A more sentimental man
Michael Ondaatje’s late style
In On Late Style, the book Edward Said was writing at the end of his life, he describes how the work and thought of great artists “acquires a new idiom” near the end of their lives. For Said, lateness isn’t a temporal category, but a fork in the road. One path leads to serene works characterized by a sense of harmony, which evince a reconciled artist. The other path is a bleak revolution. Characterized by intransigence, difficulty, contradiction, and irony, this form of lateness confronts one’s illusions about oneself and one’s own life; the art produced in this clear-eyed stage is the harvest of a newly vexed terrain.
It’s worth considering the implications of the novels that constitute Michael Ondaatje’s late style. Ondaatje, of course, has won a Booker Prize (1992’s The English Patient), a Giller Prize (Anil’s Ghost in 2000), and five Governor General’s Awards (in fiction and poetry). In July, The English Patient won the Golden Man Booker Prize, awarded to the best work of fiction from the past five decades of the prize. Along with only a handful of his Canadian peers, Ondaatje, now seventy-five, combines critical acclaim with broad public significance.
Delineating Ondaatje’s fiction into early, middle, and late periods is fairly straightforward. His early, self-referential fictions, The Collected Works of Billy the Kid (1970) and Coming Through Slaughter (1976), dramatize personal rebellions against the corrosive power of the mainstream. Vitality and originality lie at society’s margin. Ondaatje published with small presses and wrote portrayals of people whose intensity manifested in a transgressive spirit. These works evoke an acute sense of isolation in which single friendships are prized and psychic loneliness supercharges into eros.
His middle period—In the Skin of a Lion (1987), The English Patient (1992), and Anil’s Ghost (2000)—broadens the spirit of transgression with characters whose rebellions are explicitly politicized. These characters resist both a life of bourgeois capital accrual and the profanity of day-to-day monotony. Their main concerns are born from a critical attitude toward nations and nationalism: Is their country virtuous? What are a country’s historical crimes? What are the personal costs of nationalism?
After this trio of lauded mid-career novels, his preoccupations and animating questions shifted. In Divisadero (2007), the book he published after Anil’s Ghost, a character quoting William Styron stands in well for Ondaatje’s own change: “ ‘You know, I think I have already written the most intimate and profound book I will ever be able to write. I don’t think I can go as far as that again.’ ”
Ondaatje has published three novels in the past eleven years: Divisadero, The Cat’s Table (2011), and Warlight (2018). They share a voice and tone, and repeat specific preoccupations. Each of these novels is a coming-of-age story centered on literal or emotional orphans who cope with unresolved pain and walk out into the world with an essentially ascetic disposition—none of them seeks money, status, influence, or material rewards. They desire intimacy, safety, self-knowledge, and the facts about one another’s histories of love and pain.
Beginning on a farm in California, Divisadero opens with a fragile triangle: two sisters, Anna and Claire, and an orphan, Coop, taken in as a child and raised by Anna and Claire’s father. When their father finds that Anna and Coop are having an affair, he explodes. This violence splits the book into three paths: Coop becomes a gambler and Claire a lawyer in San Francisco; Anna goes to France to research the life of an author, Lucien Segura, and uncover his past. When characters in Divisadero meet, the discussion is rarely about the future or the present. Rather, they recount personal histories. Intimacy and secrecy are key; characters meet and become close, but retain their fundamental secrets. This tension animates their relationships, yet keeps them at a mystifying distance from one another. Divisadero also continues with a signature Ondaatje trait: the absence of a nuclear family. A difference, though, from his earlier work is how this absence plays out. There is no deconstruction of the concept of the bourgeois family here; the conventional notion of family is so essential in Divisadero that its lack overshadows these characters well into adulthood.
Published four years later, The Cat’s Table is the account of a child’s three-week trip from
Sri Lanka to England aboard the Oronsay with 600 other passengers. The cat’s table, to which the narrator, Michael, is assigned, is for the ship’s least privileged passengers. Michael maps the boat spatially and rhythmically, charting what happens where each day, and he takes an inventory of those aboard. The Cat’s Table has a hagiographic tone, which works well in a child narrator looking up at a world of seeming giants, and his narration is suffused with excitement and deviousness. Children swim in the first-class deck’s pool before sunrise, there is the silent menace of a prisoner aboard, and there’s a stop in Aden, Yemen, where a curse is fulfilled. The novel’s tone is saturated with the wonder of childhood as Michael ranges through the boat searching out secrets for the intensity and exclusivity they confer. As the ship goes to England, through the Suez Canal and across the Mediterranean, Michael’s sense of anticipation is counterpointed with passages of the narrator as an adult looking back to understand his life: so, enchantment looking ahead and more rationally minded disenchantment looking back.
Ondaatje’s most recent book, Warlight, is a sombre story of two siblings: Nathaniel, who narrates, and Rachel. They are left in post-Second World War London with a friend of their mother’s whom the children nickname the Moth. Their parents’ cover story for having abandoned the children is that they are off to Singapore to work for Unilever. They are raised by the Moth and an ex-boxer nicknamed the Pimlico Darter. The children eventually discover the real reason for their mother’s absence: she’s working for British intelligence. The Moth and the Pimlico Darter initiate Nathaniel into a life of non-violent crime (trespassing, smuggling, etc.), none of which blemishes the characters. They retain an amiable virtuousness, or, rather, this is the light in which Nathaniel sees them.
In part two of Warlight, Nathaniel, now an adult, is recruited into the Foreign Office by his mother’s ties. He gains access to the government archive and uses this to look back and understand his childhood and his mother’s wartime activities. Meanwhile, Rachel joins a puppet theatre company. Two crucial motifs recur in this book: secrets and anarchy. Again, characters meet and become close but retain their essential secrets. As Nathaniel says at one point: “I realized I’d lost [my mother’s] living voice. All the quick-witted intelligence she owned when young, all the secret life she’d stepped into and kept from us, now lost.” A personal wildness that points to the second quality, anarchy, is a sure way to win Nathaniel’s admiration. But in a postwar historical fiction that gains gravity through the politics it implicates, what is the substance of the anarchy Nathaniel extols? Nathaniel’s use of the term strips it of both its political heft and community ethos. Instead, it connotes an individual’s desire-fuelled volatility, a joie de vivre amounting to a personal commitment to avoid routine.
As Said demonstrated, it’s worthwhile to look beyond the curated sense of history a novelist presents to what occurs parallel to the explicitly invoked politics of the work. At the time in which the novel is set, Britain was the planet’s major imperial power and had Crown colonies and protectorates (or, less euphemistically, subject territories) across the Caribbean, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia, including the country of Ondaatje’s birth, Ceylon. The timeframe Warlight occupies coincides with the violent, decolonizing partition of India and Pakistan and the tension of partitioned Ireland. This is the wider context that Warlight, a story about the son of a British intelligence officer, occurs in. Nathaniel’s mother and her peers are not simply living within this global power, but working through the foreign office to strengthen its international interests. Are they the first of Ondaatje’s major characters who are patriots? Are they the first who live in the country they’re born into, and in alignment with its aims? These are remarkable changes for Ondaatje’s mostly dissident and exile-obsessed fictions.
Put another way, Ondaatje’s writing begins in aggression, ages into political critique personalized through wide-ranging narratives, and concludes in a stage of reflective soul-searching. There is also no longer a denunciation of dominant regimes.
The tensions driving Ondaatje’s work are reflected in his antagonists. In his early works, combustible protagonists Billy the Kid and Buddy Bolden, each housing intensities of force and self-destruction, are their own antagonists. His middle period sees his characters fight against the unjust activity of nations and their economic systems: class barriers, the limits and coercion of borders, and a country’s ability to forget the cruelty it has authored. His late period returns to an inward antagonist characterized by an inability to fully know another person. The stakes have cooled and narrowed. But in this late period there’s also a more all-encompassing foe.
So how do we discuss
the education of our children?
Teach them to be romantics
to veer towards the sentimental?
—“Tin Roof,” The Cinnamon Peeler
The sentimental novel is often based on the distress of orphans and the suffering of those excluded from society’s care. As they seek to arouse sympathy, pity, and consolation, sentimental fictions have the potential to be both politically radical and prescient. They democratize care: a fiction that persuasively illustrated the plight of a woman in Victorian England, or an enslaved person in America, inspired a shift in public consciousness and gave energy to the belief that all people were worthy of being treated with dignity.
But stripped of systemic critique, a sentimental story is a gym to exercise one’s sympathy. So why has a writer as talented and lauded as Ondaatje used the past decade or so to triple down on the sentimental strain in his work? A sentimental mindset asks us to encounter the world with feeling before intellect, and with a sense that the activity of the world is sacred rather than oppressive or ever coolly banal. Sympathy, gratitude, and pity are, of course, laudable processes, and Ondaatje’s last three books model how they play out. But, crucially, these feelings lack something essential: the critical, the combative, the radical.
A sentimental mindset also has profound epistemological implications: it asserts that truths are known through feelings. In Warlight, Nathaniel repeatedly bumps up against this limited approach to knowing: “There are times these years later, as I write all this down, when I feel as if I do so by candlelight. As if I cannot see what is taking place in the dark beyond the movement of this pencil. These feel like moments without context.” Nathaniel himself identifies the cause of his frustration: “I had already been too sentimental.” When one can only know through what one feels, the world is indeed quite mysterious. With this limit, an understanding of one’s context is impoverished, which in turn weakens one’s ability to distinguish a grievance from an injustice. For an art form as capacious as the novel, a sentimental fiction without any actionable political inspiration is a remarkably constricted mode of human representation. It subjugates context and justice to precise shades of personal feeling, and in prioritizing what’s most fragile in a person, it exiles irony, vulgarity, critical thinking, and anything fun or absurd.
For the late-stage Ondaatje, these are costs worth paying. In the two paths Said traced, Ondaatje’s late style is the one of serene, reconciled harmony.
In 2016, Ondaatje was named a companion of the Order of Canada, the highest honour for distinguished service to the country. The award’s biblically sourced motto, “they desire a better country,” is an interesting mixture that admits national fallibility and projects a sunny idealism. This is a remarkable journey for a writer who, after winning his first Governor General’s Award in 1970, was criticized by former prime minister John Diefenbaker for writing a book that was un-Canadian.