The Princess and the Whiskheads: A Fable

by Russell Smith, Illustrated by Wesley W. Bates
110 pages,
ISBN: 0385658982

Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing

by Margaret Atwood
219 pages,
ISBN: 0521662605

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A Dragon and a Princess
by T.F. Rigelhof

Have you ever caught yourself wondering what sort of books Margaret Atwood might have written had she followed in her father's footsteps and studied forest entomology rather than literature when the thematicists held sway? It isn't an idle question. Atwood is enormously talented in diverse ways. She's at least as many-sided and multi-angled as a hexagon but she's never been a plane, two-dimensional writer. More Chinese hexagram than geometrical hexagon, there's something in the nature of her multifarious responses to the natural order that is both as wonderfully transparent in its rationality and as maddeningly opaque in its conceptual leaps as, say, the I Ching.
Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing is written almost like the sort of extended meditation casting that Chinese book of changes can produce. It began as the six Empson Lectures Atwood delivered at Cambridge University in 2000 on the broad topic of "Being a Writer" but has nothing of the academic feel of her Oxford University Clarendon Lectures, Strange Things: The Malevolent North in Canadian Literature (1996). This time out, she found "the theory-and-manifesto drawer" empty when she opened it and opted for close observation instead, a scrutiny of the writer's writing life. She accurately describes her latest work as "the sort of book a person who's been labouring in the wordmines for, say, forty years . . . such a person might think of beginning, the day after he or she wakes up in the middle of the night and wonders what she's been up to all this time. What has she been up to, and why, and for whom? And what is this writing anyway, as a human activity or as a vocation, or as a profession, or as a hack job, or perhaps even as an art, and why do so many people feel compelled to do it?" But she also depicts it more fancifully, a paragraph later, as "a warning for the unsuspecting young. . . . Perhaps I wish to say: ŠLook behind you. You are not alone. Don't permit yourself to be ambushed. Watch out for the snakes. Watch out for the Zeitgeist¨it is not always your friend. Keats was not killed by a bad review. Get back on the horse that threw you.' Advice for the innocent pilgrim, worthy enough, no doubt, but no doubt useless: dangers multiply by the hour, you never step into the same river twice, the vast empty spaces of the blank page appall, and everyone walks into the maze blindfolded."
Although Negotiating with the Dead is non-academic in the best sense, it Šis' a highly skilled set of responses to the questions she asks, beginning with "What is Ša writer' and how did I become one?", a memoir that's all the more moving for being so clear-eyed about the child and young adult she once was. At its most poignant moment, Atwood remarks of her upbringing in an extraordinarily competent family: "But deep down I was not a rationalist. I was the youngest and weepiest of the family . . . . My own view of myself was that I was small and innocuous, a marshmallow compared to the others. I was a poor shot with a .22, for instance, and not very good with an ax. It took me a long time to figure out that the youngest in a family of dragons is still a dragon from the point of view of those who find dragons alarming." As a longtime admirer of her fire-breathing aspect, Negotiating with the Dead seems to me essential reading for anyone interested in Canadian literature merely for what it has to say about the March Hares and Mad Hatters dominating the poetry world of the sixties who tried to blanket her heat with bombast and befuddlement.
The remaining five lectures deal with the doubleness of being a writer, of being both "the person when no writing is going forward¨the one who walks the dog, eats bran for regularity, takes the car in to be washed . . .¨and the other, more shadowy and altogether more equivocal personage who shares the same body, and who, when no one is looking, takes it over and uses it to commit the actual writing"; the earning of a living as a writer; the writer's moral responsibilities; the writer's relationship to the reader; and, finally, most leapingly, the exploration of the hypothesis (that gives this book its title) that "all writing of the narrative kind, and perhaps all writing, is motivated, deep down, by a fear of and a fascination with mortality¨by a desire to make the risky trip to the Underworld, and to bring something or someone back from the dead." As she remarks, her ultimate subject is "a little peculiar. Writing itself is a little peculiar." Indeed it is, and it's her attention to that peculiarity elsewhere in these lectures with an eye as good as any entomologist's that makes this one of Atwood's most memorable books. But she ends where I think discussions of narrative ought to start¨with Gilgamesh. In overlooking the first part of that ancient Mesopotamian epic, the tablets that deal with the ways the erotic has to be confronted and accommodated before storytelling can take root and death can be challenged, she seriously undercuts the second part¨the journeying, the weariness, the return and the inscription of tales¨by making it far more mythical and mystifying than it needs to be. What she has to say in her most illuminating passages suggests to me that had she studied the lives of insects, it wouldn't have deflected her from storytelling but it might have made her less willing to be mytho-poetic at the expense of the clear-sightedness that governs her most incisive words and works¨Life Before Man, Cat's Eye, Wilderness Tips, and now Negotiating with the Dead.

If you happened to stumble across a defaced copy of the endearingly eroticized fable, The Princess and the Whiskheads, from which the name of the author and the place and date of publication had been removed, you could easily think that you'd found something written more than half a century ago, say, about the time George Orwell published 1984. You might also think that Princess Juliana and her land of Liralove had been exquisitely devised among the bombed wreckage of Coventry or Oxford by a young man whose mental life was inflamed by the writings of Oscar Wilde and whose private parts were thoroughly excited and fully engorged only by beautiful, wealthy, and socially prominent young women who could and would shamelessly end his sexual uncertainties, elevate his social status, and support his artistic endeavours by taking hold of him firmly and boldly deciding to love him sensuously, house and dress him gloriously, and free him completely from the necessity of earning a humdrum living. It's a lovely, charming, naive but not innocent, fantastic invention that assists inexperienced seducers of young women who are sexually seasoned but romantically unversed. Well, that's perhaps one of the better ways of reading it and might still prove serviceable if there are any such aesthetic seducers and idealistic temptresses left in this era of "hooking up" among the decorously urban. But The Princess and the Whiskheads is as new as this millennium and does come with an author's name attached. The author is Russell Smith and, unsurprisingly, that's not the way his boyish tale is being read by reviewers.
Russell Smith is the unabashedly self-as-fine-art-object, Globe &Mail columnist and CBC commentator who is less frequently read than he ought to be for his shrewdly observed Kingsley Amisesque satirical views of green and fidgety, never quite young enough, never quite hip enough Torontonians¨How Insensitive, Noise, Young Men. Because Smith is more often read about (he is a favourite whipping boy of Frank magazine and variously aggrieved mainstream columnists) than read, his fantasy princess and her disaffected citizens and their doings have been taken at less than face value and altogether too easily dismissed as an unconvincing allegorical critique of the conflict between art and industry. Yes, art in the form of whimsical towers and industry in the form of sewer construction does get prominent mention as the state of Liralove moves to the brink of revolution but the fundamental polarity is the deeper one of beauty and necessity and how a powerful woman must shape her sexual desires to both. Smith writes symbolically but what distinguishes his tale is its forthright atheism. Not even Orwell entirely escaped the Christian underpinnings and trappings of allegory to the degree that Smith does, and consequently, no one, to my knowledge, has ever written so erotically in this manner. It's often casually said (especially by the out-of-shape) that the brain is the primary sex organ, but Smith writes his Princess and his Whiskheads into being with absolute conviction that art that is unsexed is worse than trivial. That's why this is worth reading and reading as deeply as the epic of Gilgamesh which also deals with a ruler whose subjects are dissatisfied with their monarch's sexual practices. And it is endearing¨at least to the good socialist in me who doesn't think that any great harm befalls those children of the ruling class who are deflected from the paths of industry and progress by artists as crafty as Atwood and Smith who both know how to turn a screw or a screw-up into works of art. ˛

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