Tag Archives: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

67. ‘Back Story,’ David Mitchell…

67. ‘Back Story,’ David Mitchell…

Back Story,’ David Mitchell

First of all, I must point out, (although not as often as he must have to), that this David Mitchell is not the David Mitchell who is the author of some of my favourite books of recent years, from ‘Cloud Atlas‘  to ‘The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet,’ (reviewed here last week). He is instead the deadpan British comedian who has decided to emulate his literary namesake by writing an autobiography. About himself. Naturally. Not about the other David Mitchell. That would be a biography.The_Thousand_Autumns_of_Jacob_de_Zoet_(cover)

They are, separately, two people I enjoy immensely, one for his constant tinkering with literary conventions and highly readable writing style, the other for his grumpy comic persona in everything from the cult British comedy series ‘Peep Show’ to his appearances on TV game-shows and news panels. Would I want to see David Mitchell the author do a stand-up set? That would depend on how funny he is. Is David Mitchell the comedian a good writer? Hmmmmm…

Unless you know his work, or are particularly fond of one man’s views on the trivia of West London, (the autobiography is (very) loosely hung on a frame of the author wandering around the area he lives trying to work off severe back problems), this book probably won’t mean much to you. For me, it was vaguely entertaining, mainly for the insight it gave into the idea of comedy persona being different from comedians’ true personalities, and for the insights it offered into the making of the aforementioned ‘Peep Show’ which, for years, was one of the funniest (and most under-rated) shows on TV.


David Mitchell describes himself at one point in his autobiography as ‘a conservative who thinks the world needs to change…’ a wonderfully Mitchellian description which is the driving force behind so much of his now-famous rant-based comedy. He likes things the way they are. But he also hates a lot of things the way they are.

“I liked chocolate, just nowhere near as much as toast…”

he writes at one point, reminding me of one of my favourite ever comedy scenes featuring  Mitchell and his co-japester Robert Webb in the second ever episode of ‘Peep Show.’

Mitchell on comedy:

“I concluded that everyone loved and admired comedy, however stern or important they might seem.

I was wrong about that. Lots of people don’t particularly like comedy. Some really have no sense of humour at all – they genuinely don’t find things funny. Consequently they often laugh a lot in the hope that they won’t be found out – that, by the law of averages, they’ll be laughing when a joke happens…”

Mitchell‘s irreverence led to one of those moments when I nearly choked with laughter, before realising that this probably makes me a really, really bad person when reading the following:

“The other major change our family underwent while I was at New College School was Grandpa dying. I was ten. In some ways, this is the worst thing that has ever happened to me. It’s definitely the worst thing that ever happened to him…”

Finally, Mitchell on foodies’ attempts to make the less foodie try new things, a scenario which I experienced more or less daily for the first 16 years of my life:

“The culinarily adventurous often deploy the phrase ‘You don’t know what you’re missing’ to try and persuade me – but I just think: ‘Well, that’s all right then’ Imagine if I’d never tried alcohol and didn’t know what I was missing there – well, that would be brilliant!…I’m very glad I don’t know what I’m missing where cocaine’s concerned…”


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Posted by on May 10, 2013 in BOOKS


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66. ‘The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet,’ David Mitchell…

66. ‘The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet,’ David Mitchell…

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet,’ David Mitchell

David Mitchell is one of my favourite authors, with a penchant for swooping prose and beautiful allusions, not to mention a breadth of interests and expertise which enabled him to write ‘Ghost Written,’ one of the most ambitious, sweeping books I have ever read, and to follow it up with ‘Black Swan Green,’ a sweetly simple story of a year in the life of a teenage boy growing up in rural England.

This, his latest release, (although dating back to 2010), was maybe my least favourite in terms of style, but still an interesting fictional account of the Dutch merchants who were allowed to base themselves out of the trading port of Nagasaki, southern Japan, in 1799. (Mitchell was an English teacher in Japan shortly before I was, giving me hope as well as inspiration for my future writing career).

Just like Andrew Miller’s ‘Pure,’ (reviwed here), or Kazuo Ishiguro‘s ‘The Remains of the Day,’ one of the interesting aspects of this historical fiction is the underlying sense of an era ending: the clash of East and West which within half-a-century or so is to come to a head with Commodore Perry’s enforced opening of the country to the rest of the world. But for the duration of the novel, we are treated to a mixture of medical procedures, cultural and magical traditions, political intrigues and machinations, and a light sprinkling of romance. Fans of Japan, historical fiction, or Mitchell’s other books may like to try it, or to delve into his back catalogue.


Here are some of my favourite quotes:

“Two hours pass at the speed of one but exhaust Jacob like four…”


“…bibliophiles are not uncommon in Leiden, but bibliophiles made wise by reading are as rare there as anywhere…”


“‘Doctor, do you believe in the soul’s existence?’

Marinus prepares, the clerk expects, an erudite and arcane reply. ‘Yes.’

‘Then where…’ Jacob indicates the pious, profane skeleton ‘…is it?’

‘The soul is a verb,’ he impales a lit candle on a spike, ‘not a noun’…”


“Her name is Tsukinami, ‘Moon Wave’: Jacob liked her shyness.

Though shyness, too, he suspects, can be applied with paint and powder…”


“Gloria, you must remember, had rarely gone beyond the Singel Canal. Java was as far off as the moon. Further, in fact, for the moon is, at least, visible from Amsterdam…”


“A chubby hand slides the door open and the boy, who looks like Kawasemi when he smiles and like Shiroyama when he frowns, darts into the room…”


Finally, a line which could only have been written by someone who had spent a lot of time teaching in a Japanese classroom:

“Jacob notices that where a Dutch pupil would say, ‘I don’t understand,’ the interpreters lower their eyes, so the teacher cannot merely explicate, but must also gauge his students’ true comprehension…”


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Posted by on March 4, 2013 in BOOKS


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