Friday 19 November 2010

The author for whom we dance

I'd been planning to dig into David Mitchell's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet when I ventured down east for a family visit in December. I'd been waiting because I like to ration Mitchell's new stuff out, though I'm rarely able to do so for long; also, I kept hearing that it wasn't as good as his previous novels and that frightened me a little.

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?


Unknown said...

I am one of those who was not completely satisfied with this one, but it was much better than a lot of other books I've read! Any ideas as to what's next for Mr. Mitchell (seeing as you two are so close and all!)?

J.G. said...

You'll get no objections to any fangirl shrieking from me. I thought Cloud Atlas was extraordinary. As you say, anything by Mitchell has got to be good!

P.S. I feel this way about Hemingway, too. Even when his style is practically self-parody, he's still so . . . something.

Anonymous said...

I'm one of those who rather liked this one. I felt it wasn't completely perfect but also found it hard to pinpoint except in the generic sense of perhaps trying to do too much. The thing is I liked it all ... but then found it a bit hard to pull altogether in my head. A bit vague eh? (You're welcome, of course, to pop over to my blog and read my take).

Stefanie said...

I tend to enjoy shrieking fangirl posts wherever they may crop up because they are so enthusisatic and that is great fun. In my eyes Margaret Atwood can do no wrong. Like Mitchell for you, even a not stellar Atwood book is better than anything else.

Jeanne said...

I'm uncritically enthusiastic about Walker Percy.

nicole said...

I'm glad you ended up liking this one; I was almost worried. And your third paragraph is more than just shrieking. Ah, Mitchell.

Anonymous said...

This is the current book for my bookclub and I have to admit that I'm dreading it. It looks so dense and impenetrable and I'm afraid it's going to be on of those alienating clever novels. Only one other member of the club has embarked on it so far and she flately refused to finish it because it was too much hard work - so it's so nice to read a positive (very very positive) review.

I can think of lots of perfect, shriek-worthy novels, but authors are hard. Lionel Shriver and Sarah Waters probably come closest to my unleashing-shrieking-fangirl writers, but they've certainly disappointed me on occasions. And Virginia Woolf too, but I doubt she'd appreciate cheerleader theatrics.

Bookphilia said...

I love your responses to my shrill post. Thank you for playing along!

Baker's Daughter: Just because I like it doesn't mean it isn't dense and impenetrable. All I know is that if it is those two things, it is so in ways I enjoy. That doesn't clarify things at all, does it? What do you expect? You're the fantastic writer, not me! (You really, really are.)

EVERYONE: Go read Baker's Daughter's blog now!