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Know Thy Shelf

Meghan Thomassen | Wednesday, August 22, 2012


I’m sure everyone has already wearied of the staple post-summer question, “What did you do this summer?” Students’ answers vary, from internships at consulting firms, to Social Service Learning Programs in faraway lands, to enviable caddying jobs. Their summers were filled with adventure, self-discovery and valuable life lessons. And so was mine, except my view was of a brick wall from a 14th floor window, somewhere between 57th and Broadway, New York, N.Y

Thanks to a miniscule office, the literary agency I interned at had books coming out of their drawers, their file cabinets, even their refrigerator. Now, I could forgive the hoarding if these volumes were valuable texts or well-loved classics. But I spent the summer plagued with variations of the same theme, be it “1001 New Vegan Recipes” or “My Boyfriend is a Vampire Werewolf Faerie.”  

I sniffed down my nose at the newfangled fiction advertised along Broadway. I preferred the musty tomes exhumed from used bookstores to the Kindles and Nooks toted by commuters on the morning train. It just smelled fake to me, especially with the “Fifty Shades of Grey” debacle going on. My personal library consisted mostly of classics: “The Collected Poems of Edgar Allen Poe,” “Sense and Sensibility,” with the occasional modern fluke, like “On the Road.” My education was founded on these wonderful books, and I was convinced anything written after 1950 was market-driven drivel, especially if it was read on a Kindle. Like Woody Allen’s nostalgic character, Gil, in “Midnight in Paris,” I yearned for “the golden time,” dissatisfied with the modern disdain for tradition. And like every story about preconceived notions, my naiveté was in for a rude awakening. 

The wake-up call came as a gift from my mom, Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s second adult novel, “The Angel’s Game.” At first, I thought this was just another escapist summer read, shelved alongside “Everyone Worth Knowing” and “The Memory Keeper’s Daughter” at the popular literature table at Barnes and Noble. It fit the bill perfectly: international setting, a golden era, a splash of romance, a dash of danger. In other words: formulaic.

In all my sophomoric, English-major wisdom, I forgot about the key to making a book great. It’s not the premise, or the location, or even the plot. It’s the craft of prose. 

Zafon’s writing can only be described as a joy. He writes in Spanish (Lucia Graves translated “The Angel’s Game” and its sequel, “The Shadow of the Wind,” into English) using words in a way that is both ingenious and virtuosic. I drew delectable pleasure from his gorgeous turns of phrase that thrummed of Spain and darkness and deceit. His version of Barcelona is bewitching, and I soon felt the same attachment to his characters as I felt with the protagonists of “Harry Potter.” 

Without spoiling too much, the main character, David Martin, is an unsuccessful, altruistic mystery writer tasked with writing a “religion.” A sinister gentleman channeling a well-dressed Devil wants the poor author to write a novel so creatively intoxicating that it embeds itself into the hearts and minds of all who read it. Emboldened by his love for intrigue and mystery, Martin descends into a secretive, decrepit existence as he tries to decipher the clockwork of his mind and that of his patron. With its heavy focus on books and writing, the series nears “metafiction,” but with such expert storytelling skill that I scarcely noticed until I stumbled to the end of each chapter, speechless and strangely self-aware.

Perhaps my love for Zafon is simply an act of affirmation. How hard can it be for an English major to love a book about books? All of his major novels are about books, authors, readers, and bookstores, including his most recent work, “The Prisoner of Heaven.” I realized with horror that I had fallen in love with a modern novel with whole-hearted recognition. Literature is not dead (cue the hallelujah chorus). 

In the end, it is Zafon’s thinly veiled commentary on his life as an author that makes his books “classics.” Why do scholars adore Jane Austen and Charles Dickens? They clearly and artfully expressed themselves as products of their time and history. Likewise, Zafon is a bonafide author, who has doubtlessly struggled to put words on the page, meet deadlines and find some meaning in it all. His role in society mirrors Martin’s own tragic figure perfectly, while also weaving tangible characters and magical scenes. 

“The Angel’s Game” is nothing short of miraculous, at least for a non-believer like me, and it was all written in the 21st century. Call it redemption, or just a well-needed update, but Zafon cured my cynicism. I even got a Kindle, and I can’t wait to buy, or download, his next book.


Contact Meghan Thomassen at [email protected] 

The views in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.