Saturday, May 22, 2010

What about Beatrice and Virgil?

The top plant is good; bottom plant is not good - the plant critic.

--“Except for luminous moments, the book's language lacks luster, and the symbols positively crash.” Michael Autrey, special to The Oregonian.

--“Beatrice and Virgil is so dull, so misguided, so pretentious that only the prospect of those millions of Pi fans could secure the interest of major publishers and a multimillion-dollar advance.” Ron Charles, The Washington Post.

--“This novel just might be a masterpiece about the Holocaust…. somehow Martel brilliantly guides the reader from the too-sunny beginning into the terrifying darkness of the old man’s shop and Europe’s past. Everything comes into focus by the end, leaving the reader startled, astonished and moved.” Published in Deirdre Donahue, USA Today.

--“Extraordinary…. A novel that is ambiguous and inscrutable — but also provocative and brilliantly imagined.” Adam Woog, The Seattle Times.

What do you make of these four quotations from reviewers of Yann Martel’s Beatrice and Virgil? Agnes and I just read it. We both loved Life of Pi and were looking forward to his latest book. Agnes asked me what I thought of Beatrice and Virgil; I said, “7 out of 10.” She said “That’s where I’d put it too.” A friend lent us the book; she said she couldn’t put it down.

“There’s no accounting for taste.” So when one reader loves a book and another hates it, this comes as no surprise.

But when 4 professional reviewers are so far apart in their assessment of a book’s quality, one has to question their skill, their motives or both.

Beatrice and Virgil is a book where the sentence, “It’s sort of like . . .” has no ending. It’s innovative, breaks new ground while it breaks old rules of novel writing. Perhaps new rules of novel reviewing are called for.

I have a theory. When a novel is as symbolic, as allegorical as is Beatrice and Virgil, the readers who “don’t get it” either fly into a frustrated rage and pan it mercilessly, or they praise it fawningly in hopes that others will assume they “got it.” Most of us get it in part, don’t get it in part, and end up judging it on the basis of whether or not it “tasted good.”

Then there’s that other temptation: harsh criticism has the inherent quality of suggesting that the critic is smarter than the one being criticized.

A good piece of art has the power to heighten the observer’s perception of the world. I think Beatrice and Virgil has the potential of doing this for at least some readers.

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