Booker-Prize-winner Eleanor Catton and male critics aging badly

73.Eleanor Catton-The LuminariesYou could forgive a reader for thinking that journalists were writing about 16 year-old Lorde who topped the US charts last week with her song Royals, not a 28-year-old writer who already has an award-winning book under her belt, as well as a degree in English from the University of Canterbury, a Masters from Victoria University’s Institute of Modern Letters, and an MFA from the prestigious Iowa Writers Workshop.

That’s the extent to which journalists around the world made a fuss of Eleanor Catton’s “tender age” – which anyone reading the book pages must know by now is 28 (I can even quote her birthday without Googling: 24 September, which makes her a Libran) – when her 832-page novel, The Luminaries, won the 2013 Man Booker Prize.

Until Catton displaced him, Ben Okri held the record for youngest Booker winner when he won for The Famished Road (1991) at age 32. Before him it was Kazuo Ishiguro and Salman Rushdie, who were both 34 at the time of their respective wins for Remains of the Day (1989) and Midnight’s Children (1981).

Yet not one of these authors were framed by their youth. Nor were they described as looking “remarkably self-possessed”, as Nick Clark kindly but nonetheless patronizingly described Catton’s demeanor “the morning after the night that changed her life.”

There are a number of reasons why Catton’s age might have become the headline: the Booker is Britain’s most prestigious literary prize and to win at all is a colossal achievement. And she did break the decade barrier. The profiles of Booker Prize winners shows that most of them have their first success at around 30, peak in their 40s, then die twenty-odd years later.

Historically, some literary giants are late bloomers, yet many others burn bright from an early age. Alexander Pope wrote his much-anthologised “Ode on Solitude” when he was 12 and published The Rape of the Lock (1712) when he was 24. By 24 Shakespeare had written Henry VI (1591).

By age 20 Jane Austen had written Sense and Sensibility, Mary Shelley had written Frankenstein – both books were published a few years later in 1811 and 1818 respectively – and Rimbaud had retired from writing.

Goethe published The Sorrows of Young Werther (1786) when he was 25 and Emily Brontë published Wuthering Heights (1847) when she was 28 – by that age John Keates was already three-years buried.

Hemingway published The Sun Also Rises (1926) at age 27, but F. Scott Fitzgerald didn’t publish The Great Gatsby (1925) until he was 29 – in fairness he already had published two books before he composed his Jazz Age classic. Likewise Bret Easton Ellis published two novels before American Psycho (1991) appeared when he was 27.

But authorial precocity is not quarantined to centuries past: Zadie Smith published White Teeth (2000) when she was 25 – the same age Jonathan Safran Foer was when Everything Is Illuminated (2002) came out.

Of course none of these writers won the Booker: it didn’t exist until 1969; and American authors, until last month, have been barred from entering.

Though The Luminaries was generally well-received in Britain, Catton said in an interview in the Guardian that it was “subject to a ‘bullying’ reception from certain male reviewers of an older generation – particularly in New Zealand.”

“People whose negative reaction has been most vehement have all been men over about 45,” she says.

London-based, New Zealand author and critic CK Stead got stuck on what he called the novel’s “chintzy upholstered tone”. He also became an antagonist in a particularly apoplectic review by Michael Morrissey, a 71-year old novelist and poet from Auckland, who writes:

“Eleanor Catton, it seems, can do no wrong, but is she doing anything right – apart from selling well?”

Catton’s first novel, The Rehearsal, so Morrissey informs us, was “written when the author was virtually a child of 21 (or so)” and “set a new hallmark in schoolgirlish bitchiness, as well as including flashes of purple writing – understandable in one so young. Femmes were impressed; chaps less so.”

The Rehearsal, Morrissey concedes – published in 17 territories and 12 languages – was “an impressive achievement for one barely out of school uniform.”

But before he can find his way to the text, Morrissey has more to say about Catton’s person: “The pensive-featured, marginally beautiful Ms Catton was made an adjunct professor at Iowa University.”

[At this point in the review, I scrolled to the masthead to see if I had stumbled onto The Onion or some other satirical site.]

He also offered Catton some grandfatherly advice, inside which is a wonderfully wrong prediction: “she must not let potential Man Booker (which will probably go to Jhumpa Lahiri) go to her thought-crowded head.”

O, these damned scribbling women!

At least Nicholas Lezard had the grace to wrap his envy in humour: “Failure is good for the soul,” he writes. “At least that’s what I tell myself as I contemplate the successful young.”

But Catton has better things to do than to contemplate the not-as-successful-as-they’d-like-to-be old.

“One of those things that you learn in school about any kind of bullying is that it’s always more to do with them than it is to do with you,” she says. “I don’t see that my age has anything to do with what is between the covers of my book, any more than the fact that I am right-handed. It’s a fact of my biography, but it’s uninteresting.”

Eleanor Catton has already sold the rights to The Luminaries, which she hopes will become a boxed set television show, rather than film. If she succeeds, which I’m betting she will, it will be a bucket of water in the face for “select male reviewers over 45”.

“I’m melting,” they will cry as they fall in a puddle, but no one will be listening.

Bronwyn Lea does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

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Nancy huston scoops a bad sex award

I admit it: I was wrong. I was satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt that BBC Newsnight economics editor Paul Mason would win the 2012 Bad Sex in Fiction Awards for his ikebana-cum-gymnastic efforts in his debut novel Rare Earth: “He began thrusting wildly in the general direction of her chrysanthemum but missing, his paunchy frame shuddering with the effort of remaining rigid and upside down”. But he didn’t. Not only are my credentials as a literary critic now in contention, but my confidence in calling bad sex when I see it has been shattered. At a ceremony held at the stately Naval & Military Club in London (better and in this case aptly known as The In & Out club) Samantha Bond of Downton Abbey fame presented Britain’s least-coveted prize to Canadian author Nancy Huston for her 14th novel, Infrared, about a woman who snaps (as in photographs) her lovers while making love.

31299_3I admit it: I was wrong. I was satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt that BBC Newsnight economics editor Paul Mason would win the 2012 Bad Sex in Fiction Awards for his ikebana-cum-gymnastic efforts in his debut novel Rare Earth:

“He began thrusting wildly in the general direction of her chrysanthemum but missing, his paunchy frame shuddering with the effort of remaining rigid and upside down”.

But he didn’t. Not only are my credentials as a literary critic now in contention, but my confidence in calling bad sex when I see it has been shattered.

At a ceremony held at the stately Naval & Military Club in London (better and in this case aptly known as The In & Out club) Samantha Bond of Downton Abbey fame presented Britain’s least-coveted prize to Canadian author Nancy Huston for her 14th novel, Infrared, about a woman who snaps (as in photographs) her lovers while making love.

The judges were impressed by Huston’s alliterative descriptions of the human body, such as ‘flesh, that archaic kingdom that brings forth tears and terrors, nightmares, babies and bedazzlements’ or ‘my sex swimming in joy like a fish in water’ or this passage which reminds readers (or not) that the brain is the largest sex organ:

When our bodies unite for the third time we leave all theatres behind. What happens then has as little to do with the libertinage prized by the French (oh the blasphemers, the precious precocious ejaculators, the nasty naughty boys, the cruel fouteurs and fouetteurs) as with the healthy, egalitarian intercourse championed by Americans (who hand out bachelors degrees in G-points, masters in masturbation and Ph.Ds in endorphines).

The undaunted might like to read a more graphic excerpt at the Guardian. Huston, who now lives in Paris, did not cross the channel to collect her award, but she did send a brief acceptance speech:

I hope this prize will incite thousands of British women to take close-up photos of their lovers’ bodies in all states of array and disarray.

The plural possessive apostrophe, I’m told, is not an error.

Huston – whose accolades include France’s premier literary prize, the Prix Goncourt, the Prix Femina, and a shortlisting for the 2010 Orange Prize – is only the third woman to win the Bad Sex prize since its inception in 1993.

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My money’s on Paul Mason for Bad Sex Award

Poets and writers get twice the sex of regular mortals, according to a study led by Dr David Nettle of the University of Newcastle upon Tyne. The study, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, asked 425 men and women about their sexual partners, including one-night stands, and found the average number of partners for professional artists and poets to be between four and 10 compared with just three for non-creative professionals. “Creative people are often considered to be attractive and get lots of attention as a result”, Dr Nettle said. “They tend to be charismatic and produce art and poetry that grabs people’s interests.”

tumblr_lqpkxxZNUL1ql3umeo1_1280Poets and writers get twice the sex of regular mortals, according to a study led by Dr David Nettle of the University of Newcastle upon Tyne.

The study, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, asked 425 men and women about their sexual partners, including one-night stands, and found the average number of partners for professional artists and poets to be between four and 10 compared with just three for non-creative professionals.

“Creative people are often considered to be attractive and get lots of attention as a result”, Dr Nettle said. “They tend to be charismatic and produce art and poetry that grabs people’s interests.”

It could also be that very creative types lead a Bohemian lifestyle and tend to act on more sexual impulses and opportunities, often purely for experience’s sake, than the average person would. Moreover, it’s common to find that this sexual behaviour is tolerated in creative people. Partners, even long-term ones, are less likely to expect loyalty and fidelity from them.

Maybe so, but as the Bad Sex in Fiction Award – Britain’s most dreaded literary prize – has underscored since its inception twenty years ago: quantity can be a poor substitute for quality. The literati may well be getting more sex than the rest of the population, but if the hairy, wubbering, nosh-inspired sex of contemporary novels is anything to go by we should all settle down with accountants.

Literary Review journal, which hosts the Bad Sex Awards, claims that “the purpose of the prize is to draw attention to the crude, badly written, often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in the modern novel, and to discourage it”.

The prize is not intended to cover pornographic or expressly erotic literature: “In a year in which the country’s obsession with mummy porn, red rooms of pain and Christian Grey has reached fever pitch,” the judges reassure, “Literary Review is proud to continue its gentle chastisement of the worst excesses of the literary novel”.

In other words, E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey was deemed not eligible, nor in any need of further attention.

past glories

Last year Australia saw a favourite son, Christos Tsiolkas, slapped with a Bad Sex shortlisting for his bloodthirsty passages in Dead Europe, of which these sentences, paeans to the abject, are emblematic:

It’s okay, I whispered … I was immersed in the slush of her moist meat … Her body stiffened but I forced her legs apart and pushed my face into her groin. The smell was overpowering. It was as if her cunt was a cellar filled with a heady store of wines and spirits, all emitting wafts of gaseous bouquets that recalled all the possible eruptions of the body. She smelt of farting and diarrhoea, shitting and pissing, burping, bile and vomit. I forced my tongue into this churning compost. Her blood was calling me.

Contentiously to some, Tsiolkas’s Dead Europe lost to the novel Ed King, a retelling of Oedipal Rex, by David Guterson of Snow-Falling-on-Cedars fame. The narrator promises the reader big things:

Okay. Now we approach the part of the story a reader couldn’t be blamed for having skipped forward to – “flipped forward to” if he or she has a hard copy, but otherwise “scrolled to” or “used the ‘find’ feature” to locate the part where a mother has sex with her son. Who could blame you for being interested in this potential hot part, and at the same time, for shuddering at the prospect of it?

but won the 2011 Bad Sex Award for awkward jobs like this:

He was waiting for a display of need. So she took him by the wrist and moved the base of his hand into her pubic hair until his middle fingertip settled on the no-man’s-land between her “front parlor” and “back door” (those were the quaint, prudish terms of her girlhood), she got him on the node between neighbouring needs (both of which had been explored by johns who almost never tarried). She gave him this particular sign, this clear permission, and he began a careful prodding of her perineum, which was as good a starting place as any for Diane, because it instigated those processes of memory her sexuality required. It triggered memories with the uncanny force of déjà vu, and what she thought of, as Ed slaved away, was a boy from her village who had fingered her adroitly in a greenhouse thick with green tomatoes.

But just as Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children was judged the Booker of Bookers in 1993, Rowan Somerville’s second novel, The Shape of Her, wins (in my opinion) the BSA of BSAs. He could have won for this lurid but deadly sentence alone: “like a lepidopterist mounting a tough-skinned insect with a too blunt pin he screwed himself into her”. But the judges were also impressed by his field notes – as typified by pubic hair “like desert vegetation following an underground stream” – and highlighted a passage that should caution writers against employing a sniffing possum as vehicle in a breast metaphor, especially if one intends to sup on it:

He unbuttoned the front of her shirt and pulled it to the side so that her breast was uncovered, her nipple poking out, upturned like the nose of the loveliest nocturnal animal, sniffing the night. He took it between his lips and sucked the salt from her.

In 2010 Somerville had the good humour and courage to man up to accept the honour in person: “There is nothing more English than bad sex”, he said, “so on behalf of the entire nation I would like to thank you”.

shortlist juicy bits

The Yips by Nicola Barker

She smells of almonds, like a plump Bakewell pudding; and he is the spoon, the whipped cream, the helpless dollop of warm custard.

The Adventuress: The Irresistible Rise of Miss Cath Fox by Nicholas Coleridge

In seconds the duke had lowered his trousers and boxers and positioned himself across a leather steamer trunk, emblazoned with the royal arms of Hohenzollern Castle. ‘Give me no quarter’, he commanded. “Lay it on with all your might”.

Infrared by Nancy Huston

This is when I take my picture, from deep inside the loving. The Canon is part of my body. I myself am the ultrasensitive film – capturing invisible reality, capturing heat.

Noughties by Ben Masters

We got up from the chair and she led me to her elfin grot, getting amongst the pillows and cool sheets. We trawled each other’s bodies for every inch of history.

The Quiddity of Will Self by Sam Mills

Down, down, on to the eschatological bed. Pages chafed me; my blood wept onto them. My cheek nestled against the scratch of paper. My cock was barely a ghost, but I did not suffer panic.

The Divine Comedy by Craig Raine

And he came. Like a wubbering springboard. His ejaculate jumped the length of her arm. Eight diminishing gouts. The first too high for her to lick. Right on the shoulder.

Back to Blood by Tom Wolfe

Now his big generative jockey was inside her pelvic saddle, riding, riding, riding, and she was eagerly swallowing it swallowing it swallowing it with the saddle’s own lips and maw — all this without a word.

my hot pick

Rare Earth by Paul Mason

He began thrusting wildly in the general direction of her chrysanthemum but missing, his paunchy frame shuddering with the effort of remaining rigid and upside down. ‘The cartel, sells, to the global market’, he panted. ‘The price is inflated because production has been capped!’ She began to pant in unison with him… ‘Cartel evades export controls. Market capitalisation of western miners stays low. Massive, one-way, bet’… He switched to some ancient steppe language as he ejaculated, blubbering and incoherent. Chun-li faked an orgasm, keeping her mind focused on an eighth-century lyric of sadness.

The winner will be announced at a ceremony in London next month.

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Michael ondaatje: a lion at the cat’s table

Review of The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje

In English all the cool loanwords are German. The catalogue of human emotions would be incomplete without the world-weary melancholy carried by weltschmerz or the self-destructive yearning of sehnsucht. Schadenfreude – to take pleasure in another’s suffering – has proven indispensable, and zugzvang, a beautiful concept derived from chess in which a person is forced to be the author of his or her own destruction, appears everywhere once you’ve learned it. But Katzentisch comes to English only in translation. Literally “the cat’s table,” it refers to a low table at which the well-heeled feed their pets. Metaphorically it’s the kiddies table, or for big humans it’s the badly lit table in the restaurant corner.

ondaatjeIn English all the cool loanwords are German. The catalogue of human emotions would be incomplete without the world-weary melancholy carried by weltschmerz or the self-destructive yearning of sehnsucht. Schadenfreude – to take pleasure in another’s suffering – has proven indispensable, and zugzvang, a beautiful concept derived from chess in which a person is forced to be the author of his or her own destruction, appears everywhere once you’ve learned it.

But Katzentisch comes to English only in translation. Literally “the cat’s table,” it refers to a low table at which the well-heeled feed their pets. Metaphorically it’s the kiddies table, or for big humans it’s the badly lit table in the restaurant corner. In politics and business, the cat’s table is reserved for the office that exists but has lost the authority to act. It is also the title of Michael Ondaatje’s latest novel.

The Cat’s Table opens in Ceylon (as Sri Lanka was formerly known) in the early 1950s with an eleven-year-old boy boarding the Oronsay, a liner bound for England. At mealtimes he sits at Table 76 – “the least privileged place” in the dining hall – with two other boys, Cassius and Ramadhin, and an eccentric array of adults: among them a frequently tanked pianist who teaches the boys dirty lyrics; a botanist who tends an Ayurvedic garden in the ship’s hold; and a quirky spinster who consumes crime novels and houses pigeons in her jacket.

While the doyens of the Captain’s table “constantly toast one another’s significance,” the boy learns that all that is interesting happens mostly in secret, in places where there is no power. “It would always be strangers,” the adult narrator reflects, “at the various Cat’s Tables of my life, who would alter me.”

Seemingly The Cat’s Table courts a biographical reading: both the author and the narrator are named Michael, both were born in Colombo in 1943, both emigrate from Ceylon to England in 1954, both relocate to Canada as young men, and both become feted writers. In his “Author’s Note”, however, Ondaatje insists his “imagined rendering” is fiction, not memoir. It is an unnecessary disclosure: anyone familiar with Ondaatje’s oeuvre will know his project has long been to dissolve the boundaries of fact and fiction. But given the felonious events that transpire on board the Oronsay – sorcery, larceny, murder and more – perhaps a distinction was thought legally prudent.

Whether the author and the narrator share an antipathy toward authority or not, Ondaatje has been dining at the Captain’s table since his second novel, The English Patient, won the Booker Prize in 1992. Or more precisely, given the cinematic prejudices of our age, Ondaatje was ushered into literary “significance” four years later when Anthony Minghella’s film adaptation by the same name won nine Oscars, two Golden Globes and six BAFTAs.

The skyrocketing effect Minghella’s English Patient had on Ondaatje’s career cannot be overstated. The film became compulsory viewing for the fashion set, stimulating the book’s sales in excess of two million copies worldwide. Both the book and the film, Ondaatje muses in a 1997 interview, acquired “a slightly sacred fog” in the public imagination.

Not surprisingly The English Patient also became a target for satire. Shortly after the film’s release a popular Seinfeld episode pilloried its worthiness, deeming people who didn’t like the movie – as Elaine didn’t – “flinty hearted” and “untrustworthy.” For her aesthetic insurrection Elaine is punished with a trip to Tunisia (the filming location of The English Patient) where she must live in a cave in order to save her job. Similarly in Chuck Palahniuk’s new novel, Damned (2011), hell is a place where The English Patient plays on eternal loop.

But before afflictions of fame, Ondaatje enjoyed the relative obscurity afforded a poet. Beginning with The Dainty Monsters in 1967, Ondaatje has published a total of eleven books of poetry, earning him the steady admiration of critics and a select but ardent trove of readers. In 1991 The Cinnamon Peeler: Selected Poems assembled twenty-five years of Ondaatje’s greatest lyric poems in a tour de force: the title poem – “The Cinnamon Peeler” – which would surely stand among the best erotic love poems in English, as well as the much anthologized “To a Sad Daughter”, “White Dwarfs”, “Last Ink” and the extraordinary elegies for his mother and father, “Light” and “Letters & Other Worlds”, to name a small handful.

Ondaatje’s poetry – like his novels – often intersects with history. His second book, an imagistic suite of poems entitled The Man with Seven Toes, was inspired by Sidney Nolan’s Mrs Fraser series of paintings (1947-57) and Colin MacInnes’s brief account of Eliza Fraser’s fascinating but tragic life: shipwrecked off the Queensland coast in 1836, she was captured by aborigines and rescued by David Bracewell, a convict whom she betrays upon arriving in civilization. (Fraser is also the subject of Patrick White’s 1976 novel, A Fringe of Leaves.)

But Ondaatje’s career wasn’t underway until his second book, The Collected Works of Billy the Kid (1970) – a grab bag of poems, prose, photographs and fictional news stories about sociopathic William “the Kid” Bonney and his gang of killers – fell into the wrong hands.

“The ex-Prime Minister [of Canada] John Diefenbaker was essentially out of a job, but he was a very cantankerous, wonderful old demagogue,” Ondaatje recalls in a 1997 interview. “He read the book, and he just hated it. So he called all the cameras in for a news conference, and he said, ‘This is disgusting!’ There was a picture of me on the front page of the newspaper.

“Only about eight people had bought the book, so it was quite sweet in some way for him to read it,” Ondaatje laughs. “I wasn’t so upset by him disliking the book, but it put me into a tailspin about being semi-known. Even on a small scale, it was difficult not to be self-conscious about being a writer.”

Ondaatje’s early style is challenging but the effects are stunning. Ever evading a master narrative, he tells stories through pieces of song, faded photographs, snatches of conversation. The pieces don’t always meet at the edges, sometimes they overlap, and it’s left to the reader to make the meaning and provide the glue. Ondaatje’s writing never seems to move in straight lines. As Pico Iyer says, “It circles and slants and echoes and returns.”

In 1970 Ondaatje published a monograph on fellow Canadian writer, Leonard Cohen. The two writers share more than an emotional climate – a moody often erotic reverence for violence and beauty – they feed from the same lexicon of wounds, scars, madness, dreams, broken glass, bones, chaos, and kindnesses. Ondaatje offers a description of Cohen’s künstlerroman, The Favorite Game, that could easily serve as an artistic statement for his own practice:

“It has the effectiveness of a long prose poem,” he writes, “with each scene emerging as a potent and enigmatic sketch, rather than a full blown detailed narrative. As in a poem, the silences and spaces, what is left unsaid, are essential to the mood of the book.”

Ondaatje’s novels would, in time, surpass his mentor’s in ambition, sophistication and reach. Alongside The Man with Seven Toes and Billy the Kid, his poetic novel-of-sorts, Coming Through Slaughter – a jazzy, syncopated riff on the short, mad life of legendary cornet player Buddy Bolden – all stand as amphibious texts bridging Ondaatje’s poetry and prose.

In 1982 Ondaatje’s masterwork in prose appeared in the form of a memoir, Running in the Family, which chronicles his return to Sri Lanka to grapple with the lives of his parents: his father, Mervyn Ondaatje, was a tea and rubber-plantation superintendent afflicted with alcoholism; and his mother, Doris Gratiaen, a part-time radical dancer inspired by Isadora Duncan. Both were prominent inhabitants of what once comprised Ceylon’s flamboyant if frivolous colonial society. Ondaatje writes:

I must confess that the book is not a history but a portrait or ‘gesture’. In Sri Lanka a well-told lie is worth a thousand facts.

Despite his earlier prose works, Ondaatje calls In the Skin of the Lion (1987) his “first novel”. It is also one of his best. Set in Toronto in the 1920s and 30s it imagines the lives of the Macedonian immigrant community who built the city’s bridges and waterworks. Ondaatje’s attentiveness to beauty, despair, and lives lost to official history builds a searing narrative even as its language and circular structures pull its telling towards poetry.

Increasingly since The English Patient, Ondaatje’s novels have become less experimental, the shifts in perspective less dramatic, the language more denotative. Anil’s Ghost (2000) follows the life of Anil Tissera, a native Sri Lankan and forensic anthropologist, working as a Human Rights investigator during Sri Lanka’s civil war. Divisadero (2007) divides its attention between a family in 1970s California and an author in pre-World War I southern France. Both novels are skillfully drawn but neither quite manage the magic of his earlier works.

And so it is with his sixth novel, The Cat’s Table. Ondaatje’s preoccupations and signatory motifs are present in abundance: dogs, thieves, acrobats, tapestries, wounds, dreams, jazz, and poetry. And his eye for the cinematic moment still pulls off a splendid stillness. Each morning of the 21-day passage, the boys wake at dawn to spy on an Australian roller skater who races the perimeter of the deck and showers fully clothed: “When she left we followed her footprints”, the narrator confesses, “which were already evaporating in the new sunlight as we approached them”.

A study of one’s childhood is not uncommon in late-career writers. Perhaps having lost much of his childhood to the desperate antics of his parents, Ondaatje is compelled to return to the puzzle of his early years. If Tolstoy, Conrad and Coetzee had not pre-empted him, he says, he would have called his novel Youth.

Yet in stripping back the sophistication of his narrator’s voice to accommodate a child’s perspective, Ondaatje has deprived The Cat’s Table of the force of language that largely carried his earlier works. And in attempting a more straightforward telling, he has exposed his inherent weaknesses with narrative. One wishes he’d held his nerve and stuck to his earlier rhythms that, while difficult, were dazzling.

Ondaatje admits he doesn’t remember the day in 1954 that he arrived as an unaccompanied minor in the port of London. In his novel, he imagines Michael is met by his mother but he’s not sure he will recognize her face. He is wearing his first pair of long trousers, socks, and a thin cotton shirt. “You must be cold, Michael,” his mother says, pulling him to her. He can see part of the world to the side of her, the figures rushing past barely aware of him in his mother’s arms, the borrowed suitcase with all he owned beside him.

A reluctant guest or not, Ondaatje has earned his place at the Captain’s table – if not for this novel alone, but for what came before it, and for what we hope might follow.

Originally published under the title ‘The Cat’s Table’. Rev. The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje. Australian Literary Review (October 2011): 23.