Author: Jo Walton
Title: Or What You Will
Or What You Will, marketed as “writer’s book,” was my first Jo Walton’s novel – and I reached for it thanks to the infallible Bookforager, who is guilty of burdening my TBR with kilograms of books – just ask her, I’m sure she’ll gleefully admit to it and be proud! 😉
It’s a tough book to review, and quite tough to read, to be honest. At least at the beginning, where the writer seems so focused on actively dissuading readers from reading that at some point it became quite irking. But don’t take my word for it, just read the quote below:
“I will ask you to do nothing but read, and remember, and care. If you refuse to care? If reading this so far has made you shudder and recoil? If you have no least curiosity about that apophatic pool by the rose garden, not even whether it’s a swimming pool or a pool full of waterlilies, if you don’t want to at least glance at those books on the windowsill and scan their titles? Then you are not my reader, not any of my imagined readers. Stop now, while you are ahead. Take your embodied self off to read something else, feeling grateful for your solidity, your reality, and that of the world you inhabit, go read something you’ll enjoy more, or deal with the pipes and boilers banging and hissing in your own life, and leave the rest of us here. We will do well enough without you, I dare say.”
That’s pretentious, arrogant, and self-indulgent, to say mildly. If you want to know how to sieve out the right readers with class, try Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum; he does it in style. And I was actually quite tempted by Walton’s offer, as by this point the book amounted to nothing more but a list of historical monuments and tidbits about the history of Florence and was quickly devolving into a perfect illustration of one of the writer’s deadly sins, i.e. “I did all the research, now I’m going to cram its entirety into my novel, whether pertinent or not.”
The other deadly sin very noticeable in the opening chapters of this book is its geekiness. Or What You Will is tiresomely geeky, with countless allusions to other writers, artists, books and movies, in what is ultimately not an entirely successful attempt to create a shared frame of reference with readers. There are simply too many “badges of honor,” names thrown here and there; and this parading of the hermetic knowledge in the end amounts to nothing and doesn’t even pertain to the story at hand.
I persevered through those first few chapters, and was rewarded – and let me tell you, this doesn’t happen to me all that often lately, as you already probably know from my previous review. This time, though, the slog was worth it. Because Or What You Will finally found its legs at some point, and became quite charming indeed. It could be marketed as a tribute to Shakespeare, as one of the main storylines revolves around Shakespearean characters from The Twelfth Night and The Tempest. Walton freely uses the Italy as imagined by Shakespeare, and further reimagines it, creating a unique fantasy world. But it is also a deeply meta book, a novel about the process of writing stories, creating characters, about the fluid boundaries between the real and the imagined. You have probably already inferred that it’s also a charmingly clumsy love letter to Florence, something between a travelogue and a Lonely Planet guide; Walton seems to follow the steps of many English artists before her in finding an unending well of inspiration in Renaissance Italy and in the underlying ideals of ancient Greece and Rome. Her infatuation with Florence is catching; now I really want to visit and eat Italian gelato and lazily walk through the streets, admiring all the art ;). These three threads intertwine more or less gracefully, but with boundless enthusiasm, which in the end turns out infectious.
There is a level of sincerity in this book that I haven’t encountered in a long time; private life and thoughts mix up with total fantasy and imagined characters begin to interact with real life worries, experiences and events in a triumph of imagination. Walton is very honest with herself and her readers; while the main character, Sylvia, is a fictional one, the author imbues her with enough of her own thoughts and fears, passions and experiences that Sylvia comes to life with admirable panache and a layer of reality that’s hard to describe. And the same goes for the unnamed narrator, the spiritus movens of the plot, Sylvia’s imaginary friend who over the course of their entangled lives becomes her twin and savior. The main question is beguilingly simple and yet so difficult to answer. Is it possible to become immortal through one’s art? Horace’s famous sentiment Non Omnis Moriar forms a strong undercurrent in this novel, creating the main conflict and also bringing a strangely satisfying solution to it, adequately fantastical and optimistic.
Walton is a skillful wordsmith; after the first few hesitant chapters she finds her plot and twists and turns it admirably, clearly having lots of fun with it. It’s at times boring, at times silly and at times heartbreaking, alternately touched with tender emotion and ruthlessness, prone to digression, self-indulgence and preening, and yet sometimes it transcends its limitations and becomes strikingly apt. Or What You Will is clearly Walton’s labor of love, and while not perfect, it’s certainly unique. I’ll be reading more of her books, that’s certain.
Incidentally, the name Sylvia is of Latin origin; it means “of the woods”. In the 16th-18th century in Poland, silva rerum was a form of a family chronicle written by nobility, and as Wikipedia notes, it contained “diary-type entries on current events, memoirs, letters, political speeches, copies of legal documents, gossips, jokes and anecdotes, financial documents, economic information (price of grain, etc.), philosophical musings, poems, genealogical trees, advice (agricultural, medical, moral) for the descendants and others.” The similarities between Or What You Will and silva rerum are striking; I wonder if Walton knew this while choosing this name for her character – but even if she didn’t, the end result is wonderfully, serendipitously meta ;).