I wrote this critical essay on Fugitive Pieces by Canadian poet and novelist Anne Michaels. Anyone who is interested in trauma fiction will like this novel. It's an excellent read, I fully recommend it.
One of the most important characters in Fugitive Pieces is Michaela, the young administrator at the museum that the protagonist meets through his dear friends Irena and Maurice. Immediately, Jakob Beer is smitten with this beautiful woman and is unsettled by her physical appearance as he wonders “what to look at first. Her light-brown hair or her dark-brown eyes or her small hand disappearing into her shoulder of her dress to adjust a strap” (175). In the course of the novel, Jakob and Michaela will forge a very strong bond and loving relationship, as the twenty-five year younger woman will become his second wife.
The physical features of Michaela appear to be a prominent factor in Fugitive Pieces. In fact, the reader gets a vivid and graphic representation of her whole body throughout their love story. Only to name a few instances, Michaela is described as a “voluptuous scholar” (176), Jakob sees “in Michaela’s face the goodness of Beatrice de Luna, angel of Ferrara, who reclaimed her faith and gave refuge to other exiles of the Inquisition” (178,) and he moves “over the boundary of skin into Michaela’s memory” (185). In this regard, Jakob’s relationship with Michaela relies abundantly on her physicality. In the light of the following arguments, it will be discussed how Michaela’s young and ardent body plays a significant role in the novel and consequently, how it also helped in saving Jakob Beer.
First of all, one of the reasons why Michaela’s corporeality is a key factor in Fugitive Pieces is because there are noteworthy parallels between death and the body. Jakob lost both his parents and his sister Bella as a child and then, his mentor Athos lateron. Bella's ghost has haunted him ever since. In the case of his sister, it even seems that the protagonist continues “living” for her as he not only remembers a number of details concerning her past life; but he also imagines the life she would have had if she were still alive. For example, he visualized Bella’s children: “I love Maurice and Irena’s boys, as I would have loved Bella’s children” (174). Although not present in body, his parents, Athos and Bella's deaths have deeply affected Jakob Beer. Undoubtedly, the spirits of his family are very present emotionally in Jakob’s life and he finds solace in keeping them in memory.
Now, regarding Michaela, Jakob is confronted with something that is quite unfamiliar to him until the moment the meets her. For the male protagonist, ”there is no tinge of death in Michaela’s body” (181). With this emphasis on her different body parts, he is amazed by the “life” in them. As Jakob states, “I see the muscles pushing out her calves, firm as new pears. I see that she will again open her eyes and embrace me” (181). Michaela’s physical presence is an important factor because it seems to encompass life in all its beauty in the eyes of Jakob. Her body comforts him. Ghosts had possessed him throughout his life, but with Michaela, he himself comes alive again. “Every cell in my body has been replaced, suffused with peace.” (182)
On a second note, Michaela plays a significant role in Anne Michaels’ novel because she is the “embodiment of a perfect listener” (Schönfelder) and is extremely empathetic towards Jakob’s confession: “She is sobbing. She has heard everything – her heart an ear, her skin an ear, Michaela is crying for Bella” (182). Once again, in describing this particular quality i.e. her empathetic side, the reader gets an emphasis on Michaela’s physicality. It gives the impression that her “whole being” listens and cares for Jakob. By describing it so graphically, it once again underlines the importance of Michaela’s body.
In addition, Michaela’s corporeality is also a key element in Fugitive Pieces because it not only has a healing effect on Jakob; but it also gives the male protagonist a sense of attachment, both physical and emotional, to another “living” person. As written in the fifth preface on collective memory in Canada, “Michaela’s physical presence and imaginative empathy awaken [Jakob] from his Holocaust-haunted nightmares to a first morning of human connectedness.” Furthermore, through their relationship, she also gives him “the first sleep of his life” (182). Jakob feels a deep feeling of love and connectedness to Michaela. Moreover, he discovers vital privileges such as sleep with her. In other words, one could say she completes him. Hence, Michaela undoubtedly saves Jakob from his trauma.
To conclude, it is clear that Michaela is not only one of the main characters of Fugitive Pieces, but she is very important in different respects to Jakob Beer – specifically through her physicality. There is such a graphic representation of her body throughout their story because her physical presence in his life manifests the beauty of life and empathy. In the end, her body will rescue the protagonist from his traumatic experiences. Michaela’s body is worthy of attention because, as Jacob writes, he is “saved by such a small body” (183).
Michaels, Anne. Fugitive Pieces. New York: Bloomsbury, 2009.
Schönfelder, Christa. Discussion in class. 15 May 2012
Canadian Poetry. “Anne Michaels' Fugitive Pieces”. Accessed on May 24 2012.< http://canadianpoetry.org/volumes/vol41/preface.html>