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Ignatieff, Michael

IGNATIEFF, Michael

Nationality: Canadian. Born: Toronto, Ontario, 12 May 1947. Education: Upper Canada College, Toronto; University of Toronto, B.A., 1969; Harvard University, Boston, (teaching fellow in social studies), 1971-74, Ph.D., 1975; Cambridge University (research fellow, King's College), 1978-84, M.A., 1978. Family: Married Susan Barrowclough in 1977; one son and one daughter. Career: Reporter, The Globe and Mail, 1966-67; assistant professor of history, University of British Columbia, 1976-78; broadcaster, Channel 4, London, 1986. Since 1987, broadcaster, British Broadcasting Corp, London. Visiting fellow, École des Hautes Études, Paris, 1985; Alistair Horne Fellow, St. Anthony's College, Oxford, 1993-95. Editorial columnist, The Observer, 1990-93. Awards: Canadian Governor General's award, 1988, Heinemann prize, 1988, both for The Russian Album. Agent: Sheil Land Associates, 43 Doughty Street, London WC1N 2LF, England. Address: 37 Baalbec Road, London N5 1QN, England.

Publications

Novels

Asya. London, Chatto and Windus, and New York, Knopf, 1991.

Scar Tissue. London, Chatto and Windus, 1993; New York, FarrarStraus, 1994.

Plays

1919 (screenplay), with Hugh Brody. London, Faber, 1985.

Other

A Just Measure of Pain: The Penitentiary in the Industrial Revolution, 1750-1850. London, Macmillan, 1978.

The Needs of Strangers. London, Chatto and Windus, and New York, Viking, 1984.

The Russian Album. London, Chatto and Windus, and New York, Viking, 1987.

Blood and Belonging. London, BBC, 1993; New York, Farrar Straus, 1994.

The Warrior's Honor: Ethnic War and the Modern Conscience. NewYork, Metropolitan Books, 1998.

Isaiah Berlin: A Life. New York, Metropolitan Books, 1998.

Virtual War: Kosovo and Beyond. New York, Henry Holt, 2000.

Editor, with Jeffrey Rose, Religion and International Affairs. Toronto, Anansi, 1968.

Editor, with Istvan Hont, Wealth and Virtue: The Shaping of Political Economy in the Scottish Enlightenment. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1983.

* * *

Michael Ignatieff arrived at fiction by the route of introspection, through sensitive and intelligent effort to understand both his personal and historical moment. He has produced two novels, Aysa and Scar Tissue, but his arrival as a fiction writer emerges organically from earlier prose works.

Trained as an historian, Ignatieff gravitated to social philosophy in The Needs of Strangers, a study of the issue of social responsibility in the modern state that focuses on the relationship between material and emotional needs, the question of rights to the fulfillment of needs, and a history of the concept of needs. He then produced Blood and Belonging, an intense, personal, and philosophical study of the pain-filled nationalisms in the Balkans, Northern Ireland, Germany, Ukraine, Quebec, and Kurdistan. In these volumes he demonstrates a rare balance between analysis and personal involvement, commitment conditioned by historical perspective.

Ignatieff won the 1988 Governor General's Award for Non-Fiction (the Canadian Pulitzer Prize) for The Russian Album, his account of his family's White Russian history and emigration to England and, later, Canada. In it he dramatizes life under the tsars in terms of the personal lives of his ancestors, including his grandfather, who was minister of education under Nicholas II, the last tsar.

From his knowledge of the Russian past comes Aysa, the life of a Russian princess who escapes to France and, much later, to England. The novel is enriched both by historical accuracy of detail and by the development of Aysa herself from a self-willed rich child to a suffering and perceptive woman. It is patently not stereotyped, for many of its emigres are prosperous and able, aware that the Russia they have left is gone yet constantly orbiting around things Russian, such as the struggle between the motherland and Hitler. It has a fatalism to its shape, coming to a conclusion when the ninety-year-old Aysa finds the grave of her first husband in Moscow's Novodevichy cemetery. Although it owes structural debts to the sweeping historical epic novel, Aysa is anchored to the intimate life of a woman whose stature grows gently in the reader's eyes until she stands as a marker of strength of will mixed with keen self-knowledge drawn from the century of pain.

Scar Tissue is a book dominated by such a searing immediacy of anguish that it is, simply, hard to read. Yet it is so powerful and its subject matter so central to human experience that it exerts a grip on the imagination matched only by other unrelentingly direct fictions, like those of Samuel Beckett. It is the retrospective story of a man experiencing the degeneration and death of his mother from neurological disease and its effects on family, on love, on loyalty. Beyond that it subtly places the situation of one death and one family in medical and philosophical frameworks that go to the heart of human experience.

When, Ignatieff asks, does selfhood disappear when the mind is breaking apartwhen memory goes, when recognition goes, when the plague overtakes the pathways in the brain? Is there always a self inside? And, if so, how horribly chaotic must be the terrible collage of the unlinked present and past, the life always lived among strangers because even loved ones are not remembered?

What makes these questions truly excruciating is the intense emotional and intellectual perspective of the middle-aged professor whose mother is dying. In an immense leap from the conventional omniscient chronological narration of Aysa, Ignatieff has mastered a style that mixes time and allows for the flows of feeling and language. The narrator looks backward for the first signs of his mother's change and charts the slow decline as it drags her loving husband to self-sacrifice and death and then immerses the narrator himself in a struggle of responsibility that ruins his marriage, damages his relationship with his brother, and nearly ruins his life.

Towering above all this affliction is his growing knowledge that he is seeing his own destiny, for his brother, who has become a neuroscience researcher, makes clear the condition is genetic. The narrator sees the scans of his mother's brain, strangely beautiful abstract colored designs, and he sees the patterns of the damaged chromosomes that mark the start of the cascade of tiny events of disease. As he struggles to continue to see his once vital, gifted mother as a person, she loses her personhood before his eyes, and he comes face to face with protracted living death.

The narrator's voice is so intense that criticism has been leveled at the autobiographical elements of the text. But that is to mistake its real achievement. Scar Tissue marks the emergence of a fully disciplined and original writer who communicates the deepest and most painful of human questions through the lives it portrays.

Peter Brigg

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