Saturday, May 23, 2009

The Winter Vault

In a sense, this is a DL book because it has been imaginatively on my shelf since I finished Fugitive Pieces -- I have imagined it each time I re-read Michaels' earlier work. Its presence became more anxious when I saw a sung performance of her libretto for The Passion of Lavinia Andronicus, which made me feel ill in its replication of violence against women as high art. Anyway, I'd much rather be writing about why orphans have become the hot new thing in film and fiction (more on that soon): for now, my review of Winter Vault because I have to get it off my chest and I'm sick of listening to all the simpering about how wonderful the book is because it dares to tackle important topics using poetic language.


@Caroline McElwee mentions her commonplace book when reviewing this novel: I have to say that The Winter Vault read like a commonplace book to me: beautifully turned phrases (and some that are gramatically opaque: why does Michaels have such a problem using parts of the verb 'to be') are beautiful to the exclusion of all else. Often, I felt that the narrative had been shaped to hinge around these insights rather than their emerging from the characters.

I have nothing against aphoristic fiction, but I feel that this patina of linguistic elegance detracts from the moral seriousness that the novel wishes to convey in its catalogue of displacements: in fact, these aphorisms are one more displacement, in this case for action, relation, engagement, life. The characters are languid indeed: almost doll-like in their perverse unreeling of memories, spoken in highly stylised paragraphs.

Sorry: amendment. The male characters. Michaels appears to have taken as fact John Berger's bizarre and essentialist belief that women function ONLY to salve men's wounds by being receptive (or receptacles). Women are the wound, for Berger, and this openness makes them the healing ear/cunt that men need. Which is absolute bullshit -- and as the narrative principle in The Winter Vault, it's not only false but squeamishly so. I started to wonder if Jean's mother had died to get away from the endless drone of her husband's voice -- which pursues her even in her grave. By the end I was so sick of the sound of the Avery's and Lucjan's voices I wished they would disappear instead of all the people whose disappearances they mourn (yet do nothing about).

Ah yes: the disappeared. Michaels writes with statistical precision about the displacement of Nubians from the area that is now covered by Lake Nasser, and the similar removal of villages along the St. Lawrence Seaway. She writes with more emotive drama about the emptying of Warsaw, which echoes material in Fugitive Pieces. Perhaps it's that she's on less confident ground with the material in the first section, but it is frequently distributed in paragraphs with no narrative anchor - no voice or point-of-view implied or stated - and so feels like chunks of regurgitated textbook. Like the aphorisms, it lacks roots in the characters.

I wonder if this is because the author is, in some way, aware that her chosen displacements are themselves narrative displacements, choices that (struggle to) conceal two other historical mass movements and destructions beneath them: in the case of the Nubians, I constantly felt the (unaddressed) echo of the Nakba at the other end of the Nile; in the case of the St. Lawrence Seaway, the much more massive and total displacement of the areas' First Nations, whom Michaels mentions in a glancing aside.

She asserts that they were themselves interlopers of recent vintage, having walked across the landbridge twenty thousand years ago (disproved by far older fossil records discovered recently) -- as if that makes the colonial displacement and genocide more acceptable, making way for a) the sentimental apprehension of the villages that are washed away, few of which could be more than 100 years old and b) the all-too-familiar gesture by which the white settlers become "indigenous" (doubled by the parallel of the Nubians and the white Canadians) and holders of native knowledge, perpetrated through Jean's collection of her mother's seeds.

I did feel in two minds about this novel for a while, partially out of loyalty to Michaels' earlier work -- I have read Fugitive Pieces and The Weight of Oranges many, many times -- and partially out of a respect and hunger for serious, eloquent, involved and attentive writing. But the torch has passed: while Michaels was almost alone as an Ondaatje female impersonator in 1997, we now have writers of the calibre of Kamila Shamsie, whose recent Burnt Shadows makes as explicit use of The English Patient as Michaels made of In the Skin of a Lion in Fugitive Pieces. Moreover, Shamsie critiques the ethical violence of Ondaatje's poetic style when she extends the story beyond the suspended ending of The English Patient to imagine that which Ondaatje leaves out (marriage, childbirth, postcolonial life, dailiness, the present, women as actual characters) in his fastidious ellipses and allusive phrasemaking.

Loyalty, as Jean discovers, is not enough: you listen and listen and the speaker kicks you out when he's used you up. It's too extreme to say that I feel dispossessed by The Winter Vault, because I doubted it could reach the heights - the exactness, the incendiary images, the perceptive characters - of Fugitive Pieces. Without those qualities, this is collection of beautiful words: a vault of dried seeds with no ground to stand on.