Echt! My Enthusiasm Curbed:Terry Rigelhof e-talks with Gordon Lockheed about the works of Anne Michaels and Michael Ondaatje

By Gordon Lockheed | July 23, 2010

G: Stan Persky asks why isn’t Anne Michaels included in Hooked on Canadian Books: The Good, the Better and the Best Canadian Novels since 1984?    Care to answer?

T: Michaels is a poet and her prose works, Fugitive Pieces (1996) and The Winter Vault (2009), aren’t novels.  Not in my books. What are they then?  I’d say propaganda – misleading publicity, deceptive information, distorted educational tracts.

G: That’s harsh.

T: Michaels might not think so: she might, in fact, take it as a back-handed compliment.  While much is made of her aesthetic kinship with Michael Ondaatje, too little is made (in this country) of her enduring friendship and literary collaboration with John Berger, who pronounced as early as 1956 (and has never retracted) a self-definition that remains as true of his works now as it was then: “I am a political propagandist … But my heart and eye have remained those of a painter.”  The Winter Vault tracks the impact massive river-centered engineering projects (the Saint Lawrence Seaway, the Aswan Dam) can have on the physical environment, on communities, on individuals in ways analogous to the ways Fugitive Pieces tracks the eugenics-centered human engineering of the Holocaust.  Her heart and eye may or may not be those of a painterly poet but these are definitely – some might say defiantly – works advocating certain political possibilities. In a recent interview with Quill & Quire (April 2009), Michaels said, “I don’t think political ideas, philosophical ideas really enter you until they enter you with feeling…. Fiction and poetry give us a way to think deeply and feel deeply about certain things that, if we met them in real life, would be chaotic. They allow us the space and time to contemplate right actions.”

Her writing, she says in the same interview, is a way of reminding readers that adaptations to changing circumstances are also acts of complicity. “I don’t stand above as a teacher. I am in complete solidarity with the reader. If anything, there is a pedagogy of the heart.”

G:  A pedagogy on behalf of what?

T: It takes some digging to get to the emotional arithmetic that sums up what she’s doing. Reviewing the newer of the two works on May 21, 2009 for The New York Times – the very fountainhead of received opinion – Jess Row admits that the term “lyric fiction” bestowed on  Michaels’s and Ondaatje’s  shared technique is “an absurd term” but can’t find a better one for their work as “archivists and re-enactors who use poetic immediacy to make the past present — not as an orderly narrative but as a series of fragments or snapshots linked by a kind of dream logic, a hallucination that is neither entirely past nor present.”   Row (as apologist for this “school” of writing which he describes as “something of an institution”  due to “the extraordinary success of  Ondaatje’s The English Patient” which preceded Fugitive Pieces by four years) sees antecedents in Virginia Woolf, Malcolm Lowry, Paul Bowles and John Berger and successors in numerous younger writers, notably Nadeem Aslam (Wasted Vigil, 2008).  Row admits that their technical innovations in fusing “the practice of the lyric poem — density of language, intense sensory observation, a willed suspension of time — with the novelist’s brick-by-brick construction of drama in time, and, more important, in history” causes all sorts of problems: specifically, thinning of narrative, self-consciousness of artistry, wispiness of dialogue, excessive thinking out loud by characters.  But none of this is seen as fatal because – o miracle of versification! – their “vaporous” (Row’s term) or “vacuumed” (my term) pages are more than outweighed by a “concentration on historical facts” that literally “stops time” in a way that leaves readers with sequences of indelible images.  I suppose that’s her pedagogy.  .

G: Wait a minute. Where does this “concentration on historical facts” come from? Ondaatje bases The English Patient on a Hungarian fascist who was a.) homosexual and b.) died in the 1950s. Isn’t the point that “historical facts” in these works are like furniture pieces, to be moved around and altered to achieve aesthetic/poetic effect?

T:  Have you ever tried watching the film version of The English Patient sitting alongside a military historian?   Whatever the costumers and prop people were doing, they weren’t concentrating on historical detail – officers wear insignia that doesn’t match their ranks,  American GIs wear Russian helmets,  wartime American flags have fifty stars, trucks have post-war radial tyres,  German paratroopers configure equipment in the British manner and land several months earlier than they actually did, marketplace Egyptians wear Tunisian burnooses, cars in Egypt have 1980s registration plates, a soldier wears a Sunderland football scarf from the 1970s.  So he told me and what I checked out, checks out.  When I went to see the film with my historian friend, it was lapses in continuity more than the anachronisms that  deflected my attention from the romance or adventure or whatever: nobody on the set of The English Patient was concentrating on the basics of realistic film making – the amount of liquid in glasses increases between sips, bits of bomb disposal equipment disappear and reappear between shots, hair-dos change from one angle to another,  lightning flashes are too fast for a thunderstorm, the sun is in more than one place if  you watch the  shadows,  the music Hanna plays doesn’t correspond to the piano keys she’s depressing and on and on it goes ever more depressingly.  Or comically.  Okay, Ondaatje isn’t responsible for any of this but I’m cataloguing the mishaps with “furniture” in the film to underline a point about poetic “intuitions” trumping historical accuracy.  Can both actively co-exist in Ondaatje’s and Michaels’s “lyrical fiction”?

Ondaatje’s “English patient” is modelled, as you say, on László Ede Almásy de Zsadány et Törökszentmiklós who died  in Austria on  March 22, 1951 of amoebic dysentery.  He was more than a garden variety Hungarian fascist: Almásy was an officer in the German military intelligence service – the Abwehr – who delivered agents to Cairo for Rommel and was so effective that Rommel promoted him to Major for his success in breaching Allied security and awarded him an Iron Cross for further undercover successes in Libya.  At the end of the North African Campaign, Almásy went to Turkey –not Italy – where he plotted revolution in Egypt to slow the Allied advance on Berlin.  When that failed, he scooted to Budapest where he did a noble thing and helped save some Jewish families from the concentration camps while working hand-in-hand with Catholic Church authorities.  Arrested by Soviet counter-intelligence, he was tried for treason but “escaped” when a member of King Farouk’s family bribed his captors.  With the help of MI6, he returned to Egypt and resumed civilian life under Farouk’s protection.  Almásy’s sexual orientation was “closeted” until several years after The English Patient was published but his fascism wasn’t.  Ondaatje’s romanticizing of Almásy did have a real world consequence: in 1995, Hungarian patriots erected a new epigraph on his grave honouring him as Pilot, Sahara Explorer, and Discoverer of the Zerzuza Oasis.   Nice.  For some critics of Ondaatje, this is small potatoes: the rotten meat of his misbegotten mise en scene is uncovered when you ask the question, what would have happened to Almásy had he made his way to Italy rather than to Turkey and been there during the Italian campaign and its mop-up?   Refuge in Vatican City would have been the only thing to save him from shooting, hanging, or garrotting – no Allied combatant or non-combatant would have risked their own safety and security to assist him.

G: You say, “for some critics,” what about yourself?

T:  In my commentary in Hooked on Stephen Marche’s silly and self-serving critique of CanLit and, specifically, his claim that Margaret Atwood’s career “much like CanLit itself, has entered a Shavian twilight, where every book she produces takes away from her legacy”, I assert “Her talent remains robust; Michael Ondaatje is the only established author whose career has entered not a “Shavian twilight,” but the Klieg day-out-of-night of Planet Hollywood where every new novel sadly reduces his legacy.”   There are two good things to be said about The English Patient: one is left unsaid in my book and that is that its description of Kip’s training as a bomb disposal expert is as good as Ondaatje’s writing about working lives in In the Skin of a Lion ; the second, which I do mention,  is that it was this book that led Pico Iyer into a wonderfully clear-headed view about what he termed “New Canadian fiction”  in his essay in the June 2002 issue of Harper’s Magazine –writing that offers a kind of multiculturalism that can be “known only at the individual level, where people understand that it is only in the imagination that we can begin to penetrate the Other (or to allow the Other to penetrate us)”, a multiculturalism based on shared beliefs not shared roots and, especially, on the most universal of all shared beliefs, the belief that art transcends ideology and political identity.  This seemed to me worth quoting as an endorsement of Iyer’s article in general and the notice it pays in particular to the brilliant Madeleine Thien’s first book but it’s not an endorsement of Ondaatje’s novel.  You want endorsements of Canadian novels of WWII  — read me on Madeleine Thien’s Certainty,  Shauna Singh Baldwin’s The Tiger’s Claw, Darcy Tamayose’s Odori.  The English Patient frankly disgusts me – it’s worse than simply a badly researched, badly written bad book.   But let’s start with the bad writing.   Here’s Nicholas Spice writing of The English Patient in The London Review of Books (24 September 1992):

For figurative language to succeed it must work at the level of ordinary meaning as well as at the level of allusion. Ondaatje’s images fail sometimes to achieve this balanced ambiguity. His imagery has about it something of the 17th-century Metaphysical conceit (‘There was that small indentation at her throat we called the Bosphorus. I would dive from her shoulder into the Bosphorus. Rest my eye there’) and it lays itself open to Johnson’s criticism of that kind of poetry: its wit though ‘new’ is not ‘natural’ and it is prone to produce ‘combinations of confused magnificence’. Some of Ondaatje’s combinations are more confused than magnificent. . . .  At other moments in The English Patient a fog descends: ‘Cold nights in the desert. He plucked a thread from the horde of nights and put it into his mouth like food.’

I’m quoting Spice because despite the figurative language that he sees doesn’t work, he’s  an admirer of The English Patient. He likes it a lot for being a very male book, a book about different ways of being a man, different ways of being Ondaatje. Looked at this way, it becomes understandable that the bluff, earthy, blunt-spoken Caravaggio should be the character that Ondaatje has most difficulty filling out: for I guess that this is how Ondaatje sees himself. Meanwhile, the mercurial Kip can be seen as the man Ondaatje would have liked to have been, and he is created with all the love and detail with which a man creates his ideal self. As for Almasy, the man of no or any identity, the brilliant foreigner who sponges up English values and English literariness, I see him as the writer in Ondaatje, his creative intelligence. So Ondaatje’s deep ambivalence about Almasy is scarcely surprising. For Ondaatje’s voice is Almasy’s, Almasy’s style Ondaatje’s, a style which at best generates things of real beauty, at worst creates effects of trompe-l’oeil which make us suspect that there is less to what we read than meets the eye.

Actually, there’s more to The English Patient than first met Spice’s eye. My gut reaction on first reading it was more visceral – a gag reflex to incipient vomiting.  That’s not exaggerating.   If I approached the book gingerly as Stan Persky asserts, it has little to do with deference and everything to do with my ambivalence about the things that  disgust me. In The Blank Slate, Steven Pinker sums up our reasoning processes in this way:  we think and react according to multiple operating systems and each one is appropriate to only one part of the active intelligence surrounding our own.  The ones modules or components that cause us the greatest difficulty whenever we attempt to integrate our own intelligence with the communal are the three where it’s extremely difficult to judge where cognition is short-circuited by emotion – the system that assesses danger based on fear, the system that assesses contamination based on disgust, and the moral sense.  I don’t want fear, disgust, or any emotionally-compromised moral sense getting the better of my understanding of how things are and how they might be ameliorated: it’s so easy, so all too human, to be so disgusted by stupidity, censoriousness, bullying, intimidation, Hitlerism, Stalinism and to feel so contaminated by them that you just close your eyes if you can’t run away. But if you have an even stronger visceral sympathy for the victims, where do you find the strength to turn that sympathy into action?  For me, humour, irony, fellowship with individuals (not crowds), uxoriousness, literature, and freedom of expression work in ways that organized religion and political partisanship don’t.   What disgusts me about The English Patient is its gross stupidity about the Italian Campaign in WWII and its many misrepresentations of what was humanly and politically possible in those circumstances and what wasn’t.   This isn’t the historian or literary critic in me speaking at this very moment – this is the son-in-law, nephew and friend of English, Canadian, and American warriors who survived the major battles and stayed on for the clean up operations: hence the troubling question – how clearly am I seeing what’s happening in the book when I keep thinking of what couldn’t possibly have happened at all outside the realm of authorial whimsy.   I’ve heard too many stories of what happened to the Allied armies seriously wounded because of a lack of medical facilities.  It’s no exaggeration to say that not one Canadian nurse could have been spared to nurse anyone whose identity was in doubt: Ondaatje’s English patient would have been turned over to the Military Police long before he’d gotten as far as the villa.   Let’s get back to Michaels while I try to stop remembering the worst of the war stories I know.

G: What is your problem with her?

T: Her images – strong as they sometimes are – don’t do anything to create the texture of lived experience because the wispiness of dialogue and excess of thinking out loud allows readers to see whatever it is they want to see and remember whatever it is they want to remember.  In The Winter Vault Michaels re-views the opening of the seaway between Montreal and Lake Ontario (1959) and the damming of the Nile at Aswan in Egypt (1970) as the swallowing of two tradition-bound ways of living alongside rivers.  It’s the same kind of book that – as Brian Dillon writes of Ondaatje’s Divisadero in The London Review of Books (13 December 2007) makes you wonder what some people are after when they open a novel. Vapid nostrums dressed as timeless wisdom? Pretty vignettes from a simpler life? Flowery assurance that this simpler life conceals, would you believe it, a seam of tragedy? Cooking tips? Whatever it is, it is all there, and they are welcome to it. Ondaatje takes some of the techniques that we might value most in fiction – the formal refutation of strict chronology; the elaboration of character as little more than a rumour or a scattering of particles; a narrator’s capacious sense of literary and intellectual history – and drains them of all energy, wit, mystery and real ambition.

That’s what I mean by Michaels’s writing as vacuuming.

G:  And that’s the secret of its success?

T: To figure out why this kind of thing succeeds in the way it does with some readers (and not with me and my kind) takes more intellectual rigour than most of us have to spare for such flaccid stuff. It demands, for instance, a rereading of Arthur Symons’s prescient essay The Symbolist Movement in Literature (1899), the polemic that forever altered T.S. Eliot’s literary sensibilities and those of every poet that draws positive reinforcement for “creativity” from Eliot’s procedure – “surrender, then contemplate, then do something about it” as Frank Kermode so succinctly put it in a recent essay.  Symons was on the side of Thomas Hardy in his 1891 critique of Zola:

What cannot be discerned by eye and ear, what may be apprehended only by the mental tactility that comes from a sympathetic appreciativeness of life in all its manifestations, this is the gift which renders its possessor a more accurate delineator of human nature than many another with twice his powers and means of external observation, but without that sympathy.

In Symon’s tract, artistic sympathy is systematized: it is the function of the artist to liberate symbols – realities more real than socio-economic conditions, historical circumstances, whatever – by reversing allocations of space (Mrs. Dalloway’s death is literally a parenthesis in Virginia Woolf’s novel), by abandoning sequential logic in exposition, by dwelling in intimate details (Swann’s languid 1500 word depiction of his first kiss of Odette).  Originality of outlook, stylishness, the soulfulness of the writer become the measure of the thing made. Convictions replace argument, celebration replaces characterization.  Nothing needs to happen and less is the measure of more.

G: Can you be more specific?

T:  Michaels begins The Winter Vault: “Perhaps we painted on our own skin, with ochre and charcoal, long before we painted on stone.”  Note the initial “Perhaps.”   We did or we didn’t and there’s no “perhaps” about it: there’s an argument to be made from the philological root of the Bible’s “Adam” (not simply earth as far too many commentators allege but red earth) for coating skin with ochre being as ancient a human practice as vocalizing the sounds of birds (but a far more retrograde one since ochre is a lead oxide that creates devolutions in neurological processes).  But that’s not what interests Michaels – meditation as sign of soulfulness is her game.  And she can be as syntactically daft at it as Ondaatje who inadvertently raised the question “Can a penis sleep like a sea horse?” on the first page of The English Patient : “She has nursed him for months and she knows the body well, the penis sleeping like a sea horse…” Does a penis sleep?  If it does, can it assume the shape of a sea horse?  A poet friend whose favourite post-coital relaxation is watching his male lovers sleep in the nude says “no” to the first and “yes” to the second but even if he’s wrong and a penis does sleep and can assume such a shape, it is blatant nonsense to assert on a factual level that a penis sleeps like a sea horse given how little observed the slumbering habits of sea horses are and our general inability to adequately understand sleep mechanisms in any and all life forms.

G: But that’s obviously not what Ondaatje means.

T: Perhaps. Not. But it is what he has written.  The opening words of Hooked on Canadian Books: The Good, the Better and the Best Canadian Novels since 1984 are:

This book is written from one reader to another — to as many others as possible — in the hope that enough copies will be bought and circulated so that you who read privately and you who participate in reading clubs will find reader-friendly approaches to recent Canadian novels in English that expand the narratives of your own lives—yielding diversion, solace, perspective, comfort, counsel, and insight along your meanders from first paragraphs to last.

Is my meaning clear?  I am writing as one reader to other readers in what I take to be an expansive way.  I am, as I write at the end of the next paragraph, “first, last, and always a reader of contemporary fiction—especially Canadian novels.”   As this kind of reader, I take several kinds of pleasure in writing that is simply good and other, more complex pleasures in writing that is better, and find the greatest of pleasures I know as a reader on the rare occasions when I read the best novels in contemporary Canadian fiction and am enthused by their connectedness to great novelists of the past.   It wasn’t my purpose in this book to write extensively of what is ambiguous, inadequate, and just plain bad novel-writing.  My purpose is to draw readers to different kinds of conversations about familiar and unfamiliar books.  Should I have feigned a larger ambition?  Should I have added “Volume 1” to the title, suggesting succeeding volumes in which I might possibly take up the works of novelists not included here – novels by writers better known for their short stories or poetry or plays or generic mysteries or fantasies or graphics or non-fiction works?   Would a simple “Volume 1” have focussed the attention of reviewers on the book I actually wrote rather than on whichever one they wish I’d written?

G: What is it that they want from you that you don’t deliver?

T: Nastiness as adjunct to critical perceptiveness!  As a book reviewer for a national newpaper, my brief is to engage readers with the works I choose to write about for them.  Criticism is, for me, an act of exclusion in the first instance.  I simply will no longer write about that which is not of compelling interest: once I did, now I don’t.    Hooked on Canadian Books started from the same premise but is fuelled by a certain dread – I drafted it in the twenty-three months between a series of seizures and strokes and the craniotomy that we now have reason to believe will prevent more seizures, more strokes, more cognitive deficits – and a greater joy:  if it doesn’t sing on-key at least a little of D.H. Lawrence’s “Song of a Man Who Has Come Through” it isn’t doing what I designed it to do.  And that is to answer the knocking in the night that brings hope not harm:

Not I, not I, but the wind that blows through me!
A fine wind is blowing the new direction of Time.
If only I let it bear me, carry me, if only it carry me!
If only I am sensitive, subtle, oh, delicate, a winged gift!
If only, most lovely of all, I yield myself and am borrowed
By the fine, fine, wind that takes its course through the chaos of the world
Like a fine, an exquisite chisel, a wedge-blade inserted;
If only I am keen and hard like the sheer tip of a wedge
Driven by invisible blows,
The rock will split, we shall come at the wonder, we shall find the Hesperides.

Oh, for the wonder that bubbles into my soul,
I would be a good fountain, a good well-head,
Would blur no whisper, spoil no expression.

What is the knocking?
What is the knocking at the door in the night?
It is somebody wants to do us harm.

No, no, it is the three strange angels.
Let them come in.

G: Anne Michaels’s prose works aren’t singled out for non-admission:  Stan Persky notes in his “Curb Your Enthusiasm, Eh” post on this site that your bookdoesn’t mention Jane Rule, William Gibson, George Bowering, or the urban crime writers William Deverell and Lawrence Gough, but that’s not because he’s trying to tell us something about what he doesn’t like, it’s just that he’s somewhat weak, in this case, on West Coast writers.”

T: Actually, I am saying something about what I don’t like in the cases of Gough, Bowering and Gibson. I do state clearly and very early on that in my childhood “Mind and heart sped towards Dickens and Dumas, Cervantes and Stevenson, Fennimore Cooper and Twain, Conan Doyle and Kipling and veered sharply away from Lewis Carroll, Mary Shelley, Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, and Jack London. The child was the father of the man—the world of everyday people and plausible adventures are so richly rewarding that speculative fiction and animal stories then held and now hold minimal appeal.”  I ought to have included J.M. Barrie alongside Jules Verne and interjected “whimsy” between “speculative fiction and animal stories” to be more explicit about Bowering’s omission.  Bowering is whimsical in the way Thomas Pynchon is, isn’t he?  It’s a much shorter distance between Peter Pan and Pynchon than is generally admitted among academics.   Should I have included Jane Rule?  Weren’t all her notable novels completed prior to 1984?  I’ll concede that in the case of her two final books, I am weak on this particular west coast writer.  Including her would have provided a glorious pretext, at least, for relating one of my favourite moments in Canadian literary life – Jane’s declaration at an AGM of The Writers’ Union of Canada that she was retiring from writing because she had nothing more to say and Pierre Berton’s loud and shocked “No! Writers don’t retire.  They die first.”  Wouldn’t our collective literary life be better off with more retirements and fewer writers working on past their “best buy” dates?  I deeply admire Brian Fawcett for retiring as a poet when he did.  I admire him even more for turning his attention to the writing he’s done since then.  I admire him most of all for getting better with every book he writes: in his most recent, Robin Blaser (2010), co-written with Persky, Fawcett writes inter alia of “at least eight important things about writing and living I likely wouldn’t have learned otherwise, and which I’ve permanently adopted and adapted.”  Here’s the first – in full:

I learned that real thinking and writing is more about orchestration of materials than creativity. Your task, whether as a poet or novelist or scholar or union researcher or urban planner, is to integrate your own intelligence with the active intelligence around you to enhance articulation.  You are not here to impose your signature on a set of materials, raw or cooked, human or inanimate.  You are here to discover both their essential and detailed truth, and to put them into action politically and personally.

I didn’t have the luck to study poetry with a living poet or the novel with a living novelist.  What I learned, I learned from the books they wrote and I learned this particular lesson best and with the greatest whump in the gut by reading George Eliot’s Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life.  Virginia Woolf called it “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.”  She’s right.  Martin Amis has called it “the greatest novel in the English language.” He’s right.

G: Why?

T: The active intelligence around her into which she inserts her own intelligence was debating the status of women, the nature of marriage, the public conflicts between ideals and self-interest, the tendency of religion to collapse into hypocrisy, the need for political and educational reforms.  Through the voices of her large cast of realistic characters, we’re made aware of the issues of the day – the Great Reform Bill, the infancy of the railway system,  the death of George IV, medical practice and malpractice – around which the greater debates swirl.   The genius of the book is that Eliot not only “enhances articulation” but discovers and uncovers the “essential and detailed truth” of how a reactionary mindset within a settled community faces unwelcome changes. Read Middlemarch. Read The Winter Vault.  Compare. Contrast. “The novel can do anything.” Henry James says.  Eliot’s does everything.  By imposing her signature on a similar set of materials, Michaels doesn’t do even the basic minimum required in novel-writing.   I’m no longer analytical enough in my approach to “theory” and its practitioners to be able to adumbrate what Michaels has learned from  Berger and Berger has acquired from  Frederick Antal, Ernst Fischer and Walter Benjamin to provide any well-argued refutation of  Berger’s (and Michaels’s) claim that they have managed to reconcile a theory of socially determined art with a theory of original, autonomous, symbol-centric individual genius that is both philosophically convincing and morally challenging. That’s why Anne Michaels is invisible to me as a novelist.

G: Anything else you want to say?

T: Stan Persky doesn’t accept my claim that John Harris’s Small Rain and Alice Munro’s The View from Castle Rock are novels.  I owe him and other readers more substantiation than my book provides. Even though Harris and Munro might claim that they’ve written books of interlinked stories, what they’ve written is wondrously novelistic in both cases if you think (as I obviously do) that Milan Kundera is a novelist.  Like Kundera, both Harris and Munro are loose-limbed and laid-back in the ways they go about interweaving fragile relationships with authorial asides on what it is to be in these worlds they inhabit literally and figuratively.  Like Kundera, their storytelling is disjointed, structurally as minimalist as they can make it, but effervescent and wise.  In The Art of the Novel, Kundera writes in his essay “Sixty-three Words”, “the real geniuses of the comic are not those who make us laugh hardest but those who reveal some unknown realm of the comic.  History has always been considered an exclusively serious territory.  But there is the undiscovered comic side to history. Just as there is the (hard-to-take) comic side to sexuality.”  Because Harris’s Small Rain, Munro’s The View from Castle Rock, Fawcett’s Gender Wars and Akenson’s An Irish History of Civilization all reveal unknown realms of the comic in trajectories that begin at their beginnings and end at their ends, they’re novels no matter how episodic they may or may not be to their authors.


4978 words  July 23, 2010


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