The “Big Book” and its Discontents…

Every writer wants a “Big Book”; the question is – why…?

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje (image courtesy Goodreads)

One of the phenomena of the last 30-40 years of publishing has been the “Big Book.” You know the language that is associated with such works: “Must Read!” “Stunning!” “A Triumph!” These “career making” successes have been, for the most part, mixed blessings for the writers lucky? talented? deserving? enough to catch the zeitgeist of the reading public. Some writers have used these as springboards to great commercial success; others, usually the literary fiction types like Michael Ondaatje, the subject of this essay and the author of The English Patient, have found them helpful (Mr. Ondaatje has had a long, distinguished career in literary work as both a poet and novelist before and after this novel found great success) – at least, I assume he found it so.

I’ve chosen a few “Big Book” selections for my 2014 reading list and its update. The English Patient is the first of these and in both its iterations it reflects the classic characteristics of the “Big Book” phenomenon….

Though there were writers even earlier whose new books were “events,” one could argue that the first of the true literary types to experience the “Big Book” treatment was F. Scott Fitzgerald whose 1920 first novel This Side of Paradise both made him famous and ruined his life. Certainly no writer spent more time trying to overcome that early success – or wasted more of his talent on supporting the lifestyle of a “Big Book” author. And there’s that final irony: his greatest achievement, The Great Gatsby, was not a “Big Book.” It flopped upon publication and Fitzgerald was long dead before it achieved its current high station in American literature. Fitzgerald’s two most famous American contemporaries, Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner, had rather different experiences. Hemingway’s “Big Book,”  For Whom the Bell Tolls, appeared several novels into Papa’s career – Hemingway by then was well into his “writer as celebrity” trip; his “Big Book” only served to solidify both his status as such with the public and intensify his own struggle between Papa the media star and Ernest the writer. Faulkner, of course, never had a “Big Book,” unless you want to count The Reivers, which had no effect on Faulkner – mainly because he was dead by the time the book achieved “Big Book” status.

You’ll note here that I’m looking mainly at “litfic” types. The other sorts of “Big Book” authors – those like the doyenne of “Big Book” authors, Margaret Mitchell, whose Gone With the Wind was/is a cottage industry, or Grace Metalious, whose Peyton Place gave us a term for the sordid undercurrents of small town life, were not particularly good writers except in the sense that they told stories that captured the public’s imagination. Mitchell never wrote another book and Metalious wrote works that sold increasingly fewer copies.

Then there are those who, like Mitchell, became cottage industries – but as genre writers. These are writers of varying degrees of talent and include giants such as Agatha Christie, Barbara Cartland, and Stephen King. All had numerous “Big Books” but seem to have been less affected by them – perhaps because the expectations of genre writing, whether mystery/crime, romance, or horror, freed them from the stresses literary fiction writers, whose subject matter can and does vary wildly, feel.  Current successful practitioners of this sort of stuff include Nicholas Sparks and James Patterson.

I suppose, even at this late date, that we should define what a “Big Book” is. David Comfort does this brilliantly in his excellent Insider’s Guide to Publishing which I reviewed recently. Comfort describes such a book as one that, while usually heavily promoted by a publisher (as all the above mentioned works were), actually captures somehow the public’s interest and thus becomes a widely read and discussed work. There are usually movies made of such books – and the books make their writers famous, at least for a time.  Such books often win awards – though sometimes, interestingly, they don’t.

So. On to Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient. This has all the earmarks of a “Big Book”: it won big awards (the Governor General’s Prize and the Booker Prize); it was a bestseller (at least for a literary fiction work); and it was made into a major motion picture. If you’re not familiar with the novel you’re probably familiar with the movie which won 3 major Academy Awards.

The two works are very different animals. Ondaatje’s novel is really a metafiction, and its unusual a-linear narrative style allows the author to take advantage of his poetic inclinations; much of the “prose” in The English Patient is prose-poetry. Stylistically it is a tour de force; this makes it even more surprising that the book enjoyed the success it did. Readers have to work at grasping the themes and messages in The English Patient. That is a far cry from what seems to excite reader interest these days.

The shifting sense of time, place, reality, illusion, truth, lies all play a part in the way that the author constructs the ultimate “truth” (in the Picasso sense of the word) of the novel. Love and war are nearly the same, as the story of Hana the nurse and Kip the sapper illustrates; life and death are difficult to discern and life-in-death is a possible outcome (of which the English patient is himself proof) and the desert and a devastated Italian villa at the end of a war are both dangerous places where one will die if not careful and alert. The characters all learn these lessons and all suffer painful consequences in learning them.

The most interesting characters are the patient and Caravaggio. The latter, whose namesake is a master painter noted for his use of light and shadow performs that same function in the book. It is he who shines light on the patient and illuminates his true identity as a Hungarian explorer and later Axis spy Lásló Almásy who help Rommel in the North African campaign. The interplay of these two characters, underscored by both their horrific war wounds (Almásy has been horribly burned over his entire body in a plane crash in the desert; Caravaggio has had his thumbs hacked off after being caught stealing a camera from the Germans whose film contained a photo of him) and their dependence on narcotics (both are addicted to morphine) to help them cope with their lives illustrates the price of war – and the need to explain oneself, if even to a supposed enemy.

The novel has its flaws – the ending is a contrived mess with Kip turning on everyone he has befriended (in the case of Hana, loved after a fashion) in some sort of political awakening sparked by news of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic attacks. But the final scene, set years after the war, explaining how both he and Hana have moved on from their feelings for each other – which one suspects were as much wartime romance as real feeling. They remember each other with sometimes troubling curiosity (here Ondaatje, in a few sentences, captures the nature of all romances bracketed by circumstance) that leaves the reader with that same sense of melancholic distress that the characters feel – until one realizes that their story is the story of all passing affections.

So, in sum, The English Patient, while a “Big Book,” is a worthy book. That can’t be said of all “Big Books.” Or of most books, Big or not….

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About Jim Booth

writer, professor, rock star - pretty inaccurate summary, I think...
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