Russell Banks has lost a lot over the past few years. The 80-year-old author, whose works include The Darling, The Sweet Hereafter and Cloudsplitter, has watched as close friends and family have succumbed to age, disease, and mental decline.
That unfortunate – if inevitable – experience informs his latest novel, Foregone (his first new book in a decade), a challenging, sometimes unsettling work that asks what it means to remember and make sense of a life. Its protagonist, Leonard Fife, is an acclaimed Canadian-American documentarian dying of cancer. A younger filmmaker hopes to make his name with Fife’s final interview; Fife, meanwhile, tries to use the film to confess the truth of his life to his wife, Emma. As Fife’s memory and mental capacity degrade, that truth becomes less and less clear, which makes this novel a provocative meditation on memory and selfhood – and how each are far less immutable than we’d like to imagine.
Banks spoke to The Globe from upstate New York.
Why this particular book at this particular time?
A couple of things converged for me, and maybe foremost is my own aging. I was born in 1940, so I’m almost 81. And many of my generation – lifelong friends – were sick and dying. I couldn’t help but be shaken by both the experience of growing older and the experience of losing friends. So those two things came together very much with the inclination to look back and say, “How the hell did I get here?” I’ve also been for a long time really interested in trying to understand my dual identity as an American-Canadian.
The book is structured as a filmmaker interviewing a filmmaker. Can you speak to the genesis of that structure?
I know a number of filmmakers, and I loved watching them work, and I love thinking about how they do their work. Atom Egoyan is one of my dearest friends; Paul Schrader, a great American filmmaker, is another good friend. And I didn’t want to write about a writer, but I did want to write about an artist – someone conscious and self-examining who could look back over his life.
Combined with that is something else I haven’t mentioned much before – I got very interested in the process of what’s called confabulation. My father-in-law in his last years suffered from dementia, and he faced a kind of confabulation. I was fascinated by what’s going on when a person’s perception of reality and memory are taken over, so that what he or she has dreamed and what they’ve actually experienced all get mingled together in an equally vivid way. And the process, I recognized, was very close to what happens in fiction writing. When you’re writing a novel, you’re doing almost exactly that – you’re confabulating.
In my work as an academic, I always paid attention to how the endings of texts can define everything that comes before. The novel seems to toy with the idea that life can be redeemed at the end, as sort of an analogy between the end of life and the end of a text.
Yes, I knew from the beginning that this story was over when he dies. And they would be filming his death, right up to and even for a little bit after that. And I wanted to then pull the camera away at the very end, as a chance for us to stand back a little bit and see if he had been indeed redeemed. Are we glad he died? If we feel a kind of relief, I would say he’s not redeemed. But if we feel sadness, a mournfulness for him at the end, then I think that he has been redeemed. But only at the very end did he understand that he did not live a good life. And he tried to confess it at the end. So that, to me, is redemptive.
Connected to the idea of redemption, Leo says he has to speak to his wife in front of the camera, because it’s the only way to avoid retreating into lies. Is there an ideal audience for the narratives we tell ourselves?
My own feeling was that for him, he can’t tell the truth unless he places himself under the discipline and rigour of art – and for him, that is the camera. Whether consciously or not, he’s revealing himself to her honestly, but can only do it under those rather stringent conditions.
We live in an era in which people are constantly sharing aspects of their lives online. The idea of Leo needing a camera to tell to the truth – does the function of art becomes somewhat metatextual at some point? That art has a capacity to convey truth in a way Instagram does not?
There is a metatextual aspect to it for me, certainly. And I was aware of it in the process of writing. Maybe art is the only way one can authentically tell the truth without making it performative. Which is what happens online – social media is primarily performative. But the way to tell the truth is through the process of art – through narrative art, in my case, and through cinematic art in Leo’s case.
Some of the ideas confronted in the novel were obviously very abstract. How did you approach articulating what is almost inarticulable – the nature of death, the interior experience of a life ending?
I set for myself the task of imagining what it’s going to be like for others to sicken and die, through holding the hands of a number of very dear friends over the last five years who experienced it quite consciously – they were quite aware of what was happening. And it obliged me to, out of my love for them, imagine what it’s like. I also anticipated that my own life was going to end – I hope not shortly, but it will inevitably end. And so it was an act of will, I suppose, to confront and try to imagine it, as deeply as I’ve tried to imagine other experiences of characters who are unlike myself but overlap with myself.
Implicit in the novel is the question of fame – what it is to be known from the outside versus to be known more intimately or to know oneself. Was being a public figure also one of the concerns for you in writing this book?
Yeah, I think so. We all have a public identity, no matter how private we are. And I was interested in the degree to which a person’s identity is made public through his work, especially if it’s artistic work, and the audience for that work reads backwards from it – what they think is the more intimate, authentic and central identity of the creator.
We think we know the artists because we know the work, but we don’t. And so in Leo’s case, they think they know the artist as this nice, leftist, muckraking documentary filmmaker. But they don’t. And I think that tension is one of the engines that drives the story. His public identity is that he’s a big enough deal that the CBC is willing to invest in making a documentary about him. But in fact, he’s just a man whose biggest concerns and most obsessive interests are not his work or career, but his most private, secret identity.
The interview has been edited and condensed.