The last tycoon you would want

Meet this month's panel

MEAGHAN DELAHUNT (MD) teaches creative writing at St Andrews University. Her novel, In the Blue House (Bloomsbury), won a regional Commonwealth Prize for Best First Book in 2002, the Saltire Award for First Novel and a Scottish Arts Council Book of the Year Award. She is working on a collection of short stories and her new novel, The Red Book, is due out in spring 2008 from Granta.

SOPHIE MOXON (SM) is head of programming at the Scottish Book Trust. Before taking up the job in 2003 she worked at the Edinburgh International Book Festival and Arts Council England.

STUART KELLY (SK) Stuart Kelly is literary editor of Scotland on Sunday and the author of The Book of Lost Books (Penguin).

LEE RANDALL (LR) is a columnist, interviewer, reviewer and assistant editor (magazines & arts) for The Scotsman. She is also a former editor of Scotland on Sunday's Spectrum magazine.

DAVID ROBINSON (DR) is books editor of The Scotsman.

DR: YOU CAN SEE WHY THIS BOOK would appeal when it was pitched to the publishers. Here's Panos Karnezis, a young writer, born in Greece but writing in English and a graduate of the University of East Anglia creative writing course: his first collection of short stories, Little Infamies, all set in Greece, was well received. His first novel, The Maze, made the Whitbread shortlist three years ago and had the kind of reviews most writers only dream of.

Now he's back with another novel. This time, it's one written on an epic scale, about an [Aristotle] Onassis-like tycoon called Marco Timoleon who is first shown in old age. He's going to tell us about his childhood in Turkey, and about how he became one of the richest men in the world in a series of adventures, from his breakthrough in Argentina to his love affair with a Hollywood star.

And right at the heart of the story is a dramatic confrontation, the one that gives the book its title - the birthday party at which he hopes to persuade his only daughter to have an abortion and take up the reins of his business.

All this is going to be, we're promised, "a brilliant modern fairy story". And you can see enough hints in its fabular beginnings: on his paradise island, the tycoon has every tree in the world, including the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; in his life he's been almost everything, almost everywhere ...

MD: It's not a style that appeals to me, but it was fantastic set-up, I'll give him that. The old tyrant on his island, waiting for his daughter to arrive.

SM: A man who's fabulously ambiguous - or meant to be - and deeply superstitious, someone with an uncertain past who is "violent like an ancient god". You're expecting something dramatic. Yet it just doesn't work. The story is all about telling, not showing; the characters are two-dimensional - especially the women: whenever they appeared it was like reading Valley of the Dolls with the good bits cut out.

Frustratingly, this was a novel that was trying for so much more. There were vague allusions to a text within a text, unreliable narrators, gods and myths, but these felt forced. And there was plenty of magical realism - a family crying so much they flooded the room, moustaches that grow an inch in the night and so on - but you wondered why they were there in the first place. To me, this was a novel that didn't know what it was aiming to be.

LR: One thing it's not is a modern fairy tale. It's not fanciful or improbable, there are no stark conflicts between good and evil, there's nothing supernatural about it. And it's certainly not a roman clef. Timoleon's second wife could be a Jackie O figure, just as his daughter could be a Christina Onassis figure - but that kind of reading doesn't take you anywhere. Certainly you don't get the frisson of recognition you'd get from a roman clef, or any kind of perceptive insight into why a famous person behaved the way they did. There's a novel [First Nights] by Susan Fromberg Schaeffer, based loosely on Garbo's last years, that does this so well - sadly, there's nothing like that here.

And if you don't get those kind of insights, at least you might hope for escapist entertainment. Again, there's none. Stylistically, there's nothing to engage me in the writing. After the promise of the start, as Sophie says, it's all about telling, not showing.

SK: What interests me is what it is that goes badly wrong with the novel. The elements of fabulation and realism didn't mix at all - certainly nothing in the same league as Angela Carter - and it's such a fall-off after this great set-up of the modern king-figure with his appalling desire to abort his daughter's baby. You think we're going to get some explanation of his monstrosity. Yet I never even felt Karnezis ever really disliked him, or that he ever got completely inside his head. Here's this omnipotent character whose story is told by an omniscient narrator, yet you don't care about either because there's no humanity about either the character or narration.

On the island with him he's got his approved biographer, someone he's actually paying to write about him. I bet this book was originally written from the biographer's point of view. And it would have been better if it had been, because then you'd have found out about Timoleon more gradually.

MD: That's what I thought too. The biographer, or the tycoon's personal doctor, who has known him since childhood, or the tycoon's double - who is just mentioned in a couple of pages and then disappears - all could have told the story better.

SK: If you had the authorised biographer discovering an inconvenient fact, that would have been something to build upon ...

SM: Or if Timoleon and his daughter had been in cahoots against the biographer ...

SK: Or if the biographer was writing a double biography - an official one, and one to say this was also a man who could insist on his daughter's abortion.

LR: All of that would have been more interesting!

DR: Because as it is, you've far too many stories, far too much clutter, and everything is given the same emotional weight. He'll write about, say, the death of his mother in just the same way as he'll write about his dog's sleeping habits. And because the writing is so monotonal, the whole thing is as uninvolving as watching someone else play Second Life on the computer.

SK: It's bizarre but this is a book with so many ways it didn't work that we could talk about it for an hour. Everything is potential about it, and nothing is direction. What all its faults stem from is simply a complete lack of focus.

SM: I've never read a book like it - which didn't quite work but which nonetheless made me ask so many questions about why not. It would have worked better if he'd broken it up into a collection of short stories.

MD: I went back to read his first collection, Little Infamies. Certainly this book is a lot more ambitious than those tales, which I personally found rather sentimental, slightly complacent maybe, but about the kind of Greece that many people would love reading about - quirky village characters, priests, and so on. He's trying to work on a much bigger canvas here, but it's not any more convincing.

LR: And one of the reasons for that is that you never have a sense of Timoleon being a businessman. You get the feeling that Karnezis didn't even bother to do any research, that he didn't even discover how to describe a single manipulative deal.

MD: Well, he mentions that Timoleon double-crossed his father-in-law. But you're right: you never really see it or feel it.

LR: There are a lot of inconsistencies in the story - one minute Timoleon is an insomniac, the next he's dreaming away, things like that - so many that I was wondering where his editor was. If I'd have been editing the books I'd have had him spend more time reading business journals, or just thinking about how to make Timoleon more credible. I'd say, look at The Great Gatsby for how you can use a narrator who doesn't have his own personality. And that it's not enough to hint at Aristotle Onassis: we already know that; you've got to go in deeper.

SK: Another thing I found disappointing was that the plot is, essentially, a bit of a cheat. It's hard to say too much about it without giving away the ending, but what happens then breaks the contract with the reader in a fundamental way. The acid test for this is, if you read the book again, does it give you as much pleasure? When I started reading it a second time I thought, no, the whole thing is a cheat.

Walter Scott was very good on this. When he was reviewing Frankenstein, he said that the author sets up an overdraft with the reader and says, "You extend me this much possibility, and I'll pay it back in logic" - so once you agree that man can be created by electricity, the author will then progress through the logical way in which that happens.

What you're wanting at the end of The Birthday Party is a closure - and you don't get it because a) he didn't make you care enough about the central character, and b) the whole thing turns out to be all smoke and mirrors. The magic realism wasn't magic at all, just quirky; the book doesn't work on other levels and it never fully explains how its central character came to be the way he is: the flashbacks have no teleology or purpose.

MD: If you want a modern fairy tale, a novel like Murray Bail's Eucalyptus is what he should have been aiming at. But Karnezis is too interested in plot - and it's the accumulation of detail and information at the expense of imagination and insight that stops it being successful.

SK: I think there's enough latent ability here, that Karnezis will go on and do something good. But not this. With this, it's like seeing all the bits of Frankenstein on the table, but there's nobody pulling the lever.

'Not many people knew that Sofia had a morbid fear of dolls'

VICTOR TIMOLEON LOVED HIS son but at the same time was terrified of children, a problem that two generations later would resurface in a different shape: not many people knew that Sofia had a morbid fear of dolls. His phobia caused Victor Timoleon panic attacks. He would be short of breath, his heart would start beating faster, he would sweat and sometimes vomit. He felt defenceless against the stares of children, their aptitude for disobedience, their mocking laughter, which he heard behind his back and was convinced was aimed at him, their defiance against punishment. On his solitary afternoon walks in the park, he changed direction if he spotted a class of schoolchildren ahead, lowering his hat over his eyes and hurrying to return to his office where he felt safer among his clerks. He often said with more desperation than humour: "We are the slaves of our offspring." There were worse implications. Victor Timoleon's unreasonable fear meant that he never attended Marco's school celebrations and sports tournaments. Worse still, the boy's birthdays passed without a party - just him, his parents and their maid round the big oval table.

At least he had a healthier relationship with his mother, who drew on her experience as a teacher and an only child to make up for the boy's lack of friends. Eugenia Timoleon knew what to do to fill Marco's idle hours, how to create fantasies that unlocked doors in his mind, how to nourish his imagination with tasks that demanded his concentration: notes concealed around the garden, treasure maps that led to buried biscuit jars, riddles that had their answers hidden in books.

Marco would have been horrified to discover that all this fun was actually teaching him something. School did not interest him much. For a while he got good grades with little effort but stopped short of distinction even though his teachers agreed that he could achieve it. He preferred sports instead, above all swimming, both in competition and for pleasure, a habit he kept throughout his life, helping him to maintain a healthy body. On his way to school, he often took a turn that led to a secret beach some distance away where he undressed and swam naked for several hours, far from the shore and always alone. Every winter the sea brought many things on to the beach. Marco Timoleon had found a rusty sextant buried in the sand and taught himself how to use it, so that he could tell from the position of the sun when school was out and it was time to go home. And he was there when, after a storm that had lasted two days, the sea had brought out a grand piano that sounded like a dying animal and the beachcombers, moved by its sound, had decided instead of selling it piece by piece to bury it in the cemetery, writing on its gravestone the date they found it and its name: Steinway.

• 2007 by Panos Karnezis. Excerpted from The Birthday Party, published 5 July by Jonathan Cape (12.99). Panos Karnezis will be at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on 11 August.


Was the panel too harsh on Panos Karnezis's The Birthday Party - or not harsh enough. What's the best "modern fairy tale" you have read and why?

For the best reader's response we are offering a bottle of Champagne and a copy of Karnezis's novel. You will also be invited to our next Book Club meeting at The Scotsman in June. Refreshments will be provided and travel expenses paid from anywhere in Scotland.

You could also win the book and Champagne by discussing the extent to which some of the great titles of the past depended on the support of other people whose contribution is seldom acknowledged. That, at least, is the argument behind Alison Light's Mrs Woolf and the Servants, which will be our Book Club choice next month.

Write in with your responses to any of the above questions to the Books Editor, The Scotsman, 108 Holyrood Road, Edinburgh EH8 8AS. E-mail replies should be sent to but be quick - the deadline is Friday 13 July.

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