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About the Writing Life
by Ray Robertson

Biographies about authors still alive tend to have, ironically, a certain lifelessness about them. Ironically, but not all that surprisingly. To begin with, there is the simple fact that all sorts of things that were or still are a part of the subject's life-a disastrous marriage, a rankled-forever friend or family member, a love affair that ended badly-usually don't get discussed with the sort of candour that comes when those involved are either no longer still around or are too old to care about the public inspection of their sometimes dirty laundry. There is also the difficulty of assessing the worth or significance of the subject's place in his or her field, both because of the kind of requisite near-sightedness that comes from being the subject's contemporary and because of the simple fact that he or she probably isn't finished doing what it is that made him or her worthy of having a biography written about him or her in the first place. But at least in terms of this last potential obstacle, biographers of Margaret Atwood need not feel too daunted.

Atwood and the circle of writers and publishers who came of age in the mid-sixties did more than simply write and publish many of the books we now identify as being at the advent of contemporary Canadian literature. These individuals-and, many would argue, Atwood in particular-helped literally to create and nurture the wave of cultural nationalism that gripped many literary circles and corners of academia at that time and that still informs this country today. For this reason alone, any attempt to bring Atwood and her growth as a writer and cultural nationalist into clearer focus is an obviously worthwhile exercise.

Rosemary Sullivan, winner of the Governor General's Award for The Shadow Maker: The Life of Gwendolyn MacEwen, is fully aware of the cultural value of Atwood's story. The account she gives of mid-century Toronto (where Atwood's family moved in 1946 when her father was appointed Professor of Zoology at the University of Toronto) is a city painfully insecure over its second-place cultural status to Montreal, a place where sidewalk cafes and drinking beer in one's own backyard were illegal. From here, Sullivan carefully charts the evolution of Toronto's artistic identity, bringing to life early sixties' jazz clubs like the House of Hamburg on Bay and the First Floor Club, folk clubs like the Village Corner, and, of course, the Bohemian Embassy. It was here, in November of 1960, where Atwood gave her first public reading, later recalling, "If you could survive the Embassy, you could read anywhere. Just as you reached your most poignant point [in a poem], someone would be sure to flush the toilet or turn on the expresso machine."

Sullivan is equally adept at depicting the relative non-existence of an authentically Canadian literary scene P.M. (pre-Margaret) that met Atwood upon her return to Toronto in 1967 from, among other things, graduate studies at Harvard, a brief teaching stint at the University of British Columbia, and marriage to fellow Harvard student, Jim Polk. Sullivan's careful documentation of the flowering of independent Canadian small presses and magazines-i.e., Canadian writers beginning to be published by Canadians and not foreign-owned or branch-plant publishers-is both instructive and, as Canada seems to be every day edging inch by inch closer to American colonial status (whoops, I mean centimetre by centimetre), edifying.

In chronicling Atwood's life and career up through the end of the seventies (even if understandably short on nitty gritty details, although we do learn Atwood wore black horn-rimmed glasses before switching to contact lenses),The Red Shoes is simultaneously a record of Canadian writing as a whole. Sullivan reports on these same small presses that "by the mid-seventies there would be dozens . . . [and] everybody was making discoveries, leapfrogging into new turf independently, though in tandem."

Sullivan also points out that a burgeoning sense of "Canadianness" undeniably helped to generate the smaller, independent publishing houses and distinctly Canadian magazines and reviews. House of Anansi co-founder, Dennis Lee, is quoted as saying, "After ten years of continentalizing my ass, I realized I was a colonial." Yet, there were also subtler, less political reasons for many writers, including Atwood herself. "For most of us," she says, "nationalism didn't start out as something ideological; we were just writers and wanted to publish our books."

The original research Sullivan has done in chronicling the familial, cultural, and political milieu from which Atwood emerged highlights her investigative and organizational strengths as a highly regarded scholar of Canadian literature (although much of the material on Toronto in the fifties and sixties is readily available elsewhere, including in Sullivan's own The Shadow Maker). However, these same strengths become a limitation in her attempt to achieve her stated goal as laid out in the introduction to The Red Shoes-namely, that of writing "a book about the writing life."

Sullivan notes in her lengthy introduction that "When I think of Margaret Atwood, I am haunted by an anecdote." The anecdote in question is the young Margaret in 1948 or 1949 sitting transfixed before a movie called The Red Shoes, a film "about a young woman called Victoria who becomes a world-famous ballerina" but whose life turns into tragedy as her young husband leaves her and she commits suicide la Anna Karenina. For Sullivan, young Margaret clearly "understands the message and is devastated: if you are a girl, you cannot be an artist and a wife. If you try to be both, you will end up jumping in front of a train." In large part, The Red Shoes is an attempt to illustrate how Atwood overcame this patriarchal delusion and learned to create a life for herself and a career on her own terms.

In telling Atwood's story, Sullivan rarely misses an opportunity to drive home the validity of her thesis. Writing of how young girls in the fifties were "trained to please" others, particularly men, Sullivan points out, "What most fascinates me about this young girl [Atwood] is that she inherited none of the female guilts." Elsewhere, she comments on how the young Atwood would wonder why her mother's sister, Kathleen, admittedly "the brilliant one" in the family, turned down her father's offer to pay her way to Oxford and "couldn't be brilliant, have six children, and also go to Oxford": "What is compelling to me is how Margaret would embellish these narratives. How we see our childhood is what counts, since that is the mythology out of which we invent ourselves."

No argument here. But in her introduction Sullivan admits that when approached about the idea of writing her biography, "what seemed to bother [Atwood] most was the idea I might turn her into a role model . . . that I might create an artificial order out of the myriad details of her life." This, unfortunately, is just what Sullivan has done inThe Red Shoes: she makes Atwood into a kind of feminist saint. Combined with her abdication of any real critical analysis of Atwood's work in favour of fawning exegesis ("How astonishingly succinct she could be", "What is most moving about these images . . .", "How quickly she absorbed the Gothic imagery", "Margaret never sentimentalized . . ."), The Red Shoes emerges as more hagiography than critical biography.

For every gem of Atwood's, delivered with her inimitable mix of wit, brimming intelligence, and just a touch of biting satire (describing her childhood north of the 49th parallel, for example, she comments, "Canada for us was not-America, the place where popsicle bag offers didn't apply and everything was ten cents extra"), Sullivan laboriously informs us,"What most fascinates me . . .", "What is compelling to me . . .", "I am particularly fascinated by . . .". And why Atwood is referred to throughout as simply "Margaret" is as irritatingly sycophantic as it is stylistically grating. As Anthony Burgess has written, "scholarship is never a guarantee of literary elegance."

Margaret Atwood's body of work will have to wait for her death to determine whether or not it will live. Chances are most of it will, particularly the novels and many of the poems. Any author whose work, as is the case with Atwood, can be found in both airport newspaper shops and on graduate school syllabi all over the world must be doing something right. For now, we are left with the considerable pleasure of the books themselves and Rosemary Sullivan's The Red Shoes. 

Ray Robertson is the author of the novel Home Movies.


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