by Jane Turley
He wears corduroy trousers, a dark green jacket and a pinstripe shirt. A grey and white scarf is wrapped for warmth around his neck. He speaks softly but clearly and pauses often, choosing his words carefully as he sets forth his opinions. The thought crosses my mind that maybe the scarf also acts as a shield; his modesty and quiet demeanour are all too apparent.
You’d be forgiven for mistaking this gentle, self effacing man for a university lecturer who retreats to his study to mark exam papers, occasionally sighing at the poor grammar of his students and making annotations in the margins. Yet he isn’t. He is one of the foremost writers of our generation, a man described as “One of the most brilliantly inventive writers of this, or indeed any country,” “A storyteller of genius,” and “An author of extraordinary ambition and skill.”
The man in question is David Mitchell.
David Mitchell is a multiple award-winning British author and, a few weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to attend a BBC World Service recording of the World Book Club where he answered questions about his highly acclaimed novel, Cloud Atlas. An epic book spanning both past and future generations and encompassing 6 individual tales all subtlety entwined, Cloud Atlas examines society and the individual from numerous angles. Themes of reincarnation, prosperity and poverty, slavery and freedom and love and corruption lie within the pages of this intriguing book. It will catapult your emotions from laughter to sadness and even to utter despair. It is book which revels in the rich tapestries of life and, in the years to come, we may still be discovering new intricacies and hidden nuances.
by David Mitchell
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton 2004
Mitchell describes himself as something of a “nerd at heart.” It’s an interesting concept. For whilst Cloud Atlas is an extraordinarily clever and thought provoking novel, I’m inclined to believe Mitchell has taken his experimentation with language just a little too far. Maybe Mitchell isn’t a train spotting nerd or a computer nerd but he could well be a literary nerd. Of course, that’s not necessarily a bad asset when you’re as successful as David Mitchell but if the aim of the author is to communicate then in some respects I feel Cloud Atlas loses impact by overindulging in the use of language leaving the risk of readers being left periodically bemused and alienated.
The use of accents and dialects in fiction is questionable at the best of times; all too often poorly written attempts at pastiche destroy otherwise creditable books. In contrast, Mitchell uses language with considerable thought and consummate skill but bizarrely it is this very accuracy which, on occasions, breaks the flow and absorption of the story; emotions and subtleties are lost and the reading becomes more of an endurance test than a pleasurable read. The novel may have won the Richard and Judy Best Read of the Year, an indicator of its popularity, yet somehow I can’t help feeling that Cloud Atlas has been over-hyped into the literary hall of fame. There may be many people with a copy of Cloud Atlas but, I wonder, how many have made it through to the end? How many copies sit partially read gathering dust whilst the owner turns the pages of Dan Brown or Patricia Cornwell?
I don’t want to appear an intellectual snob so let me include myself amongst the potentially lost and alienated readers; it was a good twenty or thirty pages before I could read The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing with relative ease. In addition, Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After provided me with an even greater challenge. I had to read some sentences three times before getting a proper grasp of the meaning and even then on a few occasions I still failed. Perhaps the novel would have been more successful for me if Mitchell had just held back a fraction and given more a flavour of the language rather than the complete dish; language, like any tasty recipe, can be overindulged and when that happens the result can be indigestion.
But whilst there were a few disappointments in Cloud Atlas I was still left with the overwhelming sense of having glimpsed the work of a truly gifted writer. In the most enjoyable stories where Mitchell’s description and characterization are at its best and where the stories don’t lose their sense of direction, one can only feast upon his writing. He has a delicious sense of humour too that wasn’t apparent in his BBC interview which, at times, had me laughing out loud. Indeed, I can picture him at his desk, chuckling at his own jokes, revelling in the writing of the flippant remarks of Robert Frobisher and the caustic witticisms of Timothy Cavendish.
So having closed the final pages of Cloud Atlas I was sufficiently satisfied to embark upon Mitchell’s latest work The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. The protagonist of the novel is a young clerk of the Dutch East India Company, who travels to Dejima, an artificial island in the bay of Nagasaki off the coast of Japan, with the aim of establishing his credentials before returning to the Netherlands to marry his sweetheart.