Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Goosebumps of the Literary Kind

Literature is a strange space. The arrangment of words on a page can leave you laughing, crying, gasping, breathless. The first words on a page can pour through your eyeballs and be scorched into your brain forever.

One of the most remarkable opening moments of a novel I've ever come across is Anne Michaels Fugitive Pieces. My friend Julia held it out to me in the University library and whispered 'I've bought this as a birthday present for Ria. Do you think she'll like it?'

I glanced at the Prologue quickly: a suggestion that the novel is based on retrieved texts - 'memoirs, diaries, eyewitness accounts' or perhaps is one of those other lost stories 'concealed in memory, neither written nor spoken' - hidden during the Second World War. It sounded interesting.
I turned to the first chapter, read for less than five minutes then packed up my half-arsed essay and went down to the bookshop and bought the book and took it home and read and read and read.
Years later I use different sections of the opening pages of this novel when talking to my own students about literature and memory and questions of truth, literary criticism and literature itself as a kind of archaeology, the strange place of literature where we can tell the untellable, speak the unspeakable, examine our humanity, and the way in which the words on a page can burrow into your brain and seep into every pore of your being so that you carry that arrangement of words around inside you for the rest of your life.

Time is a blind guide.
Bog-boy, I surfaced into the miry streets of the drowned city. For over a thousand years, only fish wandered Biskupin's wooden sidewalks. Houses, built to face the sun, were flooded by the silty gloom of the Gasawka River. Gardens grew luxurious in subaqueous silence; lilies, rushes, stinkweed.
No one is born just once. If you're lucky, you'll emerge again in someone's arms; or unlucky, wake when the long tail of terror brushes the inside of your skull.
I squirmed from the marshy ground like Tollund Man, Grauballe Man, like the boy they uprooted in the middle of Franz Josef Street while they were repairing the road, six hundred cockleshell beads around his neck, a helmet of mud. Dripping with the prune-coloured juices of the peat-sweating bog. Afterbirth of earth.
I saw a man kneeling in the acid-steeped ground. He was digging. My sudden appearance unnerved him. For a moment he thought I was one of Biskupin's lost souls, or perhaps the boy in the story, who digs a hole so deep he emerges on the other side of the world.

You can click on this link to read reviews of this novel on Amazon.

In this novel, Michael's uses poetic language to examine the profound impact of loss, the importance of remembering, and the redemptive power of human love. In part she does this by defamiliarising the murder committed in war in ways which lose none of the horror whilst at the same time foregrounding the enormity of what is lost - those unique and individual lives, the lives of the survivors, and humanity itself. Her use of language evokes similar layered depths of love, humanity and ethical truths as Michael Ondaatje, another writer who just about blows you away with the intense beauty of his language; both writers, for me, poetry in motion.

It's true to say that I'm one of the readers of Michael's novel who finds it in some senses a novel of two halves, preferring the first half, Jakob's half, to the second half of the book overall, although that isn't to say the second half isn't well worth reading because it is, and Anne Michaels' truly beautiful use of language permeates the whole book, but I guess what I'm saying is that the first half of the book has lodged itself in me - has "entered me through my pores and been carried through my bloodstream to my heart" to paraphrase Michaels.

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