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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…
First of all, yay! I have figured out how to have italics in a title!
Now, the book. Escaping from the Prison-House of Language and Digging for Meanings in Texts among Texts: Metafiction and Intertextuality in Margaret Atwood’s Novels Lady Oracle and The Blind Assassin by Andrea Strolz does what it says in the title: it looks at metafiction and intertextuality in these two novels. If the jargon scares you, do not worry: Strolz takes you step by step into the theory of metafiction and intertextuality. The first two chapters introduce the reader to these theories, the third and fourth chapters look at metafiction and intertextuality in Atwood’s work in general and the last two chapter focus on how they work in each novel.
It is an interesting book, which, for those familiar with these theories, will refresh the concepts and show how they apply to Atwood’s work. However, I did not find Strolz’s thesis revolutionary. For me, it was like revising some notes. Strolz has some good insights, but I think the structure of her book does not enhance her ideas. It is too fragmented, like a series of bullet points.
Will I use this book again? Yes, as some kind of catalogue of ideas and references, particularly regarding intertexts in Atwood’s work. Strolz has done her research: she has compiled nice summaries about each idea and her references are informative.
Who would I recommend this book to? People who enjoy Atwood but are not particularly familiar with the concepts of intertextuality and metafiction. Strolz’s theoretical explanations are clear and she then shows you how they work in the two novels. I think it would make a perfect textbook for undergraduate students.