Thursday, January 14, 2010

Anne Michaels' The Winter Vault

If I hadn’t read Anne Michaels’ The Winter Vault immediately after reading Michael Ondaatje’s Divisadero, would I have been so struck by what seem such strong stylistic similarities between the two writers? Perhaps not. Certainly, before feeling as if I could defend such an assertion, I would need to go back and reread Michaels’ Fugitive Pieces and perhaps Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter to see how tenable the claim is to their work overall. But what I see both sharing is a richly meditative lyricism shaped into long, gently declarative and descriptive sentences, diction and rhythm combining to colour the intimacy with a certain melancholy. Both, I would say though, avoid the indulgence and narcissism of real melancholy by their omniscient narrators’ ever-so-slight detachment, by an intelligence which is always making connections that hold emotion manageably at bay while nonetheless sketching its engulfing potential. The narrators of both share a fascinating (and I mean that almost literally) ability/tendency to bring disparate, almost-arcane events and information together and synthesize these to powerful effect, creating new narratives, new histories that argue “what matters." As one of the characters learns in The Winter Vault, "No two facts are too far apart to be put together."

I wrote the above paragraph a month ago and then haven't managed to write more about Fugitive Pieces. But let me now offer you an example of an intricately realized detail in this novel that I could easily imagine in Ondaatje's Divisadero. Jean, the female protagonist, is getting to know her mother-in-law for whom she feels an immediate affection. The older woman, Marina, tells of working, when quite young, for an old woman, Annie Moorcock, who needed help sorting through her immense private library. Over months, they worked together, cataloguing the books, slipping into them the neatly addressed slips of folded paper notes Annie had prepared, messages to Annie's daughters, son, and grandchildren. "We compiled her list for divesting each book," Marina tells the protagonist," planning the gifts and the accompanying notes "to provide a moment of solace or guidance or respite for the one who would open it some winter evening many years hence. 'Though I hope my rosy-cheeked Thea' -- who was only six at the time -- 'might never need John Donne, there is something about her, a little shadow, that tells me she might feel the want of these words some day.'"

An accumulation of fascinating, nearly-arcane details marks Marina's recollection of Annie's "astonishing collection of movable books for children." These are the details that pile up convincingly in an Ondaatje text as well -- here, Michaels has Marina recall a number of specific texts that I admit to Googling and thus seeing entire histories unfold. In the novel itself, the history of pop-up books is alluded to and some specific examples provided -- Vojtech Kubasta's Sleeping Beauty and Snow White "where the eyes of dogs roll around in their heads . . . and melancholic dwarves are suddenly restored to happiness by the agency of a tab, and where long, empty tables, are, in an instant, magically laden with food , a particularly welcome device in those years [wartime and post-war] of cravings and deprivations" (97).

Overall, this novel is suffused with sadness -- the title refers to the place where bodies are kept until winter releases its hold on the ground and burials can proceed; the terrain the characters traverse is marked by violence, whether military or environmental -- and yet there is such tender, tender love, in numerous forms. Numerous characters remember love and friendship, both that which they experienced firsthand and that which they observed or heard of. And centrally, of course, Avery, loving Jean, respects her need to move away from their love after the stillbirth of their baby. The sad beauty of her relationship with the wounded street artist, Lucan, the stories-within-stories he offers, and Avery's ability to recognize, even through his pain, that this relationship is restoring Jean to herself -- it's a sad beauty that resonates, an emotional landscape that's weighty enough to match the geographic landscapes destroyed by the damning and flooding of the St. Laurence and the Nile.

I have so many post-it notes marking beautiful or interesting or perceptive or arresting passages in this novel, but time eludes me -- this working for a living really gets in the way! This is a book you really must read -- one that you will want to read and reread. When you do, I'd love to hear what you think. Meanwhile, please be patient with my ever-so-limited review. I'll leave you with a haunting quotation.
Avery [an engineer working on the project to conserve/move the sacred temples at Abu Simbel prior to the damning of the Nile River] "spoke of the despair of space that the built world had created; waste space too narrow for anything but litter, dark walkways from carparks to the street; the endless, dead space of underground garages; the corridors between skyscrapers; the space surrounding industrial rubbish bins and ventilator shafts . . . the space we have imprisoned between what we have built, like seeds of futility, small pockets on the earth where no one is meant to be alive, a pause, en emptiness" (134-5).


  1. Thank you so much for posting this excellent review; you have expressed all my own thoughts about The Winter Vault precisely. (I only wish it had been published before I visited Abu Simbel, Philae, Aswan 20 years ago . . . The guide books, after all, convey only the official history, which varies according to whose version of the history one is reading).

    Interested to see your reference to Divisadero; it's here on my bedside table, waiting to be read. Am a huge admirer of Michael O and, yes, I thought of Coming Through Slaughter when I was reading The Winter Vault.

    And Fugitive Pieces will always remain one of my most cherished books.

  2. and thank you, 60/16, for commenting on my review -- I'm happy to have thoughtful readers to chat with here.
    It must have been wonderful to read the book with memories of Abu Simbel in mind, but even without, Michaels' evokes that landscape along with a loss that perhaps wouldn't be as marked at the actual site?
    I'll be curious to see what you think about Divisadero and whether you find my comparison of the two writers' convincing. I really need to re-read Fugitive Pieces -- it's probably been 8-10 years . . .

  3. The passage describing dead space was one I marked also, the kind of spaces found in soulless houses, and, despite exquisitely poetic writing, in this book.

    Perhaps the timeframe over which it was written was too long (10 years?); I felt myself breathing museum air until Lucjan arrived to move love out of the head and into the body. Perhaps she is just more viscerally connected to the war story.

    And I too felt the presence of Ondaatje.

    I was so ready to love this book, as Fugitive Pieces gave me shivers of pleasure on every page. I remember reading it one summer, rationing it out to make it last as long as possible. Imagine my dismay here to find myself noting yet another stone reference, yet another list. I will treasure those marked passages---they are truly beautiful---but regret the lack of air.

  4. Yikes! I can't believe it! I just wrote a long, thoughtful(;-) response to your comment, Anonymous/Isabelle, and instead of posting it, Blogger 's left me an error message!

    I said something along the lines of respecting your editorial judgment, more careful, more considered than mine, but that I had simply been seduced by the book and by the wonderful connections it makes across continents (the damming in Quebec and in Egypt) and decades and crafts and people.

    I also wondered if you'd mind adding an initial or even your first name at the bottom of your comment, sticking to Anonymous for Google purposes -- your voice is so clear and it would be better for me if I was surer who I was speaking to. But no worries if you prefer to stay anonymous (or adopt a pseudonym!)

    And if I've guessed correctly at your identity, I thought I'd remind you that it was you who introduced me to Fugitive Pieces, giving me a copy for my b.d. oh so long ago. Thank you!