Beatrice & Virgil

Paperback | February 1, 2011

byYann Martel

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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.

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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...

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 ...

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Format:PaperbackDimensions:224 pages, 7.95 × 5.45 × 0.64 inPublished:February 1, 2011Publisher:Knopf CanadaLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0307398781

ISBN - 13:9780307398789

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Customer Reviews of Beatrice & Virgil

Extra Content

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. Iguess they didn’t like pears. VIRGIL: But pears are so good! I bet you there’s a pear treeright around here. (He looks about.) …  BEATRICE: What does a pear taste like? VIRGIL: Wait. You must smell it first. A ripe pear breathes afragrance that is watery and subtle, its power lyingin the lightness of its impression upon the olfactorysense. Can you imagine the smell of nutmeg orcinnamon? BEATRICE: I can. VIRGIL: The smell of a ripe pear has the same effect on themind as these aromatic spices. The mind is arrested,spellbound, and a thousand and one memories andassociations are thrown up as the mind burrows deepto 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 pear and you will find that its flesh isincandescent white. It glows with inner light. Thosewho carry a knife and a pear are never afraid of thedark. BEATRICE: I must have one. VIRGIL: The texture of a pear, its consistency, is yet anotherdifficult matter to put into words. Some pears are alittle crunchy. BEATRICE: Like an apple? VIRGIL: No, not at all like an apple! An apple resists beingeaten. An apple is not eaten, it is conquered. Thecrunchiness of a pear is far more appealing. It isgiving and fragile. To eat a pear is akin to . . .kissing. BEATRICE: Oh, my. It sounds so good. VIRGIL: The flesh of a pear can be slightly gritty. And yet itmelts in the mouth. BEATRICE: Is such a thing possible? VIRGIL: With every pear. And that is only the look, the feel,the smell, the texture. I have not even told you ofthe taste. BEATRICE: My God! VIRGIL: The taste of a good pear is such that when you eatone, when your teeth sink into the bliss of one, itbecomes a wholly engrossing activity. You want todo nothing else but eat your pear. You would rathersit than stand. You would rather be alone than incompany. You would rather have silence than music.All your senses but taste fall inactive. You seenothing, you hear nothing, you feel nothing—oronly as it helps you to appreciate the divine taste ofyour pear. BEATRICE: But what does it actually taste like? VIRGIL: A pear tastes like, it tastes like . . . (He struggles. Hegives up with a shrug.) I don’t know. I can’t put it intowords. A pear tastes like itself. BEATRICE: (sadly) I wish you had a pear. VIRGIL: And if I had one, I would give it to you. (Silence.)From the Hardcover edition.

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?

Editorial Reviews

INTERNATIONAL BESTSELLER #1 NATIONAL BESTSELLER A Financial Times Best BookFinalist – Saskatchewan Book Awards Fiction AwardFinalist – 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 brilliantly guides the reader from the too-sunny beginning into the terrifying darkness of the old man’s shop and Europe’s past. Everything comes into focus by the end, leaving the reader startled, astonished and moved." — USA Today"The very idea that we think that we have heard the story enough is perhaps a sign that we have not. . . . [R]ead Yann Martel’s Beatrice & Virgil. You will be glad that you did, and you may find yourself seeing your life and the world, both fictional and otherwise, in a different light." — About.com "Martel’s prose is artfully simple and clear. . . . Those who enjoyed the cerebral aspects of Life of Pi will find things to admire." — Winnipeg Free PressFrom the Hardcover edition.