Russell Banks is one of American letters' most treasured writers, exploring themes of violence, alienation, luck, and justice, often set against the backdrop of seemingly peaceful small towns in novels like The Sweet Hereafter and Affliction.
His new novel, Foregone (Biblioasis) is being praised as one of his finest works yet. In it, a seemingly simple framework opens into an epic story of betrayal and mystery when documentary filmmaker Leonard Fife, facing death from cancer in his 70s, gives a final interview in which he reveals the full scope of his life. The dark secrets that spill forth are utterly unexpected by any of his listeners, including his wife and protege.
Exploring ideas of guilt, memory, and how we can (and cannot) know one another, it's a masterful work earning praise from the likes of Marilynne Robinson and Colum McCann.
We're excited to share an excerpt from this modern epic, a page-turning exploration of aging, reputation, and identity, courtesy of Biblioasis.
Excerpt from Foregone by Russell Banks:
The Fifes’ apartment was originally occupied by the monseigneur who supervised the seminary. It’s a wood-panelled three-bedroom flat with a formal dining room, parlour, reception hall, office, and library that Fife uses as an editing room. He bought the apartment in the late 1980s when the bottom fell out of Westmount real estate. Leonard Fife and Emma Flynn are childless, bilingual, socially attractive, and artistic semi-celebrities, and over the years they have adapted the rooms to suit the overlapping needs of their professional and personal lives.
Nothing in the room is the way he remembers it. Instead of entering a large high-ceilinged living room with four tall curtained windows, a room comfortably furnished with mid-twentieth-century sofas and chairs and lamps and tables, Fife has entered a black box of unknown dimensions. He can feel the presence of several other people in the box, perhaps as many as four. Their silence is sudden, like held breath, as if caused by his entry, as if they don’t want him to know they have been talking about him. About his illness.
They exhale, and he hears them breathing. His sense of smell and taste are nearly deadened, and his sight has turned cloudy, but his hearing is still reliable.
Over here, Leo! It’s Malcolm, speaking in English. He says, Vincent, give us some light, will you?
Vincent is the cameraman—though he prefers to be called director of photography. DP. He asks Malcolm if he wants the houselights on. So Leo can get his bearings, he adds. Good morning, Leo. Thanks for letting us do this, man. Really appreciate it. Among friends Leonard Fife is known as Leo. Vincent is a tall, pear-shaped man with narrow shoulders and head and the delicate small hands of a jeweller. He’s wearing his pink-rimmed designer eyeglasses today. He has a blond moustache, wispy and ill-trimmed, pouting red lips, and watery pale-blue eyes.
Malcolm, too, says good morning and thanks Fife. Let’s hold off on the lights for now, Vincent. It took us a fucking hour to get it totally dark, he says, and all the lamps and light fixtures are unplugged and moved.
Vincent hits a handheld switch, and a small, sharply cut circle of light appears on the bare wooden floor. It’s where Fife will be interrogated. He remembers that section of floor being covered by the kilim carpet he and Emma brought back from Iran in ’88. Fife would prefer to keep the room in total darkness, forget the pin-spot, just let him be a disembodied voice speaking from empty dark to embodied dark. But he knows what kind of film Malcolm has planned.
Fife hopes he won’t have to hear Malcolm and his crew tell him again how great he looks. He got more than enough lame, lying compliments from them last month when they came up from Toronto to visit him at the Segal Cancer Centre and someone had the bright idea to shoot this interview.
Actually, he thinks it was his idea, not Malcolm’s or anyone else’s. And it wasn’t because he thought he looked good enough to be on-camera: he knows what he looks like. It was because he knew he was dying.
A woman’s voice trills out of the darkness, thanking him. Fife recognizes the voice as Diana’s, Malcolm’s producer and longtime home companion. They are all grateful to him, she says. Her thin, high-pitched voice sounds to Fife like a repressed shriek. Fife has always hated her voice. Anytime you want to take a break, she says, or rest or whatever, just do it. Don’t push yourself.
Malcolm and his crew are based in Toronto, and everyone is speaking English now. To Renée, Diana says, Bring the wheelchair over here into the spotlight, will you, dear? We’re not going to film the chair, just Leo’s face, neck, and shoulders, sometimes straight on, sometimes in profile or from behind. Everything else will be blacked out. She says it with the authority of a grade-school teacher.
Renée probably couldn’t care less how they intend to shoot Fife, but she understands Diana’s English well enough to place his wheelchair directly under the pin-spot.
It’s the style you invented, man, says Malcolm. Backlight the off-camera side of the subject’s face, nothing else. He steps up to the wheelchair and lays a hand on Fife’s shoulder. Seemed only appropriate, he says. Right? Hope you don’t object.
No, I don’t object.
Consider it a protégé’s homage, man.
A protégé’s homage. Fair enough, I guess. What are you using for a camera?
Vincent answers. The Sony FS7.
Who else is here? In the room, I mean.
Malcolm says, Sloan’s over there in the corner. She’ll mic you and run the sound with that and a boom, if we need it. The Sony’s sound needs help. You met her a couple times in Toronto.
I remember, Fife says, cutting him off. He believes that Malcolm is having an affair with the girl. She’s Nova Scotian, a pretty redheaded kid with freckles and can’t be more than twenty-four or twenty-five. Malcolm is close to fifty now. How is that possible? Fife has ex-students, protégés, who are old enough to have inappropriate affairs with interns and famous enough to be able to hook and land the financing and distribution for a filmed final interview with Leonard Fife, himself a documentarian, but too old and sick now for inappropriate affairs and famous only in certain unfashionably leftist quarters, a filmmaker who couldn’t raise the money on his own for a project like this.
Malcolm MacLeod films the history of Canada, soft-focused liberal takes on early settlement, les coureurs de bois, the native peoples, Loyalist immigrants from the War of American Independence, American slaves who followed the North Star on the Underground Railroad, hockey, Cajun music. He’s the Ken Burns of the North, and now he’s documenting his old professor’s final confession. It will be his mentor’s last interview, and Malcolm has written out twenty-five questions designed to seduce Fife into making the kind of provocative and sometimes profound remarks and observations that he is famous for, at least among those who know him personally or studied with him at Concordia back in the 1970s and ’80s or read interviews with him in the Revue canadienne d’études cinématographiques and Cinema Canada in the ’80s, when it was run by his friends Connie and Jean-Pierre Tadros.
Fife tells Renée to park him wherever they want him and then please bring Madame Fife in here, he has something important that he must tell her.
Renée moves his chair into the circle of light. She sets the brake and disappears into the darkness beyond.
Fife wants to know where the camera is located.
Don’t worry about it, man. All you got to do is sit there and do what you do best.
Talk? That’s what I do best?
You know what I mean. What you do better than anyone else. What you do best, of course, is make your films. You sure you’re feeling up to this, Leo? I don’t want to push you, bro. We don’t have to do the entire shoot today, if you’re not up to it. Maybe just a couple hours or so, or until we use up the first card. We can come back tomorrow to continue.
Diana chimes in and confirms. We can stay in Montreal all week, if it suits you, Leo. We can download and edit in the hotel as we go. There’s no need to shoot it all in one day and go back to Toronto for the editing.
Fife says, No, I want to keep you right here. Until I finish telling everything.
What do you mean, everything? Diana asks. Malcolm and I have worked up some great questions for you.
I’m sure you have.
The young woman, Sloan, has stepped from the darkness into his circle of light and is miking him. She clips the tiny mic onto the collar band of the long-sleeved black mock turtleneck shirt that has been part of Fife’s uniform for decades. He likes being touched by her. He likes the mingled odour of cigarettes and sweat and minty shampoo. He can’t catch the scent of much, but he can smell her. Young women, their scent is different and better than that of middle-aged and older women. It’s as if desire and longing for desire have distinct and different odours. When Emma leans down in the morning to kiss his cheek before leaving for their production company office downtown, he inhales the smell of English breakfast tea and unscented soap. The odour of a longing for desire. This young woman, Sloan, she smells of desire itself.
It’s not fair to notice that, he thinks.
But it is true. And Emma’s morning smell is not unpleasant. Just empty of desire and filled with a wish for it to return. He wonders what he smells like now, especially to a young woman. To Sloan. Can she pick up the odour of his medications, the antiandrogens he was on for months and the Taxotere and prednisone he started this past week? Can she smell the biphosphonates he’s taking to keep his bones from breaking under the weight of his body, the morphine patches, the urine dripping from his bladder into the catheter and tube emptying into the bag hooked onto his chair? The bits of dried feces clinging to his ass? To Sloan he must smell like a hospital ward for chemically castrated old men dying of cancer.
Tell me again why I came home from the hospital, he says to no one in particular.
Malcolm says, Well, I imagine you’re a hell of a lot happier here. With Emma being close by, I mean. And everything that’s familiar.
Fife says, There’s no more being happy or happier, Malcolm. He’d like to add—but doesn’t—that for him now there’s only more pain and less pain, more and less nausea and diarrhea, more and less dread, more and less fear. Along with more and less shame, anger, embarrassment, anxiety, depression. And more and less confusion. Forget happy and happier, he says.
C’mon, Leo. Don’t talk like that, Malcolm says.
I believe I can talk any damned way I want now.
Yes, that’s true, you can. That’s why we’re here today. Right?
Sloan puts her headphones on, and the darkness swallows her.
Where the hell is my wife? Fife asks the darkness. He can still smell Sloan.
Right behind you, Emma says in her low smoker’s voice. Renée told me you wouldn’t do this unless I’m present. True?
Mostly true. Maybe I’d do it, but differently. Very differently. If you weren’t here, I mean.
Why? This is for posterity. I’m not posterity, she says and laughs. I’m your wife.
It’s easier for me to know what to say and what not to say when I know who I’m talking to.
You’re talking to Malcolm, she says. You’re making a movie.
No! No, I’m not. Malcolm and Vincent and Diana and Sloan, they’re making a movie. They’re here to film and record me, so they can cut and splice my image and words together and make from those digitalized images and words a one-or two-hour movie that they sold to the Canadian Broadcasting Company so it can be resold to Canadian television viewers after I’m gone and before I’m forgotten. Malcolm and Diana won’t be listening to me and watching me. They’re too busy making a movie about me. I’m just the subject. Different thing. But if I know who I’m talking to, I can be more than a subject. That’s why I need you here.
Emma asks Diana for some light so she can find someplace to sit.
This excerpt is taken from Foregone by Russell Banks. Copyright © 2021 Russell Banks. Published by Biblioasis. Reprinted with permission.
Russell Banks, twice a finalist for the , is one of America’s most prestigious fiction writers, a past president of the International Parliament of Writers, and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His work has been translated into twenty languages and has received numerous prizes and awards, including the Commonwealth Award for Literature. He lives in upstate New York and Miami, Florida.