admit). Henry–and perhaps, implicitly, Martel–eventually manages to respond to the Holocaust in his art, but I’ll save a discussion of that for a full review of Beatrice and Virgil.