Ever since Margaret Atwood published her first collection of poetry, The Circle Game, in 1966 (and won the Governor General’s medal for it) there has been a certain concord in the nervous circles of the literati in this country that she is special, a contender for the championship, maybe even deserving of those accolades that have always been the highest honor we can bestow on an artist — “worthy of international recognition” or “remarkable by any standards,” meaning the standards of London and New York.
This fall she’s publishing a book called Surfacing, her second novel, which should command her an audience beyond the universities and the publishing houses and the poetry reading audiences in high school auditoriums because it is quite simply superb, the product of a talent that’s maturing inexorably out of its own internal authority.
The book is a journey, backward in time, northward in space, taken by the narrator, a woman in her late twenties who tries to go home again not because she thinks she can but because she feels she must. She’s been summoned to the island in the Quebec bush country where she grew up by a letter from a French-Canadian neighbor telling her that her father, a reclusive biologist, has disappeared, leaving the door of his cabin open and his boats tied up at the dock. She’s brought with her three city friends, a couple who own the old shark-finned car that takes them there and her lover, a man who makes pottery that doesn’t sell and has a head like the buffalo’s on the U.S. nickel, hairy, small-eyed and impenetrable. The men are making a film (they’ve never made one before but they’re “the new Renaissance Men; you teach yourself what you need to know”). The other woman, who’s called Dorothy and who wears white bellbottoms because she figures jeans make her look fat, is along for the ride, singing Lilli Marlene in a voice she hopes is throaty, talking incessantly out of a mind she thinks is hip or at least responsive to “flow.”
They spend a week caught in the isolation of the bush while the narrator searches for her father in the undergrowth and fqr herself in the numbness of her mind. (“The trouble other people have being German I have being human.”)
The ways in which the novel is remarkable are many. It moves from the plain perceptions of the opening chapters onto the knife edge of madness and fantasy that are characteristic of Atwood’s vision. Only Margaret Drabble and Doris Lessing are as good at conveying what goes on in the mind of a wqman trying to deal with the little brutalities inflicted on her body ant} spirit by the harsh politics of sex.
But what makes the book so important is the way in which Atwood is able to deal with the country that made her. When she writes about passing the highway signs at the edge of the trees (Thé Salada, Blue Moon Cottages V2 Mile, Buvez Coca Cola, Jesus Saves) or describes the Americans frying in by seaplane to fish out a lajee, slapping at mosquitoes (“next year we’ll go to Florida”), bugging the hired guides with their Elvis Presley haircuts, duck-ass at the back, to produce more and bjgger pike, she’s dealing with what we -know about ourselves straight on. She writes with the ease of total acceptance from right inside the culture, authenticating our experience, holding pp a mirror so that the image we get back is not distorted by satire or made unreal by proselytizing, not disguised as “universal” for the export market, not aimed at the Leacock medal but real — as real, say, as the Chicago of Nelson Algren. It’s this space, this place, an answer to the famous Northrop Frye question, Where Is Here? Here is where we’ve been and when we go again it’ll be different, clearer because Atwood’s written about it.
Now I can’t think of another country where this would be described as an unusual feat because what she’s doing, of course, is fulfilling the novelist’s function. But to know how remarkable it is in this country that’s been colonized so long in its own mind, where the poets have been able consistently to get at our reality but the novelists have not, you have only to take a look at the work of the current champion novelist, Mordecai Richler.
Richler also has a new book out this fall, called Shovelling Trouble. It’s not a novel but a collection of his magazine pieces from the Nation, Saturday Night and Commentary. Still, Richler is Richler, whether he’s writing novels as a social critic or social criticism as a novelist, he’s the same old Mordecai, witty, acerbic, brilliant, sick with angst but “cunning,” as he says, “someone with a use for everything, even intimacies” — and even (or especially) his own pained embarrassment at having been born Canadian. In these pieces he talks about how he writes, why he writes, which writers he envies, where he writes, how he learned to write, and there is something chokingly familiar about all of it, like the boiled buttered cabbage your father used to make you swallow, not just because so much of it is twice-cooked material (Richler invented recycling) but because the attitudes it expresses have grown cold and stale.
What’s real to Richler is his own pain. What’s important to him is that he’s probed this pain in other places, London, Paris, Surrey, far from where it was inflicted. What’s unreal is his country and his countrymen.
In Richler-land, Canadians are objects, no more motivated or animated than mooseheads — louts, bores, fools, people suffering from the unforgivable failure of not having been born American. (New York, New York. The Big Time.) Every attitude he expresses springs out of his impossible yearning to be something or somebody else so that in the end he becomes a parody of a classic type — the provincial who’s been to Rome, who can’t resist coming back again to boast of the wonders he has seen, to dazzle with his gossip, his standards and his style, thereby denying his engagement in the absurdities he left behind. (“Gently I let on that Terry Southern and I were old friends/E. M. Forster asked me the questions he always asked young Americans/Cocteau was across the room /Time applauded mt/Newsweek bowed/even though I was something of a country cousin” and on and on.)
What’s disturbing about all this is that Richler once seemed to me and my friends, people now in their advancing thirties, to be a kind of spokesman for us; what’s heartening is that he now seems so remote and so bound into the ideas he took with him to Europe 20 years ago.
Richler is 4L Atwood is 32. But so much happened here between the time he left in the Fifties and she began writing in the Sixties, there could be half a century between them. They’ve both become archetypes. He represents the old consciousness, she represents the new. He’s still trying to exorcise his past, our past, she’s searching through it to find our roots.
Surfacing; Margaret Atwood; McClelland and Stewart; $6.95. Shovelling Trouble; Mordecai Richler; McClelland and Stewart; $6.95. ■
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