I do not really read biographies or memoirs. Actually, I do not think I had ever read a biography before, but if they are all like this one, I cannot wait to read more! In fact, according to its author, Rosemary Sullivan, the book is not a biography, it is a “not-biography” (how can you write a book about someone’s life if this person is not dead yet?):
“I was writing a book about Margaret Atwood. Though I didn’t quite know what to call it. A ‘not-biography’ was the closest I’d come . . . I wanted a book about the writing life. There is so much confusion about what makes a writing life possible.”
I think it is fair to say that Sullivan succeeded in her project. The Red Shoes: Margaret Atwood Starting Out retraces the influences and beginnings of this writer who has now become a literary icon. However, it is much more than about Atwood. It is also about literary life in Canada and the developments of the publishing industry in the 60’s.
The Red Shoes is wonderfully written and takes you back to Canada at the time when Atwood was growing up and becoming a (woman) writer. From Northern Quebec to Toronto to Harvard to Vancouver to Montreal to Europe, it makes you visit all those places in which Atwood lived and evolved. It recreates the climate in which she became who she is. It also makes you discover the state of literature in Canada at the time. I had read about it before in many essays, but this book enabled me to get a feeling about it. I was taken back to the late 60’s-early 70’s, when poetry readings were happening in the Bohemian Embassy and when a few musicians were also starting out (some of them got together and became The Band).
Sullivan’s work is well researched. She knows what she is talking about, but has also interviewed many of Atwood’s acquaintances, has read Atwood’s works and links them to events in her life, has consulted the correspondence Atwood held with other writers, and so on.
The title comes from a film Atwood saw as a child, The Red Shoes, in which the female artist commits suicide because she is faced by the impossibility of pursuing her artictic career as a dancer and her love affair. Atwood, when she decided to become a writer, had this idea that she would die before 30 and never become a wife and mother. Womanhood and being an artist were seen as incompatible at the time. Sullivan’s work retraces these anxieties and highlights how this unconventional woman managed to be fulfilled as both a woman and an artist.
It is also a valuable testimonial about the Canadian renaissance in literature and the arts. It discusses how Canadian literature became viable, how small presses, such as the now famous House of Anansi, were born.
For someone like me who has a fascination with Canada, this book is invaluable. Sullivan has also written a biography of the poet Gwendolyn MacEwen (which Loni mentions here) and I look forward to reading it. MacEwen was a contemporary of Atwood and lived in the same Toronto as Atwood did…