Beatrice & Virgil

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Beatrice & Virgil

by Yann Martel

Knopf Canada | February 1, 2011 | Trade Paperback

Beatrice & Virgil is rated 3.75 out of 5 by 4.
Henry’s second novel, written, like his first, under a pen name, had done well.
 
Yann Martel’s astonishing new novel begins with a successful writer attempting to publish his latest book, made up of a novel and an essay. Henry plans for it to be a “flip book” that the reader can start at either end, reading the novel or the essay first, because both pieces are equally concerned with representations of the Holocaust. His aim is to give the most horrifying of tragedies “a new choice of stories,” in order that it be remembered anew and in more than one way.
 
But no one is sympathetic to his provocative idea. What is your book about? his editor repeatedly asks. Should it be placed in the fiction section of a bookstore or with the non-fiction books? a bookseller asks. And where will the barcode go? To them, Henry’s book is an unpublishable disaster. Faced with severe and categorical rejection, Henry gives up hope. He abandons writing, moves with his wife to a foreign city, joins a community theatre, becomes a waiter in a chocolatería. But then he receives a package containing a scene from a play, photocopies from a short story by Flaubert – about a man who hunts animals down relentlessly – and a short note: “I need your help.”
 
Intrigued, Henry tracks down his correspondent, and finds himself in a strange part of the city, walking past a stuffed okapi into a taxidermist’s workshop. The taxidermist – also named Henry – says he has been working on his play, A 20th-Century Shirt, for most of his life, but now he needs Henry’s help to describe his characters: the play’s protagonists are a stuffed donkey and a howler monkey named Beatrice and Virgil, respectively, and Henry’s successful book was in part about animals. He wants help to finish his play and, we may suspect, free himself from it. And though his new acquaintance is austere, abrupt and almost unearthly, Henry the writer is drawn more and more deeply into Henry the taxidermist’s uncompromising world.
 
The same goes for the reader. The more we read of the play within the novel, the more we find out about the lives of Beatrice and Virgil – in a series of initially funny, and then increasingly harrowing dialogues – the more troubling their story becomes. As we are drawn deeper into their disturbing moral fable, the relationship between the two faltering writers named Henry becomes more and more complex until it can only be resolved in an explosive, unexpected catastrophe.
 
Though Beatrice & Virgil is initially as wry and engaging as anything Yann Martel has written, this book gradually grows into something more, a shattering and ultimately transfixing work that asks searching questions about the nature of our understanding of history, the meaning of suffering and the value of art. Together it is a pioneeringly original and profoundly moving accomplishment, one that meets Kafka’s description of what a book should be: the axe for the frozen sea within us.


From the Hardcover edition.

Format: Trade Paperback

Dimensions: 224 pages, 7.95 × 5.45 × 0.64 in

Published: February 1, 2011

Publisher: Knopf Canada

Language: English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10: 0307398781

ISBN - 13: 9780307398789

Found in: Fiction and Literature

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Reviews

Rated 4 out of 5 by from Very unique After I started reading Beatrice & Vigil, I couldn't put it down. I understand why some people may have thought the beginning of the book dragged, but I personally really enjoyed the long passages of description. I gradually fell in love with the characters of Beatrice and Virlgil. There was a good mix of seriousness and mild humor. It was a nice switch from the often too serious and heartwrenching novels that usually protray the holocaust. The only flaw I could name is the slightly rushed ending in comparison to the rest of the book. But all in all, I recommend this book. It is sure to stay in your thoughts long after having read it.
Date published: 2011-10-04
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Wasn't expecting that... The same brilliant Canadian author of the award winning novel "Life of Pi" also wrote "Beatrice & Virgil", an amazing, yet horrifying, story of an author befriending an taxidermist. Martel is an amazing author and can tell a great story, while always leaving the best part for last. I don't want to write in much detail, but it's about a young author named Henry who wishes to write a story about WWII differently from all he others. When he finally gives up and almost moves on from his formal 'celebrated author' life, he receives a package from a fan which includes Gustave Flaubert's short story "The Legend of Saint Julian Hospitator" and a segment the fan's play where Virgil tries to describe a pear to Beatrice. This fan ends up being a taxidermist who is wishing to finish his play with the help of Henry. This novel, though short, is a delectable read, and just like "Life of Pi" the ending will blow you away and make you read it all over again.
Date published: 2011-09-15
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Haunting Well, a $12 price tag at Costco led me to pick up Martel's latest, Beatrice & Virgil - a interesting, surprising macabre tale of the Holocaust by way of an allegorical play concerning the interactions between a howler monkey, Virgil, and a donkey, Beatrice. Martel, for the most part, knows how to write some great prose. The first 100 pages, while I can see someone finding them boring, actually drew me in with the relative inaction of the storyline and the taxidermist's Beckett-lite play. However things, I felt, slowed down around there, and picked up with, in my opinion, a somewhat hurried ending, which was not succinct enough for my liking, I'll admit. I admire Martel's ambition here, and it is a book I recommend: I could definitely see some people loving this work. While I enjoyed the closing "Games for Gustav" epilogue, the ending left somewhat of a bad taste in my mouth. This book will be remembered - for me anyway - as one where the thematic value completely outweighs the actual story. While I'm not entirely a narrative junkie, this book just needed a bit more 'umph' for me.
Date published: 2011-04-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from slow starting but so worth it of the 198 pages in this book, I found the first 140 or so to drag. But then the race, inability to stop for the last 60 pages, is why I'll say I loved this book. This is my first Yann Martel book - can't wait to see what I've been missing.
Date published: 2011-04-05

– More About This Product –

Beatrice & Virgil

by Yann Martel

Format: Trade Paperback

Dimensions: 224 pages, 7.95 × 5.45 × 0.64 in

Published: February 1, 2011

Publisher: Knopf Canada

Language: English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10: 0307398781

ISBN - 13: 9780307398789

Read from the Book

( Virgil and Beatrice are sitting at the foot of the tree. They are looking out blankly. Silence. )   VIRGIL: What I’d give for a pear.   BEATRICE: A pear?   VIRGIL: Yes. A ripe and juicy one.   ( Pause .)   BEATRICE: I’ve never had a pear.   VIRGIL: What?   BEATRICE: In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever set eyes on one.   VIRGIL: How is that possible? It’s a common fruit.   BEATRICE: My parents were always eating apples and carrots. I guess they didn’t like pears.   VIRGIL: But pears are so good! I bet you there’s a pear tree right around here. ( He looks about. )   …     BEATRICE: What does a pear taste like?   VIRGIL: Wait. You must smell it first. A ripe pear breathes a fragrance that is watery and subtle, its power lying in the lightness of its impression upon the olfactory sense. Can you imagine the smell of nutmeg or cinnamon?   BEATRICE: I can.   VIRGIL: The smell of a ripe pear has the same effect on the mind as these aromatic spices. The mind is arrested, spellbound, and a thousand and one memories and associations are thrown up as the mind burrows deep to understand the allure of this beguiling smell— which it never comes to understand, by the way.   BEATRICE: But how does it taste? I can’t wait any longer.   VIRGIL: A ripe pear overflows with sweet juiciness.   BEATRICE: Oh, that sounds good.   VIRGIL: Slice a
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From the Publisher

Henry’s second novel, written, like his first, under a pen name, had done well.
 
Yann Martel’s astonishing new novel begins with a successful writer attempting to publish his latest book, made up of a novel and an essay. Henry plans for it to be a “flip book” that the reader can start at either end, reading the novel or the essay first, because both pieces are equally concerned with representations of the Holocaust. His aim is to give the most horrifying of tragedies “a new choice of stories,” in order that it be remembered anew and in more than one way.
 
But no one is sympathetic to his provocative idea. What is your book about? his editor repeatedly asks. Should it be placed in the fiction section of a bookstore or with the non-fiction books? a bookseller asks. And where will the barcode go? To them, Henry’s book is an unpublishable disaster. Faced with severe and categorical rejection, Henry gives up hope. He abandons writing, moves with his wife to a foreign city, joins a community theatre, becomes a waiter in a chocolatería. But then he receives a package containing a scene from a play, photocopies from a short story by Flaubert – about a man who hunts animals down relentlessly – and a short note: “I need your help.”
 
Intrigued, Henry tracks down his correspondent, and finds himself in a strange part of the city, walking past a stuffed okapi into a taxidermist’s workshop. The taxidermist – also named Henry – says he has been working on his play, A 20th-Century Shirt, for most of his life, but now he needs Henry’s help to describe his characters: the play’s protagonists are a stuffed donkey and a howler monkey named Beatrice and Virgil, respectively, and Henry’s successful book was in part about animals. He wants help to finish his play and, we may suspect, free himself from it. And though his new acquaintance is austere, abrupt and almost unearthly, Henry the writer is drawn more and more deeply into Henry the taxidermist’s uncompromising world.
 
The same goes for the reader. The more we read of the play within the novel, the more we find out about the lives of Beatrice and Virgil – in a series of initially funny, and then increasingly harrowing dialogues – the more troubling their story becomes. As we are drawn deeper into their disturbing moral fable, the relationship between the two faltering writers named Henry becomes more and more complex until it can only be resolved in an explosive, unexpected catastrophe.
 
Though Beatrice & Virgil is initially as wry and engaging as anything Yann Martel has written, this book gradually grows into something more, a shattering and ultimately transfixing work that asks searching questions about the nature of our understanding of history, the meaning of suffering and the value of art. Together it is a pioneeringly original and profoundly moving accomplishment, one that meets Kafka’s description of what a book should be: the axe for the frozen sea within us.


From the Hardcover edition.

About the Author

The award-winning author of four previous books, the most recent of which is What Is Stephen Harper Reading?, Yann Martel was born in Spain in 1963. He studied philosophy at Trent University, worked at odd jobs - tree planter, dishwasher, security guard - and travelled widely before turning to writing. He was awarded the Journey Prize for the title story in The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios. His second novel, Life of Pi, won the 2002 Man Booker, among other prizes.

Yann Martel lives in Saskatoon with the writer Alice Kuipers and their son.


From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews

INTERNATIONAL BESTSELLER #1 NATIONAL BESTSELLER A Financial Times Best Book Finalist – Saskatchewan Book Awards Fiction Award Finalist – Saskatchewan Book Awards Saskatoon Book Award "Brilliant. . . . The subject of Beatrice & Virgil is not just one boy’s improbable adventure, but the very real horror of the Holocaust, and the difficulty of doing it justice in telling it. Martel works not at two levels, but several. . . . Be assured that with this short, crisply written, many-layered book, Martel has once again demonstrated that nothing tells the truth like fiction." — The Plain Dealer "Ruptures the division between worlds real and imagined, forcing us to reconsider how we think of documentary writing. Forget what this book is ‘about’: Yann Martel’s new novel not only opens us to the emotional and psychological truths of fiction, but also provides keys to open its fictions ourselves, and to become, in some way, active participants in their creation." — The Globe and Mail "A chilling addition to the literature about the horrors most of us cannot imagine, and will stir its readers to think about the depths of depravity to which humanity can sink and the amplitude of our capacity to survive." — The Huffington Post "Dark but divine. . . . Martel knows exactly what he’s doing in this lean little allegory about a talking donkey and monkey. This novel just might be a masterpiece about the Holocaust. . . . Somehow Martel
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Bookclub Guide

1. What is Beatrice & Virgil about?

2. Discuss the main characters. What are Henry and the taxidermist like? How are they different from one another, and in what ways are they similar? What are Beatrice and Virgil like?

3. 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?

4. What is the importance of self-reflexivity in the novel? For example, does Henry remind you of Yann Martel? How does Beatrice & Virgil relate to the book that Henry wanted to publish originally? Who writes the story?

5. How would you compare Beatrice & Virgil to Life of Pi? How do Yann Martel’s aims in the two novels differ, and how does he go about achieving them?

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). Why would this be the case? How does it influence the form of the book we are reading?

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

8. Why doesn’t the waiter at the café address the taxidermist?

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

10. How do you feel about the play A 20th-Century Shirt? Could it be performed? Does it remind you of anything? What role does it play in the book?

11. Who are Beatrice and Virgil in literature? Which other books and writers do you find influencing this one, and with what effects?

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

13. What are the different kinds of theatre, acting and performance in Beatrice & Virgil and what do they add to the book?

14. What is the significance of names in the novel, especially Henry’s full name?

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

16. What role do Erasmus and Mendelssohn play in the novel, and why does it matter?

17. What is your favourite part of Beatrice & Virgil?

18. How do the two parts of the book relate? How do they connect to Henry’s original plan for his book? Or, to put it another way: why “Games for Gustav”?

19. What do Henry’s non-literary activities – music lessons, waiting tables – tell us about him as a character? What else do they add to the book?

20. 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?

21. Beatrice & Virgil stresses compound words, new words, overvalued words, words that are “cold, muddy toads trying to understand sprites dancing in a field” (p. 88) – what are some of the key words in the book, and how are words important as a theme in the novel?

22. How do Henry and Henry help each other write?

23. What is the significance of 68 Nowolipki Street?

24. Does Beatrice & Virgil itself aim to “make the Holocaust portable” for modern memory? Does it succeed in doing so? How does the book’s ending change things?

25. What is the significance of the word “Aukitz” in the novel, and in the book design?

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