Fugitive Pieces

2007-10-26

in Books and literature, Writing

Grief Grafitti

Anne Michaels’ Fugitive Pieces is too overwhelming a book for me: overwhelming with sadness, with detail, with history, and with language evocative of inescapable grief. As such, it took me many weeks to read. One passage does a particularly good job of succinctly encapsulated the inescapable historical anguish that makes this small book so heavy:

History is the poisoned well, seeping into the groundwater. It’s not the unknown past we’re doomed to repeat, but the past we know. Every recorded event is a brick of potential, of precedent, thrown into the future. Eventually the idea will hit someone in the back of the head. This is the duplicity of history: an idea recorded will become an idea resurrected. Out of fertile ground, the compost of history.

That kind of curse extends to all the characters in the book. None find any comprehensive solace; none manage to lift their feet above the boggy terrain of the past and make their way to a firmer present shore. The book presents a number of brief illuminations, but each has the ultimate character of being palliative rather than redemptive:

But sometimes the world disrobes, slips its dress off a shoulder, stops time for a beat. If we look up at that moment, it’s not due to any ability of ours to pierce the darkness, it’s the world’s brief bestowal. The catastrophe of grace.

These people are swept along like houses carried by hurricane waters – whether floating towards tragedies or temporary reprieves from grief. The point is hammered home with talk of tornadoes transporting people or ripping them apart; lightning providing unexpectedly cooked geese, straight from the sky, or simply flattening people. Michaels’ people do not possess agency of the kind that we perceive ourselves to have, and which is essential to optimism.

The author’s approach to thought is almost completely unlike my own. Rather than focusing on patterns, both the author and the protagonists focus on details. Rather than drawing comprehensible conclusions from extrapolated data, they draw opaque, personal, emotional conclusions – as veiled as modern poems. The book is beautiful and powerful, but also soul-sapping and exhausting. It is a book with depths to reward you for your struggle.

In a way, this book is the antithesis of Nabokov’s Lolita. There, inherent ugliness is flawlessly concealed by language that has the power to immerse your whole mind in the succession of sounds and syllables. In Fugitive Pieces, your mind can never quite get to the language because it is hampered at all times by the heaviness of grief.

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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

R.K. October 26, 2007 at 11:10 am

Have you seen the film?

Milan October 26, 2007 at 11:54 am

No, and I don’t intend to.

I avoid films made from books I feel strongly about.

Sarah October 26, 2007 at 5:51 pm

That sounds lovely – there’s something re-assuring about having the depressing historical stuff made explicit (perhaps because I imagine the worst anyway?), & beauftiful prose is always a joy. I shall put it on my lists of things to read over Christmas.

Emily Horn November 25, 2007 at 1:26 am

What struck me particularly about Michaels’ writing is that while writing about the ineffable nature of our histories, and about the subjective nature of truth, she machine-gun fires apt aphorisms at her readers. She bundles the moments that human nature reveals itself most nakedly and ties them up with poignant metaphors.

“But at what moment does wood become stone, peat become coal, limestone become marble? The gradual instant.”

To me it is like a continual well of genius, a creative masterpiece that honors the tragedy of the holocaust, by bringing an aspect of terrible and magnificent humanity to it. It is an unbelievably concentrated collection of brilliant reflection on the human experience.

Quote: Rather than focusing on patterns, both the author and the protagonists focus on details. Rather than drawing comprehensible conclusions from extrapolated data, they draw opaque, personal, emotional conclusions – as veiled as modern poems.

I think this is the power of her prose. She draws you entirely out of your life. There is a Hebrew saying included in the book (paraphrased): hold a book in your hand, and you stand at the gates of a new city.

Emily Horn November 25, 2007 at 1:31 am

Sorry that it was so emotionally exhausting..

Lindi Cassel January 18, 2008 at 1:27 am

One of my favorite quotes from the book ( as macabre as it is..)

“When the prisoners were forced to dig up the mass graves, the dead entered them though their pores and were carried through their bloodstreams to their brains and hearts. And though their blood into another generation. Their arms were into death up to the elbows, but not only into death – into music, into a memory of the way a husband or son leaned over his dinner, a wife’s expression as she watched her child in the bath; into beliefs, mathematical formulas, dreams. As they felt another man’s and another’s blood-soaked hair though their fingers, the diggers begged forgiveness. And those lost lives made molecular passage into their hands.

How can one man take on the memories of even one other man, let alone five or ten or a thousand or ten thousand; how can they be sanctified each?

Sara January 9, 2009 at 10:50 pm

From that quote you just posted, can you explain it. I do understand it to a certain extent, but how do you think the theme of the dead’s influence on the living work itself out in the course of the novel?

Alex November 15, 2009 at 4:24 pm

What is this quote trying to tell the reader

“History is the poisoned well, seeping into the groundwater. It’s not the unknown past we’re doomed to repeat, but the past we know. Every recorded event is a brick of potential, of precedent, thrown into the future. Eventually the idea will hit someone in the back of the head. This is the duplicity of history: an idea recorded will become an idea resurrected. Out of fertile ground, the compost of history”.

and how does the quote relate to Jakob’s experiences and the rest of the novel.

Mica November 15, 2009 at 6:12 pm

I adored this book. Most notably the portion set in Greece.

I found the comparisons between geology and life itself to be rewarding as well. I didn’t care so much for the young student’s discoveries later in the book.

The 1st half of the book however, I couldn’t stop reading. Normally, I dislike when poets extend into the realm of fiction novels, but I thought she did quite well.

I consider this book to be a very rich cake. Well decorated too.

And seeing as the book takes such effort for detail, as you can imagine a 2 hour film couldn’t allow for the same attention to detail. If you had never read the book, the movie would be excellent, however having read the book, I felt the movie missed a lot.

Not anyone’s fault, just the limitations of a 2 hour film.

While on the topic of novels on the big screen, I have just finished Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth. I truly believe that this 1000 page book would make an excellent film (perhaps 2 parts) The sad thing however, is the only director I would like to see try, would be Roman Polanski.

If you’ve read this book, and seen Polanski’s 1971 version of MacBeth, I think you would agree with me.

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