Friday 19 November 2010
The author for whom we dance
Last week, I became entirely unable to wait any longer, partly because I suddenly dismissed all the doubters' warnings, wondering to myself how many who were disappointed with this new novel have read only Cloud Atlas? The narrative and structural pyrotechnics of Cloud Atlas make it stand apart from almost everything else going, and rightly so. But one of the many things that makes Mitchell a genius, and probably the English-speaking world's greatest living author, is that not only does it make no sense to compare him to other writers - he can't even be compared to himself! Every book is too radically different from the last for such comparisons to make sense. The only thing one can really say is, as my friend Vee did the other day: Even if a David Mitchell book isn't the best David Mitchell book, it's still better than everything else.
Cloud Atlas is the high literary equivalent of explosions and jazz hands; The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is a quiet, subtle study of longing and desire with some spooky fantasy thrown in for good measure. It's a romance that defies everything that romance does, while still containing echoes of Romeo and Juliet, of all things! Well, perhaps I shouldn't use that surprised exclamation point - Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy in large part because its lovers are so stupidly, adolescently naive. Jacob is similarly afflicted with the great heaving sighs of the young at the beginning of his tale but experience quickly teaches him that there are boundaries between individuals that really cannot be crossed. Not just that the price to be paid trying to do so will be death; but that there is really no way over.
I don't claim that The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is perfect; it probably isn't, but I personally can't say how. I know that there are sections of it that I liked better than others; I am not as fond of the space devoted to Captain Penhaligon as I am of the rest of the novel. Cloud Atlas, I believe to be perfect - not perfect in the fun but ultimately rather sterile way Tom Jones is, but in that way literature should be - it exceeds and defies all expectations and is ridiculously gorgeously written to boot. In this way, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is also perfect, or very close, in my opinion. Every move Mitchell made in this novel surprised me, but it always worked. And I have an extremely annoying inability to be surprised by books much anymore, so this is saying something. And the writing...if I were given to keeping a commonplace book of beautiful quotations, which I am not, because that is much too Victorian, it would be half-filled just with lines from The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.
Yes, this post was the bloggish equivalent of a shrieking fangirl shrieking a lot. I never claimed to be impartial about David Mitchell. Which author(s) are you unable to be impartial about?