The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
by David Mitchell
(Random House, June 2010)

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Anyone who has ever read my blog, or ever met me, stands a good chance of having heard me talk about David Mitchell. It's rather satisfying, at my age, to have discovered my Favorite Living Writer. Ever since Cloud Atlas left me slack-jawed and inarticulate with its puzzle structure and fearlessly ambitious plots and astonishing humor and humanist compassion and heartbreaking truths -- okay, even before that, when I snapped up Ghostwritten and Number Nine Dream with the satisfaction of finding just what one wanted to eat, a meal that becomes a sweet memory -- and especially afterward, when I met the man at book readings for Cloud Atlas and Black Swan Green and he turned out to be the kind, brilliant, self-effacing person you hope in your heart of hearts that your favorite authors might turn out to be -- David Mitchell has been my model for what writing and writers can be, and I have described myself truthfully if unflatteringly as a slavering fan. (That sentence was just because I could. Sorry.)

But having a favorite writer also means you approach every new work of theirs with an inevitable trepidation: will it hold up? Will you have to love it half-heartedly, out of loyalty, or will it blow you away again? Will it move you in the same way -- or better yet, in a different way -- or will it be simply good, and not great?

For this reason, after I had gotten Random House's postcard last fall announcing a new David Mitchell title coming in June, and after I had begged the publicist to consider Greenlight for an event*, and after Mitchell's wonderful editor David Ebershoff had stopped into Greenlight and we'd talked about our mutual love for the man, and after Ebershoff had, taking pity on me, sent me the bound manuscript for Mitchell's new book -- I looked at it on my shelf for about a month and a half before opening it. I told myself and other people I wanted to wait until I could set aside time to read it straight through, and that was partly true. But of course I was also nervous about whether he could do it again, and whether I could love like that again. Finally, on the plane to see my family in California for a post-Christmas vacation, I pulled the 8 1/2 by 11 thing out of my bag and started to read.

So? What was it like? It was not like Cloud Atlas or Ghostwritten; it was a single narrative thread, ostensibly, the story of a Dutch trading post in Japan in 1799 and following. I noted with satisfaction that it was written in third person, a first for Mitchell -- he had noted at a reading I attended that he had always written in first person, since he "wouldn't know where to look" without a single perspective, but that third person sounded like a challenge he should set himself -- and look here, he had.

I also noted, as no doubt reviewers will, that one thread of this narrative involves a European (in Jacob de Zoet's case a Dutchman, in Mitchell's case an Irishman) falling in love with a Japanese girl (in de Zoet's case, Orito Aibagawa, a young surgeon in training who has a scar that makes her unmarriageable, but not unbeautiful; in Mitchell's case, his now wife and mother of his children, whom I know nothing more about). Here the similarity ends between Mitchell's biography and the story, but it is a telling detail -- I think during Mitchell's time in Japan he fell in love with Murakami and a kind of Japanese-ness as well as with the woman he eventually married, and Japan looms large in his pantheon of influences. There is an outsider's tenderness and frustration and fascination and longing and homesickness in the book that rings true to life; the part of me that considers myself to a very small degree David Mitchell's friend (we have had dinner together in a group, and he writes very kind things in my galleys and remembers my bookstore plans when he sees me) is glad that he wrote this part of his story, and that he did it in this particular way.

In fact, a great many things in the book delighted me, though they swam up slowly, rather than bursting in a flood of revelation. I love that Jacob de Zoet is a Dutch Reformed Calvinist (I am one myself, unlikely as that seems), and that his faith is taken seriously, as are the various faiths or skepticisms of the Asian, African, European, and other characters that populate the book -- they're not neuroses or tools of oppression, though they can be used that way. I love how in this simple through-line narrative about a young Dutchman in Japan, Mitchell manages to include dozens of other stories -- nearly every character in the book finds space to tell his own story, including some of the most contemptible. I love the endless invention that goes into making these many imaginary and believably specific lives, and the compassion that Mitchell, typically, has for them all.

I love several instances of good triumphing decidedly and sometimes hilariously over evil, as well as many more instances of good intentions bringing suffering and disappointment. I love that part way through this rigorously historical novel, a never-quite-resolved hint of creepy supernaturalism is introduced, as well as a very real nefarious institution, and the novel becomes, for a while, an adventure story. I love that, though he knows exactly how to write a satisfying adventure story, Mitchell cannot be relied upon to give all of his characters happy endings (though I didn't exactly love it at the time I was reading it -- I was actually a little angry and sad). I love how the novel in the end manages to be drawn together and loosened, resolved and heartbreakingly abandoned, all at once. I love how it stayed with me and grew in me after I had read it (on the plane and during the weekend I should have been hanging out with my family, though they're all readers too so it was mutual) -- as the best novels do.

As the ALP has postulated, the works of art that stay with us are usually not the ones that we love easily on first experiencing them. Rather, they tend to be the ones that grow on us, that we find ourselves thinking about and wrestling with and returning to. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is that second kind. It seems to have made its own distinctive ache in my heart -- for the heartbreaks of the story, and its beauties, and its delights that I will never experience for the first time again. In this way it does seem very Japanese: infused with an appreciation of the ephemeral that is as much about the nostalgia as about the event -- an autumnal beauty, in fact.

There is one delight, though, that I have yet to experience. When asked about the occasional recurrence of his characters from one book to another, Mitchell described a sort of waiting room, where every character he's ever written hangs out, and if he has a place for them in a story, they get a new part. I'm wondering whether Thousand Autumns is populated by any of the characters from the first section of Cloud Atlas, which takes place on a sailing vessel around the same time. Now, I'm gloatingly preserving the delight of re-reading Cloud Atlas to discover which characters might have life in both books. And perhaps "gloatingly preserving" is what made me wait so long to read Thousand Autumns anyway.

* The Greenlight David Mitchell event, by the way, has been scheduled: Saturday, July 17, at 7:30 PM. Random House is giving us a little budget to throw a party -- we're thinking sake and champagne. Open to ideas, though.


Hi. I just made contact with Andy Laties via internet unlikelihoods, and he alerted me to your store, and I am hoping to visit this Saturday. Great to find your blog. I've just ordered Cloud Atlas from my local library, thanks to your mouth-watering review, though I won't blame you at all if it doesn't hit me the same way, especially as I never read fiction these days. Still, I want to give it a try, and I am excited to see your place.
Unknown said…
I just finished the galley of 'Thousand Autums' I was lucky enough to get (we have the same feelings about David Mitchell, you and I), and went to 'Cloud Atlas' again as a result of it for the some of the same reasons you describe--to find where the worlds of the two books puzzle-pieced into each other--and then spun back into 'Black Swan Green' for, what, the eighth time now?, to look at the Frobisher quartet pieces I'm here to say:
1) fully with you on the review, and
2) thank heavens for David Mitchell.

--Lacy Simons
(Book Manager, Rock City Books & Coffee, Rockland ME!)
Unknown said…
Left an 'n' off the end of 'Autumn'. Mortified. Beg forgiveness.
Anonymous said…
i am a book nerd just like you, with 7 kids and 4 dogs. please how could i get an ARC of THE THOUSAND AUTUMNS OF JACOB DE ZOET?
Anonymous said…
"It's rather satisfying, at my age, to have discovered my Favorite Living Writer."

My thoughts exactly. I'm 21, and discovered him last year, and I have never looked forward to a book this much in my life.
I came across David Mitchell's books, through the one that perhaps could be called the odd one out, Black Swan Green. I read a review,liked it, bought the book, loved it. My wife then told me that we had another of his books in the house, Cloud Atlas. I picked it up and could not stop reading. When it was sadly over I rushed to buy the other two and though one could see how he was honing himself for Cloud Atlas in both of them and certainly in Ghostwritten, I enjoyed both hugely. And then silence (or have I missed out on something). Until I read your blog just now I felt absolutely bereft, longing for the next Mitchell novel. Kenzaburo Oe's Silent Cry the notable consolation. Cannot wait for Jacob to arrive.
Thank you for a great blog, your Greenlight event makes me wish I was in Brooklyn, where all of my father's family lived and died and where I have never managed to visit yet.
Unknown said…
Like you I am an ardent fan of David Mitchell. I was lucky enough to get a galley of his latest just in time for my birthday.

I'm still in the middle of reading it, but so far I am mesmerized. Your great review has only fueled my anticipation for all the pages I've yet to read.

It's great to hear that David Mitchell will be stopping by your bookstore. I almost always prefer the events done by the independent bookshop owners over the chain store events that tend to get slightly insane.
pedro velasquez said…
Jessica Stockton is the Book Nerd behind the bet basketball The Written Nerd. She worked in coffee houses, publishing houses, literary agencies, and as a freelance writer before discovering her true calling as an independent bookseller. A native of California, sportsbook she graduated from New York University with an English degree in 2001 and now lives happily with her fiance in Brooklyn. Jessica currently works on store publicity and design at McNally Robinson Booksellers in SoHo and writes reviews for march madness Publishers Weekly, and she will join the board of the New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association this fall. Her goal is to open a fabulous independent bookstore and performance space in Brooklyn within the next few years, with its very own store.
David Mitchell is, I think, a genius. I haven't read this yet as I didn't have an ARC, but I'm so looking forward to the release of the book. I'll grab a copy the day it's released and start reading. I expect to fall in love.
Unknown said…

Just found you from googling David Mitchell reviews of new book, he is without a shadow of a doubt my favourite author too - and just met him! Signing copies in London, I tried to think of something intelligent and witty, nothing came. He was extremely personable and exceptionally generous taking to people. Marta, one you have read the utterly genius Cloud Atlas you will be hooked!
I am very excited about his latest read.
Anonymous said…
I'm very, very glad I found this review because I don't live too far from Brooklyn and I am most definitely going to be there for David Mitchell's reading!

Great review of the new book. You perfectly captured the way so many people feel about Mitchell. Your post is what I would have written if I could express myself nearly as well as you do.

And the trepidation? Yeah, it's real, (and pardon the sports reference) but at the same time I think opening a David Mitchell book is like watching a prime Michael Jordan walk out onto a basketball court -- you know you are about to witness a masterful, unparalleled performance by an artist who is galactic turns ahead of his peers.

Fittingly, I discovered Ghostwritten completely by chance and picked it off a bookstore shelf in 1999 without knowing a damn thing about Mitchell or the book. He instantly became my favorite writer, and it's agonizing waiting for his new stuff.

Thanks so much for a great review, and I can't wait for your event in July. I'm the type of slow reader who likes to take a Kubrick-esque pace with novels and really soak everything in, so I hope there's enough time to finish the book before July 17. If not, well...I can't rush it. I'm psyched beyond belief that he's coming to New York -- and to think, he wrote his Bat Segundo chapter before he had ever set foot here.
Manuel B. said…
Actually, there is one character recurring from another's mitchell's novel.
It is ***Spoiler Spoiler Spoiler*** Boerhaave, Captain Molyneux's second on the "Prophetess", who -- we discover in the last part of Cloud -- pushed young boy Raphael to commit suicide after being repeatedly violated by Boerhaave and his "garter snakes". Yet in the Thousand Autumns, Boerhaave appear as a young, sincere, compasionate and devout man (he appear in the Thousand autumns around the year 1820, and In Cloud atlas, he appear around the year 1850).

Manuel (One of Mitchell's die-hard fan and translator)

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