The image made word

Anne Michaels’s 1997 debut novel, Fugitive Pieces, was a bona fide phenomenon.

The agonising story of Jakob Beer, orphaned during the Nazi occupation of Poland and rescued by a geologist who smuggles him to his home in Greece, it won prizes including the Guardian Fiction award and the Orange prize, and was lauded by reviewers—among them John Berger, who called it “the most important book I have read for 40 years”. It has been translated into more than 20 languages.

The publication this month of her second novel, The Winter Vault (Bloomsbury), again raises the question of why Michaels finds even the scant details we have of her (born in Toronto in 1958, the youngest child of a Polish father, Isaiah, and Canadian mother, Rosalind, graduate of the University of Toronto, creative writing teacher and mother of two children) are not just extraneous, but obstructive.

“I really believe we read differently when we know even the most banal facts of an author’s life,” she says. “I’m not being naive; I realise there’s no such thing as a pure reading. But I’d rather keep myself as far out of it as I can.”

Twelve years have elapsed since Fugitive Pieces. During that time, apart from the publication of Skin Divers (poetry) and a handful of determinedly low-key projects including a theatre piece, Vanishing Points, written with Berger, Michaels has been silent. What has she been doing?

“Well,” she says, “I wrote. I wrote several shorter books that I haven’t yet published, though I plan to, and five children’s books. But The Winter Vault was the main thing, and because it mattered to me, I felt a responsibility to do it properly.” The book required “massive amounts of research: it was like pulling a thread—one thing leads you to the next, and on, and on. It takes time.”

Then—abruptly, unexpectedly—she offers a rare glimpse into the life behind the work. “In fact, though, the short answer is that I now have two children, of 10 and six — So I ended up writing at night—literally, in the middle of the night, from 1am to 5am.

“So I guess that’s why it took so long. And I apologise!”

No doubt her readers will forgive her. The Winter Vault is a rich, full book, written with the lyricism that distinguished Fugitive Pieces, but with an overall cohesion and assurance missing from her first novel.

Opening in 1964 on the construction of the Aswan dam in Egypt, the book interleaves the intricate, anguished negotiations of a marriage with three separate but reverberating events: the dismantling and reconstruction of the temple at Abu Simbel, threatened by the Nile’s rising waters, the building of Canada’s St Lawrence Seaway and the systematic destruction and ersatz restoration of occupied Warsaw.

Once again, as in Fugitive Pieces, ideas of memory and love, possession and dispossession haunt the narrative. But in The Winter Vault they emerge decisively from subtext into text.

“I think one book washes you up on the shore of the next one,” Michaels says. “I started writing The Winter Vault before Fugitive Pieces was published. The second book came out of the first because it led me to think more deeply about the notion of disenfranchisement. In the case of the Nubians [whose ancestral lands were washed away by the damming of the Nile], everything is taken from them. The question of how we commemorate that sort of loss runs through the book, alongside the notion of false consolation, which we see in the relocation of Abu Simbel and the rebuilding of Warsaw. Even if you replace something with the same thing—which is such an understandable impulse—it’s still just that: a replication. Something essential has been lost.”

The place of the individual within the larger event remains central to her work. The Winter Vault opens on the image of a young couple, Jean and Avery, aboard a boat on the Nile. Avery is one of the engineers involved in the relocation of the temple; Jean, his wife, is a botanist. As dusk deepens over Abu Simbel’s “scene of ghastly devastation”, Avery takes out a box of watercolours and paints, “sometimes the scene before them ... sometimes ... from memory, the Chiltern Hills”, on to his wife’s back.

Michaels says it was the first image that came to her “and everything came from that moment: the tenderness and trust of their relationship set against this very disturbing image of the scattered bodies of the pharaohs, the machinery that doesn’t stop—that central notion of replication. Above all, it’s a stark tableau of personal life set against a larger event.

“There’s a lot in that moment. I don’t think we take in ideas unless they’re attached to an emotion, and I believe that images are the best, richest conduits for emotions that we have. What I’ve tried to do—successfully or not—is offer the reader as many ways into the book’s concerns as possible. I wanted them to be able to find a place for their own concerns - to make a safe place to talk about things that aren’t safe. If a book can offer some way to get a purchase on these enormous things, well, it would be fantastic to think that were possible.”—

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