'He has an absolutely classic authorial voice, very clear, like clear glass, and doesn't advertise his own cleverness.' A.S.Byatt
'He possesses an amazingly copious and eclectic imagination.' William Boyd
A storyteller of genius and a master of prose...a man who may yet prove to be the greatest British writer of his age.' John Humphrys
'Open up his head and a whole symphony of inventiveness and ideas will fly out.' Neel Mukherjee
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell first arrived with me as thing of beauty back in 2010. A shining golden proof copy etched with a plethora of compliments from the critics and fellow writers, and one which, unlike almost all other proof copies, I kept because it seemed so special. It is signed and numbered as well but did I believe all those puffs...
Well I might not quite have appreciated it back then, but I do now.
After about four false starts, which meant I had read the first hundred pages four times before stalling, I have got there in the end, and this time by listening to the audio version, and how delighted I am to have persevered. I somehow knew this was a book I absolutely wanted to read, but that present tense kept tripping me up. Isn't it odd how that was the last thing I noticed once Jonathan Aris and Paula Wilcox had started reading it to me.
Whilst on that subject their narration is flawless. Whilst I can cope with Roy Dotrice doing all the voices for Game of Thrones, for a book like this, where often entire chapters are mediated through the eyes of either a man or a woman, nothing else would work.
It would seem David Mitchell had trouble with it all too, this from his Paris Review interview on the 'Art of Fiction'..
'I tried writing it in the first person, and it just wasn’t right. The book gave me a lot of trouble, which is why it took four years. I restarted it twice, and it only came to life when I tried it in the third person. Then I had to decide which characters’ thoughts we’d be able to hear. In the end I devised a rule: each chapter has a single principal observer who wears an imaginary recording digicam, like a coal miner’s hat with a spike tapping his brain, so his thoughts, but only his, can become known to the reader.'
It is 1799 and Dutch clerk Jacob de Zoet, staunch Protestant that he is, is dispatched to the trading outpost of Dejima in Japan to ferret out the corruption that is blighting the Dutch East India Company's operations there. This is clearly not going to make him Employee of the Year in the eyes of his fellow workers, and nothing is helped by the fact that Japan remains a nation closed to the outside world and where all forms of Christian worship are banned.
And who do you trust in a land where you can't speak or read the language.
I take no notes while I listen because I am busy stitching, so that's about it on plot and no quotes, though suffice to say there will be plenty of intrigue, treachery and double-dealing as well as forbidden love, and fear and faith in equal measure. When midwife Miss Orita Aibagawa is whisked off to a place of great secrecy and very much against her will...well now the book gets very interesting. Because slowly all the hints about immortality and how it may be attained start to emerge, and having read and been bowled over by The Bone Clocks recently I almost think The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is a better read after that than before. It is here, I now realise, that an introduction to the whole concept of Anchorites and Horologists is first revealed ( we just didn't know it) and of course one of the key characters in both books, Dr Marinus, is living one of his many incarnations in 18th century Japan, and he drops many-a hint that would be missed but for knowing what comes next, and made all the more fascinating for that knowing.
Gosh I hope that makes sense, but if you have read one and not the other you will definitely want to read the one you haven't read yet.
Does that make better sense...
No I thought not...just read them all.
Asked about this recycling of characters in his Paris Review Art of Fiction interview David Mitchell suggests this...
I grow fond of these characters I bring into being. In my adult life I have spent more weeks in the company of people such as Timothy Cavendish or Jacob de Zoet than I have with my own flesh-and-blood parents or brother. Letting them dissolve into nothingness feels too much like abandoning an inconvenient cat by a reservoir.
I can think of few other books that make me feel that need of a re-read to sift out more clues from a book I have read so recently, but I am almost thinking I might now re-read The Bone Clocks just to appreciate how very clever this all is, and it is years since I first read Cloud Atlas but I suspect that will be high on my list again now.
Of Dr Marinus in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, David Mitchell reveals...
He’s one of the author’s mouthpieces. He’s wiser than his creator. Readers of this book don’t know it, but in Thousand Autumns he’s on his twenty-eighth lifetime.
As Kathryn Schulz observes in an article here written after the publication of The Bone Clocks...
...in The Bone Clocks, it becomes clear that Mitchell is not just hiding Easter eggs for loyal readers. Nor is he importing favorite props into book after book, as Murakami does with his jazz and ironing boards and infinite spaghetti. Instead, he is importing book after book into his favorite world. Mitchell’s novels share the same past, future, events, ethos, laws, problems, causes, and consequences. They are an archipelago of islands.
The novels that keep on giving.
And Kathryn Schulz has compiled a fascinating Crowd Atlas graphic to map the multiple appearances of those characters...
And how refreshing to read this in that same piece...
Mitchell is grateful for his success and eschews with vehemence the tormented-writer routine—though that could be as much an act of diplomacy as a genuine state-of-the-self. “All these keen kids in M.F.A. courses, whatever they have two of, they would give one of them to have this,” he says. “If this is an arduous working life, lucky bloody me. Don’t you find whinging writers so bloody annoying?” If he found writing angst-inducing, he says, he wouldn’t be able to do it: “I’m too undisciplined. I couldn’t make myself write if I didn’t enjoy it as much as I do, if I didn’t get that fix.
Whether 'diplomacy' or 'genuine' I hear of so many writers grinding out the words, and feeling wretched and hopeless and despairing of it all. So much so that a bit of me wants to say (but never does of course) 'Why not get another day job for a while if it is so awful,' so what a joy to know that great books have been such a pleasure to write.
Hands up again all you David Mitchell fans...
And has anyone read Slade House... I am hearing good things..