Sunday, May 9, 2021

Margaret Atwood / In Thrall to the Casually Colloquial Tone


Margaret Atwood

In Thrall to the Casually Colloquial Tone

Tony McKibbin
January 16, 2018

Let us provocatively generalise from the particular and suggest that Margaret Atwood is not always an especially curious writer; that in stories like Bluebeard’s Egg (1986) and the essays Negotiating with the Dead (2002), and on occasion in the earlier, often superb, short story collection, Dancing Girls, she asserts a position rather than suggests one. Yet even if someone might agree with our claims, why should a writer convey curiosity in their work, and is this just not one of many modes of expression available? To help locate what we mean by curiosity here we can offer as examples writers who very clearly seem to possess it, including Doris Lessing, J. M. Coetzee and Bernard Malamud, and in a very different way Borges and Kundera. In the first three examples the emphasis is ethical; in the latter pairing more metaphysical and epistemological. But they are all enquiring writers who often work out of a conundrum that leads to further entanglements. In Coetzee, it might be central character David Lurie’s belief inDisgrace that his pleasures shouldn’t be hampered; better the healthy beast than the neutered creature. In Borges, it might rest on wondering where exactly the I exists for a writer who both walks along the street and also has an abstract called ‘Borges’ who we are reading in his absence, and now after his death.

In Atwood’s work, there is usually a matter-of-factness that we will try and explain through looking chiefly at the stories in Bluebeard’s Egg, the essays in Negotiating with the Dead, and with the odd remark to be found in her other works, especially the more searching Dancing Girls. To help further, let us have in mind a couple of comments by Hermann Broch and Maurice Blanchot. In Geist and Zeitgeist, Broch is discussing Goethe’s idea that the work of art should concentrate all of humanity’s ongoing evolution into a singular art work: “eternity must be comprised in a single existence, in the totality of a single work of art.” Broch adds that “the responsibility which Goethe places on the shoulders of the writer is a gigantic one”, but we sense this burden in the writers we have mentioned as we do not in Atwood. This has nothing to do with length, though Broch himself would pursue this question through the massive, three-partSleepwalkers, but Borges’s story, for example is less than a page long. It is density not length that hints at the eternity of which Goethe speaks. Blanchot says, “certain religions have taken the impossibility of death and called it immortality….Kafka did not make this theme the expression of a drama about the next world, but he did try to use it capture the present fact of our condition.” (‘Kafka and Literature) These are pressing questions we feel are evident in different manifestations in the above writers, while instead in Atwood there is frequently the erudite and the amused, both expressed and explored with a fine intelligence and with sharp, small insights. It is not even as if Atwood is ‘merely’ telling stories: she very much places herself within the context of a burgeoning Canadian literature and a nascent feminism. These aren’t just important ways in which to place Atwood – they are arenas in which Atwood would place herself. As she says, bringing the two together with an ironic tone in the essay ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’. “By now it was the late 1940s. Women, no longer required for wartime production, had been herded back into the home, and the Baby Boom was on: marriage and four kids were the deal, and remained so for the next fifteen years. Canada was such a cultural backwater that we didn’t get the full force of this ideology – there were still some adventurous Amelia Earhart types left over…” It was out of this history that Atwood found herself moving towards becoming a writer. “There I was in 1956…I could see only what was made clearly visible to me. It was as if the public role of the writer – a role taken for granted, it seemed, in other countries and at other times, had either never become established in Canada, or had existed once but had become extinct.”

Yet this would be part of Atwood’s pragmatism as her essays are full of statements that indicate the nature of things and how one adapts, while her stories often indicate a perspective that shows a character who functions practically or a narrative voice indicating that perhaps they should. In ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ she says “the first artistic group I got involved with was the theatre folk. I didn’t want to be an actress, but I knew how to paint sets, and I could be dragged in to act in minor parts, in a pinch. For a while I designed and printed theatre posters as an alternative to working in a drugstore…” In ‘The Great God Pen’ Atwood reckons “if you absolutely insist on eating, and can neither sell your next novel nor get a job as a waiterperson, there are literary grants should you be able to elbow aside the thousands of others in the queue.” ‘In the story, ‘The Whirlpool Rapids’, the narrator discusses a woman she knows who seems fearless. “I’m told that fearlessness goes away when these women have babies. They become cowards, like the rest of us. If the baby is threatened they become ferocious, of course, but that is not out of the ordinary.” In ‘Hurricane Hazel’, the first person narrator says “…I felt that Buddy had something about me that was real, he knew too much about my deviations from the norm. I felt I had to correct that somehow. It occurred to me, years later, that many women probably had become engaged and even married this way.”

We notice across the essays and the stories a writer who manages to convey confidence and authority, a willingness to explore and explain her biographical choices and hypothesise them in fictional form. The first two stories in Bluebeard’s Egg, ‘Significant Moments in the Life of my Mother’ and ‘Hurricane Hazel’ are close to autobiographical as we find details in the stories that we can also find in the biography. Much of Atwood’s work gives the impression of being exemplary: of exploring what it might be to be a woman of a particular gender, at a particular time and in a particular place. This wouldn’t even rule out the science fiction novels she has written, with Atwood saying in a New York Times talk with Martin Amis and E. L. Doctorow that you always write about the present; how could you not – the future hasn’t taken place yet. (TimesTalk) This is no-nonsense thinking from a writer who knows that there is a lot of nonsense around. It makes sense that Atwood has a Twitter account and uses it to question climate-deniers, tweets on the stupidities of the American president, and the possibilities in eco-housing. Though Atwood says that all writers, in another moment of flippant common sense, are double “for the simple reason that you can never meet the author of the book you have just read” (‘The Jeckyll hand, the hyde hand, and the slippery double’), we might say there are writers who insist on the chasm of the gap and others who close it. Blanchot whom we quoted above had no public persona, even images of him were hard to come by. Others, like Milan Kundera, almost never give interviews and even more rarely appears publicly. Many would be resistant to using social media, and especially resistant to using it to draw comparisons with their own work and the world. In an interview with the actress Emma Watson, Atwood talks about today’s US and notes how the adaptation of her mid-eighties futuristic novel The Handmaid’s Tale is having an influence. The book is about a theocratic society where women’s bodies belong to the state. Speaking of holding on to important political beliefs that had previously been fought for, Atwood says “I don’t think America is rolling over… to all of this, as you’ve probably seen from reading the news. You’ve probably seen that women dressed as Handmaids have been turning up at in state legislatures and just sitting there. You can’t kick them out because they’re not making a disturbance, but everybody knows what they mean.” Here Atwood very clearly links the writer and the society, her important and very useful impact on the socio-political world.

In his famous essay ‘Why I Write’, Orwell lists four reasons. Sheer egotism, aesthetic pleasure, historical impulse and political purpose, with the fourth for Orwell finally the most important. “The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.” Orwell adds, “and looking back through my work, I see that it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally.” Orwell was someone for whom political life and aesthetic purpose couldn’t easily be separated: both 1984 and Animal Farm are classic texts partly because of what they say, not only and perhaps not chiefly because of how they are done. Someone who regarded aesthetic enthusiasm over political purpose would be less inclined to allegorize and might be more given to the metaphoric, as Hannah Arendt sees it when writing on Walter Benjamin. “Metaphors are the means by which the oneness of the world is brought about…”while “…allegory must be explained before it can become meaningful.” While “metaphor establishes a connection that is sensually perceived in its immediacy…” as allegory does not. (New Yorker) Why does Atwood write, we might ask, and does her writing suggest more the metaphorical or the allegorical as Arendt couches it? The answer might depend on the period under discussion or the book under review. When we look at earlier novels like Surfacing from 1973 or Life Before Man from 1979 we have the sense of a writer groping her way towards perceptions rather than homiletically arriving at them. In Surfacing there is a passage where the first-person narrator talks about the neck. “The trouble is all in the knob at the top of our bodies. I’m not against the body or the head either: only the neck, which creates the illusion that they are separate. The language is wrong, it shouldn’t have different words for them.” In Life Before Man, a woman waits for people to ask for something on Halloween. “Elizabeth sits on her mild sofa, facing the bowls. Two disembodied heads burn behind her. The bowls are on the pine sideboard. Not her bowls, she wouldn’t let them use hers, but three bowls from the kitchen, a pyrex casserole, a white china mixing bowl, another mixing bowl, stainless steel.” Later on, she thinks about what her children will have picked up trick or treating. “Later that night she will go through their loot while they sleep, looking for evidence of razor blades in apples, poisoned candy. Although their joy cannot touch her, fear for them still can.” Finally, in ‘Hair Jewellery’, published in Dancing Girls in 1977, we see again this fragility, intermingling with the authority Atwood often shows in more recent work. A woman meets a former obsession years later near the end of the story and they have both sunk into their lives, married with children. He seems to have none of his sly curiosity or wry humour, and she notices he has put on weight, looks healthy and perhaps plays golf. He even shows her photos of his kids that he takes out of his wallet. “That should have been that”, she thinks, after getting home, “and I can’t understand why it isn’t. It is absolutely true I love my husband and children….my husband admires my achievements and is supportive…but when I returned from the conference to the house where I live…you were not gone.”

What we see in the above examples is a sense of groping rather than asserting, of someone who is trying to find a feminism from the inside rather than a militancy from the outside. The Handmaid’s Tale would appear to fulfil Orwell’s political obligation but also leans towards the allegorical as few will deny the terror of a system that regards women’s bodies as a State concern. But what about marital infidelities, relationships that one can never quite get of out of one’s system, and an obscure feeling that you aren’t quite sure what it means to say one’s own body? Is this not in Atwood’s work where the writing is at its most interesting?There is a place for allegorical writing and few have done it better than Orwell, but it is often where literature meets polemic, and in the essays and stories we are chiefly focusing upon, allegory might be absent but assertion is not. This doesn’t make Atwood’s work simple-minded but it can make it aloof and not so much insensitive as desensitised, as if the work is steeling itself against sensitivity, while the above instances open the work up to the nerve ends of femininity. This can nevertheless give the stories in Bluebeard’s Egg and the essays in Negotiating with the Dead a fine line in humour, but there is also often the sense of the punchline: a literary uppercut that halts emotion. “Buddy got better quite soon. In the weeks after that, he ceased to be an indulgence, or even a joke, and instead became an obligation.” (‘Hurricane Hazel’) “…It wouldn’t occur to Ed to make love during the day. Sally often comes across articles in magazines about how to improve your sex life, which leave her feeling disappointed…if Ed were more experimental, more interested in variety, he would be a different kind of man altogether, slyer, more devious, more observant, harder to deal with.” (‘Bluebeard’s Egg’) By the end of the story, such thoughts will be reassessed, but they are assertively offered at that moment. In ‘Spring Song of the Frogs’, the narrator says, “It’s a family myth that Will is Cynthia’s favourite uncle. Like many myths, it has some basis in truth, once when – just after his own marriage broke-up – he was reaching for a sense of family, and would read Cynthia stories and tickle her under the arms. But that was years ago.”

Something in the “but that was years ago” returns the story to literature, which of course raises the question of what we mean by literature. Perhaps, from a certain point of view, literature is what collapses cleverness in the face of a bigger vision, one that hints at the words that cannot be expressed by words themselves. The philosopher A. N. Whitehead put it well when describing the death of his son Eric in WWI, saying that the most beautiful and vivid language by the masters of English “only trivialised the actual emotions” (Dialogues of Alfred North Whitehead). Kafka would seem to say the opposite when declaring “everything that is not literature bores me and I hate it, for it disturbs me or delays me if only because I think it does. I lack all aptitude for family life except, at best, as an observer. I have no family feeling and visitors make me almost feel as though I were maliciously being attacked.” (Diaries) Yet Whitehead is talking of the limitations of language while Kafka addresses the impossibility of life. However, both are talking about limits, and if Kafka gives literature the importance he does, this is not because of what is usually called the literary life: the novels written, the book launches indulged, the awards given, the film or TV adaptations, the interviews, and all because of some well-turned phrases. No, Kafka would probably be sympathetic to Whitehead’s claim, and Blanchot addresses this problem well in ‘Kafka and Literature’. “So it is not enough for me to write “I am unhappy.” As long as I write nothing else, I am too close to myself, too close to my unhappiness, for thus unhappiness to become really mine in the form of language: I am not yet truly unhappy. It is only from the moment I arrive at this strange substitution, “He is unhappy”, that language begins to be formed into a language that is unhappy for me, to sketch out and slowly project the world of unhappiness as it occurs in him.” (‘Kafka and Literature’) The nature of this project seems very different from Atwood’s, who sees the writer’s purpose to escape such entanglements of self and work. “When writers have spoken consciously of their own double natures, they’re likely to say that one half does the living, the other half the writing, and – if of a melancholy turn of mind – that each is parasitic upon the other.” (‘The jeckyll hand…’) The manner in which the melancholy that Kafka and Blanchot puts at the centre of literature is given a sub-sentence significance in Atwood’s essay, indicating a rather different sensibility, or at least someone who has found her way of keeping the problem at a distance. Though Atwood invokes Borges’ astonishing, aforementioned story ‘Borges and I’, she insistently domesticates it: as she says earlier in the essay, “I am nice, cosy sort of person, a bit absent-minded, a dab-hand at cookies, beloved of domestic animals, and a knitter of sweaters with arms that are too long.” She is talking of her capacity to write cold-blooded sentences written by this warm-blooded person and leaves it at that. When Atwood thinks of that author, how can she associate it with herself: that author “could never be imagined – for instance – turning out a nicely browned loaf of oatmeal-and-molasses bread…”?

Yet the division seems a little too easy, offered for light, comedic effect rather than the ontological entanglement that Kafka so brilliantly explored. Someone might say that this is all very well for Kafka but should all writers be beholden to such an entanglement? Perhaps not, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t look for entanglements nevertheless. If we want a formulation that is easy and an answer too readily to hand, we can go to popular fiction and journalism. If Kafka remains such an imposing figure in 20th century literature it rests partly on this insistent need not to allow for ready formulations and easy answers. But if we feel that Atwood is sometimes less involved than we would like, it resides in sensing that the use of erudition and the comic get her out of tight corners in the essays, and that an aloof, intelligent tone leads to a similar feeling in the stories in Bluebeard’s Egg. In ‘The Great God Pen’ she quotes Kafka’s ‘The Hunger Artist’ and says, “the fasting artist’s hunger, like that of the saints, is for a food not of this world; in this he is sublime. But he is also ridiculous, because he is such a dingy misfit. The God of Art has chosen the fasting-artist as his disciple, but the Kafkaesque result is a combination side-show freak and Freudian compulsive.” This is Atwood in control of the prose and aware of her erudition, but the complexity of the Kafkaesque is reduced to the demands of her audience. The essays in Negotiating with the Dead were written as a series of talks at Cambridge in 2000, and she says “in converting these pieces from the spoken to the written word I have attempted to retain the colloquial tone, although I admit to having removed some of the cornier jokes.” The jokes might have been removed but the need to entertain rather than probe remains. Here she discusses the romantic notion of genius and self-mythologising. “So if you’ve bought the Romantic-genius package – or its later version, the high-art aesthete, for whom life itself had to be a beautiful composition – you might well have felt a pressing need for a double: someone to play the more exalted part while you were snoring with your mouth open.” (‘The jeckyll hand, the hyde hand, and the slippery double.’)

The same tone can often be found in the stories. “For it must be admitted: Sally is in love with Ed because of his stupidity, his monumental and almost energetic stupidity: energetic, because Ed’s stupidity is not passive. He’s no mere blockhead, you’d have to be working at it to be that stupid.” (‘Bluebeard’s Egg’) We notice the colon in the essay and notice it again here, used twice within the one sentence as Atwood asserts and justifies. The colon is a multifaceted tool and we wouldn’t want to claim that it is a priori an assertive device. Indeed it can often function as the height of argumentative modesty as the writer insists on making their point and then justifying it with examples so immediate they cannot wait for the next sentence. Yet the assertiveness elsewhere makes the colon seem all the more determined. The narrator goes on to say “Does it make Sally feel smug, or smarter than he is, or even smarter than she really is herself? No, on the contrary it makes her humble. It fills her with wonder that the world can contain such marvels as Ed’s colossal and endearing thickness. He is just so stupid.” Here is a passage from ‘The Salt Garden’, “Dentistry, for Theo, is hardly a vocation. He hadn’t felt called by teeth; he’d told her he picked dentistry because he didn’t know what else to do; he had good fine-motor coordination, and it was a living, to put it mildly.” There is in the tone, the move towards the punch line: the smart and to the point use of language that might anticipate irony but not quite exploration; we sense a good mind at work but not always a fine one.

Perhaps we are being too harsh on Atwood, and asserting ourselves too categorically in the process, by focusing on too few examples of her work to justify our claims. But one reason why we provide a small selection is to indicate this isn’t the sum total of Atwood oeuvre and that other examples within it are tentative and exploratory, evident in the earlier instances of her work that we quoted. There are stories we haven’t touched upon at all from Dancing Girls that possess delicacy and a concerned sensibility, evident in ‘The Man from Mars’ and ‘Betty’ Our purpose is not so much to attack Atwood but to muse over an approach to writing that we feel closes down rather than opens up options. This has nothing to do with women writing less assertively than men (why invoke Kafka?). It is to indicate that literature needn’t work with the expectations placed on the journalist or the writer of popular fiction. When Atwood openly acknowledges the corny jokes this is the writer in the face of an audiencewhile what we find more interesting is writing that confronts its own vulnerability rather than protects itself. This would be writing that doesn’t assume it has something to convey but would insist on having something to explore. Much of Atwood’s earlier work hints at a dimension of what has been called ecriture feminine – feminine writing – which would be quite distinct from feminist writing. Helen Cixous “argues that there is a patriarchal hierarchy that orders language into positive and negatively charged binary terms, ones which always favour the masculine dimension.”  (The Icon Critical Dictionary of Feminism and Post Feminism) Unlike feminism, which many would claim is a lived experience, feminine writing acknowledges the linguistic codes that underpin meaning: the distance between the signifier and signified that makes language arbitrary, but within this arbitrariness certain terms are privileged. We might say that a man is weak but of good character; a woman is plain but with great charm. The conjunction ‘but’ could be replaced by ‘and’ to create a tension in the meaning of the sentence, and this would be closer to feminine literature as writers like Cixous would define it. “The arbitrary link between women and femininity established by ecriture feminine has the effect of shifting feminist debate from the focus on women as a coherent, biological mass with common concerns that inform their writing, and refocuses attention on the effects of femininity in writing (regardless of the gender of the author. Thus, for Cixous, ecriture feminine can be created by both men and women.” (The Icon Critical Dictionary of Feminism and Post Feminism) A marvellous example of this in practice would be the work of Clarice Lispector, who plays havoc with the conjunction as words no longer follow with any sense of inevitability. A typical Lispector sentence would be “the trees were laden, and the world so rich that it was rotting.” Or “She loved the world, she loved all things created, she loved with loathing.” This is work that is close to Julia Kristeva’s ideas expressed in an interview ‘Unes Femmes: The Woman Effect’. Kristeva says: “I am increasingly convinced we must avoid assigning genders to cultural productions, saying that such-and-such is female and such and such is male. I believe the problem lies elsewhere: how can we offer women the economic and libidinal conditions they need to analyze social oppression and sexual repression so that each woman might realize her specificity and difference …”

Earlier Atwood stories are much closer to this notion of femininity over the assertiveness of feminism, closer if you like to the metaphorical over the allegorical – the tentative over the flippant. When Atwood does invoke a position a little like the one we have just discussed, the tone is central. …”Like it or not, language has a moral dimension built into it: you can’t say weed without making a negative judgement about the botanical specimens you’ve just assigned to the weed category.” (‘Prospero, The Wizard of Oz, Mephisto and Co.’) In the story ‘Loulou, or the Domestic Life of the Language’, the narrator says: “Loulou doesn’t think of the accountant she has now as a real one, by which she means a frightening one. He is not in a glass tower, he has no polished receptionist, though he does have a certificate on the wall and even a three-piece suit (though, Loulou suspects, only one.)” The narrator adds, “she discovered him by accident when she was down on Queen Street buying fresh chicken from A. Stork, the best place for it in her opinion, especially when you need a lot, as she did that day because all the poets were coming for dinner.” The narrative tone is assured and amused, writing that knows what it is doing and where it is going. There is sardonic humour in this tale that is also evident in a number of the stories, and we might wonder why the humour doesn’t accommodate the enquiring as we have chosen to explore it. It might rest on where the sardonic lies: does it question common sense or does it affirm it, does it seem to indicate that the author knows best or that the author knows very little at all and expresses an incompetence of living?

If we find anyone from Thomas Bernhard to Michel Houellebecq funny it rests on their focus on men who don’t know how to live their lives and cannot trust a mode of existence that indicates progress or change. When Houellebecq says in Submission “I’ve never felt the slightest vocation for teaching…what little private tutoring I’d done, to raise my standard of living, soon convinced me that the transmission of knowledge was generally impossible, the variance of intelligence extreme, and that nothing could undo or even mitigate this basic inequality”, we don’t agree with the narrator – we comprehend his perspective. The humour rests in the hopelessness of the narrator rather than the hopelessness of education, It doesn’t mean he isn’t making a valid point, but the hyperbolic despair pushes it into the humorous and the contentious. We can laugh and disagree at the same time. This is an approach very far away from feminine writing (indeed Houellebecq’s might be the antithesis to it and far from unproblematic), but it nevertheless seems to question values rather than assume them. Throughout Houellebecq and Bernhard’s work (without equating them in terms of quality; Bernhardt is a great writer and Houellebececq a problematically good one) we might find ourselves outraged by many of the claims but find a perspective within that outrage. Atwood’s remarks, narrated through characters or expressed in the essays, usually leave us nodding our head in easy agreement, appealing to our sensible self without quite challenging our outer edges. There is very little that feminine writing and the outrageous narration of Bernhardt and Houellebecq, but also sometimes Philip Roth and Celine, have in common, but they challenge our perceptual faculties in the former instance, and our assumptions in the latter. If we prefer the Atwood ofSurfacingLife Before Man and Dancing Girls it rests on the exploration we find missing from the later work. This needn’t be because she is asking questions, as we proposed Coetzee, Lessing, and others do, but that the prose itself poses and possesses a question in the spaces it opens up. For some reason Bluebeard’s Egg and Negotiating with the Dead appear to us to close them down, a feminist writing that is too happy where it is rather than asking where it needs to go. Perhaps it might seem unfair that we have paid attention to work we have chosen to attack over work by the same author that we could choose to praise, but sometimes the questions we pose comes from the work we want to argue against rather than work we can admire but that doesn’t facilitate an internal discussion within ourselves, one that finds outer form in an essay. We choose to create a problem where we feel the writer has failed to do so. All we will say in conclusion is that, if Atwood passes for an important writer in whatever will pass for posterity, we might feel it will rest on the sort of work we have praised in passing rather than the books we have chosen to gently denigrate. Where the culturally imposing and allegorically significant Handmaid’s Tale fits we shall leave for another day.

Tony McKibbin

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