Sunday, November 6, 2011

Beatrice and Virgil

Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel
Random House Publishing Group, 2010
Hardcover, 224 pages
ISBN-13: 9781400069262

When Henry receives a letter from an elderly taxidermist, it poses a puzzle that he cannot resist. As he is pulled further into the world of this strange and calculating man, Henry becomes increasingly involved with the lives of a donkey and a howler monkey—named Beatrice and Virgil—and the epic journey they undertake together.
With all the spirit and originality that made Life of Pi so beloved, this brilliant new novel takes the reader on a haunting odyssey. On the way Martel asks profound questions about life and art, truth and deception, responsibility and complicity.

My Thoughts:
In Yann Martel's fable-like novel Beatrice and Virgil, author Henry L'Hote, who had a wildly successful first book, gives up writing after his second book is rejected by his publisher. He and his wife, Sarah, move to a large city where he concentrates on living. Henry stumbles into an awkward relationship with a taxidermist, also named Henry, who wants his help in writing a play about a donkey and a howler monkey named Beatrice and Virgil. This relationship between the two Henrys and the play is clearly hinting at hidden but much darker secrets. 
Beatrice and Virgil has received a host of mixed reviews since its publication. It seemed to polarize readers to such extremes that the widely vacillating reviews resulted in my procrastinating on reading Beatrice and Virgil because I enjoyed Life of Pi so much. As is sometimes the case I should have just read Beatrice and Virgil sooner and ignored the people who were probably disappointed that it isn't Life of Pi part 2.
Now, I agree with those who concluded that Martel takes a long time to get to the point of the novel, but, in contrast, following along on the journey did not disappoint me. I felt like it made the ending more powerful because of the stark contrast it presents to the rest of the novel. It is allegorical and Martel certainly gives the reader plenty of clues about the true subject matter of the play.  As the description intimates, these clues cover life and art, truth and deception, responsibility and complicity.

Written in simple language but filled with symbolism, Beatrice and Virgil  is a dark novel, especially at the end. (At this point it is probably not a spoiler to mention that it deals with the holocaust.) Most certainly Beatrice and Virgil  will make the reader think about the cruelty men inflict upon each other.
very highly recommended


Henry’s second novel, written, like his first, under a pen name, had done well. It had won prizes and was translated into dozens of languages. Henry was invited to book launches and literary festivals around the world; countless schools and book clubs adopted the book; he regularly saw people reading it on planes and trains; Hollywood was set to turn it into a movie; and so on and so forth.
Henry continued to live what was essentially a normal, anonymous life. Writers seldom become public figures. It’s their books that rightly hog all the publicity. Readers will easily recognize the cover of a book they’ve read, but in a caf√© that man over there, is that . . . is that . . . well, it’s hard to tell—doesn’t he have long hair?—oh, he’s gone. opening

Henry had written a novel because there was a hole in him that needed filling, a question that needed answering, a patch of canvas that needed painting—that blend of anxiety, curiosity and joy that is at the origin of art—and he had filled the hole, answered the question, splashed colour on the canvas, all done for himself, because he had to. Then complete strangers told him that his book had filled a hole in them, had answered a question, had brought colour to their lives. The comfort of strangers, be it a smile, a pat on the shoulder or a word of praise, is truly a comfort. pg. 4-5

But fiction and nonfiction are very rarely published in the same book. That was the hitch. Tradition holds that the two must be kept apart. That is how our knowledge and impressions of life are sorted in bookstores and libraries—separate aisles, separate floors—and that is how publishers prepare their books, imagination in one package, reason in another. It’s not how writers write. A novel is not an entirely unreasonable creation, nor is an essay devoid of imagination. Nor is it how people live. People don’t so rigorously separate the imaginative from the rational in their thinking and in their actions. There are truths and there are lies—these are the transcendent categories, in books as in life. The useful division is between the fiction and nonfiction that speaks the truth and the fiction and nonfiction that utters lies. pg. 6-7

He stopped writing; the urge left him. Was this a case of writer's block? He argued later with Sarah that it wasn't, since a book had been written - two in fact. It was more accurate to call it writer's abandonment. Henry simply gave up. But if he did not write, he would at least live. pg. 20

Still, art is rooted in joy, as his music teacher had pointed out. It was hard after rehearsing a play, or practicing a piece of music, or visiting a museum, or finishing a good book, for Henry not to ache for the access he once had to creative joy. pg. 24-25

Virgil: 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. pg. 50
Virgil: I was thinking about faith.
Beatrice: Were you?
Virgil: To my mind, faith is like being in the sun. When you are in the sun, can you avoid creating a shadow? Can you shake that area of darkness that clings to you, always shaped like, as if constantly to remind you of yourself? You can’t. This shadow is doubt. And it goes wherever you go as long as you stay in the sun. And who wouldn’t want to be in the sun? pg. 103


Anna said...

Glad to see you enjoyed this book. I have a copy but I have been hesitant to read it since I've seen so many reviews in which the reader hated it. I'm intrigued by the Holocaust connection, though. I'll link to your review on War Through the Generations.

Jeanne said...

Very interesting that you liked this one. I'm one of the many who hated it, although I don't believe I was looking for Life of Pi Part Two. This one struck me as pretentious and under-written; allegory is hard to handle in the modern age. Perhaps you were in a more patient frame of mind!

Lori L said...

Anna - I'd give it a try. You might be one of the people who enjoys it.

Jeanne - My "Life of Pi part two" comment was maybe a little snarky, huh? ;-) I can see where you might have found it pretentious but I guess I was feeling patient because it all came together for me in the end and I found it to be a powerful little book.