BOOKS

How she manages to have it all

Does a new portrait avoid Atwood’s shadows?

John Bemrose September 7 1998
BOOKS

How she manages to have it all

Does a new portrait avoid Atwood’s shadows?

John Bemrose September 7 1998

How she manages to have it all

BOOKS

Does a new portrait avoid Atwood’s shadows?

BY JOHN BEMROSE

THE RED SHOES

By Rosemary Sullivan (HarperCollins, 359 pages, $32)

In her admiring new biography of Margaret Atwood, Rosemary Sullivan passes on a story about the writer that vividly catches her youthful ambition. One day when she was in her mid-20s, she dropped in at the home of poet John Newlove, who had been drinking heavily with his friend fellow Prairie writer Patrick Lane. The men’s conversation about literature had degenerated into a series of long silences punctuated by the occasional pseudoprofound utterance. Frustrated, Atwood cut to the heart of the matter, demanding to know what their poetic ambitions were. After some drunken dithering, the two declared that what they wanted most was to win a Governor General’s Award. As Lane recalled later, Atwood was indignant at their modest expectations, declaring tartly that the only goal worth pursuing was the Nobel Prize. Swigging down her beer, she then left the room.

Atwood has not won the Nobel, at least not yet. But the petite 58-year-old novelist (Cat’s Eye, Alias Grace) and poet {Power Politics, Morning in the Burned House) has become internationally famous on a scale no Canadian writer of serious literature ever has. She is, in her own words, “one of the few literary writers who has gotten lucky”—which means she is read not just by intellectuals, but by hairdressers, chartered accountants and farmers. For Sullivan, Atwood’s success makes her a kind of feminist beacon, a living refutation of the old romantic view that women artists are doomed to a life of solitariness or tragedy. That might seem like an outdated notion today, but much of The Red Shoes serves as a reminder that as recently as 30 years ago—when Atwood’s career was just starting—there was widespread prejudice against female writers. Sullivan relates how in 1969, when Atwood was giving her first poetry reading, poet Irving Layton futilely attempted to sabotage the upstart writer by simultaneously reading his own work from the audience.

Sullivan’s professed aim in The Red Shoes is to plumb what she calls “the mystery of artistic confidence,” to discover how Atwood

has managed to forge both a successful career and a satisfying private life (she has lived for more than 25 years with novelist Graeme Gibson, with whom she has a daughter, 22-year-old Jess). In her introduction, Sullivan calls her book a “not-biography,” but this is nonsense. The Red Shoes—the title is from a 1948 film that affected the young Atwood, about a girl who wants to be both a dancer and a wife, and is punished with death for her ambition—is definitely a biography, and often a fascinating one. But Sullivan’s study (she had extensive access to Atwood and her intimates) also offers such a tactful, idealizing portrait that it obscures a great deal.

Nowhere is this more evident than in Sullivan’s depiction of Atwood’s unusual childhood. Born in Ottawa in 1939, she was the second of three children of strong, independent-minded parents. Atwood’s mother, also named Margaret, was a university-trained dietician with a gift for storytelling. Her father, Carl, was an ento-

mologist who for part of the year took his family with him into Canada’s northern woods. From an early age, Atwood learned to canoe, find her way through the bush, scale fish, and shoot guns and bows. In late spring and early fall of the academic year, her mother taught her and her older brother in their family-made cabins, and Atwood did not spend a full year in school until Grade 8, after her family moved to Toronto.

Sullivan rightly traces Atwood’s notable self-confidence to those early years, but she also ignores the hints in her own narrative that Atwood’s family, like any other, had its neurotic tics—and that Atwood certainly carried her own share of psychic stress into adulthood. Where else does the buried grief, anger and sense of calamity in her writing come from? To attribute to At-

wood a perfect childhood, and a psyche unrealistically free of demons, is to fail to see just how complex her achievement really is.

The Red Shoes treads on firmer ground as Atwood arrives at adulthood, and her struggle to become an artist meets more obvious obstacles. After graduating in English from the University of Toronto, the young poet— she was by now publishing in Canadian literary magazines—enrolled in graduate school at Radcliffe, the all-women university at Harvard, in 1961. She was chagrined by the intensely chauvinistic atmosphere: among other things, female students were not allowed access to the university’s modern poetry collection in the Lamont Library. Yet living in the United States taught her much. Her studies showed her that America, too, had gone through a period of rampant cultural insecurity and nationalism in the mid-19th century—a heartening lesson for a writer who would become a major player in Canada’s cultural explosion of the late 1960s and 70s. She also met Jim Polk, a sensitive, witty graduate student from Montana whom she would marry in 1967. Polk’s recollections of Atwood are instructive and often amusing. He recalls one costume party at Harvard where Atwood’s wicked sense of humor was at work: she came disguised as Cleopatra’s breast.

Atwood’s career as a graduate student stretched, with many interruptions, for half a dozen years. During that period she had an affair with Quebec poet D. G. Jones— which Sullivan mentions so obliquely that it is over before the reader realizes it has begun. She also worked at odd jobs including market researcher, and despite never finishing her PhD, began a university teaching career that would take her to cities across Canada. At 27, she became the youngest person to ever win the Governor General’s Award with her 1967 poetry collection, The Circle Game. She was also working steadily at fiction, publishing her satirical debut novel, The Edible Woman, to enthusiastic reviews in 1969, then following it up with her 1972 success, Surfacing. Sullivan ably traces the development of Atwood’s early novels, but—a poet herself— is clearly more taken with Atwood’s extraordinarily original verse. She quotes extensively from early collections such as Power Politics, and her reading of the poems is sensitive and enlightening.

Sullivan is especially good at placing Atwood in the context of the Canadian cultural scene. The writer both contributed to and took strength from the sudden, intoxicating explosion in the arts that Canada enjoyed 30 years ago. In the early 70s, Atwood added considerably to her work as a teacher and writer by editing manuscripts for the cutting-edge nationalist publisher The House of Anansi. By then, her marriage to Polk was over (Sullivan is vague about why, offering mainly generalities about the difficulty of staying together in that morally freewheeling era). In 1972, Atwood met Gibson, a novelist and cultural activist whose own marriage was crumbling. The two began an affair, meeting at first clandestinely in the basement office of Toronto’s Longhouse Bookshop, but soon living together—for several years on a working farm north of the city.

Sullivan leaves Atwood there in the mid-’70s, with straw in her hair and a new baby in her arms, just as she begins to earn a comfortable living as a writer. Her most famous books, such as The Handmaid’s Tale and The Robber Bride, lie ahead of her, but she has already become the confident and productive artist Sullivan so rightly and ardently celebrates—even if the biographer sometimes avoids those shadows that would have helped convey a more subtle picture. □