It doesn’t give me any kind of pleasure to give a book a poor review, but having spent an awfully long time reading something, and trying to engage with it as a work of art, I do feel a bit pissed off if the thing is getting tons of media attention when more modest, but far more skilfully written works are passed over by the monolithic media machine of our publishing culture.
I started reading The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet on my summer holidays, was interrupted, picked it up and got rather bored, was convinced by Cees Nooteboom (who I see is credited in the acknowledgements) to give it another try; and finally yesterday, after a six-hour stint of compulsory bed rest in Birmingham’s Queen Elizabeth Hospital, I managed to get to the end.
Really, I don’t know what all the fuss is about. Mitchell doesn’t write many duff sentences, at least compared with the trashier writers of the day, but then neither are there many great passages of the kind that I enjoyed in Cloud Atlas. However, like the earlier novel, The Thousand Autumns is filled with too many set pieces, and they always, but always sound like set pieces. That’s the price you pay for padding out a longer novel, I guess.
The title is mildly irritating, following as it does the clichéd formula of concept plus OF plus name (preferably an odd-sounding name). But more tiresome is the tedium of the truncated sentence formula alternating with the capacity of all the characters (but particularly de Zoet himself) to think out loud in italics.
It is dear Anna whom I love, Jacob recites, and I whom Anna loves.
Beneath his glaze of sweat he sweats. His bed linen is sodden.
Miss Aibagawa is as untouchable, he thinks, as a woman in a picture . . .
Jacob imagines he can hear a harpsichord.
. . . spied through a keyhole in a cottage happened upon once in a lifetime . . .
The notes are spidery and starlit and spun from glass.
Jacob can hear a harpsichord: it is the doctor, playing in his long attic.
(The doctor, incidentally is one Marinus, who has all the sensibilities of a late 20th century liberal haphazardly dumped into the late eighteenth).
This is not bad writing: it just isn’t much good, and I certainly don’t see why all the leading newspapers’ reviewers swooned over it (and they all did). “I doubt there is another living English writer who is capable of such traversals of worlds and consciousness,” trilled The Guardian. But, reader, I was bored. I yawned a thousand yawns. I kept thinking I was being uncharitable towards Mr Mitchell and should give it a few more pages, but as I drew towards page five hundred and fifty, I felt that I’d been had, and that this was just a bestseller bandwagon book.
I should follow my gut instinct in future and refrain from buying books in airports simply because they have a bunch of rave reviews, but I probably won’t, as from time to time curiosity wins out.