Throughout the past week I’ve dove into the reading I have to prep out for the upcoming year. Beatrice & Virgil by Yann Martell was at the top of my list as it is the summer reading selection for one of my new classes and seemed the most accessible. I knew of Martell through Life of Pi (of which I also have to read for this class – I’ve only seen the movie) and was curious of his voice and the tone/motif he would work with for the story.
I ended up being conflicted with a couple of things.
The story starts of with Henry, a writer, in the final processes of finishing his second book – a creative risk – after a wildly successful preliminary release. Before even considering the subject matter, I’m annoyed. I hate (for the most part) when writers tell a story about a writer because it always has a feeling of “Is this about him?” Relative to Martel, I still don’t know the answer to this question. To get an answer, you have to consider the next part of information Martell gives us about Henry.
Oh BTW, consider here on out riddled with spoilers.
Henry, at the beginning of the story, is awaiting notes on his story from publishers. His story focuses on telling fictionalized accounts of the Holocaust in an effort to achieve a greater understanding of the people who lived through the period, the emotions they experienced, and what, if anything, was learned from the situation. He intended on creating a flip book (two books placed back to back – not the old school make-pictures-move thing) with the fictionalized story on one side, and then the other side being an essay discussing representations of the Holocaust in media. And that’s the phrase I could not escape throughout the story…
“Representations of the Holocaust in media” is a perplexing idea. On the obvious hand, there is the guttural “why the fuck is this your example” reaction, along with the inescapable thought that if you are analyzing representations of the Holocaust in media, aren’t you giving critique to the way we, as a society, analyze or account for things, thereby questioning the accounts themselves in the process? Martell argues no. Or, tries to.
His publishers have the reaction I do. They shred his concept and execution to pieces over the course of a rather tense meeting, dismantling any second book swag Henry (who, lets be real. has to be a stand-in for Martell in this drawn-out meditation of his aforementioned basic argument) had in the transition from book one to book two. Henry, demoralized, ups and moves to an undisclosed European city (See below photo an my disdain for the way he describes that spot) in an effort to begin a new life.
Life is easy for Henry after that. He becomes involved in many different things. Yet, letters from fans keep finding him. The love for his literature keeps being voiced by many fans, leaving his previous life still connected to him. One day a fan sends him a copy of a story – Flaubert‘s “The Legend of Saint Julian Hospitator” (Thanks Wikipedia) -along with a copy of his manuscript, Beatrice & Virgil. Without going too far in to the Flaubert story, Henry is fascinated by the notes his fan leaves within it. He details the myriad of ways the protagonist would kill hordes of animals yet leaves no note to the ways the protagonist would redeem himself later in his life. He is obsessed with the atrocities committed in the earlier parts of the story. Insert the fan’s story Beatrice & Virgil – a tale of a Donkey and a Howler Monkey, essentially, having a conversation.
Henry is hooked. He finds the fan and departs to meet him.
The fan, as Henry finds out is a Taxidermist (hence the animals). He meets him in his shop and finds his name is Henry.
Yes, Henry the writer meet Henry the Taxidermist, another stop on this annoying train of pretension that is this extended mediation on writing and how we engage with story.
From there, the back third of the book transpires and I don’t want to speak too much to what happens as I do bigger picture ideas. Much like the representations discussion above, the Henry versus Henry arc creates another opening of argument. Is what happens after Henry moves to the fictionalized European spot literal, or is it another extended mediation on writers block and internal reflection? If it is the later, how does that integrate with the actual subject matter of Henry the writer’s book? Do they work together? It would be hard to argue that they don’t. Further, if we find that the mediation on representations and reflections work together within the guise of Henry, how can that be applied to the argument Martell is attempting to discuss. We’d find that Henry’s struggle and realization mirrors the journey that we, the reader, go on in Martell’s story. It would have to. His ultimate argument would be that we, as a society, can only ever know something by being open to thought and continually reflecting on what we witness.
Maybe this is a point that has worth to the 10th graders I will take through this tale. I’m not sure. There are other takeaways to be made – though none interest me more than that. It’s been the thought that has lingered through the books i have tackled since cracking Beatrice & Virgil‘s pages.