January 13, 2007



Frankly, that passage sounds pretentious as all-get-out.

When I read The English Patient, I think I enjoyed it. I've read some of Ondattje's more obscure works, too (Running in the Family; the Billy the Kid book). But looking back on it, I'm not sure there's much to his work, other than a super-stylized prose style that strives for the lapidary surface effect. Underneath that lapidary surface, we have a kind of ham-handed parody of literary elegance and class. His writing seems to be a caricature of a dreamed-of sophisticated world (even the dude in the English patient who sought out land-mines was the epitome of brooding sophistication).

(I remember, one time when I was twenty years old, being asked incredulously by a literary editor when I spoke highly of Lawrence Durrell, "You actually like that crap?" and then he proceeded to fulminate on how overwrought and pretentious Durrell's Alexandria Quartet is. My view of Ondaatje is pretty much the same -- he's all surfaces. Sure, there's that patented elegant, elegiac quality -- but is there much more there?)

Maybe I am wrong -- if so, what am I missing?

tod goldberg

I think to some extent Ondaatje is an acquired taste. When I first read his work as a younger man, I felt like it was as pretentious as you do now, James (though, i felt the same of the Durrell books then, too). But when i read The English Patient and Anil's Ghost and then re-read what I'd read before, i really found that it felt, well, true. The same thing occurred with Durrell. Maybe it's just that I like the style he writes in - perhaps more than the content of the plot, particularly in his older books.

Steven Augustine

I'm with James, here.

With all due respect to the daring act of necrophilia buried in the heart of The English Patient, there's something of the 'fancy' boutique-novelist in Ondaatje's toolbox (his jar full of pat references to Nietzsche and Herodotus et al; his canny occasional sops to longings for 'class' and/or aristocracy; the cloying density of his lyricism). Ondaatje is the lyric poet as novelist, but that isn't necessarily a good thing (in my opinion).

In Milan Kundera's juicy essay titled 'What Is A Novelist' (New Yorker, 10-9-06), he writes, "...a lyric poet is only the most exemplary incarnation of man dazzled by his own soul and by the desire to make it heard." And, further, "...to pass from immaturity to maturity is to move beyond the lyrical attitude." Reading the excerpt from Ondaatje's latest, cited above, it strikes me that he's still "dazzled by his own soul".

There's also Anatole Broyard's apt zingers on an earlier Ondaatje (Broyard, you'll recall, was the model for Dean Silk in Roth's 'The Human Stain'): "'Coming Through Slaughter' is written in several voices, none of them is satisfactory. Too many sentences float between cliché and bombast: 'Swimming toward the sound of madness.' 'What he wanted was cruel, pure relationship.' 'The music was his dance in the auditorium of enemies.' 'In terror we lean in the direction that is most unlike us. Running past your own character into pain.' 'All suicides, all acts of privacy are romantic.'"


Obviously, people may disagree on matters of taste, with the best of intentions. I don't imagine that Ondaatje is for every reader but, like Tod, I find great truth in all of his novels. I will say that "a man dazzled by his own soul" was my precise reaction to what I find to be Kundera's increasingly incoherent thoughts on the novel - sorry, Steven, I wasn't as taken by the essay as you were, and I'm a longtime MK fan, too; I just feel he's utterly lost his compass of late and I find him all but unreadable. And I entirely disagree with Broyard on Coming Through Slaughter - it's a remarkable piece of work and although I'm always reluctant to use the "he just didn't get it card" (it's too easy), it does sound that way. I've also always found it a shallow critical trick to pluck individual lines out of context. Much writing can be made to sound foolish that way - "Light of my life, fire of my loins" - and I'm disinclined to trust the critic who cherry picks in this fashion.

But what I'm coming back here to say is that The English Patient is actually a great story - yes, story - beautifully told. Banville suffers from similar criticism and I always find it unfair. But when all is said and done, there will be readers who love to read what they consider beautifully crafted language, and readers who will become impatient with they consider to be "pretentious" writing. I don't see that divide ever being bridged.

Finally, I obviously disagree with James' thoughts about this excerpt (or I wouldn't have included it) - it's hard for me to find how someone would not find the line "The raw truth of an incident never ends" anything other than compelling. But, as I said at the outset here, there are no rights and wrongs - just lots of opinions.


I'm willing to accept that I may be wrong. There were some very compelling atmospherics in The English Patient, and some images that stuck with me. (A scene in an Oxford or Cambridge library, oddly, has stuck in my mind.)

I guess what I am trying to say, is that I see Ondaatje as someone whose prose style is too lush and "big" for the somewhat emaciated stories and ideas in his books. His books didn't push me to reconsider the world, they didn't seem to encompass the world in any interesting way; rather, like a very elegant setting in a Ralph Lauren catalogue, I was just impressed with the tasteful exoticism of his images (which, I admit, he does very well). That line ("the raw truth of an incident never ends") means nothing outside the context of a story; for example, if uttered by a suburban teenaged character whose girlfriend just broke up with him after a week of dating, that line would be comical. And in my experience with Ondaatje, the line will likely fall flat, as just another bit of calculated elegance uttered by one of his Ralph Lauren characters and backed up by a flimsy, but exotic story of sophistication.

Lush language can be either good or bad. In the best writers, lush language will be strained almost to the bursting point by the incredible human energy and emotion that surge through their stories. In lesser writers, the ideas and characters in the story will fall short of the exotic stylings offered by the writer. In the hands of the best writers, that sentence you find compelling would actually mean something -- but it must be supported, must be borne out, by a truly compelling story. I suspect in Ondaatje, it just signals a lot of tiresome brooding on the way. In an Ondaatje story, the lush, dazzling language hangs limply on an emaciated story.

While Ondaatje tries to conjure interest with moody, elegant atmospherics (the battered copy of Herodotus carried in a character's elegantly battered knapsack), I believe these things are shortcuts, and while entertaining, don't make for lasting or provoking work.


You have no idea how jealous I am... We have to wait half the year, if not most of it, to read the rest of it. And you -- oh! :)

Steven Augustine

Fair enough, of course, Mark...I'm coming from a personal place in my knock on Ondaatje (I hope I qualified my position with an emphatic enough 'in my opinion'). In defense of Nabokov, though, I have to say that it's the very arch Hum who says "Light of my life, fire of my loins"...(and then jokes about the fancy prose stylings of a murderer, by the way) not the author. Not that Nabokov doesn't get 'too' lyrical quite often...reading him can be like wading through syrup. But I find (again: purely personal judgment here, possibly) that Nabokov smuggles in such depth with his allusions that I shrug at his tics.

Anyway, thanks for not biting my head off! (laugh)

Steven Augustine

PS I'm more invested in what I see as the useful insights in Kundera's recent essay than in bashing Ondaatje (whom I don't care enough about as a writer to dislike with any force)...how is this recent New Yorker piece of Kundera's 'utterly unreadable'? (Rhetorical question, probably, I know)


I find Ondaatje to be a fine poet, and a mediocre-at-best novelist. His prose is lyrical and functions much the same way as his poetry, which is completely pointless in the context of a novel. His characters are flat, his vision of Toronto in particular completely out of sync with the actual history of the city (just like The English Patient romanticized a Nazi sympathizer because it made a better story than the truth). He is widely held in Canada to write dialogue with all the skill and realism of a tenth grader. I agree completely that Ondaatje's prose works entirely on the surface. It's interesting that TEV compares his feelings for Ondaatje's work with his feelings for Gatsby; I also feel more or less exactly the same about Gatsby as I feel about Ondaatje's work. :p

His poetry, on the other hand...

Jim Ruland

Wow, so many posts to agree with. It always astonished me how angry people become when I voice my opinion that the English Patient was a better movie than a book. Ondaatje invents excellent characters but doesn't seem to know what to do with them.


FABULOUS movie, and set the entry point for some of the more interesting Hollywood product of recent years (I use that word deliberately).
Very interesting discussion from all - about time I reread O's poetry I think. Thanks.

John Manoogian III

your commenters = master ballerinas of architecture, on this post. :-)

Maria Poulos

I think you are all being rather harsh. While I would like to really dissect his writing in some detail, I am work right now but feel compelled to respond. I happen to believe his stories are bursting with emotional energy, political meaning and intensity and he chooses to evoke elegant,sophisticated images which the power of his stories demand. Anil's Ghost is bursting with mystical symbolism and political poignance, set in one of the most brutal periods in Sri Lanka's history. The lush language and prose in Anil's Ghost is not at all out of place when you consider the beauty, tragedy and heroism of a woman battling with the ghosts of her past, returning to an island she loves and feels betrayed by to investigate mass graves. This is not a writer dazzled by his own soul as you put it, but genuinely moved and compelled to write about people, events and images that surround him. Running through the Family happens to be the most sophisticated, witty, acutely accurate prose on Sri Lankan class/colonial/cultural modern history I have read in some time.


I haven't had the chance yet to read the new novel, but following this discussion (especially the MK quote) raises in my mind an artist in a different medium whose preoccupations seem interestingly similar to Ondajtee's in his new work: Kieslowski, and I can think of no better text than "The Double Life of Veronique" as an example of an artist totally NOT dazz;ed his own soul, but rather absolutely poured into his character's. And as for the repeated demands that story be pronounced, plotting all important, there is after all another way to do narrative: building around seemingly unimportant events, chance sightings, comments, small incidents; as Kieslowski put it, he thought that he perhaps was not trying to tell a story at all, but rather to film emotion, the "soul" itself, of each of his focus characters in his films. And, as some of you point out, with Ondajtee perhaps it is as with Kieslowski: plot summary will sound sophomoric, even boring, and of course many "will not get-it," but for those who do ..., well, it's not an "elite" audience but it is certainly a priveleged and thankful one.

marie therese

how strange..a ralph lauren catalogue? surface?
surely it is clear that the profundity in ondaatje comes precisely from the poetry, from the being 'lyrical'.
or to put it tritely and Romantically from the way the bounces this way and that of language and image ("the surface") alert you to the reconciliation of seemingly discordant things..
certainly this is the extraordinary achievement of the english patient, how a body is a country bordered etc etc and on and on in a poetry of connection.. if the words are followed then the deeper meaning is revealed.. it is only in this way that the poetic novel actually escapes ego, becomes deep water that may be plunged through with close attention..

Jake Barnes

the majority of all your opinions above, really full of self-important pomp. Just read his novels, and enjoy, my friends...leave your comments in your graduate classes.

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