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Fugitive Pieces
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Book Of The Month: Sep. - Oct. > Fugitive Pieces: Aesthetics

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Cassandra (cfalke) | 9 comments Mod
Is it ethical to write beautifully about the Holocaust? Anne Michaels has been accused of concealing "the decidedly unpoetic nature of genocide" behind the "habitual mode of high lyricism" in Fugitive Pieces (Meira Cook, 2000, 16). But the novel has also been praised as a compassionate elegy that enables "enable the transmission of memory and the continuation of a necessary and proper mourning" (Donna Coffey, 2007, 48). Does the lyricism of the book honor the lives lost and damaged in the Holocaust or does it aestheticize suffering too much? (I have my biases; I love this novel.)

message 2: by Bill (new)

Bill Dwyer | 4 comments The novel Fugitive Pieces does not overly aestheticize the Holocaust, but rather masters the art of juxtaposition. When Michaels is describing the Holocaust, she does so in short shocking bursts. For example the execution of a nurse attempting to smuggle a child out of the Warsaw Ghetto she writes, “the child thrown into the air and shot like a tin can, the nurse given the ‘Nazi pill’: one bullet in the throat.” Apart from a simile and a euphemism this is far from the “high lyricism” of Byron poetry I am assuming the novel takes its title from. We can find “over-aestheticized” language when she writes, “I circle her smooth hot back slowly, like kneading the air out of bread. I imagine the faint impression of her garters on her thighs. She is thin and light, the bones of a bird. Her smoke-filled hair falls over her open mouth (…) her limbs outline mine under the blanket – now I’m inside Athos’s coat.” The sensory images lie more within the unsatisfying love scene than a jacket description, but the addition of the coat shocks one with a brilliant juxtaposition forcing readers to recall babies thrown from hospitals and bodies burned in open pits beside his sleeping wife. Of course, there are rich descriptive parts of horror as well, but what Michaels does best when turning the Holocaust from “history” into “memory” is shake us with short bursts of horrific reality beside the lyricism of passivity.

message 3: by Hege (last edited Sep 30, 2020 02:57PM) (new)

Hege Pedersen | 2 comments Anne Michaels` portrayal of the resilience of the human spirit is thought-provoking and lyrically astounding. Dealing with horrific subject-matter, Michaels skillfully lets the readers partake in the Polish fugitive Jacob Beer`s depicting, through poetry and lyrical sentiments, the detrimental damage inflicted on the human psyche following the Holocaust. Describing “Mothers dragged from the chamber with new life half-emerged from their bodies”, Michaels renders heart-wrenching imagery, directly followed by a philosophical and lyrical sentiment; “Forgive me, you who were born and died without being given names. Forgive this blasphemy, of choosing philosophy over the brutalism of the fact,” (Michaels 168).

The use of philosophy and lyricism to describe the unspeakable might not resonate to readers who find poetry unsuitable to describe the unpoetic nature of genocide. Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900-2002), wrote that reflection “is the free process of turning in on oneself” (50) and that our minds are thus enabled to examine their content about what we understand and why […] The ability to stand back from oneself is a fundamental prerequisite for linguistic orientation in the world, and in this sense all reflection is in fact freedom” (51). Reflecting on the experience of trauma and tracing its effects, the expression through poetry enables self-extension and the possibility to communicate the experience of pain freely.

Grotesque imagery juxtaposed to lyricism of individual anguish highlights the collective trauma and brings forth the process of mourning - honoring those individuals. Trauma needs to be “worked through”, not used for shock effect, or even worse, hidden away because peoples shock-receiving capacity is unwilling or unapt for the reception. If Michaels had chosen to write a book depicting in detail the gruesome effects of genocide, omitting lyrical and philosophical elements, the readers would have become numb, unable to process the vast amount of cruelty and suffering – unreflected and unresolved.

Sources cited.
Gadamer HG. Gaiger J, Walker N, translators. The enigma of health: The art of healing in a scientific age. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press; 1996.
Michaels, Anne. Fugitive Pieces. Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2009.

message 4: by Michael (new)

Michael (m_jupiter) | 3 comments Mod
Rather than keep the Holocaust hidden in the recesses of the unconscious or buried in the tomes of history books, Anne Michaels excavates the buried voices of the victims of one of the most haunting moments in the history of humanity. Whilst as a novel, her story is bound to the limitation of fictive pieces, there is more to her choice of narrating the echoes of the Holocaust in this form.

The particular appeal of choosing a lyrical style could be attributed to its accessibility to the masses, but more importantly, this “self-consciously “literary” style” is important here as it exposes Michaels’ process of exploring the “capacity of language to unearth the past” (Grimwood 111). Through this, she re-identifies, or rather locates the atrocities of the Holocaust in time and space, thus honouring the voices of the countless victims. It is this recognition in new forms such as that of the ‘lyrical’ form, that recognises these subjects and their suffering.

In writing Fugitive Pieces, Michaels instead opens up new spaces for approaching the traumatic by bridging the past and the present by creating a shared subjectivity (Grimwood 125) between reader, writer and Holocaust memories. Therefore, if I were to agree that aestheticising the suffering of the Holocaust victims is unethical and irresponsible, then I would be missing one of the primary functions of literature – that of expression and of giving voice to the silenced and I would risk re-burying Holocaust memories in that process.

Michaels, Anne. Fugitive Pieces. Bloomsbury, 1997.
Easterlin, Nancy. “The Functions of Literature and the Evolution of Extended Mind.” New Literary History, vol. 44, no. 4, 2013, pp. 661–683.
Grimwood, Marita. “Postmemorial Positions: Reading and Writing After the Holocaust in Anne Michaels’s Fugitive Pieces.” Canadian Jewish Studies / Études Juives Canadiennes, vol. 11, 2003, pp.111-130.

Henrik | 2 comments “How can he write such awful news with such a beautiful hand?” Athos wonders, receiving a letter from Kostas about the political situation. Whether Michaels intended it or not, it’s easy to read this as a question posed to Fugitive Pieces itself. The novel is certainly written in a very poetic mode, especially the parts narrated by Jakob. This does have justification within the text—as Jakob notes, he knows mostly very common words and very uncommon words in English, and not the ones in between—but this too was a decision made by the author, of course. But is Michaels in danger of over-aestheticising the Holocaust? In my opinion, no.

Having read a few arguments to the contrary, the most notable two mentioned below, I wasn’t entirely convinced. One critical point is that Jakob wasn’t in a concentration camp himself, his only “access” to the camps as they were are through books and photographs. In fact, the only time the novel shows a camp is when Jakob “blaspheme[s] by imagining” Bella’s final moments, a truly gruesome scene. I mention this because I might have been convinced by the argument that the novel is overly aestheticised if it primarily dealt with someone’s experiences in a concentration camp. To me, using the same kind of language in that situation would’ve left a bad taste in my mouth, it might’ve seemed too overwrought. However, as Jakob is relatively insulated from the most extreme horrors of the Holocaust, and we see them mostly secondhand, the poetic language seems appropriate. One struggles to imagine, say, a Hemingwayesque retelling of Fugitive Pieces, in large part because it’s a novel of contemplation. For this specific novel, it seems like this was the only way it could’ve been written.

Cook, Méira. “At the Membrane of Language and Silence: Metaphor and Memory in Fugitive Pieces.” Canadian Literature, vol 164, 2000, pp. 12–33.
Nesfield, Victoria, and Philip Smith. “Holocaust Literature and Historiography in Anne Michaels’ Fugitive Pieces.” Journal of European Studies, vol. 43, no. 1, Mar. 2013, pp. 14–26.

message 6: by Kristian (new)

Kristian | 2 comments When you get down to it, whether being all poetic about genocide is ethical or not is purely about personal preference. The kinds of people who would be upset about the book’s flowery language (perhaps because they are children of survivors or for some other reason have closer ties to it than others?) are likely not going to be persuaded by any amount of in-text justifications for why the book’s written the way it is.

Let me try anyway: The book could’ve been nothing but horrific descriptions of violence, but then it would have been an entirely different book, and probably a lot less interesting. After all, it’s about not witnessing these events directly, not being a survivor in the strictest sense of the word, but about being the one who has to pick up the pieces and witness something they ultimately can’t. Both Jakob and Ben are obviously extremely affected by the events that their loved ones witnessed firsthand, but they are on the outside of them, trying to impossible piece together something and trying to redeem themselves to themselves. It makes sense why every time anything specifically related to the Holocaust is mentioned, it’s metaphorical, analytical, or at times jarring, as though imagery just popped into the narrator’s head. The alternatives would be a fictional first-hand account, which should be even more controversial despite having been done several times already, or a mundane and exact description and breakdown of every instance of the war, which we also already have plenty of in the form of history books.

The question is: who are we trying to justify this book to? If it’s other people, then there’s nothing that can be done to convince them, and arguably, there shouldn’t even be an attempt, as their perspectives are no less valid. If it’s some kind of universal ethical standard, then there will ultimately be no correct answer to this question. The discussion, in this case, would likely have to be purely for its own sake.

message 7: by Hanna (new)

Hanna Tjelmeland Fause | 2 comments I would argue that lyricism should not only be preserved for portraying beauty in the world. By portraying such horrific stories with such a poetic language, Michaels is not concealing the acts of genocide, but rather highlighting them. With this lyrical portrayal of these horrific acts, one could argue that the language used becomes a contrast to the acts described, which can make a greater impression on the reader. Art, in any form, literature, music, dance can express realities in a way that reaches its audiences more than just presenting facts. I think that the book demonstrates this potential with its use of language. After a conversation with Kostas, Jakob pondered; “I already knew the power of language to destroy, to omit, to obliterate. But poetry, the power of language to restore, that was what Athos and Kostas were trying to teach me” (79). The reader is first presented with Jakob’s perspective, and in a sense, his understanding of language, and how he uses it to both confront and move past his trauma. One aspect I think the book excelled at is presenting a time where trauma and PTSD were not talked about, as with the portrayal of Ben's family. I am not sure I would view this book as honoring lives lost and damaged in the Holocaust, but I do think this book tells us something about grief and surviving. There might even be a lesson to learn about being open about the past while letting go of grief: “To remain with the dead is to abandon them” (170).

message 8: by Bill (new)

Bill Dwyer | 4 comments Henrik wrote: "“How can he write such awful news with such a beautiful hand?” Athos wonders, receiving a letter from Kostas about the political situation. Whether Michaels intended it or not, it’s easy to read th..."

I liked that you wrote: "I mention this because I might have been convinced by the argument that the novel is overly aestheticised if it primarily dealt with someone’s experiences in a concentration camp. To me, using the same kind of language in that situation would’ve left a bad taste in my mouth, it might’ve seemed too overwrought." as I had similar sentiments.

I noticed that the title of the book came from Byron's poetry, and when I started writing this post I realized that most of the horrific descriptions that stuck out to me are far from Byron, and reminded me more of Cormac McCarthy. These were the ones that worked for me. For me this was much more brilliant, as it contrasts a lot of the beautiful language in other descriptions. I do agree that a Byron-esque description of a concentration camp would leave a similar taste for me.

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