Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Reading group: Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels

Well now, here's an illustration of the contingency of reading.

Ten years ago when Fugitive Pieces was published I read it greedily at a sitting and when I got to the end put it down and thought to myself, 'That is one of the most brilliant novels I have ever read.' Ever since, I have told people how brilliant, and important, it is: a novel which unfolds innovatively into two linked 'pieces'. The first is the story of Jewish Pole Jakob who as a child during the war escapes a Nazi raid in which his parents are killed and his sister lost, presumably seized and taken to the death camps. Having hidden by burying himself in the woods, he is finally rescued by Greek scientist and archaeologist Athos who happens to be working nearby on the lakeside site of a once-drowned city, and who smuggles him back to his island home of Zakynthos. Athos nurtures Jakob through his loss until his own death in Toronto to which he and the growing Jakob have moved - a city conversely built in the bowl of a dried-up prehistoric lake. The second part of the novel is the years-later story of a young academic, Toronto-born Ben, who has lived with a different kind of loss: the loss of innocence and security in having parents who experienced and survived the death camps, an insecurity which once caused them to refuse to leave their house with young Ben when it was flooded by the river, and all of them thus nearly to lose their lives. Now, at a party, Ben and his young wife meet Jakob, now a poet and translator, and both he and his wife develop a fascination with Jakob which deeply affects their lives.

The rich themes of loss, erasure and exhumation are vividly carried in the images of the child burying himself in the wood, the drowned city and the flooding river - and in the academic and not-so-academic obsessions of the characters: the snow-burial of Scott's doomed Antarctic expedition, Athos's interest in fossils and geology, Ben's study of weather and the practice of biography. This and the lyrical prose (Anne Michaels' previous reputation was as a poet) were what entranced me the first time round.

So how to explain the fact that when I read it again last week and ten years later I was dismayed to find I thought that, in spite of its merits - including the most beautifully honed and profoundest sentences - it seriously fails as a novel? For what strikes me now is that those ideas and images which once so bowled me over are not anchored on any novelistic scaffolding. The book does not take the structure of a novel but, as someone in the group said, rather that of an extended poem. There is no narrative tension, since in passing we are told the outcomes (first the death of Athos, and then that of Jakob) while the 'story' is still in progress, and also because the 'action' is constantly arrested by brief philosophical disquisitions or lengthy historical or scientific essays, the events seeming indeed merely triggers for the latter, in the manner which operates in poetry. Indeed, the only way to read this book, we all agreed, was to read it as a poem - ie, to stop at these points and ruminate consciously about such statements as 'Every moment is two moments', or the tale of Scott in the Antarctic, or a description of a weather pattern or geological process, and work out how they related to the recent action between the characters. The trouble is, I found that this time I was not prepared to do this, I wanted the events and relationships to transmit the ideas more dynamically, and at a deeper gut level, and sometimes found these gnomic pronouncements pretentious or even at times clumsy.

And little of the 'action' is dynamic: most of it is reported rather than dramatized, and therefore, in spite of the seemingly rich imagery, it lacks vividness. Nor is it convincing when it is dramatized, as the author makes the basic error of feeding information to the reader through unrealistic dialogue, and the characters all talk like each other and like self-conscious poets. And here's the crux: although the two separate parts are intended as separate first-person narrations (the first Jakob's, the second Ben's), it's very hard to tell them apart (and people said they kept getting mixed up between Jakob and Ben and forgetting that they were separate characters): ie there's no apparent distinction between narratorial and authorial voice.

I could hardly believe that I had had two such different reactions to the same book. All I could imagine was that my earlier reading was affected by the fact that I had at the time already conceived a novel of my own on similar themes of loss and suppression, and was simply gobbling up ideas and images which chimed with my own: ie, at the time all I was interested in were the ideas, so I didn't notice that the book didn't work as a novel.

However, although Hans and John agreed with my new assessment (Hans had failed to finish the book), the others felt I was being far too harsh. Doug said that although he could see there were faults with the book, he had been really impressed by its other aspects, and Ann agreed. Trevor and Jenny said they'd really liked it, and all four said that they hadn't at all minded having to read the book slowly and thoughtfully, putting it down to think about the meanings and the connections, and Jenny had been so impressed and touched by one sentence about the nature of grief that she had marked it and read it out. *

Then Hans and John had a seemingly inconsequential discussion about an incident in the book in which Nazi soldiers on Zakynthos amuse themselves by throwing down their olive stones for starving children to rescue and nibble clean. Hans said he was left wondering whether this was a historical truth. John said, Of course it was, people were really starving during the war. And then I realized that this illustrated an essential point about the book. Laden as it is with scientific and historical facts, this novel had left Hans uneasy about some of its 'facts'. But it's not factual but emotional truth which novels can best provide, and if a novel works properly on a fictive level, creates a universe which seduces and convinces, we just don't start questioning its 'facts'.

At which Ann said she wondered if this novel were based on something close to the author but which she had been told, which would perhaps explain its flavour of an account rather than a properly dramatized (and thus objectified) story, and the general consensus was that this was probably the case. Not that any of its four supporters really minded this effect.

See how dependent a book is on the reader?

* Edited in: I remembered wrongly: the quote Jenny read out was about the soul:
If one needs proof of the soul it's easily found. The spirit is most evident at the point of extreme humiliation.

And I have to say that this is one of those lines which seemed so profound to me the first time round, but when I really examine it now (and try to tie it in with the story) I'm not at all sure what it means.

Our archived discussions can be found here, and a list of all the books we have discussed here.
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