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.


Adrian said...

I also thought it was brilliant when I read it 10 years ago. Not read it since. Wonder if its one of those books that impresses with its bravura literary performance (I was doing my MA at the time, so particularly attuned to that kind of writing) that can't ever be repeated on 2nd impression.

Rachel Fox said...

I just put 'Fugitive Pieces the ending' into google and your blog came up. I read your piece with interest. I have just read the book for the first time (after meaning to read it for years). I loved some of it and hated some it and so can understand why you would have two very different reactions at different times. I loved the sadness and how that was written but hated some of the happier times (every time a man and woman were in a loving relationship she seemed to lose track of any sense and started writing those horrible sex scenes were everyone's being so sensual and rubbing themselves with fruit in a marvellous fashion...very unlike a lot of real sex...). Then the ending..I am not a reader who expects nice clear-cut endings but this one confused me to the point where I may have to go back and read it again next week (never mind in 10 years). There seemed to be 2 notes from Michaela..was Jakob supposed to have killed himself? Were they both dead? Was there a child? Had they run off with it? Was it just meant to be vague (which is fine, I can stand vague)?
Any help much appreciated.
Rachel Fox

Elizabeth Baines said...

Hi Rachel,

My group were confused about the ending too, which I should have said. The way I understand it, both Jakob and Michaela are dead by the time Ben goes to search their Zacynthos house, but I'm now more confused than ever about exactly how they are meant to have died. Someone in the group asked the same question: was Michaela dead, and if so how did she die? and both I and one other person said 'Yes, she was killed in an accident just after Jakob's death, there's one sentence where this is stated', and everyone else was surprised as they had missed this. But now I wonder if I (or both of us) imagined that, as I have just skimmed the last part of the book several times and can find it nowhere!!!

All I can find is a statement that Michaela's note must have been left in the bed for Jakob to find the 'night they both failed to return from Athens'. Presumably this means that they failed to return because Jakob died, but whether they both died, and whether it was in an accident I really don't know...

The idea of suicide certainly hadn't occurred to any of us.

The note presumably indicates that Michaela was pregnant at the time, (I was assuming that no child was born because she died).

I don't get the impression that there were two notes from Michaela, just the one which the young girl found in the bed and which Ben later tucked into one of Jakob's notebooks.

The thing which many in our group were uncertain about was whether or not Naomi and Jakob had really had an affair as Ben wonders/suspects (after finding her scarf in the house), and what happened to Ben and Naomi's relationship at the end as a consequence.

One thing one member of our group said was that this was a book about not knowing, in which case maybe you could say such confusions are fitting...

Rachel Fox said...

Ah, yes business...maybe I overshot there. I think it was the bit about Ben's Dad and the sleeping pills (did he die then? I am presuming yes) that had me thinking along those lines. And then the line about Maurice and not wanting him to see the note (why would it make him sadder? I thought maybe suicide but then maybe the idea here was more that Maurice would have loved Jacob's child as his own etc).
I did get mixed up with the notes - thought there was one in the notebooks and one in the bed. Maybe I got that wrong. I did find I had to make myself concentrate hard on the book I needed to leave family life and go and read it solidly somewhere without interruptions. Doesn't really happen though!
Thanks for your help. I agree that not knowing is perhaps part of the book...I just wanted to get some outside input!
As for Naomi and Jakob - red herring of the highest order. Seemed an unnecessary storyline to me. But what do I know?

Elizabeth Baines said...

Rachel, I have just come back from my reading group which happened to be tonight again, and the other person who had picked up the fact of the accident told me that it's right at the start of the book in a kind of prologue: it tells you there that Jakob died aged 60 in Athens in 1993, struck and killed by a car, and that his wife who had been standing by him on the sidewalk survived him by two days.

As for that bit about not telling Maurice about the note - I suppose it's just that it would have made Maurice sad to know that a child in Michaela's belly must also have been killed.

Yes, Jakob and Naomi: it's confusing, because Jakob's narrative seems to end on a happy note with Michaela, and only just before his death...

Rachel Fox said...

Well done that reader for remembering the beginning. I was looking in the ending for endings and should have known better. Now I will always the beginning is the end!
As for Ben - I think his worries about Naomi and straying are more to do with his own guilt (he takes her for granted, he's jealous of her intimacy with others and then he cheats on her - he should feel guilty!).
Thanks for your help.

Penny J said...

I am currently doing a book review for Fugitive Pieces, and enjoyed reading the comments on this site. Could anyone shed some light on the author? I have been unable to find much about Ann Michaels. Much appreciated.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Hi Penny. I think she may be one of those authors who likes to keep her life and person very separate from her books. I was at a reading she did when FP first came out and someone in the audience asked her of she were Jewish and she declined to answer the question saying that she did not think it relevant what was important was whether the book portrayed Jewish experience in a true way.

Anonymous said...

For those who are confused as to how Jakob and Michaela died, READ THE PROLOGUE. I mean come on, how could anyone miss it? Jakob died in a car accident and Michaela died soon after in what we can assume to be heartache.

I came here looking for enlightenment from a group of educated and passionate adult readers, but in the end find myself offering explanations as a high school student. Alas.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Hi Crystal.

You ask how could anyone miss it? I think that's precisely the question we are asking, and we're wondering if it's do with the structure/style of the novel. As I said, I knew I had read it somewhere in the novel, but I couldn't remember where (and couldn't find it when I looked, because I didn't think to look in the prologue), and this is probably linked with the fact that some people missed it altogether right from the start - people I'd consider careful and thoughtful readers.

Personally, and as a writer, I'd say that the very problem lies in the fact being planted in the prologue, because this separates it from the main narrative thread, and which the reader tends to read in a separate, less involved way than the rest of the novel.

Anonymous said...


Elizabeth Baines said...

As discussed above in the comments, Anonymous. Or did you miss that bit? Dingdongs.

Anonymous said...

hi there, what does anne michael's writing style contribute to the novel - what does add? what does it instil in the reader?

Elizabeth Baines said...

Yikes - anyone care to answer this essay-type question (or rather questions)? I don't find myself with the time...!

Alice said...

'anonymous' is obviously a student with "what does anne michael's writing style contribute to the novel - what does add? what does it instil in the reader?" as a homework essay title..
But I do agree- read the prologue, I am also a student who did not miss it.
I'm doing it for english literature AS and I didn't like it at first, but as I read on it grew on me. I guess it helps to study it in depth at school as it enables you to see all the links and layers in the text. I found Bella's intrusion on the narrative interesting as it depended on what was going on in Jakobs life at any given time.

Anonymous said...

What reading level would you say this book is? Suitable age?

Elizabeth Baines said...

It's an adult novel. (Depends on the maturity of the reader!)

Anonymous said...

Hello, I just finished reading this book for my English class and have to do a timeline. (Note: My group and I had a lot of trouble understanding everything) I came across something very odd while trying to do a timeline.

According to page 175,Jakob says: "I had been visiting Toronto part of every year for over eighteen years before she walked into Maurice and Irena's kitchen". This is when Jakob meets Michaela.

Now in page 153, Jakob returns to Greece then mention Kostas. In Kostas's last letter to Jakob. it references Yannis Ritsos: "the long imprisonment of Ritsos". Then talks about his honorary degree(doctorate) which Ritsos received in 1975.

The problem is Jakob didn't leave Toronto until at least after 1975 since that was referenced the day he arrives in Greece. Thus he never needed to visit Toronto. If we start from 1975 and add on the next 18 years we will get 1993 which was the date that Jakob dies according to the prologue. Do I assume that Jakob meets and marries Michaela the year they die or am I missing something?


Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for the discussion, I'm writing a final paper on Fugitive Pieces and was confused. There is a lot of (likely deliberate) obscurity in the novel. Throughout the last couple chapters, there are cryptic passages like "At that moment, fear should have stung me, I should have smelled the whiff of ether, felt the knife edge. But I didn't. Instead I squandered our life together and only said: 'I'll write to you'" (256) and "Worst of all, she appears to you as everything you've ever lost. As the one you've missed most," (273-274. I don't even know what "she" refers to in the latter quote unless it's an allusion to a psychological twist on Ben, potentially that he was killed by Naomi or in the storm? The voice in the second part portrays an urgency in the sense of "If only I had..." which is subtly referenced throughout the text. These repetitive instances of regret made me wonder from what point Ben is writing from.. has he been dead all along? It's very confusing because of the frequent allusions to ghosts, both metaphorical and noncorporeal, by both narrators. I was able to attribute Jakob's insistence that Bella was with him as a mechanism to deal with the trauma at such a young age but Ben straight up mentions an angel visiting him to look at snow outside one night and the various gatherings of "the grandmothers and [Ben's] mother's brothers" in their kitchen (223). To what extent do you think the events portrayed, particularly in book II, occur in the physical plane of existence? And what was the deal with the repetitive italicized passages throughout both narratives? I have so many theories spawning, it's like the first time I saw The Shining all over again.

Anonymous said...

Oh, AND Ben seems to be convinced Jakob and Michaela are somehow still alive - a far fetched theory at first glance, yet when Ben goes into the urban field, he says "Then I realized I was sharing the darkness. I knew by their voices that the lovers weren't young. I didn't move" (291)which is a somewhat random distinction to make if not attempting to connect to that initial theory. Petra was 22 and I'm sure, had she been the one laughing, it would be obvious that the lovers were young. And even if Jakob and Michaela's lives were claimed in the crash, how do we know they aren't spiritual representations of the characters? Ben seems to be pretty comfortable with ghosts.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Goodness, Rachel, you throw up some interesting and thoughtful questions. I do think there's probably a deliberate slurring of the corporeal and the spiritual (which fits the stress on history and exhumation), and the structure also points to this, beginning as it does with Jakob and Michaela's death, and jumping as it does across time. As well as the obsession with the nature of time and the past 'crashing in from behind'. However, I'm afraid it's so long now since I read the book that I would have to read it again to examine the possibilities you raise. And that's another problem with the book for me, I think: although I've read it twice, I don't remember it well enough to think about these issues without rereading it once more: I'm not left with any concrete sense of it. Unfortunately I don't have the time to do so at the moment - I wish I did as you have raised some fascinating points. Would love to hear of any further thoughts you have, and will add mine if I do get the time to look at the book again.