Fugitive Pieces, by Anne Michaels

Time is a blind guide.

The above quotation is, I think, a good litmus test for whether or not Fugitive Pieces is your sort of novel. If, after reading it, you nod and sigh and think, “How true. How beautiful. What a lovely sentence that is,” then congratulations, you are not going to have any problems with this book. If, after reading it, you think, “What a lovely sentence that is. …What does it mean?”, then you’d better buckle yourself in, because Fugitive Pieces is full of sentences just like it.

Anne Michaels won the 1997 Women’s Prize for Fiction with this novel. No kitchen sink dramas here: Michaels sets her sights high. Fugitive Pieces is a Holocaust novel, albeit one where the Holocaust itself is elided. Little Jakob Beer is seven years old when his family is murdered in their home by Nazis; he escapes only because he has been playing a game where he hides in a cupboard. After their deaths, he flees through the vast darkness of a Polish forest, sleeping at night in holes that he digs in the ground, eating grass. His final hiding place is a cradle of mud in an archaeological excavation of the ancient town of Biskupin. When he springs from the dirt the next morning, he comes face to face with Athos, a Greek geologist working on the dig. Athos at first thinks he’s a bog boy, preserved in peat like Tollund Man; only when Jakob begins to cry, and the tears crack the mud on his face, does Athos recognize that he’s alive.

There’s a parallel here to what Jakob mentions later in the novel: the way that Nazi vocabularies legitimized the slaughter of the Jews by rendering them non-human. Fugitive Pieces is an extremely self-consciously linguistic book. Language is repeatedly declared to be all-important. Extrapolation of this claim, or evidence to support it, is thin on the ground, but every once in a while Michaels comes out with something like this, which is truly arresting:

Nazi policy was beyond racism, it was anti-matter, for Jews were not considered human. An old trick of language, used often in the course of history. Non-Aryans were never to be referred to as humans, but as “figuren”, “stucke”—”dolls”, “wood”, “merchandise”, “rags”. Human beings weren’t being gassed, only “figuren”, so ethics weren’t being violated. No one could be faulted for burning debris, for burning rags and clutter in the dirty basement of society.

That last sentence is a point at which metaphor is really working, earning its keep. It is a moment where a figure of speech, by being presented as true, causes you to understand the monstrosity of the idea it represents.

Unfortunately, such moments of potency are rare in this book. Michaels is primarily a poet (she’s written one other novel, published in 2009, which appears to have sunk almost without trace), and although I don’t think that poets cannot write good novels, I do think that the strategies of poetry and of prose fiction are very, very different. It is not always easy for a writer accustomed to working with one set of strategies to adopt another. In the case of Fugitive Pieces, this results—among other things—in a style which frequently chooses lyricism and the impression of profundity over genuine, deeply-considered resonance. Athos, the Greek geologist, takes Jakob back to Greece with him, where they wait out the war on Athos’s ancestral island of Zakynthos; here Jakob learns about fossils, about the history of the earth written in its stones, about silent witnesses. It’s quite clear that geology, poetry and the memory of atrocity are meant to braid together, in Jakob’s life and throughout the book. But Michaels never entirely manages it, partly because she never fully delves into what the history of earth and stone, or the history of flesh and death, might mean. There’s no specificity of vocabulary, no recounting of phenomena. Just Jakob’s musings:

It’s no metaphor to feel the influence of the dead in the world, just as it’s no metaphor…to witness the astonishing fidelity of minerals magnetized, even after hundreds of millions of years, pointing to the magnetic pole… We long for place; but place itself longs. Human memory is encoded in air currents and river sediment.

Well, yes and no. It is a metaphor to feel the influence of the dead in the world. The longevity of magnetization is astonishing and beautiful when viewed as another metaphor, but it does not mean that every place “longs”, or at least not in the same way. As for human memory being encoded in river sediment, the mere idea of that being a phenomenon still has nothing to do with the magnetic fields that pull earth and stone, which are what we have just been discussing. It’s a frustrating leap, and one that can’t be excused with the catch-all of “poetic license”, because poetic license can only be invoked when you understand the rules you’re breaking or the principles you choose to ignore.

Land and language: the two things that can isolate immigrants from their new communities, or can bind them together. Michaels does evoke land well: her Greek islands and her hurricane-flooded Toronto swim before our eyes. Slightly more curious is the way that the Holocaust never sweeps Jakob up. He knows that his parents and sister are dead, but he doesn’t understand until he’s much older that they died in a continental-wide convulsion of violence and hate. Living with Athos, he’s almost entirely sheltered from news of the outside world. He never sees piles of bodies, or smells smoke rising from his neighbours’ homes. It’s an odd decision to make, because it means that although he has been touched by tragedy, he’s never really been immersed in it. The Holocaust is an experience he manages, bizarrely, to sort of escape. For a young Polish Jew in the 1940s, that is astonishing–genuinely miraculous. Yet Jakob’s obsession with human history is painted quite straightforwardly, as that of someone who has experienced every one of the Holocaust’s horrors. I think a more interesting novel lurks in the cracks: how do you convince yourself that your grief is legitimate when you have been so relatively lucky, so protected? He longs for his parents, and especially his older sister Bella, but never is there a trace of survivor’s guilt or regret for having outlived them. It’s an odd omission.

About two-thirds of the way through the novel, Jakob disappears. His place as narrator is taken, instead, by a young man called Ben, a former student of his friend Maurice Salman and an admirer of Jakob’s poetry. Ben is working on a thesis that combines meteorology with literature. His inner monologue is almost indistinguishable from Jakob’s, although in his case, it is his parents, not he himself, who fled the Nazis. Nevertheless, he too is vaguely thoughtful about Human Nature, Love and Poetry:

When we say we’re looking for a spiritual adviser, we’re really looking for someone to tell us what to do with our bodies. Decisions of the flesh.

It’s the sort of declaration that immediately brings out the bolshie pedant in me (“We are? Really? Gosh.”) It’s also frustrating because it’s not entirely clear what Ben is doing in this novel. Perhaps it’s as simple as symmetry: he functions to let us know how a man terribly affected by history can turn his pain into beauty and pass that beauty on to the next generation. But in that case, genuine symmetry would be an advantage, and Ben isn’t introduced halfway through Fugitive Pieces; the novel is most of the way over before he takes over. It’s disorientating. Meanwhile, the women in his life (thoughtful, teeth-achingly sweet Naomi, and exotic, carefree Petra) are both two-dimensional. They’re also just as difficult to differentiate from the women in Jakob’s life (carefree Alex; understanding Michaela) as Ben is from Jakob himself.

Still, there are some moments where Michaels succeeds in communicating directly and painfully. Jakob imagines his sister Bella keeping her spirits up in the camps by silently playing her beloved Beethoven on the side of her bunk at night. Ben discovers that his parents had two children before him who were both lost to genocide. When he was born, they feared losing him so much that they decided not to name him, hoping God’s eye would pass him by: “Ben” isn’t short for “Benjamin”; it means, in Hebrew, simply “son”. On the first night of his flight, Jakob thinks he can see the spirits of the recently murdered leaving the earth, and believes he must give his mother’s soul permission to go: it wants desperately to ascend, but it wants even more desperately to stay with him. Moments like these are conveyed quite simply, and the simplicity underscores their power. It’s the overwriting–reaching for philosophical significance and tipping into insensibility–that makes the book less effective.

Fugitive Pieces won the Women’s [Orange] Prize for Fiction in 1997. It forms part of my project to read all of the past Women’s Prize winners, inspired by the Best of the Best event a few weeks ago.

11 thoughts on “Fugitive Pieces, by Anne Michaels

  1. I love poetry and sometimes I really like poets who write fiction, but this doesn’t sound like my kind of book at all. At times, beautiful sentences and odd moments of illumination are simply not enough to sustain a full novel. I liked your comment about ‘the impression of profundity’ – to be honest, a lot of contemporary poetry strikes me a bit like that as well.

    1. It’s not entirely infuriating, but I’ve been clicking around the Internet since posting this and have found a lot of reviews saying that it’s very “of its time” and doesn’t really bear revisiting. Perhaps one of the dangers of literary prizes in general: rewarding something for fitting the zeitgeist. She manages some really lovely moments (as mentioned at the end), but the lack of a strong structure does the book no favors at all.

  2. Too bad it was a bit disappointing for you! I read it pre-blogging days and loved it but at that time I wasn’t paying close attention in order to write about the book afterwards so if I reread it I’d probably feel differently about it. I did give her poetry a try after reading the book and did not like it at all.

    1. I definitely felt as though, if I hadn’t been thinking about it, it might have washed over me. That’s probably both the benefit and the downside of a blog: you can ruin things for yourself, but on the other hand, you feel pleased that you managed to see through the fog…

  3. I read this so long ago that I barely remember it. I do, however, remember that I often didn’t quite know what she was getting at. I also remember that some people thought it was wonderful, while others thought it was over-the-top. Just as well I am not trying to review it – you have done it very well!

  4. When I was looking for Orange prize winners to read a few years ago I remember reading up on this one and not being that fussed. I’m Sort of in two minds now, because despite the bits that put you off it still intrigues me.

    1. If the premise interests you enough, I’d say read it–I always think people ought to read books they’re not sure about, or at least start them, so that they can make up their own minds!

    1. Agree–and actually as far as I’m concerned, this kind of prose isn’t really beautiful, it just looks nice. The language isn’t especially nourishing because it lacks meaning, so it can’t attain full-on, proper Beauty as far as I’m concerned!

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