A leap to forgiving mode

The relationship between the personal and the historical was particularly acute for her generation, says Anne Michaels.

Anne Michaels 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Anne Michaels 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Anne Michaels was reluctant to break the spell when, on a flight to England, her neighbor enthused about her 1996 novel Fugitive Pieces, unaware that she was its author. "I thought, 'Now I can put those characters down because they are really in the world,'" Michaels recalls. It was a rare moment during the three years promoting her debut novel when the publicity-shy Canadian writer could enjoy anonymity. Eventually, Michaels confessed, feeling uncomfortable deceiving her fan. But she recoiled from personal questions throughout the promotional circuit. Fugitive Pieces was perhaps the decade's most celebrated novel about the Holocaust, winning a slew of awards including the Guardian and Orange prizes, but Michaels often refused to say she was Jewish. She feared, she tells me by phone from Toronto, that reducing Fugitive Pieces to her own family history would make it less accessible to people from other backgrounds. With the arrival of her second novel, The Winter Vault, Michaels remains discreet, preferring to see herself purely as an ambassador for the novel. "It's the book that's touring," she says. She talks in abstract, sometimes cryptic pronouncements, but can point clearly to the origins of both novels. With Fugitive Pieces, the opening image occurred to her in 1980: a boy digging a hole in the ground to hide from the Nazis. The idea germinated for nearly two decades, as Michaels supported herself by teaching creative writing and composing musical scores. The spare and lyrically intense novel traces the life of Polish Jew Jakob Beer; rescued by a Greek archeologist as a child in 1940, he becomes a writer in Toronto struggling with memories of his slaughtered family. The Winter Vault also grew from a mental image - of structural engineer Avery Escher painting the back of his new wife, botanist Jean, in a houseboat on the Nile. The novel opens in 1964, as the Great Temple at Abu Simbel is being dismantled and reconstructed to salvage it from the flooding waters of the new Aswan dam. The attempt to save a historical monument through replicating it troubles the couple. "With that single image, of the two on the houseboat by the temple being taken apart, came this notion of destruction and rebuilding," says Michaels, 50, in her softly insistent voice. "Perfection is a kind of deceit; the way we commemorate is a kind of remembering, but it is also definitely a kind of forgetting." As she researched the temple, Michaels pondered other examples of demolition and resurrection. Her mind turned to the Old Town of Warsaw, whose rebuilding after World War II she considered "a deeply interesting and disturbing idea." So she introduced the character Lucjan, a Polish emigre artist, with whom Jean has an affair after her marriage to Avery is rent by tragedy. Michaels eventually realized that she'd already written about Lucjan in Fugitive Pieces; he appeared fleetingly, unnamed, as a painter who buys several tubes of yellow paint but can't bring himself to use them, resolving only to paint with dark colors. "How can you hate everything you come from and not hate yourself?" he asked. "I must have had a guilty conscience about that character," Michaels suggests, "because I hadn't really answered that question." MICHAELS STARTED work on The Winter Vault before Fugitive Pieces was published. She knew how much research would be involved in writing a novel that spanned the building of the Aswan dam, which dispossessed 50,000 members of the Nubian nation, against the postwar reconstruction of Warsaw and the creation of the St. Lawrence Seaway in Canada, where Jean and Avery met. "I felt that there was something bigger to be understood if one could set those events in relation to each other," she says. "It was very important to me that they are not compared because I'm not interested in comparison; I'm interested in connections." The Winter Vault refers to the outbuilding in a cemetery where corpses are stored during the winter until the soil becomes soft enough to dig their graves. In this limbo between death and burial, Michaels sees a metaphor for remembering history - how it is often months, if not generations, before the dead are properly laid to rest. The relationship between the personal and the historical was particularly acute for her generation, Michaels says, born after two world wars into an age of nuclear despair. Lucjan is tormented by the question of how much of his past belongs to him. "If your most intimate moment was shared by thousands of other people, in a battle or a siege," says Michaels, "how much of your memory of that defining moment belongs to you?" Jean, too, feels that her personal grief is dwarfed by the devastation of nations. "These questions are the background noise of all of our lives," Michaels says, "especially in a time when it's unavoidable to have some sense of what's going on in other parts of the world." Michaels' father left Poland for Canada with his family in 1931, aged 13, and lost relatives in the Holocaust. Self-educated but intellectually curious, he saw music as a redemptive force. "He would listen to music in the morning before he went to work," Michaels says. Her mother, a homemaker, was also Jewish, though her family had lived in Toronto for several generations. Michaels' family was ever-conscious of war; one of her mother's brothers was a navigator on a bomber and regularly sent letters from England. As the younger sister to three rambunctious brothers, Michaels fought for survival, but her siblings nurtured her enduring love of nature by taking her on walks through Toronto's urban forest. Michaels was often reminded about how, when she was three months old, her family spent time in the nature reserve of Algonquin Park and she slept inside a drawer in a cabin in the woods. After graduating from the University of Toronto, she composed music for theater, which provided an invaluable apprenticeship in close reading. "The music has to completely support, and not distract, from the writer's intent. I felt I was most successful if an audience didn't even know there was music in the play." Writing eventually took over from music: "I knew that the biggest challenge was to write, and so I really had to make a choice." But she now regrets being so hard on herself rather than attempting to forge ahead with both. AFTER PUBLISHING her first collection of poems, The Weight of Oranges, in 1986, British novelist John Berger wrote Michaels a fan letter, sparking an intense correspondence. They remain close friends and exchange manuscripts, but only when their work is nearly complete. "There is a way of hearing what the book has to be," she says, "and I feel I can't really show people until I have really gotten to the bottom of it myself." She does most of her writing between one and five in the morning, bracketed by two or three hours sleep. Then she wakes to take her two children, 10 and six, to school. "I have my life with them, and then I have this working time," she says. She supervises the master's thesis of one creative writing student at the University of Toronto, though the earnings from Fugitive Pieces enabled her to stop relying on teaching for income. Adding to the windfall was last year's film of the novel. On the opening page, Michaels announces that Jakob is killed by a car at 60, and the knowledge of his untimely death haunts the account of his life. Some admirers of the book objected to Canadian director Jeremy Podeswa's decision to give the film a more upbeat ending by excising the death scene, but Michaels supports his choice. "The film ends before the ending in the book," she suggests. "They haven't changed anything, they just haven't gone to the end of the story." In the 12-year interval between novels, she published a volume of poems, 1999's Skin Divers, and collaborated with Berger on Vanishing Points, a play. But she hopes her novel-in-progress will only take half as long as The Winter Vault, since it's less structurally ambitious. With no plans to bring out another book of poems in the meantime, she's now fully devoted to fiction. "It is just a great pleasure to be able to dive in over your head," she says. The critical axiom that she writes poetic prose is not, she believes, quite accurate. "I don't think, sentence by sentence, my work is adorned or heightened. But I am dealing with large themes and, maybe in that sense, there is a sense of the poetic." She doesn't flinch from using technical and scientific words, nor does she set out to be deliberately elusive. "It's certainly not my intention to frustrate or obfuscate. It's just that certain things should be called by what their name is." Writing, for her, is a moral pursuit. "The book creates a place where people can bring their own questions and vulnerabilities. It is a safe place to think about things that aren't necessarily safe." The Winter Vault broods over the meaning of forgiveness. "Often between people - it may be politically, between nations, as well - there is a sense of judgment, in that one metes out forgiveness to another," she says. "Instead, I feel that forgiveness is something that grows up between two people. It's not a judgment from on high." In Canada, the realms of literature and politics now overlap, as historian and novelist Michael Ignatieff, leader of the opposition, is tipped by many to become the next prime minister. Michaels is as cagey about her politics as she is about other matters, but commends Ignatieff's 1987 family memoir, The Russian Album, in which "he's negotiating a personal past and a larger past." Her own contribution to public life is, for the time being, complete. "Any writer feels that the characters are whispering in your ear. It's something that never goes away until you feel you have done all you can. A book doesn't feel finished until the reader responds. Then I feel the story is now being carried by others and I can drop the burden." The writer is a Melbourne writer and editor of The Monthly (www.themonthly.com.au).