Strange Things by Margaret Atwood

In what subtle way does the universe convey the knowledge that it has ceased to be friendly? (W.H. Blake)

It should come as no surprise to anyone reading this post that I am a massive admirer of the great Canadian author Margaret Atwood. I’ve been reading her work for decades, and she’s a writer I regularly return to over the years, always discovering something new and wonderful in her books. The LibraryThing Virago group have been picking an author of the month to read this year, a challenge I’ve been dipping in and out of, and November’s choice was Atwood. I almost ran out of time with this one, despite being desperate to read more of her work, but I *did* manage to squeeze in one title. And oddly enough it turned out to be another non-fiction book, which would fit in with the Non-Fiction November challenge that’s going around, although that’s purely coincidental…

You might have noticed that I flagged up the fact that Atwood is Canadian, a fact well-known and one that I wouldn’t normally have mentioned. However, it becomes relevant here because ‘Strange Things’ is specifically about Canadian literature and how it’s been informed and influenced by particular themes or events in the country’s past. I do have a little connection with the country, as my late father was actually born there while his parents were working abroad, and so he held dual passports; and I’ve always felt an attraction to the place which hasn’t diminished in recent years as Canada does come across in the media as a rather tolerant and nice country to live in. In fact, during the Brexit shenanigans, several family members joked half-seriously that it might be worth us all decamping there…

If you ask a writer to give a lecture, you’ll get a writer’s lecture; and as we all know, the inside of writers’ heads resemble squirrel’s nests more than they do neatly arranged filing-cabinets.

But I digress. Onto the book, which is a collection of four pieces delivered as the Clarendon Lectures at Oxford University, and these focus on the influence of the wilderness of the Canadian North on writers and indeed Canadian culture. I should ‘fess up that I’m actually pathetically unwell-read when it comes to CanLit, so much of what was discussed was new to me – which is good, but embarrassing…

Vintage photo by Caroline Moodie

The four starting points for the lectures are the doomed Franklin expedition of the nineteenth century; the ‘Grey Owl Syndrome’ of white writers going native; the mysteriously monstrous (and cannibalistic!) Wendigo; and how women writers have developed their own take on exploration. Within these topics Atwood ranges far and wide, exploring all kinds of sub-concepts, from the fact that the North is usually portrayed as female and how women writers deal with that aspect; our love of a tale of doomed exploration; the various aspects of being a monster, whether a completely external kind or one which is part of ourselves in a kind of Jekyll and Hyde way; through to the strange need of non-native peoples to adopt a native image or heritage. All of this is delivered in Atwood’s trademark crisp prose and dry wit – until re-reading her recently I had forgotten just how funny she can be, but once again I was laughing out loud in places.

These two renditions of Native people, as either better than whites or worse – with whites being the norm, the standard for comparison – ought to sound very familiar to women, polarized as they have been until so recently into angel-wives or demon-whores.

However, there *are* serious points to be made here, not the least of which is the fact that women have regularly been marginalised in Canadian mythology, never the ones who go out and explore but rather the ones that stay inside and make the homes; or worse still, allowed to personify the wilderness that has to be explored and penetrated. Atwood also expresses concerns about our behaviour towards the natural world, commenting:

… if white Canadians would adopt a more traditionally Native attitude towards the natural world, a less exploitative and more respectful attitude, they might be able to reverse the galloping environmental carnage of the late twentieth century and salvage for themselves some of that wilderness they keep saying they identify with and need.

It’s funny how there can be little synchronicities in life, and unexpected connections that pop up when you’re reading. For example, in the section of the book on Canadian women’s writing, which Atwood entitled ‘Linoleum Caves’, she covers “Bear” by Marian Engel; and I got much more from this particular section having read Books,Yo’s recent illuminating post on this book. Although Atwood comments on the bear’s particularly talented tongue (ahem….), like Books, Yo she’s aware that this is not the real point of the work, though perhaps both commentators here draw different conclusions as they’re coming from very different angles.

Atwood also touches briefly on the work of Robertson Davies, an author I have lurking close at hand, and certainly “Strange Things” has made me very keen to explore Canadian literature in more depth. She closes the book with another stark warning about the effect that our inability to address climate change is having on the world, and this resonated particularly strongly with me too; I haven’t recovered from the section of Simon Reeve’s recent “Russia” documentary when he explained how much of the permafrost had melted – it’s quite terrifying…

So, yet another masterly work by Margaret Atwood; I don’t think I’ve ever been disappointed by her work and I’m finding her non-fiction works particularly engrossing lately. Eldest Child has indicated a wish for some Atwood books for Christmas, so I now have the lovely task of trying to decide what to treat him with – and the quality of her work is so high, that I think the choice will be particularly difficult….!

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