A piece of my mind …
Anne Michaels’s book is a highly evocative yet frustrating read. She is well-equipped with atmospheric language to describe the seasonal sights and smells from Poland to Greece and Canada. There are long and dreamy passages devoted to the sensations of time and place – the aromas and tastes rendered with real tactility and obvious pleasure in the writing. This is undermined, deliberately, when the reader is shocked out of reverie by explicit factual accounts of Nazi brutality – horrifying in their frankness. Despite these moments of jarring reality, much of the book is poetic in style, with a loose and unusually fragmented narrative. So far, so good.
Where she falls short is in the contextualisation of these swings of mood into a tangible reality for her characters. All such characters (from the orphan-poet Jakob, to the two women he married, his closest friends and his surrogate father Athos) are offputtingly brilliant. Uniformly erudite but witty, pensive but charming, their insouciant intellect quickly begins to grate. Descriptions of Arcadian nights spent in each other’s company are interrupted by a character’s off-the-cuff historical anecdote, or aesthetic observation, or (early in the book) precocious comment, so pregnant with significance that the chapter is often ended immediately to allow the reader to wallow in the light of its pure and generous insight.
Not a person inhabiting the pages of this book deigns to entertain a prosaic thought or action, so immersed they are in their numerous talents and eclectic intellectual pursuits. Literary and historical references surface with such frequency that it is hard to know who’s thinking them, let alone why they are meant to matter. We are led to believe that both the principle character and his adopted father are prone to depressions but never see the raw materials. Depression in ‘Fugitive Pieces’ seems to amount to a character spending a lot of time awe-struck by the weight of their own ideas. I pitied Jakob for his childhood, but was alienated from identifying with his emotions when the author seems to be at pains to convince us that he is equally crippled by the gravity of his intellect.
Despite the sustained use of geology and archeology as metaphors, the only people getting their hands dirty are the Nazis. The characters in this book are evidently vehicles for the authors philosophical preoccupations and a long way from tangible human beings. For this reason there is little for the reader to empathise with here, being a mere mortal intellectually. Its just too showy, too smugly self-congratulating, to be a good novel.