Monday, June 6, 2011

Reading like a writer 2: The Winter Vault

Sunday afternoon, after I'd accrued enough cheer from piecing three quite different blocks from Barbara Brackman's Civil War quilt  as an antidote to yet another cloudy day,  I sat down to finish Anne Michaels' The Winter Vault.  But not before wondering whether it's an oxymoron to find cheer in making quilt blocks commemorating a horrific and unending war--because in the deep South, racism and bigotry and anti-intellectualism are alive and well.  Perhaps that last word in the list seems out of place, but that strain in the Southern worldview says "For goodness' sake, don't think about your attitudes, where they come from, what they do to others, who the others might be in their daily lives."  Perhaps all this is the point of the exercise Brackman has set us:  commemorating a war, but doing it creatively, doing it with an obsession with colour.  Because if you don't get colour right, no matter how good your craftsmanship is, a quilt won't work.  And while we are concentrating on matching up all the points of the triangles, errant thoughts are likely to visit us.

I had said in my post on "Literature and the Environment" that the jury was still out with respect to the structure of this novel.  Yet something compelled me to re-read it.  I was certainly drawn to Michaels' prose, which is very much the prose of a poet:  dense, subtle, inflected, infused with thought and observation which capture the complexity of being human.  We cannot quibble with her when she ascribes this observation to Jean:  "The villages along the St. Lawrence were enlivened by both the railway and the river.  This created a vigour that Jean could not quite explain, though she recognized it somehow; two stories meeting in the middle" (42).  Passages like this abound.  I flip through my copy to look for underlining and find this passage that foreshadows the novel's conclusion:

"In every childhood there is a door that closes, Marina [Avery's mother, the Polish/Canadian artist] had said.  And:  only real love waits while we journey through our grief.  That is the real trustworthiness between people.  In all the epics, in all the stories that have lasted through many life-times, it is always the same truth:  love must wait for wounds to heal.  It is this waiting we must do for each other, not with a sense of mercy, or in judgment, but as if forgiveness were a rendezvous" (93-4).

Michaels' thematic structure is no less impressive.  Through the lives of three major characters, the novel considers moments of destruction with very different textures and significance.  Avery and Jean meet while the landscape is being flooded to create the St. Lawrence Seaway.  This is perhaps the most benign instance of destruction, yet Michaels includes that moving description of an old woman's loss of her husband's grave I mentioned in my previous blog post.  After Jean and Avery marry, Avery undertakes to move the temple Abu Simbel out of the way of the Nile's flooding.  In the voices of a peripheral character, we are given intimate views of the Nubian communities who are losing a world that has been part of their art and their world view and their cultural and individual identity for centuries.  Here, the sacred in history and landscape is inundated, though Jean later tells Avery that moving the temple wasn't the desecration; flooding the Nile was. 

Lucjan, a Polish Jew living in Toronto who becomes Jean's lover while she heals after a stillbirth, tells us about the spiritual, physical, and historical destruction of Warsaw during the Second World War and about its surreal reconstruction.  Lucjan's story is perhaps the most complex and horrific, insofar as it involves the destruction of a people, particularly insofar as his mother "disappears" when he's looking away from her for a minute, and his stepfather abandons him.  At the same time, this is the point where we begin cross-referencing, in an interrogatory way, these three narratives.  What is to distinguish between the genocide of the Jews and the Egyptians' movement of an entire people off the land they had occupied since time out of mind?  And how does that differ from moving people from places where their loved ones are buried so that they can never revisit them again?  The distinctions seem both massive and miniscule at the same time, a matter of degree only.  These examples are on a kind of continuum of destruction and dispossession.

It is also in Michaels' description of Warsaw that we get the beginning of a thread that twines around the influence of the built environment--practical and psychological--on city dwellers.  Lucjan will always wonder whether the papier-mache figures he poised at the edges of building rooftops inspired a suicide; similarly he never quite knows the impact his graffiti has on those criss-crossing Toronto's streets and neighbourhoods.  Jean engages in guerilla planting, hoping to spark a memory, a treasured moment.  Here is another ecocritical moment:  Michaels' clearly imagines that plants, their colour, their fragrance, even the shapes of their leaves, might hold memories, might be nodes in a narrative we are constructing for ourselves.  If the plants aren't there, our memories are impoverished.  Upon his return from Egypt, Avery studies architecture, hoping to create spaces that allow us to live fully realized lives.  But perhaps most poignantly, Lucjan talks of the hopeful and uncanny reconstruction of the centre of Warsaw, much of it made out of architectural details saved by young people like himself during the bombing and the Soviet occupation.  The newly-created Warsaw both is and is not the place it replaces.

But if I have to answer the question, "Is it a novel?" I must hedge.  Either the novel as a genre has become very, very capacious, or Michaels has written something else.  I'm inclined to say both these hypotheses are right.  I find my dis-ease about the novel's structure has nothing to do with the interrogatory play of themes and motifs, all of which are handled deftly and very intelligently.  My difficulties come at the level of the scene.  The Winter Vault seems best described as a meditation or even a series of meditations on these thematic strands.  Conversations are rare:  rather, we overhear articulate monologues about engineering, plants, Nubian culture, surviving in the Warsaw ghetto.

Perhaps this observation is tied somewhat to the fact that I include The Winter Vault among what I call "unsmiling novels."  So far this category includes The Winter Vault, Catherine Bush's Rules of Engagement and to some degree The Sentimentalists.  In these books, all of them about war, there are no moments that prompt us to pause and smile.  Each is brilliantly crafted, but each lives within a world where there is little joy.  The world-view of Michaels' novel is built around loss:  parents die too soon, babies are stillborn, mothers disappear in bombing raids, fathers lose custody of their children, whole landscapes are flooded or destroyed.  This is the world where Marina, another Jew who survived the Holocaust, can say "For better or for is a catastrophe" (98), or where Lucjan can tell Jean, who has lost her own child in a still birth--carrying it long after it has died--that she doesn't understand anything about his loss of his daughter (310).  Standing in London, Jean and Avery survey places "drenched with sorrow" (107), suddenly aware of the violence of war, the violence of domestic life and of accidents.  While there is no joy, there is consolation.  Avery's father says nothing proves the future like a question (122), while Jean suggests that grafting one plant to another might be a metaphor for healing:  "For five thousand years, humans have been grafting one variety of plant to another--the division, the pressing together, the conductive cells that seal the wound" (313).

If form and content are to be tightly wed--Denis Donoghue calls form "achieved content," then in a violent, transient world where love is a catastrophe and no one can understand your particular loss, perhaps all that can happen is that we tell our stories, perform our monologues.  If that were the case, I could simply be comfortable calling this a novel shaped more by its aesthetics than its plot or its world.  But the narrator doesn't quite believe this.  In one of the few moments where we cannot attribute a floating paragraph to a character (hence I assume these are the narrator's words), Michaels writes "Everything we are can be contained in a voice, passing forever into silence.  And if there is no one to listen, the parts of us that are only born of such listening never enter this world, not even in a dream.  moonlight cast its white breath on the Nile.  Outside the snow continued to fall" (318).  Characters talk at length while around them other characters maintain respectful silence and attempt to reach out.  Whether that reach is successful depends less on the generosity of the reacher and more on the self-imposed isolation of the teller.  Each of us has the chance, if only we take it, to open the door of the winter vault.

Yet cutting all these tiny triangles and thinking about those Civil War quilts made by women out of the scraps of their lives in patterns that commemorated the war or showed escaped slaves the route of the Underground Railroad, I cannot help questioning Michaels' somber view of humanity.  What does it mean to hang colourful quilts on your clothes line as a way of helping people to freedom?  It means that not even strangers are alone and that something as pedestrian as a quilt can be beautifully, meaningfully joyful.

No comments:

Post a Comment