Body and soul

6 months ago 87

The lush, lyrical prose favoured by the likes of Anne Michaels and her fellow Canadian Michael Ondaatje is a risky business. At best it brings intensity, inwardness, descriptive beauty and a relief from the thudding and-then-and-then of conventional storytelling; at worst it can result in vatic waffle. In either case the impulse is to suppress definite characterization, historic specificity and narrative momentum in favour of “poetic” evocation.

Michaels’s first and most successful novel, Fugitive Pieces (1996) – which concerns a Polish Holocaust survivor – is generally wise to the dangers of its methods, and defuses them by counterbalancing loftier gestures with forms of hard reality: moments of “lower” tone or depictions of humdrum detail. But even with these precautions, pretentiousness lurks at the edge of its vision (“The quest to discover another’s psyche, to absorb another’s motives as deeply as your own, is a lover’s quest”). Much the same is true of Michaels’s second novel, The Winter Vault (2009), which is set in Egypt in 1964 and concerns itself with the relocation of the Abu Simbel temple during the building of the Aswan Dam: the book’s interest in material construction helps to ground its equal enthusiasm for flights of high-minded rhetoric.

Held, Michaels’s third novel, pursues similar ends, but with a considerable drop in imaginative energy. It also has markedly less interest in bedrock elements of character, and an even more determinedly elliptical approach to narrative, than its predecessors: the book is divided into twelve fragmented sections that jump – not in chronological order – between 1902 and 2025. It is set mostly in England, but also in northern France, Brest-Litovsk, Paris and the Gulf of Finland, and it contains a large cast of characters who exhibit varyingly degrees of interconnection. On the face of it this amounts to an admirable extension of Michaels’s range; in fact the evidence of difference between the characters and historical moments is so slight that everyone and everywhere tends to seem the same. These people and places are essentially ciphers for the author’s obsessions.

As in Fugitive Pieces, these are: the nature of consciousness, the distortions and linkages created by time, the balm and salvage of love, and the question of how “the constituent parts of our bodies make a soul”. Again the ambition is impressive, but in the absence of sufficiently effective solidifying strategies, these themes less often amount to sensuous philosophizing than to eruptions of saccharine and obfuscating prose. Take the opening scene: John, the first of Michaels’s wistful heroes, is lying wounded in the snow on the Western Front (it is 1917), not writhing in agony or condemning the pointlessness of mass slaughter, but brooding on Big Questions such as whether we should “believe [that] death lasts forever”. Once the shadow of an invisible bird has “moved across the hill” in archetypal fashion, we are told that “certain thoughts comforted him”:

Desire permeates everything; nothing human can be cleansed from it.
We can only think about the unknown in terms of the known.
The speed of light cannot reference time.
The past exists as a present moment.

It is a daunting start, and in the pages that immediately follow it is a relief to find Michaels taking some of the same measures to shape and sharpen things that have benefited her writing in the past. John descends from the empyrean to take account of a fellow soldier lying nearby, remembers his partner, Helena, back in Blighty, and juggles assorted childhood memories – all of which provide the writing with a much-needed dose of reality. But not for long, and not consistently. His fellow soldier Gillies – a Welshman from Abergavenny – is prone to poetical fits; and Helena is inclined to the same sort of airy pontification that dominates John’s own thought processes. “What we give cannot be taken from us”, she muses at one point, recalling the final line of Fugitive Pieces: “I see that I must give what I most need”.

The novel’s second section, set in 1920, opens with John and Helena running a small photography business in Yorkshire, him wielding the camera and her painting the background scenery for studio portraits. Here the long-term effects of John’s wartime trauma become increasingly obvious, and the novel’s various kinds of introspection are established as normal practice. Eventually they concentrate into questions about the nature of reality itself: how reliable is our sensory experience of it? How can we estimate the influence of memory on decisions we make in the present? And then, playing catch-up, the author provides some narrative to dramatize these questions. John finds himself taking pictures that, when developed, reveal their individual subjects to be accompanied by spectral presences – dead people with whom the sitters long to be reunited.

At this point it feels as though the novel might have found a storyline to match its theoretical ambitions, especially its interest in the possibility that a material form (the body) might contain an immaterial essence (the soul). To this end Michaels provides John with an assistant who brings another welcome dose of ordinariness to proceedings – but his steadying influence is short-lived. The disorientation produced by John’s PTSD, allied with Michaels’s attraction to abstruse thinking, is more than a match for all reality checks. While Helena is able to live with uncertainty over “what is invisible”, for John it is intolerable. For the reader it is merely an abstraction.

The remaining ten sections are generally shorter and less successful at avoiding, even for short periods, the pitfalls of their style. In the third section we jump forwards to London in the early 1950s and meet the now sixty-year-old Helena and her daughter, Anna, who works in a hospital. After that we are transported, section by section, to various regions of Europe, at various different times, to meet assorted friends and descendants of the novel’s original couple: Anna’s husband, Peter, their daughter Mara, also a medic; Mara’s partner, Alan, a war correspondent; Peter’s friends Sandor and Marcus; and so on.

The author’s intention is clear: to trace the history of damage that defines a family’s fortune and thought through the course of the past century, while tracing a parallel to this history in the world beyond the family – in the work of Marie Curie, for example, and Ernest Rutherford, both of whom play a small part in the narrative. But this laudable aim is always under threat. With the story line elliptical and static, the characters flattened and their behaviour governed by fate (this is especially noticeable when it comes to people falling in love and “enter[ing] a lifetime’s conversation” with each other, which they are often required to do in order to create the generational structure), the bulk of our attention focuses instead on the book’s style and language. In Fugitive Pieces Anne Michaels found a way to embed individual acts of witness in a story that was always prone to cliché, but mostly sufficiently robust to solidify its lyric impulses. In Held the story fails to do a similar job. As a result its speculations cannot help but seem too precious for their own good.

Andrew Motion’s most recent books are Sleeping on Islands: A life in poetry and New and Selected Poems 1977–2022, both published this year

Browse the books from this week’s edition of the TLS here

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