Monday, January 01, 2007

The Title

Few books manage to annoy me before I've even opened them, but The Da Vinci Code does it. "Da Vinci" means "from Vinci", the Tuscan town in which he was born. It wasn't his surname. He wasn't the offspring of Mr and Mrs da Vinci. He was known to his contemporaries as Leonardo, just as Michelangelo and Rembrandt were (and are) known by their first names.

I've been here before. A few years ago, I was helping to write an encyclopaedia for children. I was assigned the entry on Leonardo, which was in the 'D' section. I suggested that this was a bit like putting William the Conqueror under 'T'. The editor was very apologetic, and said that she knew how daft the situation was, but that the majority of kids would look under 'D' first, so we may as well go with the tide.

So, as a title, The Da Vinci Code screams either "I have no idea what I'm talking about!" or "I have a pretty low opinion of the intellect of my potential readers" and I'm not sure which is worse. Under normal circumstances, this wouldn't be an issue. This is a thriller, after all, a beach read, a bit of literary fluff. A McBook. You're not expected to cross-refer every paragraph to Vasari's Lives of the Artists, are you?

Except that The Da Vinci Code isn't being touted as just another thriller. A flick through the review quotes that bespatter the paperback edition supports this: "An exhilaratingly brainy thriller... pure genius... exceedingly clever... smart thrills... brain-teasing... extremely smart... several doctorates' worth of fascinating history and learned speculation... brain candy... ingenious... intellectually satisfying... a delightful display of erudition... brainy stuff... intellectual depth... manages to both entertain and educate... intelligent and lucid... a blockbuster with brains... challenges our intelligence..." And check out the acknowledgments. The Louvre, Westminster Abbey, the Bibliothèque National... this guy's put in the hours.

This is not schlock fiction, then. This is the clever end of genre fiction, up there with the likes of John Le Carre and maybe even Graham Greene. No need to pretend to be reading Proust by the pool. This is respectable. You can nod sagely as you read it, maybe even make pencil notes in the margin.

Well, that's the idea, at least. Somebody once said that the difference between Harold Pinter and Tom Stoppard is that Pinter makes you feel more stupid than you are, and Stoppard makes you feel more clever. The Stoppard effect seems to be more attractive, but there's always the risk that you'll experience a crashing moment of self-awareness, perhaps months after you thought you'd finally got to grips with Hamlet or Dada or Communism or Pink Floyd.

Is this what Brown is doing? Dazzling his readers with his quasi-intellectual concoctions, making them feel as if they understand this weird nexus of art and religion? Certainly, the success of the book has provoked a new boost to the European tourist industry, as people traipse around the Louvre and the Rosslyn Chapel, suddenly becoming symbologists, codebreakers, conspiracy theorists, sleuths. But put them in a room with a real art historian, and what happens? One casual reference to this guy "Da Vinci" and all their delusions are dashed. It's like a Bateman cartoon: "The Man Who Read The Da Vinci Code A Couple Of Times And Pontificated On The More Obscure Byways Of Catholic Theology As If He Had A Vague Idea That He Knew What He Was Talking About".

There may be an explanation in the acknowledgments, though. Brown's wife is identified as an art historian. Could the whole thing be an attempt to identify and stigmatise bumbling amateurs, and keep the upper reaches of the discipline free for people who hear the word "Leonardo" and don't immediately think of the baby-faced actor or the sword-wielding turtle? Could Brown's peculiar choice of title be a conspiracy in itself, an attempt to maintain ideological purity and political supremacy in a world just as internecine and duplicitous as the Roman Catholic Church? Was Ian McKellen's performance really a half-arsed impersonation of the mighty Brian Sewell?

Damn. He's got me started. You see, this is what I mean about Brown's effectiveness as a writer. You can treat his prose with withering scorn but something in there provokes a reaction, a suspicion, a sense of unease. It's the gut feeling that there must be something beneath that clunky, preposterous surface.

And proving or disproving the existence of that something is what this blog's about. Not cracking the code, but cracking The Code. A mystery that, in its own way, is as profound as anything cooked up by the Priory of Sion. But more on them tomorrow.


Blogger Valerie said...

Rob was pointing out to me today that it's much more satisfying, financially and otherwise, for a writer to appeal to the bottom 80-90% of humanity rather than the top 10-20%. But I'm not entirely convinced. I think a rather large chunk of the bottom 80-90% may not actually read for pleasure. And I can't credit Brown with doing all this intentionally, though I'll be interested to see what conclusions you draw as you go along. At this juncture, I'm operating on the hypothesis that he did the best he could.

I do think that what drew me in to read the book initially was hope; I hoped, from the description, that it would be good. I hoped I'd learn more about secret societies that I've already read much about. I hoped the puzzles would be complex and challenging. I hoped to emerge changed. There was promise in the blurb (despite the title; I'm accustomed to people thinking the town referred to the man). Ah, the blurb.

7:24 am  
Blogger Jun Okumura said...

Yes, but since there are no anachronisms in the text itself (which I am pretending to be reading), I can accept "Da Vinci Code" as a literary device to put at ease novices like me who had no idea that it was common in those days for plebes not to have surnames. Any such misunderstanding was laid to rest very early in the text (page 12, in fact, if I
remember correctly), in a very subtle manner, too, so as not to make the reader feel patronized. The author should be priased, not excoriated, for walking this fine line between enlightenment and pedantry.

No, my problem is... Well, try saying "The Da Vinci" out loud. Awful, ain't it? This writer has tin ears. And it sounds redundant as well, but maybe that's just my three years in Da Big Apple talkin'.

If ya know what I'm sayin'.

10:12 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm reading this blog in order to decide whether or not I should bother reading TDVC. I suspect you will dissuade me, but I am keeping an open mind.

The fact that it provoked a reaction is a good thing. So far, then, one point in favour of reading the book.

I wait with baited breath. (I really must get some mints for that... ARF!.)

11:37 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've just been told it's "bated" breath. That makes me feel a litle more hygienic.

11:38 am  
Blogger Tim Footman said...

Valerie/Jun: Yes... I think this is one that's going to be troubling us. Exactly how clever is Dan Brown? Is he a very bright man, slumming it so as to remain accessible to his readers? Or is he, as we used to say, a complete derrbrain?

Greetings, Fat Roland, welcome to The Chasms. I think you should read it, not because it's good, but because it's significant. And because it doesn't take much time or effort. And because I want to extend my social network of people who used to be in Grange Hill.

11:48 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tim: Can you pinpoint or describe in a little more detail your sense of suspicion and unease aroused by this writing? In the power plays of vested interests throughout history bad shit happens and people get hurt, sometimes lots of people e.g. the conspiracy to take us to war in Iraq. But you mean more than that sense of unease and anger at consequence don’t you? We can probably all accept that millions of people have been (really) hurt/damaged by church machinations, conspiracies, whatever, over the last few millenia and have our emotional reaction to that in the now. Is that a part of it? (Leaving aside the verities of this particular conspiracy for the moment)

That ‘something’ below the surface of the fluff, can you dig out it’s components for us? I guess if you could do it easily you wouldn’t be writing this blog.

I admit to being a card carrying member of the secret society of ‘derrr brains’ but I hope you don’t mind having me on board for this discussion. (amap clue, amap clue) & happy new year to you.

3:54 pm  
Blogger Tim Footman said...

Hi, Clodhopper, glad you're on board for this.

My intention when I started this blog wasn't to focus on the conspiracy theories that underpin the plot. They've been covered to the point of tedium, both by fans of the book, and nervous guardians of the True Faith. I'm sure there are some hair-raising secrets known only in the darkest corners of the Catholic Church, but, hey, what the hell. Any large organisation with a centuries-long history has secrets known only in a nod-and-a-wink manner. Like you (I infer) I think the dodgy deals that underpin the Iraq debacle are a more pressing concern than the obscure secrets of a bunch of plump Italian homosexuals in purple frocks.

Instead, I'm more interested in how Brown tells his story, how he communicates the sense of menace and conspiracy. This book has shifted millions of units, far more than many books that are far, far better written.

On the other hand, this is a blog, the comments box is open, and if people want to nudge it in a different direction, there's little or nothing I can do.

4:31 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I hope you can crack "The Code" Tim. It could be the key to untold millions!

I enjoyed the book and found it a real "page turner" but suspect it is the skilful plot construction (like an Alistair Maclean on speed) which is the real secret of success, leaving the weak writing and cliches unnoticed (by me!) in the excitement.

Deconstruction could easily miss the overall plot-flow, a bit like examining the individual hand-hewn bricks of Ely Cathedral and finding them not-very-exciting. (Not that the Leonardo Code deserves to be mentioned in the same sentence of course).

Talking of titles, the delightful "Chasms of the Earth" just reminds me of the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band "Canyons of my Mind" with the wonderful Viv Stanshall emoting on the "ventricles of his heart".

5:54 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I read it originally because I loved Foucault's Pendulum and a book called Q both about secret societies and religion and I thought it would be similar. I agree with Murph that the plot rolls along and you tend to skim read it but Brown is the junk food equivalent of Eco in the end it is unsatisfying because you haven't had to expend any effort to read it.

6:00 pm  
Anonymous patroclus said...

I only kept reading it so I could get to the end, and so I could scoff at it properly; not because of any quality I discerned in the writing or the plot (which I've forgotten). I've been a big old fan (in the scoffing-at sense) of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail for years, so it made me laugh to see the puerile (anagrams! honestly!) references TDVC makes to it. I haven't read any other of Dan Brown's novels, nor do I feel any compulsion to do so. I don't know if that helps.

I think anyone who's ever done the Times crossword would find the supposed 'clues' in TDVC laughably easy to solve. It didn't make me feel clever that I could see right through them; it made me feel sort of used.

10:29 pm  
Blogger Tim Footman said...

Murph: I know what you mean about missing the overall plot. But DB chooses to break it up into bite-sized chunks anyway, so I think we're justified in reading it the same way. Maybe he set out to write a book that could be read on the toilet?

Doc: If DVC has encouraged people to read Eco or Blissett or whatever, then that's to be encouraged. It's definitely got people thinking about art, which is good. But I think the main knock-on effect has been to get them reading books about the DVC, which is something of a dead end, I reckon. I was working in publishing when the Harry Potter phenomenon really kicked off, and everyone thought "Wow, this will get kids back into the habit of reading books." Bollocks it did. It got kids back into the habit of reading Harry Potter and, at a pinch, books that were a bit like Harry Potter.

Patroclus: Yeah, back to my initial notion that DVC isn't very good, but it is important. In the same way, everyone should watch a couple of hours of Big Brother, and read a copy of Heat magazine, just to keep tabs on the way culture is going. Will get to the anagrams later, but I agree entirely. I kept expecting someone called Nad Bworn to show up.

3:02 am  
Blogger patroclus said...

Not very relevant aside: I'm not sure that kids reading 'books that were a bit like Harry Potter' is such a bad thing; there are hundreds of kids' fantasy books that are really very good indeed, unlike the feebly written codswallop that is a) TDVC and b) THBATHG. I'm still reading Susan Cooper to this day, and right at this very moment I have a copy of The Silver Chair in my bag.

1:58 pm  

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