I was very excited to have been invited to a lunch in honour of Anne Michaels at the residence of the Canadian High Commissioner. I must first confess that I have not read Fugitive Pieces. However hard you try, you will always be caught out having missed out on a masterpiece. A lifetime of sitting at home and not doing anything else than reading would still not be enough so I have stopped feeling guilty. And I won’t pretend that having seen the film (which I highly recommend) could ever replace reading the book.
BUT I had read the Winter Vault and loved it. I read it too fast, in two days spent mostly on trains and by my mother’s bedside. It is one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read. It is unique in that you would not change or cut a word from it. You can see why it takes Anne Michaels years to write a book but, then, what a gift she gives us!
So I was really looking forward to that lunch. There she was, lovely, gracious and totally unassuming. The High Commissioner’s wife told me the story of how Fugitive Pieces won the Orange even though its publisher had not entered it for the prize. Luckily, at the eleventh hour, someone told Lisa Jardine, who chaired the judges, about it and she read it in one night and decided to call it. We sat down to lunch. There were not many of us but I still found myself very far away from Anne but in lovely company. I finally had a chance to talk to her briefly over coffee, tell her how much I had loved the book and invite her to JBW. She took the compliment as if it really meant a lot to her and did not say no to another trip to London for us so fingers crossed.
In the evening I went and listened to her talk at the South Bank Centre. She read beautifully from the Winter Vault and was interviewed by Lisa Jardine. The novel is about dispossession, displacement and the impossibility of rebuilding exact replicas. She focuses on three such impossible reconstructions: two are caused by the building of a dam, one is the temple of Abu Simbel and the other the St Lawrence Causeway. How can a religious place keep its spirituality when it has been dismantled? Houses, graves, communities are part of the landscape they inhabit and cannot be simply removed and put back alike a few miles away. The other impossible replica is Warsaw’s old town, rebuilt on the rubble, as if copies of buildings could help the living forget the dead.
Grief, shame and loss at the core of the story. In the end it is about forgiveness and hope, only one drop of it is enough, it is so potent.
Anne Michaels also talked a lot about her relationship with her reader, her duty not to waste a word as a form of respect, the way she will pace the book to make her reader feel as well as think, to take him or her through difficult concepts and hold him or her close through hundreds of pages.
She certainly held me and I do hope she will come back to London for us. You can listen to her interview on Woman’s Hour.
Then last Thursday we had our own event with Zoe Heller and Patrick Marber at the British Library. If you missed it, you can now listen to the audio. They felt obliged to start by discussing Zoe’s Jewishness. This is I suppose to be expected when you take part in a Jewish Book Week event. Yet I almost felt like intervening and saying it did not matter. JBW is not about whether an author is Jewish or not but his/her relationship to Judaism. The Believers deals with faith in all its forms whether religious or political. One of the characters, as in Michael Arditti’s novel, rediscovers her Jewish roots and joins the Lubavitch. To me, this is what made the book relevant to JBW.
It is always fascinating to hear writers talk about the process of writing and in this case, also of adapting a book for the screen. I really enjoyed reading The Believers and wonder what the film will be like. Zoe seems to specialise in very strong women who don’t always elicit the readers’s sympathy. Audrey has often been described as a monster; she is irritating but I think her very flaws make her human. Zoe promised that there will be no such character in her next book. And Patrick revealed that he had just finished the script for Saturday by Ian McEwan, so another treat to look out for.
The week ended gloriously with a wonderful tribute to Harold Pinter at the National Theatre. The cast was more than impressive, with such great actors as Henry Woold, Jude Law, Henry Goodman, Colin Firth, Jeremy Irons, Sheila Hancock, Michael Sheen, Eileen Atkins and many more who read from Pinter’s poems, plays and Nobel Prize speech. The theatre itself was packed with actors, writers and members of the public come to give the great playwright a final applause.
We have been thinking of paying our tribute to Harold Pinter at JBW. We would do something different, inviting writers, film makers and actors to talk about his multifaceted personality, mixing anecdotes, tributes and readings. Tell us what you think of the idea. We have got our first programming meeting tonight and will tell you all about it next week. We’d love to hear back from you.
PS: I wasn’t invited to the Orange Prize Awards (sniff, sniff) but Tania Hershman was and we invite you to read her blog. She was commended for her lovely collection of short stories, The White Road, but things did not go as she expected…