Review: In the Skin of a Lion, Michael Ondaatje; or, Talk to me about beautiful prose

Disliking a book I expected to dislike always produces a strange mix of feelings. On one hand, I like being right. On the other hand, I like liking things. I greatly prefer liking things to disliking them. Given the choice, I would elect to like Michael Ondaatje, but the fact is that I just did not. I don’t like it when people indent dialogue instead of punctuating it normally, for one thing. Just punctuate it normally! Why do you think God invented punctuation in the first place?

(My stance in favor of normal punctuation has been documented in this space before, so I won’t go on. Just know that I prefer normal punctuation in almost every case.)

Here are the reasons I read In the Skin of a Lion, in increasing order of importance:

  1. My friend the Enthusiast wanted to start a book discussion lunch thing with me and an extremely beautiful, intelligent coworker who I haven’t talked to very often. And the Enthusiast said she likes reading books with beautiful prose, and she suggested In the Skin of a Lion so I agreed.
  2. I did not know that it was about aqueducts.

This book is about aqueducts. So now you know. I recognize that I should have found this out before consenting to read it, but I didn’t. It’s about Canadian history, too, which I guess is fine, except that I don’t know anything about Canadian history except how the British threw the Cajuns out of Canada and that is how they came to live in Louisiana instead; but the point is that all these historical tidbits were wasted on me. The millionaire who disappears in the book, Ambrose Small, apparently was a real guy. That seems like it should be an interesting plotline, yet instead it is exceptionally dull.

Another point to consider is that if the point of you as a writer is beautiful prose (which Michael Ondaatje might not claim is the case, but the Enthusiast heavily implied that it was), you had better be Tom Stoppard or Vladimir Nabokov. I mean that the prose had better be so exceptionally dazzling that it’s like reading the book version of Salisbury Cathedral or the Grand Canyon, where it knocks you on your ass and you can’t even think of anything else. I am reading Ada, or Ardor at the moment, and I eventually stopped counting the number of sentences that were making me say, “Whoa. Whoa,” because I worried my Nook couldn’t support that many bookmarks.

Or, well, I guess the problem is that I have no brand loyalty to this brand of prose. I am not especially interested in prose a la Marilynne Robinson and Michael Ondaatje, or even a la Donna Tartt, who has written one of my favorite books of all time. Their prose is fine, sometimes very beautiful, but striking metaphors and melancholy descriptions are not a sufficient condition for engendering enjoyment in me. I like The Secret History because the story is gripping; I have thrice failed to get more than a third of the way into The Little Friend because the story does not engage me.

What makes me appreciate prose qua prose is verbal agility. And humor, especially. Like the author has noticed that the English language is equal parts beautiful and absurd, and they are getting a really enormous kick out of it. Salman Rushdie, Vladimir Nabokov, Tom Stoppard, Barbara Kingsolver in The Poisonwood Bible though not so much elsewhere — these are all writers whose prose is worthwhile on its own. A pure and scintillating pleasure.

Also, and I can’t emphasize this enough, In the Skin of a Lion is about aqueducts. AQUEDUCTS.

It’s about other things too. I know I know. It’s also about identity and other things. But it’s mainly about those things as they relate to aqueducts, and combined with the sort of prose it is, this feature of the book makes it positively unbearable to me. I just cannot abide with these brief staccato sentences about fires in kitchens and bridges falling over and whatnot. Pile on the clauses! Bring the periodic structure! That is the sort of prose that makes my heart sing. I am not a Caesar girl, I am a Cicero girl.

And you? Talk to me about beautiful prose. A talent writers should cultivate, or a distraction from good storytelling? Long gorgeous sentences with alliteration and chiasmus and zeugma and clauses clauses clauses, or is Ernest Hemingway the guy for you? Does poetical prose tend to seem affected to you or does it make your heart soar?

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39 thoughts on “Review: In the Skin of a Lion, Michael Ondaatje; or, Talk to me about beautiful prose

  1. I would probably say that when I am in it for the prose I favour simple but beautiful prose which is like a punch. Some examples – Jon McGregor and Lucy Wood. However, I do like weird and winding prose full of clauses too, like China Mieville and I guess Neal Stephenson sometimes. I love getting embedded in the clauses of the massive classics (although I’m afraid Henry James is too much for me).

    I am less excited about simple prose that…idk is not using its simplicity for some kind of effect, like your common or garden narrative where words are just getting you through the plot, but those books have lots of other excellent qualities (plot, yay).

    I am also very cagey about metaphors that are written to show the reader that the author knows what a metaphors if that makes sense… symbolism is more my thing although metaphors are useful.

    • Henry James is too much for me, although it’s more because he’s dreary than because his sentences are too long. His writing feels like he was very sad about it. :p

      Did you like Special Topics in Calamity Physics, may I ask? I wondered if that would fall under the heading for you of showing the reader the author knows what metaphors are. She certainly uses A LOT of them, and some of them were a bit much to me, but I found the overall effect pleasing.

      • I haven’t no – the hype put me off, but I banked it for after I’ve forgotten about the hype because of the excellent title. I will add your infromation to the book chosing database (otherwise known as my juggling brain).

      • I read that (STICP) not long after I read Daniel Handler’s ‘The Basic Eight’ and it seemed way too similar for me to accept that Pessl’s book was worth the hype.

  2. I am not going t comment about beautiful prose, because, although I can and do enjoy it, it is never, repeat, never, the point of reading for me. The story! The story is the reason to read; if I am willing to give up the story for exquisitely crafted language, I read poetry. That is the why of poetry, right?

    So instead I am just going to say, it must be rough to be Canadian. No matter how great they are, and no matter how sensible their policies and how beautiful their landscapes, their national characteristic remains “dull.” It doesn’t seem fair, does it? (The NYT mentions a coffeeshop which calls a decaf Americano a “Canadian.” Harsh, man.)

    Also, I kinda like aquaducts.

    • That’s exactly what I said! That’s exactly what I said when we had lunch to talk about this book. Almost word-for-word, I said just about exactly that about poetry.

      He’s also Sri Lankan. So he has that going for him.

      I like aqueducts too. In small doses.

  3. I like the flowers of rhetoric as a way to show something that can’t be shown any other way, but mostly agree with NWK about poetry. Not sure I agree that it’s entirely the why of poetry, but that’s certainly where I go for the way something is said.

    • Yep, me too. And it’s where I go for elegant imagery and economy of style, as well. Ondaatje’s prose has those things but I don’t want it in prose.

  4. Long gorgeous sentences, yes please – I’m thinking, like, Henry James and Proust, yeah. Style — and style as a way to create mood — can matter more to me, sometimes, than story, though yeah, verbal agility does tend to appeal to me more than interesting/striking metaphors, unless those metaphors are really good and not too heavily used.

  5. I need beautiful prose, even if it is sometimes sparse, to make a book really stand out for me. Sentences that meander, and hold promise that never go anywhere bother me, and make me think that the author thinks much more highly of him or herself than the audience. The lack of punctuation doesn’t bother me so much, as I just finished a beautiful book that didn’t use quotation marks when the characters spoke, but it was clear that they were speaking, if that makes sense. I don’t like Ondaatje. I have tried with him, but he is not easy, fun or beautiful to read.

    • That does not surprise me at all! You often read books that sound like they have beautiful prose, but maybe not as much in the way of story, and I always read your reviews and wish I loved beautiful prose better. :p

      What was the book with no quotation marks?

  6. Non-fiction about aquaducts, maybe, but I’ll pass on the fiction if everything has to relate to them. I agree entirely about the sole purpose being about prose. It needs to be fabulous if that is the case, and there does need to be a bit of interesting story else the beauty just gets lost. I prefer longer sentences overall, constant short ones can get too poetic and slows the pace too much.

    • I would read, like, an ESSAY about aqueducts. And then I’d be tapped out on aqueducts for a little while.

      Ondaatje has constant short ones. He has imagery as well, which is why I got in trouble with the Enthusiast for comparing him to Hemingway, but yeah, the short sentences bore me to death.

  7. This is actually so appropriate for me right now because I literally just finished (last night) Colum McCann’s new book, TransAtlantic, and it is ALL short. choppy. sentences. I mean, not that bad, but he makes descriptive phrases into sentences. Short and sweet. It drove me NUTS, and I couldn’t get over it enough to enjoy the actual book–so I know what you mean. That being said, I did love the English Patient.

    But acqueducts? Really? Who thought that was a good idea?

    • Ha! Yes! Colum McCann is another one. We read Let the Great World Spin in my book club and I didn’t care for it at all. I wanted to, but I did not. :/

  8. Really excellent prose can’t usually save a book for me if the characters and/or story don’t engage me, but I do enjoy it when I notice it. (Marilynne Robinson is someone whose prose I adore, but I also love her characters.) A lot of the time, though, I don’t really notice the prose unless it’s spectacularly good or spectacularly bad. Once in a while, I come across something where I notice the author is trying to write great prose, but it doesn’t grab me. In such cases, I mostly just ask that it also not distract me.

    • So yeah! Marilynne Robinson is an example for me where it seems like the prose is the point — though I’ve only read one book of hers, and it was one where she actually said in interviews that the prose was the point — and that’s why I don’t enjoy her writing. :( The prose should serve the story, in my opinion, and if it wants to say something beautiful and striking along the way, I’m very much all for it and will joyously write down quotes in my commonplace book.

  9. Hah! Well, this is one of my favourite novels, but I do choose to read/re-read it when I am in the mood for beautifully-crafted sentences and a slow-burning romantic tale. And it is the bridge (Bloor Street Viaduct) that stands out for me more than the water filtration plant bits. (Here is a link to some photos of the inspiration for that portion of the novel and details about a tour you could take in Toronto.) Bet you were itching to go! One of my favourite quotes?

    “They [characters] altered when the author’s eye was somewhere else. Outside the plot there was a great darkness, but there would of course be daylight elsewhere on earth. Each character had his own time zone, his own lamp, otherwise they were just men from nowhere.”

    FWIW, I don’t particularly enjoy the prose of the other writers’ works you’ve mentioned, but I do love what MO can do with a sentence…or a handful of them.

  10. yeah…it depends, I guess. Like some of it is mood reading, sometimes I want to read a book where the sentences matter. But there’s also this element for me where I need to feel like it’s effortless for the writer, that this is the way they think and express themselves. I needs to have that rhythm and flow for me, otherwise, no.

    But like Teresa, I usually need to have other motivation, love for characters or story or even theme to keep me reading.

    • Like what? Can you think of a book where the sentences matter that you truly love? I’m just curious to see what kind of prose blows you away.

  11. I just finished The Song of Achilles and had a similar reaction. On the one hand, Miller sprinkles some gorgeous, heartwrenching details throughout. On the other, I didn’t like the novel and was not invested in it. I don’t know if every author needs to develop a sense of beautiful prose, but I will say that every writer I love to terrifying pieces has an eye not only for beautiful prose, but the right amount of beautiful prose for the story.

    I totally agree that if you’re going to do style-only, you better be amazing. Story, story, story.

    • Oh noooooo! You are the first person yet to not love The Song of Achilles. I want to love it, but I’m afraid all the Mary Renault comparisons will have primed me to expect too much of it.

      And also, yes. Story, story, story. That’s where my heart’s at. I don’t care what anyone else says.

  12. I agree with you about Nabokov. And I can’t exactly describe what it is that he has, although “verbal agility” is good – it’s just that he’s doing something with English that ordinary good writers, even ordinary great writers, can’t do. It’s like he’s writing in the fourth dimension; there’s just no comparison between his sentences and the sentences of someone like George Orwell, who is legit brilliant and a great writer but firmly in our dimension at all times. When I read Ondaatje, or Jeannette Winterson, or somebody like that, I always have this irritating awareness that this author is trying to write beautifully. With somebody like Nabokov or Stoppard or Kipling, I get the impression that it’s really just the way they write; the most effective way to describe a scene or make a point just happens to also be so beautiful it makes you stop and stare at the page.

  13. These days, I don’t really enjoy reading books if the prose is no good. It doesn’t have to be Nabokov or Ford Madox Ford or Italo Calvino, but it better be at least to the level of good-workmanlike (what is that, artisan?) or I won’t even finish it. And none of the authors you mention are writing truly awesome prose just to be pretty-pretty; the style is the story as well. Form is function. It’s all blended, and that’s why they’re geniuses.

  14. Remember how I said I read your posts on my phone at like 6:30 in the morning? Yeah, so then I sometimes forget to comment when there was a thing I wanted to say. SO. Prose. Nabokov, sure. But I heard Ada was super-hard to get through, so I side-eye you. ALSO, A.S. Byatt in both Possession and Ragnarok. Daaamn, lady. Also William Styron is obviously delighted by the prospect of pushing the English language to its utmost limits, and I am in turn delighted by him doing it.

    • I side-eye you back. Who has told you this scurrilous rumor about Ada? It is totally true. The book’s hard to get through. I mean it’s hard to sit down and read a whole bunch of it at once. I have gotten along very happily reading it a few chapters at a time, though.

      Facts: William Styron is not the same person as this other author whose name I can’t remember because all I can think of is William Styron. The other author wrote a book about Ithaca, New York, that had all sorts of Homeric echoes, and my eighth-grade teacher read it to us and I liked it. That is not the same as Sophie’s Choice man who alas! I will never read because dude I cannot deal with that stuff.

  15. Like almost everyone else, it’s rare that I appreciate beautiful prose for its own sake in fiction (though I do like the odd well-chosen adjective), though I do like the words to feel chosen or thought about. P. G. Wodehouse and Raymond Chandler did such fantastic things with metaphor, so that I don’t think anyone else can match them. I have not read any Nabokov so can’t comment on his style.

    I find it interesting to compare writers who describe things lierally, which is generally boring, with those who can cut through to the essence of things (or people) with just a few words. I recently re-read a crime novel by Nicholas Blake (pseudonym of the poet Cecil Day-Lewis), and he was very good at providing minimal description but conveying volumes.

    • Oh you should read Lolita. Honestly. The prose is just crazy good.

      I love Diana Wynne Jones for that reason! (among many) I find that her descriptions, though brief, give you this really, really strong sense of who the characters are as people. She just has a knack.

  16. I agree about style! It’s all about that “agility” you describe so well. Nabokov can take near-lunacy, or pedophilia, and make you love the book until it hurts because his style is so amazing (love the remark above about him writing in the fourth dimension). I read too much Kafka and Dostoevsky to be able to deal with choppy sentences or just fair-to-middling prose style. That’s why I don’t read a lot of contemporary fiction, I guess. I haven’t read any Tom Stoppard, so putting him in a line with Nabokov makes me want to rush to the library and figure him out!

    • Oh, do read Tom Stoppard. You have to. He’s the wonderfulest. Do you like reading plays, though? I know that not everyone does. If you do, Tom Stoppard’s totally the way to go. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern if you’re okay with absurdist theater, or if not then Arcadia BEST PLAY IN THE WORLD (at least in the top five), or also The Real Thing.

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