I’ve read a single Michael Ondaatje book.
And that’s a tribute to the dominance the Booker prize has had on my life as a reader, for without it I never might have bought The English Patient as an undergraduate. At the time I bought books recommended by a list of prize winners in a book intended for quiz lovers.
I recall giving my copy of the novel, which, two days ago, was named the best book to win the Booker, to my friend Mary, the way you do when a book impresses you so. I must have also given her Michael Cunningham’s The Hours. (Only now do I see that the authors share first names.) When she returned, she remarked that they were both good but she thought that if she put them in water the Ondaatje would sink. It was so good an image I’ve never quite forgotten it.
One of the other indications of the book’s quality came from a fictional character created by another novelist. In John Irving’s The Fourth Hand, the protagonist talks about a perfect book and a novel he sees fit is The English Patient. Never a huge fan of Irving, I still took him seriously enough to seek out the passages he quoted. A friend had one— “I have spent weeks in the desert, forgetting to look at the moon…as a married man may spend days never looking into the face of his wife. These are not sins of omission but signs of preoccupation” — that he quoted frequently. But Irving’s character was right to highlight another:
“So the books for the Englishman, as he listened intently or not, had gaps of plot like sections of a road washed out by storms, missing incidents as if locusts had consumed a section of tapestry, as if plaster loosened by the bombing had fallen away from a mural at night.”
Sometime ago Julian Barnes made a comment about writers and their work: “People are very interested in writers. Successful ones. More interested in the writers than the writing. In the writer’s lives.”
I’m not sure if Barnes’s idea is entirely true but it is true enough for me to recount two anecdotes about Ondaatje. The first comes from a story in the New Yorker written around the time Martin Amis and Barnes had a feud upon the former leaving his agent for Andrew Wylie. (Amis’s former agent was Barnes’s wife; the ruined business ruined the writers’ relationship.)
Jonathan Wilson, the New Yorker reporter, got two women writers, I think one was AS Byatt, to talk about the feud between the male British novelists. Somehow the conversation turned into a consideration of the beauty of male writers. If I recall correctly, both women seemed to think Ondaatje very good looking. You might think this does not matter but it does. As Adam Gopnik has written: “Of all the gifts that can grace a literary career, good looks are the most easily overlooked and not the least important: though we may read blind, we don’t befriend blind.”
The other anecdote is from Petina Gappah, a fan of Ondaatje’s work. When Gappah met Ondaatje at some festival, she exclaimed, “My God!”
“Just call me Michael,” he replied.
A funny, good looking guy then.
Since reading The English Patient, I have seen the film adaptation which I like about as much, knowing Anthony Minghella could hardly do a thing about transferring Ondaatje’s deft prose. It might be unfortunate but I don’t think you could read the book without seeing Ralph Fiennes in the film’s dust-and-dune glory as the patient of the title, at least in the parts where he’s not disfigured; you might also see Kristin Scott Thomas as the adulterous Katharine and Juliette Binoche as Hana. (My own copy of the book has as cover Fiennes kissing Scott Thomas as the sun sets behind them, a poignant scene from the film.)
To illustrate how these things work for a certain kind of person, I’d admit that there has been at least one moment in my life when I have told a lover a thing about Ondaatje’s book as gleaned from Irving, whose protagonist, like me, is prone to literary talk.
Irving’s hero tells his lover about the fact that Ondaatje called the depression below the neck the vascular sizood, but the Minghella film identifies the same spot by a different name, the suprasternal notch, which is in fact the correct name.
As a younger man I might have relayed this bit of trivia to a love interest. Picture this: A character is in bed talking to his lover in Ondaatje; then in Irving, another man is talking to his lover about that initial Ondaatje man and his lover; and then there’s me talking to a lover about Irving’s lover talking to a lover about the difference between Ondaatje’s lover and Minghella’s lover.
You’d have a point if you asked why all these talking in bed, but you’d also not be a reader.
The quality and memorable nature of the film is one reason I think asking the public to vote the Golden Booker was dubious. How many people were voting for the book? Which ones were voting for the well-made film, a film so widely seen it ended up as a plot point on the massively popular sitcom Seinfeld? Ever aware, Ondaatje thanked Minghella in his acceptance speech, saying he suspected the late director “has something to do with the result of this vote”.
In any case, a book of wondrous prose has won and there will be no bickering. But I recall having some issues with the book.
First, by the end it seemed as though Ondaatje was tired of his characters—he had been with some of them in an earlier book—and wanted to air their private concerns by connecting them to the larger world, breaking their world into the larger world where the US has dropped a bomb in Japan. The way Ondaatje does this felt too cut-and-paste from a news bulletin. It is so unsatisfactory it has lingered these many years later, so much so that the Guardian, after Ondaatje’s win of the Golden Booker, asked the author if writing the end that way wasn’t a “failure of nerve”. And back in 1993, Hilary Mantel called it “a crude polemic” in her scathing NYRB review.
I was also unsure about the book’s depiction of the adulterous affair at the centre, a thing blown up to intense romantic proportions by the film. Growing up in a religious country like Nigeria means the manner in which some western artists appear to elevate adultery to some subversive art makes for some discomfort. The blame for this view of marriage and fidelity, perhaps, should be directed at Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter and Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, all featuring sympathetic adulterers and more or less disappointing husbands. Or maybe one has to go back to ancient accounts of the Paris and Helen of Troy affair. (In a writerly conceit, Ondaatje has his title character read Tolstoy’s novel.)
Some commentators might point out that the adulterers get punished in Ondaatje’s book, but even that comes to be treated as a romantic dying-for-love device since the action, a murder-suicide, which brings their downfall is caused by the cuckolded husband, whose only initial success is the suicide. His wife his injured; his rival is unscathed. Besides who would not empathise with Fiennes’, seeing the pain in his eyes as he cradles the body of his beloved in the movie?
Even before this there is no real sense of anguish at the betrayal from either the married miss nor her paramour. Ondaatje excludes the anguish of adultery by creating a hermetic atmosphere around the lovers to the exclusion of the book’s other characters. And if time spent between lovers is in pursuit of pleasure, there can be little space for anguish.
What real anguish is in the book comes about when Katharine tries to get away from her non-husband, not really out of guilt or loyalty but out of a fear that her husband would be mad. Instead its her lover who goes mad when she tries to leave him.
There was at least some anguish in the case of Graham Greene’s Scobie from The Heart of the Matter. The difference is instructive: Like Greene, Scobie was a Christian, a Catholic, with all of the guilt being a kind of a believer entertains. On the other hand, God, as worshipped by religious people, is not a very significant factor in the lives of Ondaatje’s characters. The English Patient himself is an atheist and declares at some point that God doesn’t exist.
It is of course possible to argue that in all of the aforementioned novels, adultery is besides the point. Sin isn’t exactly a literary device, even for books by non-western authors. For example: Stay With Me, by Nigerian author Ayobami Adebayo, soon dispenses with the somewhat incestuous adultery at its centre, even as it parades characters we are nudged to think are, at the very least, nominally religious. If, as they once said, the marriage plot is dead, perhaps the religious plot suffers a worse fate: it has never really taken off.
Fortunately, The English Patient’s tricky morality and the story that bears it is ferried by some of the best prose in English letters. The earnest believer need not agree with the carnal politics of the novel if she’s also a believer in the powers of good prose; there might also be a chance to understand those unlike her in the process, if only because portions of the section titled The Cave of Swimmers are especially good in presenting a lover’s paranoia when with a partner who he believes can’t be trusted sexually.
It is clearly meant to be ironic that this paranoia is mostly from the man who isn’t married to the woman he’s sleeping with.
As I said I have read just the one Ondaatje novel but if Martin Amis is correct in saying we love authors only in parts, then it appears reading the English Patient means reading Ondaatje’s best part.
Nonetheless, since it is in my shelf, I might pick up Ondaatje’s slim book The Collected Works of Billy the Kid. But it is just as likely that I find my copy of The English Patient and reread those intoxicating sentences that so long ago captured the heart of a Nigerian undergrad.