Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet: Week Two
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The ending of Part Two was intense.
My edition has an essay by Mitchell at the end of the book titled "On Historical Fiction". Did anyone else read it? What did you think?
I also loved the quote on page 346 - a not-so-subtle reference to his earlier work. Nice.
Mitchell seems to be very intentional in his attention to the reader. He's not just telling us a story, he's kind of playing with us and saying, "there, you like that? pretty cute, eh?"
I haven't read Cloud Atlas but I don't see how I can avoid it now. If it's "better"(?) than this, it's a must-read.
Does anyone else think this book, could have been more stream-lined, or is it perfect the way it is?
tangledthread- I plan on hosting The Wind-up Bird Chronicles Group Read, the middle of next month. Interested? Beyond that, I haven't thought about it much.
>17 labfs39:: The very first Mitchell book I read was Black Swan Green, a coming of age story with lots of adolescent humor and angst. I've liked all three of his books for different reasons, but Cloud Atlas was by far the most ambitious - and the one I'm still thinking about!
>18 msf59:: Oh goody, another Murakami next month. I bought this book a while ago in hopes that I would have some encouragement to get through it. I'm so in for the Wind-up Bird, Mark.
I agree with you Deborah; part 2 was a favourite here too. By far. In fact, I wouldn't have minded if the novel had continued on the topics broached there.
Won't talk about the ending until a good majority gets there, but I have comments about that, to be sure.
Nice images. Lovely lines. Amusing plot twists. CHaracters well realized (Ivo Oost being my particular favorite). But not one thing elevates it above "good read!" for me. What, please, am I missing?
As a yardstick of my attitude, I think "Ulysses" is a showoffy young man's mental masturbation, but still acknowledge its place in the ranks of genius works. That I happen to dislike. So it's not that I have to *like* something to think it's genius. Heck, I like this book fine. But brilliant? How? On what measure?
I'm not sure what qualifies something as a "work of genius" and I'm guessing it's too soon to tell about this one. It's a wonderful novel, but I don't think it's shattering any deeply-held assumptions or elucidating human foibles that we don't all already know about. It's been called a "masterpiece" but I assume some of that is marketing. If people are still reading it and talking about it in a decade or two, that may be what truly starts qualifying it as a "masterpiece."
I'm in part three and finding it less engaging than part two. Still, I love the book.
My book doesn't have it.
I didn't know anything about the author and found this wiki entry interesting: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Mitchell_%28author%29
I'm not finished with the book yet and I don't know if this is a great, enduring novel. What I do know is that this guy is one heck of a writer with an amazing ability to write dialogue and scene.
The opening of chapter 29 "An Uncertain Place" was interesting to me as Jacob experiences a dream within a dream. Mitchell did some similar things with Orito back in Book 2, but it was used as an expression of the effect the solace drug on her thinking. He does it again at the beginning of chapter 34 with Penhaligon.
As a device, the dream stuff may help express the homesickness and longing of the characters. But as a reader, it dislocates me and I have to stop and look for clues of where I am in the story. That would annoy me with a lot of other authors, but with this Mitchell it's like he's making me stop, think and relocate myself within the story and the essence of the dreaming character.
Coming after Cloud Atlas, Jacob is most certainly a change of pace - and genre and is a much more straightforward work of historical fiction. Cloud Atlas was amazing and possible a work of genius and anything following that would be a lesser light. However, I think that this genre and style of writing allows Mitchell to play with language and words and will help to develop his talents along this line for future writing. I do not think that this author has reached the pinnacle of his abilities.
Clearly he is an author with much potential but I am not sure at this stage that he should be called a genius or his works masterworks. I think they are in a class of rare works of literature but only time will tell. The use of the words genius and masterpiece are without a doubt advertising hype and I view them as such. Is it advertising? Yes. Is it truth in advertising? No.
I think this often happens with authors who write a great book--everything after is touted as genius, but never quite lives up to the original. A case in point is Geraldine Brooks. I thought People of the Book was very good. Since then it's been a downhill slide, her latest, Caleb's Crossing, being quite a disappointment. I keep reading her hoping for another PotB and because of the publisher's hype. Perhaps I should give up, but hope springs eternal.
To be sure, there are wonderful passages and some very nice prose writing, and as I mentioned before, book 2 was a special treat all by itself. But I did find the overall novel to be very uneven in terms of where the focus of the story went and the overall composition this created (can one use the word 'composition' when talking about books?—I'm seeing this book as a neoclassical Dutch painting). I found his dialogue very good, and the device of breaking it up with the action was very interesting and made for unusual pacing, but by the third part of the novel, it felt very much like a device which Mitchell obviously had lots of fun with, like a kid with a new toy, but maybe he should not have used quite so much?
Don't want to divulge anything, but the way he treated the ending reminded me of the ending of a book by Ian McEwan which left me frustrated. In both cases, I found the approach took away from the whole which would have been better had that part been left out altogether. That sounds much too vague, I know, but again, just don't want to spoil it for anyone.
I'll have no problem writing a review for this one, but my appreciation of the various parts of the novel, down to specific moments, varies so much that I have no idea how I'll rate this book.
I do wonder how one's first experience with an author sets us up for our reaction to subsequent readings. Have not read Cloud Atlas yet, but am wondering how my response will compare to those who have read Cloud before Jacob.
Back to Jacob and themes to discuss. A couple ideas pop into my mind:
- there's the trafficking of women, and the women's varying reactions to their captivity and forced gestation.
- there's looking at "globalization" at the turn of the 19th century.......are things really all that different than today where commerce and military actions make for strange bedfellows.
- there's looking at the interesting things that happen at the interface of distinctly different cultures.
I wonder whether another thread should be set up for people who are done and want to comment with spoilers included?
Thanks for hosting this, Mark!
But Mitchell's writing ends up ruling the day. This man is a heck of a writer. If he could have stream-lined this book and made it more focused, this could have been a modern classic.
The writing was the treasure for me, and I've enjoyed revisiting the island.
The ending of the book was just right, I thought -- as it should be.
In his essay about writing historical fiction ( http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/bookreviews/7685510/David-Mitchell-on-H... ), Mitchell talks about trying to get the vernacular correct for the time period of the book. It strikes me that was one of the reason it took me a good while to settle into the book. At first it felt like reading a translation....then I started listening to an MP3 version of the book and was able to give the characters voices and accents.
When you think about it, there are an astounding number of different cultures/languages that must be reflected in the characters: the Dutch, a German speaking Dutch, Japanese, Japanese speaking Dutch, English, Javanese slaves, Australian from New South Wales, the British........and those are just the ones I remember from the top of my head. And then some of those can be divided into different classes withing those cultures.
I'm curious about other readers....did you read sections out loud? Did you give people different accents in your head....especially the Japanese?
Another imponderable related to the language issue.....David Mitchell is a person with the difficulty of stuttering.
My second line of thought came about after reading this essay this afternoon: http://www.theamericanscholar.org/solitude-and-leadership/
It made me think about the development of Jacob de Zeut as a character...and see parallels with other great literary characters. This essay begs the comparison to Marlow in Heart of Darkness but the theme of the growth of a leader through a journey and exile has been going on since Homer. And one could read Orito as one of the many women left behind in Homer and Greek mythology.
So those are my rambling thoughts while I digest this book.
As for the ending, I didn't think it added anything to the story to know in a few lines how the rest of his life went. He just wasn't that convincing to me as a central figure in the story, which might be a big part of the problem. Marinus, Orito and Uzaemon just seemed so much more interesting whereas Jacob seemed like he just happened to be at the right place at the right time. Except for that bit towards the end that made him a hero of course, and maybe I'm not playing along with the author, but I just wasn't convinced that he had that in him. I do *get* that Mitchell probably made Jacob into an ordinary guy quite on purpose and that's what makes him an 'interesting' hero in a roundabout way, but... meh.
I agree with you, Ilana. I kept thinking to myself 'What is the big deal about Jacob?' I finished the book yesterday and was ultimately disappointed in the end. The more I think about the book, the less I like it, especially since I loved Cloud Atlas. Perhaps comparing Mitchell to himself is not fair, but there it is.
I came to A Thousand Autumns with no preconcieved notions about the book , as I had never heard of the author before. However, I'd seen the book in the best seller section of my local bookstore each time I was in there and also in the Best Seller's area of my library. Each time I saw it I would pick it up and consider reading it - but then I would put it down in favour of another book. When the group read came along, I thought this would be a good time to discipline myself to read the book. And it did take discipline to finish the book.
I'm afraid I have to swim against the current in saying that while I am glad that I read the book so I can finally put my curiousity about the book to rest - overall I did not enjoy the book -and cannot recommend it to others.
The book was about 450 or more pages long -and I found that the author was very wordy, as well as bringing in tangents to the plot line that seemed to serve no purpose. One example was part three - where a prolonged battle between the British and the Dutch took place. I really felt that served no purpose to the storyline.
There were over 150 characters - and I had to download a list to try to keep track of each character. I found the beginning to go very slowly -and just as I was beginning to get attached to Jacob de Loet - the book shifted into part 2 - and Jacob was no longer an important part of the book. Part two - which takes place in an isolated nunnery really caught my interest . It was very creepy - but so creepy I found myself chuckling at how farfetched the nunnery was. The place is run by monks and an evil man named Abbot Enomoto. Just when I was getting into part two - Mitchell shifted into part 3 - which I really did not understand the purpose of. Part three mainly seemed to be a story about the Dutch and the British getting into a fight in Decima - which is the place where most of the this novel took place. I found the ending somewhat confusing and either I did not quite understand the ending - or a lot of loose threads were left.
Nonetheless - I give the book 3 stars. I did learn a fair bit about how isolated Japan was in the 1700's , I did enjoy part two -and overall I got a some what of a picture of Japan at that time in history - though I fear it is quite inaccurate.
I'm glad that I've finally read the book because I'd been curious about it for sometime. It bills itself as historical fiction -but compared to the historical fiction I am accustomed to reading -this was so long winded and I suspect fairly inaccurate. Perhaps this book was simply not written for me.
The first part of the book set Jacob up as a man of integrity...conflicted, but who isn't. The third part of the book required that he act on the kind of integrity that was set up in the first part of the book. He could have just handed things over to Schmidt with the hope that he could get on a ship and head for home. But he knew that Schmidt was dishonest and would act only for his own personal gain.
By standing on the tower with Marinus while the British ship was firing on them, it meant he was willing to die or be stranded in Japan for the rest of his life rather than betray his friends in Dejima who elected him "president".
Well...anyway, that was my take.
I did like that the author brought the baby delivered in the first chapter back into the story toward the end. It resolved for me why we needed that first chapter at all.
I can't call this a review. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet has defeated me. I can't do *one*more* "Perils-of-Pauline" reversal of fortune/betrayal without doing violence to SOMEthing, and the only things handy are myself and the dog. Not sacrificin' either of us.
This book is very pleasantly written, taken line by line, and is an interesting window onto a time I find underexplored. De Zoet himself makes me want to scream, and Orito is so unlikely a heroine that I found myself snorting a lot. I've heard lots of carrying on about how many characters there were in the book, but this presented no problem for me, not sure why.
Perhaps this is a case of overselling a book, I don't know. I doubt it, frankly; I think I'd be chucking it in the charity bin if it was written by Schmoopie de Zoet, Jacob's great-great-grandchild. It's too many books manhandled into one. It's too much idea for too little room to explore it. It's too wrought, worked over, etched and scrimshawed and chased and gilded and MADE, for me to forget I'm reading a book and instead experience a story.
Too damned bad, too.
"Crows smear rumors across the matted, sticky sky."
Deb- Thanks for including your opinions here. I hope you don't give up on Mitchell completely.
Richard- " It's too many books manhandled into one". Perfectly said, sir! Glad you hung in there and gave it your best shot. I also agree with you, about prematurely calling this a masterpiece and other similiar accolades. You need to give a book some time, before you start throwing those terms around.
Perhaps comparing Mitchell to himself is not fair, but there it is
I couldn't say, since I haven't read anything else by him yet, and do fully intend to, but I get the feeling you're really onto something there. Mitchell's reputation alone was enough to set up quite a lot of expectations.
The I agree that there is a little too much melodrama in the book, and the evil religious sect thing smacks heavily of conspiracy theories. However, I think that the writing is outstanding, and I like the exploration of integrity in people that seemed to be one of the overall themes of this book.
One of Mitchell's big themes in both this book and Cloud Atlas is language and how we use it to communicate or not, as the case may be. In book 1 I wanted to just hit those gross ugly Dutch because they believed that they were better than the Japanese when the truth is that in their own way they were as ignorant as the Japanese. The problems with language accentuated the problems of communication and made small differences so big that eventually they became insurmountable. It also allowed people to use it as a cloak for lying, cheating, and stealing.
Overall, so far at least, I like this book. It is too long, and I think should have been edited better, but poor editing is a problem with most of the books I read. That is not the author's problem - it is the publisher's. They won't spend the money to take the time to help an author tighten up his work because a book is all about the money that can be made from it, not about the literature itself.
I think that even if Thousand Autumns isn't Mitchell's best book, I have to give him credit for experimenting and doing it well enough that I enjoyed going along with him for the read.
Next up is the Wind-up Bird Chronicle, which begins July 15th. Hope you can join us for that one.
I was interested in his decision to use a present-tense narrative style. I often find this very irritating, but not here at all - indeed after noting that it was the case, I pretty much ceased to notice it. Also didn't find it irritating with Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall. In both cases it helped create a feeling of immediacy, but avoided the kind of breathlessness that often seems to result from this tense choice. In Mantel's case, it worked I think because the story was told entirely from the point of view of Cromwell, and although it was told in the third person, it was effectively almost a first-person narrative. Not sure why it works with Mitchell, where there are several points of view. Perhaps there is so much else going on with the language that the use of present tense is not particularly remarkable.
I avoided this thread once I got to the halfway point because I didn't want to have other opinions clouding mine. I'm glad that I avoided it - because I did like the book a lot. I didn't have problems with the number of characters (in fact, I simply let a lot of them blur together until they were at the forefront of the scene), I didn't find the repeated narrative or dialogue tricks to be annoying, and I didn't foresee every plot point before it arrived.
It isn't a perfect book, I do agree with that, mostly in that it did feel like it was a bit too long, particularly with the English ship towards the end. But I found myself delighting in the little bits of wordplay and narrative point of view and even the constant double-crossing. For all that it was a slow and long read, it was playful and fun. I kind of a lot loved the way someone from each cultural group would say something bigoted about a representative of another group, and then some time later, that first person would himself be reduced to less-than-human by yet another person.
I also liked the shifting narrators. Isn't it interesting that the only "I" was the slave Weh, who owns only two things: his true name and his thoughts?
I finished more than a week ago and am still thinking about the book.
I was just thinking this morning about how there are several plot elements that keep coming up - the double-crossing, for example - the same way certain bits of dialogue or description are repeated. Or even the way Mitchel structures something is repeated - and, so often, the repeated structure of the way a scene is written seems to involve showing a double-meaning or hypocrisy or the like. I wouldn't be surprised if Mitchell intended the betrayals and so on and those passages to be echoes of each other.
I might just have to buy my own copy of this book.
I think it takes great courage for an author to write something different than what his or her public expects. Sort of like Margaret Atwood writing Alias Grace when she is known for her speculative fiction rather than historical fiction.
I agree re the courage to write in different forms and genres rather than sticking to what readers have come to expect. In the case of Atwood, she has 'broken the mould' like this at least couple of times, since most of her earlier books ( Surfacing, Lady Oracle etc), were contemporary novels, neither speculative/sci-fi like Handmaid's Tale nor historical like Alias Grace - and she also writes short stories and poetry. I like not quite knowing what kind of book an author is going to produce next.
Mitchell is a fantastic writer. I love his stories within stories, twists of humor, and unexpected turns in the plot. I thought the ending in Thousand Autumns was perfect - if not entirely romantically satisfying. I love the idea that as much as life may not proceed as you would want it to, there is a higher design that justifies the means and the end.
Great read, Mark. Thanks! Sorry I failed miserably to keep up on this one... but not sorry I persevered. :)
The justice at the end with the magistrate and the Abbot was a very surprising twist to the story. I did not realize that the Abbot went into the room fully expecting the magistrate to commit suicide with him as the witness. What an ending to that thread of the story!
At the beginning of the 19th century, clerk Jacob de Zoet sails into Dejima, a tiny man made island in the bay of Nagasaki, and Japan's only link to the western world. Japanese people are not allowed outside of Japan, and very few Europeans are allowed onto Japanese soil. And those Europeans are all Dutch, whose Dutch East Indies Company has sole trading rights with Japan. But the company is slowly falling apart at home, and is rife with corruption at Dejima.
I have to say this book had a very slow, almost interminable beginning. Apart from the opening chapter, which details a birth going horribly wrong (complete with an anatomical diagramme). That opening chapter alone took two attempts (several months apart) to get through, and once that was over it was just a matter of plodding through about 200 pages of financial corruption. Once we finally get to the end of that section, however, there are some breathtaking twists and turns, and the plot and the characters kick into high gear and it became the great read it should have been from the very start.
It's a mishmash of plots by then, but I'm rather fond of mishmashes. And one rather startling coincidence on which hangs the novel's conclusion that did leave me feeling slightly shortchanged. Whether it's enough of a nice messy complex plot with human characters to forgive the first plodding third and the slightly unbelievable climax, well, not everyone may feel that it was worth it.
And now that I've read everyone's comments (phew!), thanks for all the reminders about the language that Mitchell uses. I recognised all the quotes, so they obviously did stick in my brain, but I read more for plots than for language. :)
And I liked the battle between the English and the Dutch at Dejima more than others (but not its conclusion, that was just rather silly), although the highlight of the whole book was Orito at the nunnery. What a bizarre place, is there any historical basis to someplace/thing like that?? But I couldn't put the book down at that stage, I even gasped out loud once or twice.
And I did like the final few paragraphs about Jacob's life, because I liked him, and I wanted to know what happened to him. He was both an everyman, and a hero. (Funnily enough, the only other character that springs to mind for me with such everyman/hero characteristics is Frodo from Lord of the Rings.)
The essay by David Mitchell on writing historical fiction was also a great little insight.