Beatrice, Virgil & Yann Martel
ann Martel’s books have no chapters. Beatrice & Virgil is the second of his books I have read, Life of Pi being (obviously) the other. I’ve read both in less than twenty-four hours. He’s sneaky. He, unbeknownst to you, will suck you in. No chapters mean no absent accidental glancings at the clock. No chapters means no scheduled pee breaks. No chapters means no “just one more before bed.” You just read. And read and read and read.
I got Life of Pi one Christmas in highschool from my parents. I remember being somewhat mystified at the choice. I think it was around the time that my mom was just starting to realize that I liked to read adult books. You know those times in life when life is starting to transition? Often distantly followed by those moments where your parents realize you are starting to transition… I must’ve been around 16, the book had just been released; there are no awards on it and it still has that almost goofy tiger cover. We have these mainstay Christmas traditions, like clementine oranges and tooth brushes in our stockings. Then we have these others that have been phased out or in as we have aged: lottery tickets, for example, now grace our Christmas tree. We no longer receive new pyjamas every year and gifts are now from each other, rather than some mythical man who leaves on quickly depleting arctic shelf ice up north. At least initially, these transitions tug at your heart strings.
Getting a book every Christmas has been a tradition dating back farther than I can remember. Life of Pi was the first one I got that was one my mom borrowed (albeit I’m fairly certain it was chosen for it’s mythical pretence and almost childlike plot). I remember getting it, and being almost disgusted at first. The year before I had received Brian Jacques’ Redwall, which, admittedly is now on my reading list. Redwall was probably a good, thoughtful choice by my parents, I love pirates and adventuring, and mice are really cute, but my angsty 15 year old self was so repelled by the idea my parents thought I would enjoy a book about talking animals I refused to read it on principle. I was already thoroughly entrenched in depressing meta-contemporary lit and poetry (Eggers and the ramblings of Ondaatje); I eventually perma-lent Redwall to my eleven-year-old godbrother. It remains a sore spot, but what else can you do at that age? You seek solace and commiseration where you can.
So this following year, you can imagine my reaction when I opened up a book about another talking, nautical animal. I attempted to keep my expression as neutral as possible before forging some semblance of intrigue:
“Cool..! He’s Canadian…Indian…hey? Tigers…I love tigers…” helplessly turning the book over. My mom enthusiastically agreed, mentioning it had been recommended to her by several of her friends, and that she’d love to borrow it after I was done. I sussed her out sidelong as I skimmed the back of the novel. Recommended by her friends, eh? Just like how their equally adventurous sons had enjoyed Redwall I bet…Nonetheless I delved into it by Boxing Night, thinking I’d at least try a chapter, realizing it had none by about page 45, and around page 75 becoming annoyed because I’d passed the point of being able to stop reading. Partially because it was well-written, but moreover because the lack of paragraphs voided my Virgo ability to stop at an appropriate spot.
I have to say, Beatrice & Virgil had a similar effect. I am borrowing a copy of the paperback 2011 Vintage Canada edition. In spite of my reservations surrounding the sporadic use of papyrus typeface, overall the design is simple, subtle and thoughtful. A matte black cover, understated thick, grey stripes down the spine, golden hued lettering, and a simple illustration of a pocket knife and a single, luminous pear grace the cover. The back jacket is designed lengthwise, with several lines of reviews running bottom-to-top, and a closer view of the knife. Again, reservations about book reviews on jackets aside, still an intriguing design.
I had liked Life of Pi. It was maddeningly easy to read. And it had been an adult book (despite the lack of sex, drugs or violence). My mom had chosen that one pretty well…it even won a Booker! I had been put off everything else Martel wrote shortly thereafter. An English teacher had forbidden my good friend of doing a comparative essay on his first book Self, saying that it was so poorly written it would put [my friend] off of Martel forever. I had been enjoying his Suggestions for Stephen Harper (one of those ones you pick up in book stores) but I was skeptical. Here it was. His latest novel. Simple and well designed. I opened it, hesitantly.
Henry’s second novel, written like his first, under a pen name, had done well.
Instantly I was hooked. I finished the book later that night. (I’m so lucky to live with an artist who becomes just as lost in his work as I do in my novels, I’m sure in other relationships a partner wouldn’t be so tolerant of voracious, obsessive reading!)
I want to write more about the story. It’s good. It is totally decently a good, interesting story. Definitely a solid 4/5 stars. I want to write more, but I also want to say that reading this book, picking it up absently off a bookshelf without knowing anything else about the story is part of the delight. Martel’s slow and gentle guiding through the novel, strip-tease-timed revelations of the title’s meaning, of the cover design, of the book itself was part of why I enjoyed the book. If you are intending to read it, hoping to have it undress for you in this manner, I’d stop reading now. If you’ve already read it, or never will, you’ve been warned.
Slice a pear and you will find that its flesh is incandescent white. It glows with inner light.
Those who carry a knife and a pear are never afraid of the dark.
When I was younger we used to go to this old house downtown called Whitehern. The tour was almost exactly the same, people dressed up in period costume, using each of the rooms we visited to reveal more and more details about each of the residents lives. One of the last rooms was the library, which was located at the front of the house, right next to the front door, ending the tour in a neat circle where you began. At a given moment during this last stop of the tour, the guide would have you close your eyes while they swiftly transformed the only piece of furniture in the room, a small ladder, into a little chair. This is kind of how this book felt.
In sweeping grand terms the book is a book within itself. Martel tells the story of an author who as achieved success, and unsuccessfully pitches his next book, a flip book about the holocaust, to his agent. The book is to be half-fiction, half-non-fiction, about story-telling and the Holocaust, an essay about the idea that most victims of the Holocaust are silent, the idea that fiction can be a more useful retelling of the stories that have been silenced and a fictitious story about the Holocaust itself. The book is rejected, so the author and his wife move to a foreign land and he gives up writing. Only to meet a taxidermist who is writing a play about a monkey and a donkey…
The animal is lost from us, has been taken out of us. I don’t just mean in our city lives. I also mean in nature. You go out there, and they’re gone, the ordinary and the unusual, they’re two-thirds gone. True, in some places you still see them in abundance, but these are sanctuaries and reserves, parks and zoos, special places. The ordinary mixing with animals is gone. (…) I became a taxidermist because of the writer Gustave Flaubert. It was his story The Legend of Saint Julian Hospitator that inspired me. My first animals were a mouse and then a pigeon, the same animals that Julian first kills. I wanted to see if something could be saved once the irreparable had been done. That is why I became a taxidermist: to bear witness.
The book is about the book. Like this lunchbox I had during my first days at school, where the picture of the lunchbox had grover carrying the same lunchbox with a picture of another grover, carrying the same lunchbox…over and over and over again. This is a neat and tidy little story that fits into itself, about completely untidy and messy ideas, ideas that are ugly and unruly and have long messy curls that protrude out from under your cap at crazy angles. Skeletons jammed in every closet. Martel joyfully walking you through a beautiful colourful house only to lure you into incredibly uncomfortable, challenging scenes. Scenes that must be looked at again and again. By the time you get to these scenes, you can’t look away, it’s game thirteen.
Maddeningly Martel strikes again.
Pretty Daily Drop Cap is (as always), by the lovely Jessica Hische.