Thursday, November 7

"Ten or so years ago, I read a review by John Updike in the New York Times Review of Books. It was of a novel by a Brazilian writer, Moacyr Scliar. I forget the title [editor's note: it's Max and the Cats], and John Updike did worse: he clearly thought the book as a whole was forgettable. His review — one of those that makes you suspicious by being mostly descriptive, without critical teeth, as if the reviewer were holding back — oozed indifference."

-- That's Yann Martel, the Canadian writer, oozing ego by way of explaining the inspiration behind his $75k-Man-Booker-Prize-winning novel, Life of Pi, which recounts the adventures of an Indian boy shipwrecked with a tiger. Scliar's book, published in Brazil in 1981 (and now out of print), told the tale of a Jewish boy shipwrecked with a panther. Ring any bells? Here's some more choice Martel:

"Oh, the wondrous things I could do with this premise. I felt that same mix of envy and frustration I had felt with Mishima's The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea, that if only I had thought of it I could have done something great with it. But — damn! — the idea had been faxed to the wrong muse.... I didn't really want to read the book. Why put up with the gall? Why put up with a brilliant premise ruined by a lesser writer."

Such bombast might be forgiven in a writer like Nabokov (whose muse never barked up the wrong fax). Creative juices are mysterious juices, and it's hard to say at this point if Martel is guilty of anything but a cretinous lack of humility. But if you're going to win awards for the "inventiveness" of a borrowed premise, and then provide source details that don't add up, it might help if your novel wasn't such a bore.

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