The Pages

Hugo Hamil­ton

  • Review
By – February 14, 2022

Irish author Hugo Hamilton’s new nov­el The Pages uses an old lit­er­ary con­ven­tion in which an inan­i­mate object is the nar­ra­tor of the work in which it appears. It’s not an easy device to pull off, many crit­ics feel, and it has a cer­tain air of pre­cios­i­ty about it. Hence its rar­i­ty. In The Pages, the nar­ra­tor is a book — a copy of Rebel­lion (Die Rebel­lion), a 1924 nov­el by the Aus­tri­an Jew­ish jour­nal­ist and nov­el­ist Joseph Roth. Hamil­ton man­ages to make this con­ceit believ­able and affect­ing, although not with­out rais­ing some ques­tions about the larg­er sig­nif­i­cance of it all. 

As The Pages opens, the book is in the hand­bag of Lena Knecht, an Amer­i­can artist with roots in Ger­many. Orig­i­nal­ly the pos­ses­sion of a Ger­man Jew­ish lit­er­a­ture pro­fes­sor in 1930s Berlin, this copy of Roth’s book was res­cued by Lena’s grand­fa­ther from destruc­tion at the first major book-burn­ing con­duct­ed by the Nazi regime, and lat­er passed down to Lena by her father. Lena is on her way to Ger­many to unrav­el a mys­tery con­tained in the book: a hand-drawn map on the fly­leaf with no iden­ti­fy­ing infor­ma­tion. Lena is intrigued by the map and feels com­pelled to uncov­er its significance. 

Lena’s jour­ney brings her into the orbit of two refugees from the wars in Chech­nya raised by fos­ter par­ents in Ger­many, and her inter­ac­tion with them com­pris­es the main plot. There are also sub­sidiary plot­lines: Roth’s sto­ry of a wound­ed World War I veteran’s spi­ral­ing into despair and rebel­lion; the res­cue of Rebel­lion from the book-burn­ing; and the trag­ic sto­ry of Roth’s mar­riage and his sub­se­quent decline. The Pages also address­es Lena’s mar­riage and her Ger­man host’s strug­gle with her son’s drug addic­tion. Hamil­ton dis­plays great skill in weav­ing all these strands togeth­er with­out over­whelm­ing the reader. 

Hamilton’s book rais­es many intrigu­ing issues, includ­ing artis­tic respon­si­bil­i­ty and affil­i­a­tion, the plight of refugees, and the role of fate and chance in life. One major ques­tion high­light­ed by the novel’s con­ceit is what is gained by hav­ing a book as nar­ra­tor. The nov­el could well be told by a tra­di­tion­al third-per­son omni­scient nar­ra­tor with Rebel­lion as nar­ra­tive motif con­nect­ing the var­i­ous threads. On the oth­er hand, the idea that books are liv­ing and sen­tient beings is an appeal­ing one. The book has a soul, a point of view, and a rather charm­ing voice. 

Using the book-nar­ra­tor Hamil­ton rais­es a larg­er theme: the nature of art. Many artists and crit­ics believe that art is self-ref­er­en­tial; its motifs and meth­ods depend on oth­er art as much as on depict­ing real­i­ty.” Oth­ers have likened the ways in which artists bor­row from each oth­er to theft. It is sig­nif­i­cant that Lena is described as an artis­tic thief. Her work is made up of bor­rowed ele­ments, found objects, and orig­i­nal con­cep­tions. Like­wise, Hamil­ton com­pos­es his book out of dis­parate artis­tic ele­ments, and by doing so engages in dia­logue with his sources. 

This rais­es the more impor­tant ques­tion of why Hamil­ton chose Roth as author and Rebel­lion specif­i­cal­ly as a nar­ra­tor. Here the answer is not as clear-cut. Roth’s nov­el and biog­ra­phy pro­vide some of the the­mat­ic ground­ing, but one won­ders whether Hamilton’s book could stand with­out this as its themes are almost uni­ver­sal lit­er­ary ones. Roth’s tumul­tuous life and mar­riage to a men­tal­ly unsta­ble woman also echo in the main plot, but Hamil­ton runs the risk of over­shad­ow­ing his own sto­ry by draw­ing the parallel. 

These reser­va­tions notwith­stand­ing, the nov­el is mov­ing, and Hamil­ton has done read­ers a favor by bring­ing Roth and his life and work to a con­tem­po­rary audience.

Mar­tin Green is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus at Fair­leigh Dick­in­son Uni­ver­si­ty, where he taught lit­er­a­ture and media stud­ies. He is work­ing on a book about Amer­i­can pop­u­lar peri­od­i­cals in the 1920s.

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