While criss-crossing the country in his failed bid to become prime minister, Michael Ignatieff was often approached by voters who didn’t want to talk policy, but about a novel he had written 20 years earlier. Scar Tissue, searing and autobiographical, is told from the point of view of a man whose once-vital mother is disappearing into Alzheimer’s disease.
“People come up out of the crowd and want to talk about what they’ve been through. It’s connected me to a lot of people,” the former federal Liberal leader said from his home late last week.
“This is the story of hundreds of thousands of families across the country, and that’s why it’s stayed alive for 20 years.”
The novel, which was shortlisted for the U.K.’s Booker and the Whitbread awards, gets new life this week. The stage adaptation, written by Dennis Foon ( Life Above All) – who also adapted Scar Tissue for CBC-TV 10 years ago – has its world premiere at the Arts Club Theatre Company in Vancouver on Wednesday.
“Inevitably [the novel]is about Alzheimer’s and the effect on adult children. That’s a big part of it. But there’s another aspect to it, which has to do with just who we are as people, how we deal with crisis, what memory’s all about and how we try to hold on to who we are,” said Foon, shortly before previews began.
Because of budgetary constraints that confined the 2002 TV version to a studio shoot, Foon was never satisfied with the adaptation. “It always nagged at me, you know? I felt like there was an approach to the book that I still hadn’t had a chance to do. It wasn’t that [the film]was a problem. It was more of a problem for me in terms of feeling like there was unexplored land with this book.”
Intense, unblinking and beautifully written, the novel was written in a “three-month burst” in the early 1990s, as Ignatieff struggled with his mother’s Alzheimer’s (she was still alive when he wrote it) and the death, in 1989, of his father.
“It’s one of the few times I’ve written something where I just had to get something out of my system,” says Ignatieff, now 64. “One of the difficult aspects of this, and it’s difficult even to talk about, is that in its advanced stages, Alzheimer’s feels like a kind of living death. Death is kind of in the room. It’s present; you can feel its power. So a lot of what you write is a kind of struggle with the fear and anxiety that that presence creates in a family, and creates in your life.”
To tell the story, he chose fiction over memoir, because it gave him more freedom to explore the universalities of such an intimate family story.
Still, the writing he has published about his family has famously caused rifts.
Scar Tissue is written from the point of view of a son caring for his Alzheimer’s-ridden mother. A first-person account, it is easy to assume that Michael Ignatieff himself was his mother’s primary caregiver. In fact, it was younger brother Andrew who took on that role.
“It’s substantially fictionalized because there were living persons involved,” says Michael Ignatieff, who has written more than a dozen books, most of them non-fiction (including a family memoir, The Russian Album, which won the Governor-General’s Award). “You don’t want to hurt people, but you often end up hurting people anyway. The family, the real persons in that story, we’re all, I think, we all are good with each other now, but it was difficult.”
Andrew Ignatieff – who did reconcile with his brother – aided Foon’s adaptation, through days of interviews.
“[Michael]put himself in Andrew’s shoes I think to some degree,” says Foon, about the novel. “So it was Andrew I wanted to talk to, to find out what happened and what it was like with his mom and the whole thing. Because he really did give up a lot of his life for his mom. Andrew was very, very supportive and had a lot of very interesting detail.”
The very private details revealed in the book were a presence during Michael Ignatieff’s stint in public life. Now teaching at the University of Toronto as senior resident of Massey College, he says he has been gratified by the long-lasting resonance of the novel for families struggling with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.
“To the degree that I was known at all when I went into politics, a lot of people knew me for this book and the issues that it raised. And it was a constant part of my political life in the sense that we went into the last election with very specific plans to improve family care. And family care is just, I think, a huge issue as our society ages. ... I don’t want to make cheap political points here. I’m just saying this is a national challenge. And there are things that we can do to make it easier for families so that they feel that they’re not alone.”
A centrepiece of last year’s Liberal platform was the “Family Pack,” a five-point plan that included family care: support for caregivers looking after ill family members in the form of time off work and help with caregiving costs.
The book’s resonance aside, the Liberals suffered a historically catastrophic loss in the election. Ignatieff, portrayed in attack ads as an arrogant elitist dropping back in on Canada from his Harvard-built ivory tower for the top political job only, lost his own seat and promptly resigned as party leader.
“A lot of people have a very mistaken impression of him,” says Foon, who adapted the story with little input from Ignatieff beyond his long-distance blessing. “He’s a humanist and a very sweet and kind person as well as being a brilliant artist. I find it just hideously ironic the way the picture was painted of him as being cold and manipulative. ... I think that people don’t have a clear understanding of who this guy is to this country. And I think that’s too bad. ‘Cause it’s like we eat our own. We’ve got this guy who’s a brilliant artist and intellectual – if not one of the leading lights of the last 20 years here – and he tried to make a go of it and give something back.
“Whether or not he was suited to be a politician, I don’t know ... but that doesn’t diminish in the slightest the incredible contribution that he’s made in academia and the arts. This book is a testament to it. It’s a powerful, internationally acclaimed piece of work. I feel honoured and privileged to be able to have two shots at it.”
Scar Tissue opens at the Arts Club Theatre Company’s Revue Stage in Vancouver on Wednesday, and runs until April 28 (artsclub.com).