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Yann Martel: In Praise of Book Clubs

Tuesday, February 22nd, 2011

martel_yannHello, lovers of books.Beatrice and Virgil

A curious and wonderful thing, the book club. When I was a teenager, in the late 1970s, I don’t think they existed. I certainly never heard of any, and my parents and I were no strangers to the pleasures of reading and the world of books. Then, fifteen, twenty years ago, I’m not sure when exactly, they exploded onto the literary scene. Now, there are book clubs everywhere, formed by every kind of group and catering to every taste, and everyone seems to be a member of one. Why have book clubs emerged as a major cultural institution in America?

Each of you has an answer that reflects your experience and explains why you’re a member of a book club. Let me venture some of my thoughts.

I believe that book clubs have gained such enduring popularity because they are rooted in the notion of gift-giving, that is, of giving and doing something for nothing. Reading a book and sitting around talking about it with friends is an activity that has no profit-motive. You don’t do it for money; you do it for the simple pleasure of it, you do it for free. And that, in a society where what is free has been completely devalued, is a blessed relief.

To expand on this notion, I should mention a curious, exceedingly private book club of which I was a member until very recently. For close to four years I shared books with someone. No, it wasn’t with my sweetheart, though she does love to read, nor was it with a friend. It was with the Prime Minister of Canada, a stiff little man named Stephen Harper. Every two weeks I sent him a book and a letter in which I discussed the worth of that book. Why did I do this? Because I see in Mr. Harper a man whose heart and mind are bereft of the spirit of gift-giving, a man untouched and unmoved by the literary book. He’s a petty, divisive, ideologically-driven politician, keen on the simple idea rather than the fruitful but complicated compromise. His ideals are not dreams for the world but walls against it. This type is not unknown to American politics, I believe.

I wrote one hundred letters to Mr. Harper, sent him one hundred books. That’s a lot of books and a lot of letters. For all my efforts, I received this many replies from Mr. Harper: zero, not a one, nada, zilch. (I’ve kept a public witness of my lonely book club with the Prime Minister of Canada at www.whatisstephenharperreading.com. There readers will find every book with every letter.) What is the nature of a book that is gifted? Let’s look at that.

For starters, a gift, be it a book or anything else, is given freely, without strings attached. That’s the definition of a gift. Something exchanged for money or services is, ipso facto, no longer a gift. As Lewis Hyde points out in his wise and wonderful book The Gift, a gift also creates attachment, while a commodity, an item that is bought or sold, creates detachment. When you buy something, you are alone and sovereign in your possession of it, indebted to no one. But a gift, given or received, creates an emotional link. You are grateful to someone for their gift, you remember them, you wish them well. The mercantile exchange of goods goes toward creating independence and isolation, while the giving of gifts does the opposite, creates relationships and fosters interdependence. That matches the atmosphere of a book club, does it not, one of relationship and interdependence?

A gift has more worth than a purchase. Let’s take the example of a nice shirt you’ve been eyeing in a window shop. It looks mighty fine and you want it. But it’s expensive. Finally, telling yourself you only live once, you splurge and you buy the shirt. You look good in it and it becomes your favorite shirt. Yet look what happens next. After a year or two, you’ve got used to that fine shirt. After thirty, forty washes, it’s lost some of its sharp look. It’s even getting a bit tattered. Then a stain ruins it, but you can still wear it when you’re doing work around the house. And fashions have changed anyway. In the last stage, if the shirt is not outright thrown away, it’s torn to pieces and turned into rags.

So with all things purchased: a ceaseless frothing up of psychic excitement followed by a slide into indifference. We buy and sell so many things in the West, we build our cities and our economies and our lives to serve this type of exchange—yet so few of these purchases truly matter to us. What is bought has no real worth. That is why it must be given apparent worth by being valued in mercantile terms and traded for cold hard cash, because it is inherently worth nothing. Its value is artificial.

The gift, on the other hand, the true gift, lodges itself in the memory and in the heart. Remember the dying words of Citizen Kane, that man of vast wealth and power: “Rosebud.”

Rosebud was a gift.

What we give for nothing, we give with meaning. The gift is wrapped in tenderness and thoughtfulness. The gift, however small in mercantile value, is the token of something that cannot be priced. Is that not, once again, the atmosphere of a book club, a discussion whose worth cannot be priced, conveyed in a spirit of tenderness and thoughtfulness?

A gift has latent value, that is, a worth beneath the surface. A book is a material object, a thing. But turn the cover, read it, love it, and its material basis is left behind as it becomes an object in the mind, that co-creation between the writer’s imagination and the reader’s. Once read, a book becomes part of us. Meanwhile, the object that has only surface value, the bauble, the knickknack, the widget, remains on the outside, transitory and perishable. And a book given to us can be given again, given onwards, with none of its value lost, the spirit of the gift kept alive by being kept in motion. Again, are we not here entering the realm of the book club, where we give and take freely with our words and feelings, round and round, month after month?

A book club operates in the spirit of a gift. It’s a grand idea, even a revolutionary one. So if you’re a member of a book club, take proper stock of what you’re doing. You’re fostering that greatest of all goods: a community.

That, I believe, is why book clubs have become so embedded in our social fabric, because they create a sense of community, and a sense of community is the best defense against the Harpers of this world. When everything else pulls us apart, the book club, centered on the sharing of a book, keeps us together.

Yann Martel’s most recent novel,
Beatrice and Virgil, is now available in paperback.

A conversation with Yann Martel, author of BEATRICE AND VIRGIL and LIFE OF PI

Tuesday, December 14th, 2010

Beatrice and Virgil comes to paperback February 22, 2011.Beatrice and Virgil

Random House Reader’s Circle: How close is Henry – a successful author struggling with his new book – to Yann Martel?

Yann Martel: Close and not so close. I did struggle, but there was no knife at the end of it. Only a greater understanding, and a hope that readers will have traveled with me.

RHRC: How did the idea for Beatrice & Virgil first come to you?

YM: I’ve been fascinated by the Holocaust since I was told about it as a ten-year-old child living in France. As an adult, I’ve been wondering for years what I could say fictionally about an event that so repels the imagination’s attempts to approach it. This matters to me because I’m a writer of fiction, of invented tales that tell the truth. Life of Pi, with its use of animals, helped me see one way. If I could not approach the tragedy in human disguise, then perhaps I could in animal disguise. After that, Beatrice & Virgil involved a lot of reading, writing, and rewriting. It was a challenging book to write artistically.

RHRC: In both Life of Pi and Beatrice and Virgil, you use animals to tell a story and to communicate universal themes. Tell us about this decision.

YM: I find it easier to suspend my reader’s disbelief if I use animals as characters. We are cynical about our own species, less so about wild animals. There’s also the fact that animals in fiction are mostly confined to children’s literature, which puzzles me. What exactly is childish about a tiger or a monkey? At any rate, it leaves me with the sense of not feeling crowded in my field.

RHRC: Did you do any specific research on the Holocaust?

YM: You can’t write about the Holocaust without starting with a sound knowledge of it. In addition to books I read earlier in my life, I read about eighty new books before writing a word of Beatrice and Virgil. I also visited Auschwitz three times, the last visit lasting two weeks. And I went to Israel to explore Yad Vashem. All this despite the fact that my novel does not deal with the Holocaust on a factual level. But I wanted to be in the right place spiritually. I remember spending hours wandering about Auschwitz-Birkenau. It was a bitterly cold winter, the ground covered with a thick layer of snow.

RHRC: You use an incredible variety of fictional devices in Beatrice and Virgil – a novel, a short story, a play, “Games for Gustav.” What are the limitations of nonfiction, especially when examining subjects like the Holocaust and human suffering, and what alternative can fiction offer a reader?

martel_yannYM: Non-fiction is limited by having to stick to known facts. Fiction, on the other hand, has a duty to stick to emotional or psychological truth, which may or may not conform to factual truth. This difference allows great freedom of form in fiction and a compactness that non-fiction can never match.

RHRC: You traveled to India and visited numerous zoos while you were writing Life of Pi. What research did you do for this book to learn about what tools taxidermists use and their process?

YM: A fire that destroyed a famous taxidermy firm in Paris, Deyrolles, in 2008, gave me the idea to use taxidermy in Beatrice and Virgil. Taxidermists are a dying breed. They still exist here and there in rural areas or in places where people hunt, but with rare exceptions, they’ve vanished from urban consciousness. Deyrolles was a relic from a past age. The taxidermy elements of Beatrice and Virgil came from the only place where taxidermy still lives on, in books. I spent weeks at the British Library, which rivals the Library of Congress in the number of books it has. There I found books tracing the history and practice of giving lifelike form back to animal whose spirit has gone.

RHRC: When you were interviewed for Life of Pi, you mentioned that at the time of writing you “had neither family nor career to show for [your] 33 years on Earth.” Since Life of Pi, you have had a young son – has this changed how you write or how you approach your characters?

YM: No. I write the same. I just have less time for it. And if writing fails me, I will have my family to lean on.

RHRC: Why did you choose to set the book and the play within it in unspecified or abstract locations?

YM: Because to locate in is to distance from. So a Holocaust story set in Berlin, for example, takes place somewhere else and involves someone else if one doesn’t live in Berlin. That specificity may be true of the actual Holocaust, but it’s not true of the origin of great evil, which can emerge anywhere. Each one of us today perhaps rubbed shoulders with a Hitler-like character.

RHRC: Why did you choose to name both of the central characters “Henry”?

YM: For the same reason that the novel and play are set in undisclosed locations. I didn’t want distance between the subject (Henry the writer) and the object (Henry the taxidermist).

RHRC: In the book, both Henry the protagonist and Henry the taxidermist say they are attempting to “bear witness” through their respective crafts. Tell us about the concept of bearing witness and using art to do it.

YM: I think art is unmatched in bearing witness because art provides its own context. A novel, a musical composition, a painting stands on its own, without need of external explanation. So art endures long after history is forgotten. Take as an example George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Common knowledge of 20th-century Russian history may fade, but Orwell’s fable, using the language of allegory, will stand as a concise explanation of what happened to Russians under Stalin. Art has an amazing ability to get to the heart of things. Art is the ultimate suitcase, conveying the essential.

RHRC: Writers from Flaubert to Orwell, Dante to Lessing play their parts in Beatrice & Virgil; Beckett and Diderot seem particular influences on the play-within-a-book. What is their influence on you, and on this novel?

YM: Each showed me that horror can yield artful words.

RHRC: Henry says that he hopes to expand our range of possible responses to the Holocaust. Is this your aim with Beatrice & Virgil? What do you hope readers will take from the book?

YM: Absolutely it’s my aim to expand our range of possible responses to the Holocaust. I see Beatrice and Virgil as a mnemonic novel, a novel that helps remember, but remember in a new way, so that a reader who’s read it will now think of the Holocaust when he or she sees a donkey, say, or eats a pear, or puts on a shirt, or sees a red cloth, and so on.

Questions for Discussion

1. What is Beatrice & Virgil about?

2. Why do you think Martel decided to name both of his characters “Henry”?

3. Discuss the characters of Beatrice and Virgil. Why might Martel have chosen them to be a donkey and a howler monkey, and why might he have chosen to name these characters after Dante’s guides through hell, purgatory, and heaven?

4. What do you think of Henry’s original idea for his book? Do you agree with him that the Holocaust needs to be remembered in different ways, beyond the confines of “historical realism”? Why, or why not?

5. How would you compare Beatrice & Virgil to Life of Pi? How do Yann Martel’s aims in the two novels differ, and how are they similar?

6. Close to the start of the book, Henry (the writer) says, “A book is a part of speech. At the heart of mine is an incredibly upsetting event that can survive only in dialogue” (p. 12). What does this mean? How does his comment inform the book we are reading?

7. Describe the role Flaubert’s story “The Legend of Saint Julian Hospitator” plays in the novel.

8. How do you explain Henry’s wife’s reaction to the taxidermist and his workshop?

9. How do you feel about the play “A 20th-Century Shirt”? Could it be performed? What role does it play in the book?

10. What moral challenges does Beatrice & Virgil present the reader with? What does it leave you thinking about?

11. How is writing like or unlike taxidermy in the book?

12. What role do Erasmus and Mendelssohn play in the novel?

13. What is the significance of 68 Nowolipki Street?

14. How is Henry changed by the events of the novel? How does this relate to Beatrice and Virgil having “no reason to change” (p. 151) over the course of their play?

15. What would you put in your own sewing kit?

A chance for your book club to chat with BEATRICE AND VIRGIL author Yann Martel

Tuesday, November 9th, 2010

Beatrice and VirgilWe were very excited recently to hear that Beatrice and Virgil (and Life of Pi) author Yann Martel will be available for a book club interview for a new video series we’re creating here at Random House. One reading group will chat with him on December 3rd at 5pm Pacific time, to discuss his latest novel Beatrice and Virgil, which USA Today has hailed as “dark and divine…a masterpiece.”

If you and your club are interested, have a computer with a video camera and the capability to use Skype, please e-mail rhpg@randomhouse.com with your name, location, and number of group members, and we’ll randomly select one lucky club.

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