Foregone: A Novel

by Russell Banks

Hardcover, 2021




Ecco (2021), 320 pages


Fiction. Literature. HTML: A searing novel about memory, abandonment, and betrayal from the acclaimed and bestselling Russell Banks At the center of Foregone is famed Canadian American leftist documentary filmmaker Leonard Fife, one of sixty thousand draft evaders and deserters who fled to Canada to avoid serving in Vietnam. Fife, now in his late seventies, is dying of cancer in Montreal and has agreed to a final interview in which he is determined to bare all his secrets at last, to demythologize his mythologized life. The interview is filmed by his acolyte and ex??star student, Malcolm MacLeod, in the presence of Fife's wife and alongside Malcolm's producer, cinematographer, and sound technician, all of whom have long admired Fife but who must now absorb the meaning of his astonishing, dark confession. Imaginatively structured around Fife's secret memories and alternating between the experiences of the characters who are filming his confession, the novel challenges our assumptions and understanding about a significant lost chapter in American history and the nature of memory itself. Russell Banks gives us a daring and resonant work about the scope of one man's mysterious life, revealed through the fragments of his recovered past.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member SamSattler
“He tries to say, ‘Forgive me,’ but all he can say is, “Forgone.” He feels himself being pulled as if by the crushing force of gravity into a black hole from which not even light can escape.”

In 1968, when Leonard Fife crossed the Canadian border in the early dawn hours, he claimed to be
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a draft dodger from the U.S. hoping to begin a new life in Canada. Fifty years later, the 78-year-old Fife, now one of the most respected documentarians in Canada, lies on his deathbed, himself the subject of a documentary being filmed for Canadian television. A film crew, including some of his former students, is there to record Fife’s final words and thoughts for the film world and his fans. Fife is happy they are there, but he has something else entirely in mind for what is about to happen.

Even though Leonard Fife accomplished a lot during his lifetime, he is not at all happy with who he is and how he got it all done. Before he goes, he wants to make certain that Emma, his wife, knows exactly who she has been married to for the last few decades. He hopes she will still love him when he’s done talking, but before he dies, Fife is desperate to tell her all the things he has been hiding from her for so long. And so he looks into the camera and begins to tell the uncensored, unvarnished story of his life.

Or is he really?

Russell Banks’s Foregone is a deeply drawn character study, but even that character is not certain if what he is telling the world about himself is really true. Leo does know that he cannot say any of this to his wife’s face; he cannot look her in the eye and get even this close to the truths he wants her to know. So, in a darkened room, with one light shining on his face, he begins at the beginning, hoping to make it to the end of his story before he draws his last breath.

The problem for Leo is that the film crew is not happy with his rambling monologue, his wife can barely stand to be in the room while all this is happening, and the more he fades, the less sure he is that the stories he is telling really happened - and if they did happen, whether or not it was even him they happened to.

Bottom Line: Foregone is one of those books that demand a good bit of patience from the reader. It is a book in which readers are likely to dislike just about every featured character (the exception being Leo’s nurse and - mostly - his wife Emma). It is not filled with a lot of action despite the fact that it is the coming-of-age story of a man who ran from every problem he got himself into, abandoning friends and loved ones all the while. It’s a book about despair and giving up, a book about a man who, at the end of his life, doesn’t seem to like himself very much. All of that said, Leo Fife is a man and a character I will not soon forget. It is not important that I like him or not; I know him now.

Review Copy provided by Publishe
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LibraryThing member sleahey
Russell Banks has told the story of a famous and highly regarded cinematographer on his deathbed, who insists on baring his soul to his wife of 40 years by telling All in front of a film crew. Fife himself is the unreliable narrator, recounting his life from young adulthood through his emigration
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to Canada, not quite reaching his success as liberal Canadian film maker. As he adds more and more betrayals and stories of character weakness to his life story, he asserts that his love for his wife can only be valid if she knows the whole truth about him. No matter the pain it causes her, his dying wish is that she hear all the sordid details of his failings, although readers have cause to wonder if his meanderings are partly the product of his medications. This is a downward spiral in reverse that sometimes feels self-indulgent -- if not on the part of the author, then certainly for the character of Fife.
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LibraryThing member brangwinn
Banks, who is himself 80 years old, tells the story of a 77-year-old documentary filmmaker and teacher who is dying of cancer. Former students now have him in front of the camera as they record his life story. Leo Fife’s thoughts are muddled from the cancer, his muddled memory, and pain
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medications, so he’s not an entirely reliable narrator. At first, the transitioning between the present time and past times seems awkward, but as the story moves forward it becomes more and more understandable. This is an interesting look and aging, failing memory and peeling back the layers to reveal what is true about reputation. Putting the action on April Fools Day seems to have meaning to me, because as I age my memory seems to be playing more April Fools jokes on me.
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LibraryThing member jphamilton
"Foregone," by Russell Banks was a novel that pulled me deep into its story and characters with some truly outstanding writing. I had forgotten just how good he can write, and this story had similarities to recent events in my life that pulled me in even deeper. It’s the story of Leonard Fife, a
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Canadian documentary filmmaker who is in his seventies, as he’s being filmed and interviewed about his life and his work. The film crew had had a very different film in mind, but the elderly man’s advanced cancer has extremely weakened his body and memory, and made for a free-flowing experience that may have been factual or not, and rarely revealed any straight-line narrative. The interviewer found no answers to some questions, and many answers to questions never asked. Fife is dying and confined to a wheelchair, so they roll him into place and kill all the lighting around him. In that surrounding darkness is Fife’s wife, Emma, and the film crew. His interviewer is Malcolm MacLeod, one of his former star student. The interview all comes down to what maybe some truly memorable and revealing recollections, or the very confused thoughts of a man just days away from his death.

Here are a couple of quotes from the book that have stuck in my mind.

“There is nothing left of life now, except what’s in his brain and the fluids that pass through his bowels and bladder and the cancer cells that are devouring his bones and flesh, munching his organs, shutting them down one by one.”

“Other people’s memories of him will hang around for a while, of course, for a few months, anyhow, and maybe, for Emma, even years. But not his own memories. The second his cancerous body shuts his brain down, his memories will be vaporized.”

Okay, allow me one more quote, one that my late wife Vicky and I acted out countless times in our decades together.

“Since the moment he first saw her, Fife has loved looking directly at Emma. His gaze made her nervous and a little embarrassed, as if he were making a studio portrait of it, and she would look down and away and say, Please, stop staring at me.”

Fife talks about his connection to Vermont through both Goddard College and his most memorable film being about the draft evaders crossing the Canadian border for sanctuary during the Vietnam war. The book has many major themes: figuring out what exactly love is during the different stages of one’s life, dealing with the betrayals of others and even your own, gaining redemption for past wrongs, and the extremely fluid nature of memory.

I read almost all of this book on a beautiful sunny day, while sitting on a favorite bench under a grand old tree, with some fine melancholy music (thanks go to Phoebe Bridgers) playing on my headphones. Between the story, my history, and a glorious day, this was a positively surreal time reading my favorite book of this young year. I found myself feeling tears running down my sunny cheeks on many occasions. The book was a mesmerizing personal experience in that the man dying of cancer represented both my late wife and how I sometimes see myself. This story seemed to fly right into my face time after time, as it felt so much like what I’ve felt countless times. This is one very powerful book that shows Banks at his very best.
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LibraryThing member froxgirl
Two of my favorite writers, Richard Russo and Russell Banks, are feeling their advanced ages in recent nostalgic, look-back novels, which is a bit sad for their readers who aren't quite ready to call a halt to a yearning for new adventures. In this one, renowned Canadian filmmaker Leonard Fife is
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dying of cancer and now the subject of a documentary by one of his former students. Leo sees this as his chance to redeem himself and to show his wife and work partner of forty years, Emma, that he truly loves her, something he has been unable to feel or express during their marriage. Instead, his on-camera recital of several key events in his life, including a meetup with Bob Dylan and Joan Baez in Boston in the early '60s, turns into a confession of wrongs committed against parents, ex-wives, abandoned children, and friends. Leo's wife Emma denies the truth of much of what he claims he's telling her for the first time, and says he's conflating imaginary events with the reality of years together. This puts the reader in a spot - who's telling the truth here ? - but it doesn't really matter, as the stories are rambling, filled with pathos, fear, and a longing for escape, and Leo finally does achieve peace with himself.
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LibraryThing member nivramkoorb
I have read a few Russell Banks's books with "Cloudsplitter" about John Brown being a book that everyone should read. This book is about Leonard Fife, a legendary Canadian/American documentarian who is dying of cancer. Before he dies he wants to clear his mind and confess his sins with disclosing
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information about his pre 1968 life(when he entered Canada a a supposed draft dodger). To this end he agrees to do a filmed interview with Malcolm a former student and a current filmmaker. He wants his wife there who is concerned about his health. The book is a mix of present and flashbacks to his early life. During the interview he assumes control and just rambles on about previous marriages and children which Emma(his wife) knows nothing about. The real question is whether this is true of just Leonard being impacted by drugs and failing health. We never really find this out. The book is very well written but the stories of the past never get resolved and leave the reader a bit short changed. Banks is 80 and written 24 books. They are usually pretty heavy subjects so he should be checked out because he is one of the best writers during the last 50 years.
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LibraryThing member arubabookwoman
"What's left of his life now, who he is, is only what's inside his brain. Which is only who he was, nothing more. The future does not exist anymore, and the present never did. And no one knows who he was."

Leonard Fife is a well-regarded documentary film maker who came to Canada in 1968 allegedly as
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an American Vietnam war draft evader. Now in his 80's, he is suffering from terminal cancer and has left the hospital to come home to die. He has agreed to give one last interview to Malcolm, a documentarian he mentored. Malcom has come well-prepared with a list of 25 questions, and intends to explore Leo's influences and techniques and his thoughts and evaluations of his body of work. Leo has a different idea for the interview. Instead of answering questions about his work, Leo wants to make a "confession" about his life, specifically to his wife of 40 years, Emma. And it's not just the small crimes he committed, but the "mortal sins," and he wants forgiveness.

As Leo's "confession" begins, we are surprised to learn (and Leo states that Emma does not know this) that when he came to Canada in 1968 (and not as a draft dodger as widely believed) he abandoned a wife and child in America, never to be seen again. And as his confession continues we learn of other abandonments and betrayals, Leonard ploughing on despite Malcolm's efforts (at least at first) to get his questions answered. In the initial parts of the confession, I was considering abandoning the book; I did not want to read another book about a man's "mid-life crisis" (or in this case pre-mid-life crisis). But then, the reader begins to wonder, How much of this is true? And how much does Emma know?

So, what exactly is the story Leo is telling, and what exactly is only going on in his mind? It is true that he is in a weakened condition, on strong pain medications, sometimes delirious, sometimes even nodding off. Leo himself wonders what, if any, part of his story he is getting across, whether what he has said has anything to do with his memories:

"He wonders how much he was able to say to the camera this morning of what he actually remembers. He knows there is a synaptic snafu between the data received from the memory banks of his hippocampus and his prefrontal cortex that scrambled the words he is led to speak when he tried to convert that data to speech."


"He's almost two separate people, and one of them remembers in great detail a distant past and the other who does not remember anything of that past tries to describe it."

And later Emma speaks of "confabulation," which occurs when a person, often with a mental disability of some sort, fills in gaps in memory by fabrication. It is not lying; the person confabulating believes that what they are remembering is true. Emma believes that Leo's confession is mostly confabulation:

"What the doctor calls confabulation is just the way Fife sometimes tells stories, that's all, mixing memories and dreams and imagined details and meanings, embedding whatever drifts his way, exaggerating some elements and eliminating others, fooling with chronology, trying to make life more interesting and exciting than it would be otherwise...."

What Banks has created with this novel is an extended meditation on story-telling and memory, about the nature of memory, and about how we face death. It is a masterful accomplishment. I didn't understand it all, but I loved it.

First line: "Fife twists in the wheelchair and says to the woman who's pushing it, I forget why I agreed to this."

Last line: "Renee did not want to think about the death of Leonard Fife."

4 stars
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LibraryThing member LynnB
I found this book fascinating. A group of friends is making a documentary of the life of film maker Leonard Fife as he is dying from cancer. They want to focus on his career, but Leo ignores them and talks about his life, telling stories no one, not even his wife of 40 years, has heard. Like the
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first wife he divorced soon after their daughter was born. Or the second wife and child he abandoned one day. Or the fact that he wasn't, as everyone had always thought, a draft dodger. But we are left wondering how many of Leo's story is accurate as his memory is affected by his severe pain and high levels of medication. In the end, this is what the book is about: how memory and truth relate, how stories are influenced by their presentation and what our past really means. It's well written, with deep issues that need to be pondered.
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