Margaret’s Malahat

The entire January issue in 1977 of The Malahat Review (Number 41) was dedicated to Margaret Atwood. One’s first impulse was to check the obituary columns, since on first glance the volume, complete with photos and “I remember Peggy when . . .” stories, smacked of a tribute to a deceased great. Not so. One’s second response was to ask if Atwood had retired. Wrong again. Was this then a kind of Festschrift? Editor Linda Sandler calls it a “Symposium” but it really is, in her own words, “in the nature of a tenth anniversary tribute,” an acknowledgement of Atwood’s ten years as “the presiding genius of Canadian letters,” and as such it turns out to be a rather interesting mixture — both of criticism and adulation and of the personal and the academic.

     The volume opens with Sandler’s interview of Atwood, one in which the author contributes amusingly to the (self-)debunking of the “presiding genius” status now accorded her. Other contributions by Atwood herself include a poem, “Threes,” and a short story, “The Resplendant Quetzal,” plus a set of worksheets for those readers interested in the stages of a poem’s genesis. There is also a photo album dating from 1944 to 1976, with Atwood looking everything from delightfully spontaneous to stagily posed; in other words, the usual photo collection range.

     The “personal” parts of the volume are divided into prose and poetic contributions. There are poems explicitly written for or to Atwood by George Woodcock, Tom Marshall, and Gwendolyn MacEwen. The most interesting of these is one by editor Sandler herself — to which we shall later return. Other poems such as Susan Musgrave’s are obviously inspired by Atwood’s own themes and images; George Jonas too has “pastiche” fun with Atwood’s titles. Other poetic contributions are harder to account for. Ralph Gustafson, Janis Rapoport, and Al Purdy include poems which presumably are inspired by or related to Atwood and/or her work, but the relationship remains somewhat less than clear. The same is true of Robin Skelton’s photographic collages entitled “Anima: A Pictographic Sextain for Margaret Atwood”.

     The two brief “personal” prose sections are of more general interest in that they both address themselves to Atwood’s media persona. Al Purdy’s amusingly witty and genuinely affectionate tale of his first meeting with Atwood is overtly aimed at countering Glassco’s “professional virgin” image of her. On the other hand, perhaps predictably, Robert Fulford defends the media’s different “images” of Atwood (“Feminist, nationalist, literary witch, mythological poet, satirist, formulator of critical theories”) on the grounds that as a writer and as a public persona, Atwood is “elusive” but also “her own public self-creation.” As such, she is fair game; her Protean presence is good press, Fulford seems to suggest.

     The academic or literary critical part of the issue is less entertaining than the personal and is also considerably more uneven in quality. There are specific articles on particular books, but there are also more general thematic and image-tracing studies. Of this latter type, perhaps the most stimulating is Rosemary Sullivan’s “Breaking the Circle”, in which a selection of Atwood’s texts is employed to illustrate the “circle game” image as a central Atwood motif, linked on a cultural level to Frye’s garrison mentality theme in Canadian literature. For Sullivan, the enclosing circle is that of logic and of language: “One problem is that Atwood’s language fails her. Even in moments of intense mystical perception, her language is the language of logic.” True, but one might argue from the same evidence that Atwood is very aware of this inevitable paradox, and that her interest is in exploring exactly that “game” within that impossible perfect “circle.” Sullivan’s somewhat mystical and personal conclusion is that Atwood fails to break out of the circle, fails to face anarchy and possible rebirth, fails to achieve “a true understanding of persons in relation.”

     While one might not agree with this interpretation, one is grateful for the coherence and thoroughness of the critic’s work. This is all the more true in the light of some of the other general literary studies. The introduction of Tom Marshall’s “Atwood Under and Above Water” would lead one to expect a full discussion of the long list of themes and images that lead Marshall to claim that Atwood works “consciously within the Canadian tradition” — whatever that means. However, the brief and superficial survey which follows is more descriptive than analytic, and ultimately offers no new or even interesting insights. Similar structural problems belie Eli Mandel’s “Atwood Gothic” which begins as a study of what lies beneath the surface of her social commentary. The three elements he claims to choose to discuss are a preoccupation with the ghost story — on an allegorical level —, an obsession with reduplicating images, and the use of totemic animal images. The first of these is quite fully treated; the third is never really got around to because the second takes Mandel off on a tangent which, while quite frankly of more interest than his gothic subject, is not really what the reader had been led to expect. The article ends on a very different topic from that on which it began — the gothic use of mirror images is exchanged for what he now calls his “argument”, that is, that this concern of hers is “an attempt to resolve an impossible dilemma about writing and experience, or about fiction and wisdom.”

     There are logical and structural problems too with the single article devoted specifically to Atwood’s poetic style. In “Timeless Construction,” Robin Skelton advances the theory that Atwood’s style is modular, that its units are therefore moveable. This at first is intriguing in that one tends to agree with him that her verse indeed is “about states of being rather than events,” that it is “not primarily concerned with sequence of action,” but when Skelton then adds, or with “sequence of thought,” one begins to hesitate. The logic the critic follows leads him to state that if this is a true description of her verse, then the parts can be rearranged and in fact he has found that only “in a minority of poems is the sentence or stanza order absolutely unalterable.” Since, given his definition of modular, he must deny that rhetoric is important to Atwood’s verse, he can proceed to take liberties with the order within poems; but, in his arbitrary reorganizing he could be said to defeat his own purpose. Admitting that “style” is the “message”, he fails to see that a definition of modular verse alone cannot prevent rhetorical emphasis from being inseparable from style, and therefore from the message, that form and style are not just made of words or units, but the placing of those words. (He does admit in one case that indeed the reordering of “modules” “would give us an anticlimatic conclusion” but that this “would not fundamentally affect the poem’s message.”) His least effective example of a poem whose parts could “easily” be rearranged with no damage is one which proves that his concept of units or modules has blinded him to impact—rhetorical and in fact emotional—in the poem as a whole:

You fit into me
like a hook into an eye
a fish hook
an open eye.

Any reversal would destroy the force — and the poetic, if not literal, meaning — of the poem. The logic of Skelton’s argument is not assisted at all by his sudden recourse to types of parallelism in Hebrew prosody, since they are all based on order of units (e.g. “the second half [of the verse] gives a consequence of the first thought”, etc.). Ultimately one is left unconvinced by his reordable modular theory.

     The two articles on Atwood’s fiction are of more value. Novelist Jane Rule’s “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Normalcy” is mostly plot outline but is made well worth reading by her insights into the characters’ relationships to language and to fiction. Rowland Smith’s view of Atwood as “The Stoic Comedian” is an intriguing mixture of negative criticism and praise: “Because the major themes [of the novels] are so eminently comprehensible, so easily seized upon as the substance of the books, they tend to obscure the sardonic comedy which is superbly built into their texture.” In other words, the overt unsubtle lessons of her fiction are obtrusive in their “oversonorous,” heavy-handed underlining, while the “sardonic asides” of what he calls the “derailed observer” are much more incisive and revealing, not just in social satiric terms, but on a more profound psychological level.

     It is Survival, however, that draws the greatest number of responses, though not necessarily the most interesting. George Woodcock’s “Transformation Mask for Margaret Atwood” begins with his objections to Atwood as a critic, and en route to a discussion of the theme of animal victimization, he launches into an attack on the victim status as a basis to any notion of survival. He does so on the paradoxical grounds that it is at once too universal (see the Bible, Homer, and so on) and too personal. Yet in this latter weakness of the book, lies Atwood’s strength as a writer for Woodcock: “in writing Survival, Margaret Atwood has really been externalizing intuitions whose validity is mainly subjective; feelings which find a convincing creative form in her two novels and in her poetry, but which lose their strength as soon as she attempts to use them for the interpretation of a mass of work by other writers.”

     Survival also excites a range of kinds of responses typical of this volume as a whole. One need only mention for contrast value George Bowering’s “Basic Victim Positions”, a mercifully brief sexual parody on the perhaps unhappy “position” phrase. Another view is taken by Rick Salutin who sees Survival as a “sort of prolegomenon to a Marxist criticism of Canadian literature” because its basis is essentially economic and political, and its intent is practical. He then goes on to claim that indeed without a Marxist base, “the structure and intent of the book would fall apart.” Whether or not one agrees that the book is “a ‘moment’ in the dialectic of Canadian society,” the concept at least has a textual basis, a claim John Hofsess cannot make for his “How To Be Your Own Best Survival,” a self indulgent and not very amusing response to the book — he read it and began exercising. He claims that “it takes a certain imaginative flair to misread . . . [Survival] so profoundly that it changes one’s life, for good,” but one is tempted to claim instead that it takes a certain chutzpah to think this would interest anyone else.

     The volume ends on a rather different note — the academic and impersonal one of Alan J. Horne’s checklist of works by and about Atwood. But to be fair to the tonal range of the issue, one ought to note Jerome H. Rosenberg’s rather cloying enthusiasm in the drily-titled, “On Reading the Atwood Papers in the Thomas Fisher Library”: “What makes the [reading] experience acute is the dramatic, gothically suspenseful presentation of the correspondence. It is filed alphabetically in separate folders, each under a different correspondent’s name, and it reads very much like a Faulkerian novel — say Absalom, Absalom! or As I Lay Dying. What emerges is a non-linear, labyrinthical tale. The parts of any given event are separated by several or several dozen folders; one revisits them from different viewpoints and reassesses them, like clues in a mystery.” The reader awaits irony but only gets: “There’s nothing unusual here — only a standard filing system; and a few hours work could put the material into chronological order. But to look at it that way is rather pedestrian and requires that we put aside the excitement of discovery.” And so on.

     Malahat’s tribute to Atwood is indeed a mixed bag. Editor Sandler has provided something for everyone — from general reader to Can.Lit. expert, from literary groupie to bibliographer. In this sense the volume is successful. One might have looked for a little more editing of the overly idiosyncratic and personal, but what is clear is that Atwood, unlike Wordsworth’s Lucy, will never be “a maid whom there were none to praise.” One wonders how it felt, at 38, to be the recipient of such a tribute. Linda Sandler’s fine poem, “Collage for Lady Oracle”, ends with what is, one would like to think, a possible answer:

We wanted you to tell us the future, that was your job.
You shrugged.
We could see you were going to oblige
when you reached for the axe.

Linda Hutcheon