Beginnings and Endings
Mostly I want to read what writers write, not look at
r listen to them. But in the mid-1980s, I went to hear Margaret Atwood. Murder in the Dark had recently appeared, and she read “Happy Endings”. It ends:
You’ll have to face it, the endings are the same however you slice it. Don’t be deluded by any other endings, they’re all fake, either deliberately fake, with malicious intent to deceive, or just motivated by excessive optimism if not by downright sentimentality.
The only authentic ending is the one provided here:
John and Mary die. John and Mary die. John and Mary die.
So much for endings. Beginnings are always more fun. True connoisseurs, however, are known to favour the stretch in between, since it’s the hardest to do anything with.
That’s about all that can be said for plots, which anyway are just one thing after another, a what and a what and a what.
Now try How and Why.
This year I went to hear her again. Kim Hill was interviewing her in the 1000-seat auditorium at Auckland Girls’ Grammar, where I went to school from 1958 to 1962. We learnt then that both men and women wrote books, and that a few of each came from New Zealand. But we had no notion of what it might mean to be a living writer here, as opposed to a dead one somewhere else. As Hill noted in her introduction, it’s difficult to imagine how famous Margaret Atwood is in Canada: “She makes Paul Holmes look like a shy unknown.” When her first novel, The Edible Woman, came out in 1969 (it was finished by 1965, but the manuscript got lost for a while), she was already famous for winning Canada’s premier poetry prize two years earlier.
Why is she such a drawcard in this country? New Zealand readers are said to tune in quickly to Canadian fiction, because its social and emotional landscape is so often familiar. Hill made the point by quoting a passage on Toronto (Auckland), with a characteristic Atwood sting in the tail: “Provincial, self-satisfied, boring – if you said that it showed you recognised these qualities but did not partake of them yourself.” But now people no longer need to go to Buffalo (Sydney) to buy cheap clothes, or liquor on Sundays: “Now you are supposed to say how much it has changed.”
I read The Edible Woman in 1972 (thanks to Virago – Atwood, along with Angela Carter and Maya Angelou, was one of their first contemporary authors, and they were to remain her paperback publishers for many years). With hindsight, it is still a little raw, or at least undercooked. She had not yet worked out how to economise. She tells too much, too soon. But I think I can see what I found so frighteningly familiar 20 years ago, and it had nothing to do with provincial dullness and decorum. Instead it was the sense of facing an utterly contingent future, without the power or control to give autonomous meaning to your own existence.
Ambiguously at school, much more clearly at university, we found out that whatever we might “make of ourselves” was beside the point. The point was to be married to someone (“to marry” was too active a term, probably for the groom as well in many cases), and then (only then) to “have a family”. By the time I turned 20, I was and did.
At university I had a younger friend, Susan Moller. In 1979, as Susan Moller Okin, she wrote:
Philosophers who, in laying the foundation for their political theories, have asked, “What are men like?” “What is their potential?” have frequently, in turning to the female sex, asked “What are women for?”
Atwood’s novel embodied the answer: they (we) were (and were to live) not for them- (our)selves, but for men, for children, for others. This is what the Edible Woman comes to understand, and resist. She makes a cake in the shape of a woman, and offers it to her bewildered fiancé to eat. When he angrily refuses, she eats it herself.
This is art, not polemic. In a 1994 speech, Atwood went to some lengths to point out the difference: “As André Gide once remarked, ‘It is with noble sentiments that bad literature gets written’ – a novel is not a political tract, a how-to book, a sociology textbook or a pattern of correct morality.” However, she went on:
[The novel] is also not merely a piece of Art for Art’s Sake, divorced from real life. It cannot do without a conception of form and a structure, true, but its roots are in the mud – part of the mud is history; and part of the history we’ve had recently is the history of the women’s movement, and the women’s movement has influenced how people read, and therefore what you can get away with, in art.
Whole areas of life that were once considered non-literary or sub-literary – such as the problematical nature of homemaking, the hidden depths of motherhood, and of daughterhood as well, the once-forbidden realms of incest and child abuse – have been brought inside the circle that delineates the writable from the non-writable.
To summarise some of the benefits to literature of the women’s movement – the expansion of the territory available to writers, both in character and in language; a sharp-eyed examination of the way power works in gender relations, and the exposure of much of this as socially constructed; a vigorous exploration of many hitherto concealed areas of experience.
The central point of that speech of Atwood’s was to stress that this expansion necessarily encompasses female “bad characters”, who can “act as keys to doors we need to open, and as mirrors in which we can see more than just a pretty face”. In short, instead of focusing on what women are for, the writer can choose to explore to the full what they are like.
This is precisely what Atwood has spent her time doing, to magnificent effect. Using a pertinent metaphor, Moller Okin concluded: “When women, who have always been minor characters in the social and political theory of a patriarchal world, are transformed into major ones, the entire cast and the play in which it is acting look very different.” This kaleidoscopic shift of perspective takes place in all of Atwood’s fiction.
Atwood is now 61, and a major change seems to be under way in her work. Both Alias Grace and The Blind Assassin take place mainly in the clearly distant past, and she says her next novel will be set in the space between them, from the later 1800s to the start of World War 1. She is a supremely accomplished illusionist. The scenes of The Blind Assassin seem to unfold in the flickering half-light of the cheap hotels, dim alleys and shrouded bedrooms of a 1930s thriller – except that this time, it is the woman we hear speaking out of the shadows.
Why this historical turn? (I should have asked her in Auckland, or in Wellington – yes, I followed her round – but it took me too long to work out the question.) Is it that she feels she no longer understands what is happening now, especially between women and men? The battle lines and grounds have certainly moved in what 1950s journalists used to call, only half joking, “the war of the sexes”, but how? It’s hard to tell, because it seems to be considered tedious and passé to mention this particular war at all – except in the context of boys doing less well than girls at school, ex-husbands demanding changes to the Family Court, or unemployed men objecting to employed women. Yet safe havens are as scarce and precarious as ever. For my and Atwood’s generation, even in the calmer reaches of late capitalism, there continue to be shock waves from the explosions in our children’s lives, unexpected infatuations and separations, and many kinds of dying.
So the historical turn may have simply to do with the challenge of recreating a credible past, combined with a measure of detachment from or perhaps weariness with the present, and a heightened sense of the inevitable ending. In Auckland, talking about The Blind Assassin, Atwood said:
When people reach a certain age they are more interested in the distant past than they are in what’s going on right now. That partly has to do with narrative. In the distant past, they didn’t know what was going to happen next. They were still turning the pages of life with a great deal of vigour and sometimes trepidation, to see what was going to happen.
By the time you’re the age Iris is, you pretty much know the story. You may not know the absolute last chapter, but you know the story. And what you’re interested in then, if you’re an Iris who has kept things locked up in a steamer trunk all her life, is telling the story – and somebody hearing it. But you aren’t any more interested in playing out the narrative – because you know – you know how it’s going to end.
Anne Else is a Wellington writer.