The Handmaid's Tale
Author of twenty volumes of prose fiction including most notably the novels Surfacing, The Handmaid’s Tale, Alias Grace, The Blind Assassin, and Oryx and Crake, as well as thirteen volumes of poetry, six works of nonfiction, and six children’s books, Margaret Atwood has an international reputation that differs considerably from her reputation in her native Canada, where she became, virtually overnight in 1972, at the age of thirty-three, the most celebrated and controversial Canadian writer of the era. The daughter of an entomologist at the University of Toronto, with a master’s degree in Victorian literature from Harvard (1962), Atwood would seem to have an instinct for taxonomy; for the casting of a cold but not unsympathetic eye upon the strategies by which individuals present themselves to others in order to confirm their identity or, simply, like the desperate captive in The Handmaid’s Tale, her most widely read novel, to survive.
Atwood’s first novel, a feminist “anti-comedy” (Atwood’s description) titled The Edible Woman, had appeared in 1969, to enthusiastic but limited press coverage, but in the late 1960s Atwood was most known for her distinctive poetic voice in such early, acclaimed volumes as The Circle Game (1966), The Animals in That Country (1968), The Journals of Susanna Moodie (1970), Procedures for Underground (1970), and Power Politics (1971) with its wonderfully terse, mordant prefatory lines:
you fit into me
like a hook into an eye
a fish hook
an open eye
Curiously, and ironically, the book that in 1972 catapulted the young author to such unexpected celebrity has never been published in any country outside Canada: this is Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature. (Now published in Canada in a revised edition by McClelland and Stewart, it was originally published by the small Toronto-based press House of Anansi as one in a series of “self-help guides” to help defray the costs of literary publishing.) Conceived as an “easy-access” book for the use of high school and college instructors of Canadian literature (a category that, in 1972, scarcely existed and was more likely to arouse derision than admiration), Survival is, as its subtitle indicates, not a survey of Canadian literature, not an evaluation of distinctive Canadian texts, or a compendium of histories and biographies, but a taxonomy outlining “a number of key patterns” intended to “function like the field markings in bird-books: they will help you distinguish this species from all others.” Atwood’s methodology follows that of such influential critical theorists of the time as Leslie Fiedler, Perry Miller, and Northrop Frye, whose student Atwood had been at the University of Toronto. Her intention in Survival is to identify “a series of characteristics and leitmotifs, and a comparison of the varying treatments of them in different national and cultural environments.”
Immensely readable, entertaining, and insightful, a treasure trove for non-Canadian readers to whom such gifted Canadian poets and writers…
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