Beyond the anxious hiss of the willows, the writer’s cabin sits empty.
A September storm bullies the west window, retreats, then schemes again. Inside, through a focus distorted by rain pebble and cobweb, stands an empty rifle, empty coffee pot, empty typewriter. Above the writer’s desk a scissored square of paper curls yellow where it has been thumbtacked into the cedar as a constant reminder: “If the book we are reading does not wake us, as with a fist hammering on the skull, then why do we read it? Good God, we would also be happy if we had no books, and such books as make us happy we could, if need be, write ourselves. But what we must have are those books which come upon us like ill-fortune, and distress us deeply, like the death of one we love better than ourselves, like suicide. A book must be like an ice-axe to break the sea frozen inside us.” Tucked under the curling bottom in italics is the name of Czech author Franz Kafka. The storm sparks to the northeast, appropriately framing the nearby barn and farmhouse with an excess of reality. Another window, and inside a coaloil lamp dances its gypsy light over the face of Canadian author Margaret Atwood. It is midmorning, dark and cold, the heat from the wood stove warming all but her words, for she is talking about the weeks that are sure to come. “It is rather,” she says slowly, “like being unshelled—i/you’re a turtle.”
The author who believed she would die at 30 is now pushing 40. The writer has become a metaphor herself: Atwood is to Canadian literature as Gordon Lightfoot is to Canadian music, more institution than individual. The words that took the Governor-General’s Award for poetry 12 years ago have bred selectively to include a children’s book, a remarkable work of CanLit criticism, a collection of short stories, seven more books of poetry and four published novels, the latest of which, Life Before Man (see review, page 66), is the central character in the plotting of the fall publishing season. Even before the official release date, McClelland and Stewart added a second printing to the 20,000 first run of the book, bringing the | number of Atwood books to be found in 3 Canada well over the 600,000 mark. In ° her fifth volume of poetry, Power Poli3 tics, she wrote, I seem only to flicker, the §
metaphor then a candle; but the flame has grown, as she herself has grown, until today the storm itself is both more convenient and a better fit. When Atwood strikes these days, the flame both startles and commands. And inevitably, the moths draw nearer, eager.
Kafka would approve: Life Before Man is two fists hammering on the skull. It is not so much a story as it is the discarded negatives of a family album, the thoughts so dark they defy any flash short of Atwood’s remarkable, and often very funny, insight. The book is sure to have some say in the popular opinion—voiced by the critic Robert Fulford, among others—that Atwood has so far shown herself to be a far better poet than novelist. Yet it has been the novels that have brought out the curious. In that, and often in their outcome as well, the novels are not unlike a highway accident. She writes from personal experience, but she counters quickly, “The characters don’t represent me, they represent themselves. Most people think personal experience is anything you have done, but it isn’t. It’s also anything you may have read or heard.” It could be argued that troubled writers—Hemingway, for examplehave often been obsessed with strength, so why not a healthy writer with sickness? It could be so argued, but not con-
vincingly. Atwood is perceived to be hiding something, and is watched. Constantly.
In point form, the past is so clean it seems to have been cleansed: born in Ottawa, happily raised in a My Three Sons Toronto suburb, summer camp, University of Toronto, Harvard, instant success from the first substantial work on. The flaws she readily concedes—the failed marriage, the brief session in psychoanalysis—and they are readily cancelled by obvious bonuses: a contented three-year-old daughter named Jess and a durable, warm relationship with Jess’s father, novelist Graeme Gibson. “It is a boring song,” she wrote about another idea in another time, “but it works every time.”
Around noon the storm breaks; it is time to pick up Jess from her morning co-op play school. On her fourth attempt, Atwood has finally learned to drive and, perhaps inspired by the more than $50,000 McClelland and Stewart and Seal Books paid for the Canadian rights of Life Before Man, she has bought herself a BMW, which she wrestles through the muddied back roads around her farm near Alliston, Ontario. Her driving is an extension of herself, cautious, very steady, a healthy suspicion. A functional driver with an inspirational machine—which is only fitting for someone whose constant companion is contradiction.
“I make a distinction between myself as a citizen and myself as a writer,” she says about her politics. But the separation extends even further. As a writer she both deals in pain and deals it out— a bad x-ray would at times make a gentler read—yet as a citizen she is desperate not to hurt. At one time she demanded that interviewers sign a binding contract that would give her a veto over any third parties consulted, maintaining that she had a duty to protect them from the runoff of her notoriety. She has wisely dropped that idea, but still worries excessively over innocents—and not-so-innocents—who might stumble into her story. Extremely bad experiences, such as her and Gibson’s ill-fated movie screenplay for Margaret Laurence’s novel The Diviners (they were dropped after the first draft), are usually dealt with in a single
sentence: “I won’t talk about it, sorry.” A movie from her own novel Surfacing is being produced by Toronto filmmaker Beryl Fox, and is due to be released soon. “Beryl said to me quite frankly that ‘you’ll hate this movie,’ ” Atwood says, smiling at the thought. “I said to her quite frankly that I would have hated any movie made out of this book; don’t worry about it.”
The friends are usually longstanding: Fox and playwright Rick Salutin date from summer camp, neighbor and movie director Peter Pearson went to public school with her. Only one friend has ever turned on her, a poet who sold their personal letters to a library; the others she trusts enough to say smugly, “Nobody’s ever going to get the real story.” She gives generously—several times extending Fox’s option on Surfacing while the producer prayed for money—but demands little. The morning mail brings a parcel containing 25 tickets to benefit a Toronto women’s project, and Atwood, though her kitchen is crammed with people who would gladly contribute, moves off to a quiet room where she dutifully prints her own name on each slip, writes out a personal cheque for the entire amount and returns the “sold” tickets immediately.
“Peggy is like the Rock of Gibraltar,” says her old Harvard roommate, Susan Milmoe, who is now a psychology textbook editor in New York. Throughout the year the Atwood-Gibson farm serves as a tranquillizer for those friends for whom the world has become too much. And those who can’t drive are welcome to call. “I was there one week when three different people phoned her with their life crisis,” says a friend who was there having one of her own.
It is difficult to imagine troubled people seeking out someone who makes a living from anxiety and despair, but here again the dichotomy. At the Globe Restaurant in nearby Rosemont, the coffee talk turns to politics and speculation over who is going to have a worse fall, in both senses of the word, Joe Clark or Jimmy Carter. Atwood pushes away from her blueberry pie, folds her arms and closes her eyes. Gibson looks over, concerned. “I’m sorry,” he says. “We’re being pessimistic again, aren’t we?” She nods; the topic changes, briefly.
Perhaps what has really disturbed « her is that she has been recognized. A
heavy-set woman at another table picks d at her meal and watches as if Atwood
were a television set. By leaving the x farm she has again become what she I calls “a Thing.” “There’s another Marg garet Atwood running around out there Í that gets a lot of attention,” she says, s “It’s an accident that I’m a successful
writer. I think I’m kind of an odd phenomenon in that I’m a serious writer and I never expected to become a popular one, and I never did anything in order to become a popular one.”
“I would have to say she does not like the promotional aspect of publishing,” says Jack McClelland, her publisher. “We try not to be too tacky where she’s
concerned.” Yet she obviously does get involved, and her subsequent high profile has spread from the fall publishing season to a year-round trap. Much of Life Before Man was written this past winter in Edinburgh where Gibson had gone on an exchange with the Scottish Arts Council. “I felt I was having a year off,” she says, already nostalgic for the lack of recognition. They returned in July, but the homecoming was not all joyful. “I am depressed,” she says, “at having to rt -enter my ordinary life.” Such attt ation—as often caustic as it is fawning—is not uncommon for someone who is perceived to be speaking for the Woman of the ’70s, a seat in which Atwood shifts uncomfortably. “It’s never been a clear-cut thing,” she argues. “What is a man’s writer? Like John Irving [The World According to Garp). Nobody says, well, this is a man’s writer because he’s a man. We still have a lot of that capital-D Dummy women’s stuff kicking around in the women’s movement. The assumption
that all women are the same. They just aren’t.
“The public has given me a personality of not having a public personality,” she continues. “Sometimes they make up things about it like Margaret the Monster and Margaret the Magician and Margaret the Mother. Romantic notions of what’s really there keep getting
in the way of people’s actual view of you. People still have a hard time coping with power of any kind in a woman, and power in a writer is uncanny anyway. Writing culls emotions out of people when they read it. They don’t know where those emotions come from and it can connect with areas of their psyches that they would rather not deal with. It frightens some people. Some people are terrified of me.”
The fear also goes in the other direction. Parties are no longer possible. As she enters the subway in Toronto, the token-taker excitedly slams his fist into the window when she passes. In the Eaton’s washroom a woman talks through the crack in the door. An interview in Vancouver goes badly, the questioner returning again and again to the same point: “Why are you famous? Why do people read your books?” She smiles and tries to deflect him. “I have no idea,” she says. “Why don’t you ask some of them?” The questions needle her yet again; she smiles patiently, hiding the thought: “Could it be because I’m good?”
Little wonder, then, that she sometimes longs for other worlds where she has only herself to answer to. The farm is the first retreat, the writer’s cabin an escape from even that and beyond the cabin the flights of the past few years: Australia, Europe, the Middle East, India, Afghanistan. It was in Afghanistan that she purchased a deep purple chador, the heavily veiled hood and cloak that conceals even the eyes of Moslem women. It symbolizes yet another contrast: the state of such women disturbs Atwood as a writer, their nonentity attracts her as a citizen. Modelling the chador in the farmhouse kitchen, she twirls grandly, her muffled voice squeezing through the thick stitching of the face cover. “Sometimes,” she says, “I wish they wore these things in Canada.” Laughter rises from those around the table, but nothing from behind the cover. As with her own works, Margaret Atwood can be a difficult read,
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