Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Notes For November 18th, 2009


This Day In Writing History

On November 18th, 1939, the famous Canadian writer Margaret Atwood was born in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. Her father was an entomologist, her mother a dietitian and nutritionist. As a result of her father's research in forest entomology, Margaret spent most of her childhood in the backwoods of Northern Quebec.

Although she didn't attend school full-time until she was eleven years old, from a young age, she was a voracious reader, with a special interest in Grimm's fairy tales, pocketbook mysteries, animal stories and comic books. Margaret began writing her own stories at the age of six. As a teenager, she realized she wanted to be a professional writer. She attended Leaside High School in Leaside, Toronto, from which she graduated in 1957.

After graduation, Margaret enrolled at Victoria University in the University of Toronto, where she earned a B.A. degree in English. She had minored in philosophy and French. In 1961, the year she graduated from Victoria University, Margaret's first book, a poetry collection titled Double Persephone, was published. The privately printed book won its author the E.J. Pratt Medal.

With a Woodrow Wilson fellowship, Margaret enrolled at Radcliffe College to begin her graduate studies. The following year, she earned a Master's degree. From there, she pursued more graduate studies at Harvard, but dropped out two years later, never completing her dissertation on "The English Metaphysical Romance." She has taught English at many universities, including the University of British Columbia (1965), Sir George Williams University in Montreal (1967-68), the University of Alberta (1969-79), and York University in Toronto (1971-72).

In 1969, Margaret Atwood's first novel was published. The Edible Woman was a bold, brilliant, experimental allegory that established her as a major talent. It told the story of Marian McAlpin, a market researcher whose sane, structured, consumer-oriented world falls out of focus and becomes a surreal nightmare of existential, feminist angst after her boyfriend, Peter Wollander, proposes marriage. Food seems to take on human qualities, and Marian finds herself unable to eat because she identifies with it - she believes that, in asking her to marry him, Peter wants to metaphorically devour her. So, she bakes a cake in the shape of a woman and offers it to Peter as a substitute. He walks out and Marian eats the cake.

Margaret would continue exploring both existentialist and feminist themes in her novels Surfacing (1972), Lady Oracle (1976), and Life Before Man (1979). Her 1981 novel, Bodily Harm, features a unique heroine: a journalist and breast cancer survivor who gets caught up in violent civil unrest on an island in the Caribbean. Her next novel would become a celebrated classic of science fiction, though she considered it speculative fiction.

The Handmaid's Tale (1985) is set in the future, in the Republic of Gilead, a country that used to be the United States, until a violent military coup by Christian extremists killed the President in a terrorist attack, then ousted the Congress and abolished the Constitution. The Republic of Gilead is a racist, chauvinist, totalitarian Christian theocracy - a regime of social and religious orthodoxy inspired by the Old Testament and in response to a declining population (due to infertility) and a marked lack of "values."

In this dystopian society, sex is considered fundamentally degrading, so men must abstain from all forms of sex except marital intercourse for the purpose of reproduction. Sex is allowed outside of marriage for reproductive purposes if one's wife is sterile. In this case, a married man may keep concubines called "handmaids" for breeding. Of course, this Christian theocratic model society is rife with hypocrisy and cruelty.

The elite men who rule the Republic employ prostitutes called "jezebels" who also work at unofficial state-run brothels. Although abortion is a crime, babies born with any kind of defect mysteriously vanish not long after their birth and are never seen again. Widows, nuns, and dissident women (and handmaids who fail to conceive a child after a certain period of time) are exiled. Older, infertile women are forced into lives of domestic servitude. Homosexuality is a crime punishable by death or a long, torturous prison term.

The novel-within-a-novel is part straightforward narrative, part experimental, stream-of-consciousness narrative. It's mostly told by a handmaid, Offred - a slave name that means "Of Fred," as she is a concubine who belongs to her commander, Fred. Offred's testament of her life in the Republic of Gilead, recorded on a series of unnumbered cassette tapes, is transcribed sometime in the distant future by two professors. They placed the tapes in a "probable order," but are really out of order, and the transcription is unfinished.

The Handmaid's Tale won many awards: the 1985 Governor General's Award, the 1986 Nebula Award, the 1986 Booker Prize, and the 1987 Prometheus Award. It also won the very first Arthur C. Clarke Award in 1987. It was adapted in 1990 as an acclaimed feature film directed by legendary German film maker Volker Schlondorff, working from a screenplay by Harold Pinter. Schlondorff is best known for his brilliant and stunning 1979 adaptation of Gunter Grass' legendary antifascist allegorical novel, The Tin Drum (1959).

Margaret Atwood continued to write great novels, many of which won awards. In 2003, she ventured again into science fiction with her classic novel Oryx and Crake. Set in a post- apocalyptic world where there are only two classes of people - the very rich and the very poor - and genetic engineering has gone out of control, resulting in the crossbreeding of humans and animals. Crake is a brilliant geneticist who plans to wipe out the destructive human race and replace it with Crakers, which are peaceful, environmentally friendly human-like creatures. Crake is obsessed with Oryx, a mysterious Asian woman whom Crake thinks he recognizes from a pornographic film she performed in when she was a young girl. He hires Oryx for sexual services and to be a teacher for the Crakers, but she soon becomes his lover.

Although best known for her novels, Margaret Atwood's large body of work includes poetry collections, short story collections, children's books, and non-fiction. Her first non-fiction work was a seminal literary criticism titled Survival: A Thematic Guide To Canadian Literature (1972). She has also written for television. Her latest novel, The Year Of The Flood, published earlier this year in September, 2009, is a follow-up to Oryx And Crake. She lives in Ontario, dividing her time between Toronto and Pelee Island.


Quote Of The Day

"You need a certain amount of nerve to be a writer." - Margaret Atwood


Vanguard Video

Today's video features Margaret Atwood discussing her writings on the UCTV (University of California Television) program, Revelle Forum, in 2004. Enjoy!


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