Sunday 16 August 2009

Dan Brown, Dorothy Wordsworth & Fallen Idols – Part One

On my recent seaside sojourn I picked up that hardy perennial of holiday apartments, Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code. I usually avoid novels when I am on holiday, as they end up being the object of analysis, deconstruction and fulmination: the opposite of rest and relaxation.

I’m sure I read The Da Vinci Code once and I am familiar with it’s themes, but I can’t really remember it. Anyway, on the one rainy day of my sunny week,  I decide to find out why many millions of readers have found Dan Brown’s novel appealing. Perhaps I can learn something.

It’s a very quick read – thanks to a good admixture of short clear sentences, short paragraphs among the long, discursive, explanatory ones, short - sometimes very - short chapters, that all combine to rollick the story through the mental system almost without touching the sides. The energy  of action is rammed home with quick changes of location and personnel. The quest theme is flagged up by codes and puzzles slipping out fish hooks of curiosity to land us gasping on to the last page.

A technical formula, indeed, for a very successful, engaging novel.

I think I enjoyed all this, first time round. But now I perceive  a lot of sag. For example there are lots of places where one character explains facts at inordinate length to another character - variously:  the nature of The Divine Feminine; the Mary Magdalene myth(s); the legends of the Orders of Sion and the Knights Templar; the genius of Leonardo de Vinci; and so on.

I encountered another sag in the plethora of paragraphs describing at length significant buildings from the Louvre downwards.  I know, I know! The story wouldn’t work without the reader having this information.  Without this they couldn’t join in the quest, could they? (And I also know such informationfiction has wide appeal among people who want to learn stuff from the stories they read.)

Another sag is the contradiction between  a central theme of the novel - about how, historically, the male (church) establishment has excised the significance of the feminine core of our culture – and the characterisation. It is noticeable in this novel that the exciting characters – the professor, the aged curator, the obsessive collector, the colourful villains – are all men, whereas the woman cryptologist (beautiful, of course, and occasionally resourceful) is mostly the passive questioner, the receiver of male wisdom. Funny, that.

My favourite character this time round is the lurking, frustrated French detective. And I relish anew the poignant relationship between the duped archbishop and haunted, deluded, masochistic albino assassin. That is original.

But what surprised me most was my new perception that the novel so reduces the well documented and true genius of Leonardo de Vinci to a mere cipher of a puzzle maker. He’s always been a hero, an idol of mine and this is a trivial interpretation of his genius. Yet it is the central puzzle of the novel, the thing that holds it together. As a consequence  it will be hard to think of him in the future without the propositions of this novel lurking somewhere in my mind. An idol falls…

I told you! There’s  no rest in it. When I pick up a novel on holiday, that’s what I do – analyse, deconstruct, fulminate

I think I have learned something here - probably about pace and indulging in more colourful, extreme characterisation. But also I’ve learnt things that I would not, could not do myself.  And of course, these may be the very things that would make my novels sell by the million.

Wxkathleen Jones 044 2

Next post – Further holiday reading.  Lots to learn from Kathleen  Jones’ excellent Passionate Sisterhood! But still idols are falling.


  1. An amazing deconstruction Wendy! I think now I know why I didn't enjoy the Da Vinci code when I read it for the first time and why I won't be reading it again. I do remember though that the pace of the novel carried me through and I had to admit to it being a rollicking read- but never good, at least not for me. Of course as you say there is always something we can learn, especially from such a successful novel.
    I remember us having similar conversations and desconstructions of our holiday reading in France, - is it a writer's curse, I wonder, never to be able to read simply for pleasure? Occasionally I do manage it I think, when a book really engages or excites me( altho I'm always myself asking why it's so good and why I didn't write it!) On that note, I'm looking forward very much to hearing about Kathleen Jones' A Passionate Sisterhood!

    A x

  2. I always thought it was a cynical exploitation of Da Vinci, you know creating accessible clues so that the reader could feel like they were on a par with the genius of genius when they worked out the clues. Loved your analysis of the so called feminist theme, that really bugged me, also the way the book in it's condemnation of catholicism completely overlooked those women who did have power and influence. I actually kind of enjoyed reading it, but I started to find it a little concerning when people started to hail it as a masterpiece, when people raved about it I wanted to say; 'you need to read more books'.

  3. The genius of Da Vinci is immortal, I don't think Brown will sully his memory for too long. Fads pass.

  4. Dear Avril
    We have discussed this often - but I think I'm getting worse.... wx
    dear Bookpusher
    Hello again Bookpusher!
    I agree with you - the biggest problem is the masterpiece allusion. And, as you say, people do need to read more books from a wider range - me included, which is why I gave DVC another try ... Wx
    Dear Al
    Fads do pass, I agree, but there remain these mundane shadows in the head... Wx

  5. Hi Wendy, When everyone was hailing Da Vinci Code I read it and did not enjoy it. I will not be reading it again unless I have nothing else to do! I missed chunks of it so I could get to the end quickly as when I read a book I do like to finish it. That's another bit of Irish. M x



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