Wednesday, 3 June 2009
Went along to Anne Michaels's reading at the university tonight. A slightly muted affair. She was reading from the new book, The Winter Vault, as part of her book tour. Muted? That was partly because she speaks quietly and reads undemonstratively. The language of the book is, furthermore, close to poetry in its cadences and precision, a kind of overall, unified precision, and the reading being delivered in that quiet, even, sensitive voice, it was a little like being smothered with gold dust.
This impression is based on nothing more than an excerpt or two murmured into a microphone. I suspect the writing in this case positively needs the page. The slow sifting craft of it might acquire tidal force there.
Slow is right. It is hard to think that Michaels's previous book, Fugitive Pieces, was published twelve years back. I read that at the time on a recommendation from a writer friend (it might have been Stephen Romer?) and thought very well of it. A poet's book certainly, but sustained, tense and, at 300pp or so, about the right length.
So what does it mean to say a work of fiction is a poet's book? Because a poet is what she was before Fugitive Pieces, and a rather successful one too. Michaels talked about her need to move to fiction, of her desire to carry a reader with her for far longer than a poem could, about a page or two of poetry being incapable of comprehending as much as a 400pp book, about the notion of a small suitcase into which everything, but everything would fit.
A suitcase perfectly packed. The suitcase image was in fact an answer to a question I asked (I feel almost patriotically obliged to ask a question when the hall is quiet) about what it was like moving from poetry to fiction, and whether she had any models or exemplars in mind when considering Fugitive Pieces. There was no real answer to that apart from the image of the suitcase, with possibly John Berger in the shadows as a humane spirit.
What does a poet's fiction mean though? In structural terms - in her books anyway - it means abandoning the chapter-by-chapter, what-next aspect of linear development. That can be an exciting thing to do and to experience as a reader. However, time in fiction is a great playground in which anyone can play anywhere as long as they seem to be moving forwards, or rather as long as the effect of all the various to-ing and fro-ing is the sense of moving forwards. Novel as river, poem as lake, is perhaps a little too glib an analogy. There is change and movement even in a poem, and there are great stillnesses at moments in great novels, nevertheless the story in fiction moves forward while the poem dwells, or possibly develops whirlpools.
The trouble with the poetic novel - even in the best sense -is that it demands an even degree of fineness. Hence the gold dust. The big architecture of the story is built out of equally detailed fragments and that makes for a certain dullness and preciousness. My hunch is that fiction requires great spaces and more variety, that it can only admit the world through imperfections, through a kind of crudeness that comprises belly-laughs, direct action, extended metaphors, a longueur or two, and a touch of vulgarity along with the fine writing.