Monday, August 29, 2011

Negotiating with Margaret

Writers are like friends. With some you have intense relationships - or with their books, at any rate - for a while and then you move on. Others come and go in your life. Now you read them, now you don't. Sometimes you love them, at other times they disappoint you.

And then there are those who become a part of your life. The Canadian author Margaret Atwood is someone with whom I've always identified strongly - and not only because of her passion for the Grimm brothers' fairytales and Greek mythology.

Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing (2002) is essential reading for anyone who ever wanted to make a living from writing, a marvellous guide book with most of the ingredients of Atwood at her best. It is clever yet accessible, serious without ever becoming pretensiously heavy, always dosed with humour. Of course it shows neither the full power of her imagination - for this you have to read her fiction - nor the astonishing versatality of her work, but it is enough to leave a lesser writer like me quite overawed.

Atwood, born in Ottowa in 1939, is known mostly for her novels (winning the Booker Prize in 2000 for The Blind Assassin), but she has also produced several volumes of poetry and short stories, children's books and non-fiction, TV scripts, even lyrics and librettos. In the seventies she created a cartoon character called Survivalwoman - writing and drawing everything herself, under a pseudonym - which was featured in a magazine for years. Her novels vary from well-researched historical fiction such as Alias Grace (1996) to science fiction such as The Handmaid's Tale (1985) and Oryx and Crake (2003).

She has received honoroury degrees from famous universities like Harvard and a dozen others, her books are translated all over the world and she has become a kind of national monument in the Canadian literary landscape.

As my son would say, what's not to admire?

My personal favourites among her books (besides just about everyting already mentioned in this blog) include her 1969 debut novel, The Edible Woman (the sort of savoury title I wish I could have dreamed up myself) and Cat's Eye, a novel about youthful friendship and memory with a striking opening line ('Time is not a line but a dimension, like the dimensions of space'). Oh yes, and I also loved her latest short-story collection, Moral Disorder (2006).

In fact, she seems to be one of the rare contemporary authors whose career I've followed from the first to the latest book, spanning forty fertile years of writing, without ever finding her boring or predictable. Now isn't that the stuff that life-long friendships are made of?

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