Novelist, poet and Toronto Poet Laureate Anne Michaels’ books are translated into 50 languages; her latest includes All We Saw (poems) and Infinite Gradation (essays). Her Guardian Fiction, Orange Prize winning novel Fugitive Pieces was also adapted as a feature film.
I saw Anne Michaels twice at this year’s Auckland Writers’ Festival, first being interviewed by Michael Williams when she filled the ASB theatre, and second with others when she read from her novel The Winter Vault. Listening to her reading on both occasions I was struck by the melody of her voice, the deep richness that it brought to words that were slow, meticulous and measured. Her hour long interview was punctuated by pauses and silences, as she considered her choice of word. The audience leaned closer, waiting for the next word, wondering sometimes if it would ever come.
As Michaels said of her own writing, not a word should be wasted, whether you have four hundred or just four. She talked of the terror of even putting six letters on a page, such is her fear that the reader will not be able to hear them clearly. In a world which Michaels described as a place where we are ‘drowning in input’, she knows that she will never be able to outshout what is around her. Her solution is to find the right tone. She is never looking to bring the reader into her own life, but instead she hopes to bring them into their own.
You understand very quickly, listening to Michaels, that you are dealing with a very private person. She did, however, give us a little about her relationship with the late writer and art crtitic John Berger. He was her ‘first reader’. I was fascinated to hear her say of him that he was just as you would imagine him from his books, a delight for me as someone who has enjoyed so many of his novels and stories. Living in the different time zones of France and Canada, she recalled Berger’s love of the fax machine, which he would use to send both writing and drawings. She smiled at the memory of waking to find a new message on her machine.
Michaels obviously has a strong passion for art. In a life that is relentlessly visual, she noted that an artist is working only with a singular moment. She talked about being drawn into the silences of paintings, since they reach us ‘without language’. It was one of those comments that inspires you to think differently. I’ve never heard anyone say of Renoir or Pissarro, ‘Oh he painted that in French’. We see the piece in our native tongue, not always the one of its creator. The appreciation transcends language.
It was great to see many of the Friday morning attendees clutching old, well-read copies of Michaels’ award winning 1996 novel Fugitive Pieces. In the long snaking line to get books signed, there were more old copies of the novel than newly purchased ones. I took that as a good sign, a novel that has been treasured and re-read, not consigned to the pile for the charity shop. Sales of her latest poetry collection All We Saw were also brisk.
In her reading on Sunday morning, Michaels followed a theme of wartime memories and responses to the holocaust. Vincent O’Sullivan read from All This by Chance, selecting a modern day reaction to visiting a much changed synagogue in Poland. Michaels selected three passages from her second novel The Winter Vault, in which she took us back to war-torn Warsaw where a flower shop was the first business to emerge from the ruins, enabling the living to remember the lost, the people and the homes reduced to rubble. I had thought that The Winter Vault was about the building of the Aswan Dam in Egypt, but now I have a copy of the book, a quick glace tells me that it is another wide ranging novel, moving from Egypt to England, through Europe and across the Atlantic to Canada. Michaels had talked about her meticulous research, always wanting to proceed from fact, so I can imagine this novel would have involved much travel as well as writing.
In her interview Michaels said ‘Memory is our mechanism for going forward’, and pointed out that as many of us no longer live in the place where we were born, we have lost a sense of belonging somewhere. She asked a fascinating question about where it is that we really belong. If it is no longer the place in which we were born, could it just as well be the place in which we fell in love or the one in which we will die? And so we circled back to the description of Michaels as ‘a poet of loss’. Her collection of poems All We Saw carries a list of seven names, friends and family, whom Michaels has lost over the space of four years.
Reviewed by Marcus Hobson
Marcus Hobson is a writer and book reviewer. He reviews regularly for www.NZBooklovers.co.nz and was a judge for their first annual fiction prize in March 2109. He is an avid book collector and writes about books, art and history for www.ARTbop.co.nz a local online arts magazine. Marcus lives with his wife and daughters on the slopes of the Kaimai Range, close to Katikati, where he competes with a huge variety of birds in his garden for the fruit off his trees.