Friday, 7 October 2011

I Sleep on Books: Fugitive Pieces

“Love makes you see a place differently, just as you hold differently an object that belongs to someone you love. If you know one landscape well, you will look at all other landscapes differently. And if you learn to love one place, sometimes you can also learn to love another."

Harrowing and hopeful, Fugitive Pieces by Canadian poet Anne Michaels is an extraordinary novel. It deals with the past and how we carry our histories forward with us as we go, toting the trauma of loss and acknowledging the redemptive power of hope and love. 
Jakob Beer has survived the Nazi murder of his parents in a Polish ghetto. Even in the midst of that horror, hope and faith endure:
"A camp inmate looked up at the stars and suddenly remembered that they’d once seemed beautiful to him. This memory of beauty was accompanied by a bizarre stab of gratitude. When I first read this I couldn’t imagine it. But later I felt I understood. Sometimes the body experiences a revelation because it has abandoned every other possibility."
Jakob's existence becomes that of an immigrant, a fugitive whose life is so fragmented that he can never really find himself 'home'. He is resilient and recovers, endures, prospers even and in later life meets Ben, an academic with whom he shares an obsession of the Holocaust.  The two protagonists drive the narrative with glimpses of memory, and the recognition of the need for recall and recognition in order to bare witness: "Memory dies unless it’s given a use... if one no longer has land but has the memory of land, then one can make a map." These memories are both real and metaphorical, often obliquely presented; lending the piece a languorous ambience that often leaves you feeling a little woozy at the abstractness of it all, only for you then to be re-rooted and grounded by focussed references, particularly to the permanence of nature:   
“Trees for example, carry the memory of rainfall. In their rings we read ancient weather - storms, sunlight and temperatures, the growing seasons of centuries. A forest shares a history which each tree remembers even after it has been felled.”
The idea that history is written by the victorious is tempered by the morality of truth and the responsibilities involved in keeping that flame of truth alive:
"History is amoral: events occurred. But memory is moral; what we consciously remember is what our conscience remembers."
There's the opaqueness of poetry; the narrative isn't linear, for "time is a blind guide", this history is presented as a tangle of wires, so you need to pay attention. Fueled by the understanding that selflessness and forgiveness are vital for survival and personal development (“I see that I must give what I most need”), this is, at times, a tortuous journey, a history of struggle that is tempered by enough joy that the abiding impression is one of redemption. 
“Any given moment-no matter how casual, how ordinary-is poised, full of gaping life.”  
This study of sorrow and solace is beautiful, beguiling, often challenging; the weight of its words and their story can be a burden, but there's a blessing to that burden; 'Fugitive Pieces' is a book that I'd willingly carry with me daily and have done so for over fifteen years. I'm not sure that it's my favourite novel but, tellingly, I often instinctively tell people that it is.


  1. Seen the film adaptation Trev?
    Michaels does an insightful commentary on the DVD...

    Tim (from Canada)

  2. I haven't Tim; this is the first I've heard of it.
    Any good?
    Have you read her latest?

  3. Canadian film 2007 - I'd give it a mild thumbs up... Roger Ebert gave it 4 stars. Stellar acting, more direct storytelling than the novel, some liberties taken (the ending may enrage purists). Moments of great power and beauty, as well as a fair share of tedium. Best when script features narration taken directly from the novel.
    As I mentioned, I found Anne Michaels' commentary on the DVD fascinating, and profound... shedding light and revelation on stuff in the book/film that flew over my monkey-brain.
    Regarding "Winter Vault"... Thumbs up? Thumbs down? I'm afraid I have to give it the Finger! I couldn't get through it... Is there a plot there? Maybe have to take another stab when I get smarter!

    Tim (from Toronto)

    PS: Trev, the site is amazing! I'm truly impressed by your quick-study skills in the blogosphere. Don't know how you find the time!!!
    Proves you can teach an old dog...

  4. Thanks Tim; I'll try and source the film. It's often difficult to capture on film the lyricism of certain books; Bill Forsythe's excellent adaptation of Marilynne Robinson's 'Housekeeping' comes to mind. Robinson is a good example of when discussing difficult 2nd novels/follow ups; 'Gilead' was beautifully written but I just couldn't get into it; which of course is keeping me from reading its sequel 'Home'.
    More of 'Housekeeping' later in 'I Sleep on Books'.
    Thanks for your kind words regarding my blogskills, although I'm not totally in control; I feel like a monkey flying a spaceship...