Wednesday, November 06, 2019

Margaret Atwood is a Poet

First editions of two Margaret Atwood books.
"I sit in the chair and think about the word chair. It can also mean the leader of a meeting. It can also mean a mode of execution. It is the first syllable in charity. It is the French word for flesh. None of these facts has any connection with the others." (The Handmaid's Tale, p. 110)
Words clearly fascinate Margaret Atwood! She began her writing career as a poet, and went on to write her many very successful novels. A few pages into the newest one: The Testaments, I realized that I didn’t remember enough of The Handmaid’s Tale to read the sequel, so yesterday with great enjoyment and admiration, I reread the earlier book. It's a masterpiece.

I quoted the above passage, this brief reverie on a word, as an example of Atwood's special powers of looking at words. The narrator of the book refers to it as one of her "litanies." I can't help feeling that in The Handmaid's Tale, while I'm obviously reading a kind of cautionary tale where women have become a totally downtrodden class in a highly abusive and authoritarian society, I'm also reading a kind of poem to everyday feelings, objects, and experiences. Atwood always does that to me. In fact, I think that the amazing dystopian society that Atwood invented captivates readers so much that they don't necessarily dwell on the amazingly imaginative language of the narrative.

Food, aromas, pain, hunger, desire, outrage, fear, resentment, humiliation, hope and despair -- so many internal sensations and emotions come out in the experience of the narrator, whose name isn't really her name: she's called Offred, meaning she's the "handmaid" of a man named Fred. She's his sexual slave whose only purpose is to bear a child for Fred and his wife Serena Joy, who is too old for childbearing. Dystopian through and through! But such a thoroughly imagined dystopia!

I don't want to go on and on about the book, I want to start reading the sequel. But here's another passage that captured my admiration: 
"The room smells of lemon oil, heavy cloth, fading daffodils, the leftover smells of cooking that have made their way from the kitchen or the dining room, and of Serena Joy's perfume: Lily of the Valley. Perfume is a luxury, she must have some private source. I breathe it in, thinking  I should appreciate it. It's the scent of pre-pubescent girls, of the gifts young children used to give their mothers, for Mother's Day: the smell of white cotton socks and white cotton petticoats, of dusting powder, of the innocence of female flesh not yet given over to hairiness and blood. It makes me feel slightly ill, as if I'm in a closed car on a hot muggy day with an older woman wearing too much face powder. This is what the sitting room is like, despite its elegance." (p. 80)

Margaret Atwood has been one of my favorite authors since I read The Edible Woman, her first novel, which was then pretty obscure. It was published in 1969, and I read it soon after that, along with a few slim poetry collections. I have bought and read all but one of her subsequent novels when they were published, and I have liked them (with one or two exceptions).  Somehow I have never seen the movie or the TV series based on The Handmaid's Tale, so I enjoyed rereading it very much without having to think about how it was interpreted and dramatized by others. Now I'm ready to read The Testaments!

This review © 2019 by mae sander for maefood dot blogspot dot com


Kitchen Riffs said...

Really interesting. I've only read _The Handmaid's Tale_ by Atwood back when it was first published (1990? Somewhat earlier?), and haven't read anything else by her. Don't know how that happened. I always find it interesting that Canada produced two of the best novelists writing in English in the second half of the 20th century, Atwood and Robertson Davies (have you read him? If not, try _Fifth Business_). Good post -- thanks.

bermudaonion said...

I think I might need to reread The Handmaid's Tale before starting The Testaments as well.

Vagabonde said...

Sorry to admit I never read any of Margaret Atwood’s books. My husband read the Handmaid’s Tale back in the 80s and told me he did not like it. Too sinister and pessimistic he said. I don’t know where this book is now – somewhere in the house as he never gave a book away… I am still trying to unload the last 5 or 6,000 books left in GA. There are many I have not read, so I try to read those first, concentrating on the French books. I enjoyed reading your review. I do understand she is one of Canada’s finest writers. I did read an interview she gave and agreed with her general views, she is quite a lady. She was talking about her partner who had dementia, he passed away last September.

kwarkito said...

I did not know she had written poetry. I'll try to find translations.