Margaret Atwood:
A Biography

336 pages,
ISBN: 1550223089

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Distrusting Biographers - the other one on Atwood
by John Ayre

There has hardly been a time when people weren't interested in Margaret Atwood. In the early seventies this was generated by the gothic images in her poetry and the novel, Surfacing. There was a suspicion back then that she virtually lived in a bear's den in northern Ontario and delivered her manuscripts by canoe to the nearest railhead. In 1972 Atwood's American publisher even promoted Surfacing with a photo by Graeme Gibson of Atwood as a spaced-out Ophelia figure wrapped up in a blanket and flowers. Today of course we know her simply as a confident, upper-middle-class Toronto author who often appears in public crisply turned out, beaming her slightly tight, self-possessed smile. There are good reasons for satisfaction today. Her books are international best-sellers, favourites of university reading lists both here and in Britain. Only fifty-eight, she holds an honorary doctorate from Oxford.

Given the unusual degree of her success, there must be an enormous temptation to attempt an early biography. Although Atwood still has so many years and books to go, there is much to explain, not the least of which are the details in her work long suspected of being autobiographical. It is not wholly surprising that two full-length biographies of Atwood should appear this fall. Following Rosemary Sullivan's The Red Shoes by only a few weeks is Nathalie Cooke's Margaret Atwood: A Biography.

While both biographies are "unauthorized" in the sense of receiving only minimal cooperation from Atwood who denied authority to quote unpublished material, neither has achieved the freedom that lack of authorization normally affords. Both biographers are nervous around the idol and seem most reluctant to probe very far beneath the surface. Cooke even goes so far as to suggest that the darkness of much of Atwood's work is an illusion, a purely professional exercise of the literary art. She presents Atwood in the aspect, say, of Thomas Hardy in retirement who once surprised Virginia Woolf with his ostensibly easygoing manner which appeared at odds with his work. "Were the fiction," Cooke writes about Atwood, "to parallel the life, it would suggest that Atwood had experienced a pretty grim childhood. Dark holes. Ravines. Sombre thoughts. Familial dysfunction and childhood discomfort. The opposite is actually the case."

While unconventional, Atwood's family does seem to have been stable and self-affirming. The father, Carl, a forestry entomologist, took his family on annual summer expeditions into the northern Ontario woods where the family lived in primitive log cabins. Her mother, Margaret Killam, much preferred this rough life to the dreary middle-class culture of Toronto in the 1950s where the family lived in the winter. Dr. Atwood sometimes had to leave his wife alone for days in the cabin with the children and a rifle, which she knew how to use. There is no pretense here. Unexpected visits from bears are no joke.

Despite every human precaution, though, the bear does come to visit on occasion. Unpredictability, metamorphosis, even the threat of chaos lurk in Atwood's work. That is why the title of her story, "Wilderness Tips", is so very ironic. Careful procedures have a way of breaking down no matter where people are.

Although Atwood herself rarely elaborates in her essays on painful aspects of her childhood, she once did reveal something about the psychological perils of her early reading. While she developed a keen interest for unexpurgated Grimm Brothers tales, the horror poorly innoculated her against Edgar Alan Poe. Cooke quotes Atwood here: "Poe is obsessive about detail and sets out to horrify. I had nightmares about decaying or being buried alive, but this did not stop me from reading on."

This is about as far as Cooke goes in revealing Atwood's familiarity with the darkness which animates so much of her work. The only way for Cooke to get deeper of course is by confession-through interviews with Atwood-or by deciphering the mass of private papers now at the University of Toronto archives. In the first instance, Atwood did not want to be interviewed. She obviously had no desire to be like Joyce Carol Oates, a year older than Atwood, who revealed much trauma in a recent biography by Greg Johnson. While Cooke did go through a lot of Atwood papers at the University of Toronto archives, she seems stymied by the lack of authority in using them fully and freely.

Cooke stays mostly with the objective record and is paradoxically freer and more courageous in its use than with personal material. After Atwood's initial success in the early seventies, for instance, there was a bad period ("her `dugout' years") when Atwood was widely attacked in the Canadian literary world as a demonic figure. Cooke shows Atwood enduring ad hominem attacks from journalists like Scott Young, critics like Robin Mathews, and even fellow writers and poets. Atwood went from woodland wraith to an apparently soul-freezing Medusa.

Understandably Atwood hunkered down and tried to ride it out. Even one of her (unnamed) New York editors offered little solace, wondering why she was still bothering with Canada at all. Had Atwood become a Thing? There is a terrible irony here. Atwood was in her most intense period of promoting cultural nationalism but the Canadian cultural environment itself was proving uninviting. It was also precisely the period when her fiction-Life Before Man and Bodily Harm in particular-was the bleakest and driest of her career. A biographer must ask: is there a connection?

Cooke covers the period from the early eighties, when Atwood moved from the farm to downtown Toronto, up to the present in just eighty pages. Cooke's energy seems to flag and she all too often resorts to summarizing Atwood's works, honours, and publications in that period. There is very little examination of Atwood except as a busy celebrity author running from interview to interview and trying to realize cinematic versions of her novels. This is unfortunate, of course. After the great international success of The Handmaid's Tale, which Cooke exhaustively covers, Atwood notably matured as a fiction writer. Suddenly she was able to produce novels like Cat's Eye and The Robber Bride which even her detractors admit are larger works than her previous fiction. Without the voice of Atwood, there is little sense of why this may have happened.

In the end, Cooke seems to realize that biography often involves forcing a subject through a hall of distorted mirrors. There are certain illusive reflections to be recorded and then the subject is gone. This is exasperating and it's not mysterious why Cooke prominently adds a quote from Anne Michael's Fugitive Pieces: "Never trust biographies. Too many events in a man's life are invisible. Unknown to others as our dreams." 

John Ayre is author of Northrop Frye: A Biography.


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