Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Margaret Atwood--Lady Oracle (1976)--Part 1 This was actually a pretty good book. It had important themes--secrets of inner life, the constant presence and influence of the past, the random nature of major life-changing events--that it explored better than most books do. There was a lot about sex in the book, and I don't understand sex, especially the special relationship to it and needs that women have, so I don't quite know what to make of all that. But on the whole it's an impressive and worthwhile book. I don't think I had ever read a Canadian book with a regular Canadian setting before either, so that was also a plus. I had read the Handmaid's Tale once, and that was so bad, and I had seen Margaret Atwood give interviews on television and she was so blah and smug and generally unappealing, confirming all the worst fears about the Canadian intelligentsia that the conservative media has aroused in us, that I was not looking forward to reading this at all; but I was pleasantly surprised.

When I finished I went back and read the first chapter, and the book being written in a way that chronologically it starts nearly at the end and jumps all over the place in the course of the writing, it was clear that if I had read it through again I would have understood a lot more clearly what was happening as I went along. While I liked the book however, life is short, and I am not ready to commit myself to reading Margaret Atwood novels through twice at the outset at the present time.

In the interest of speeding along my reviews, I am really going to try to cut down my observations and quotations to a sampling of the things I found most amusing. I am hoping this will be more successful and satisfactory for all involved.

p.9--a reference to the sternness of the Queen (we all know which queen is meant). I have the impression that Canadians think about the Queen a lot more than they would want to let on to outsiders.

pp. 10-11--Her descriptions of ordinary events are a little too clinical, lacking in any magic, for my general taste. She betrays a concern with the importance of female hair: "hair in the female was regarded as more important than either talent or the lack of it." Margaret Atwood herself has woefully bad hair. Hmm...

p.13--(don't worry, I don't have a note on every page) She is annoying me with her condescension towards the collection of paintings of Roman tourist sites. You aren't cool, you Canadian wannabe!, I write in a pique of emotion. In short, her stand-in character (who later however is developed into someone more plausibly cool) is living the Bourgeois Surrender fantasy (writing, travelling, expat living) and showing why it shouldn't be done.

p. 18--"he liked mixing me up." On the first reading I mistook this for a reference to a dominant man who casually toyed with women, and went on a rampage about how men of the intellectual type were so docile, lifeless and unexacting now. It was later revealed that while this man had certain old fashioned expectations of ruling over and being catered to by his women, he was not so gifted at bringing these expectations wholly to bear. On the same page I noted that the author/stand in went on to further abuse married life. 'Isn't it the women who want it? I asked despairingly, thinking men can hardly be blamed for failing in a situation most are instinctively reluctant to commit themselves to.

p. 43--elementary school dance recital. Joan (the author's stand-in I presume) was fat as a child. "The finished and costumed girls were standing against the wall so as not to damage themselves, inert as temple sacrifices." Good image. The mother removes fatty, who looks ridiculous in her tutu, from the recital to spare the child (and presumably herself) humiliation. Contrast with today's methods. Also the other adults are totally unmoved by fatty's crying (episode presumably would have taken place late 1940s or so). This type of pitiful loser story was popular in the 1970s. I absorbed it whole hog and incorporated its ethos into most of my own writing. Unfortunately, at least in the form in which I present it, it is out of fashion now.

p. 89--"There were two other fat girls in the school." Great sentence.

p. 103--Somebody quotes from an Arthur Hugh Clough poem. I don't know much about Clough as a writer but his friend Matthew Arnold's elegy for him "Thyrsis" is one of my four or five favorite poems of all time. Really beautiful.

p. 127--Later, as a young woman living in Toronto's bohemian community amongst struggling and generally unsuccesful young male writers and activists, Joan becomes, unbeknownst to her friends, a successful Romance novelist. The sample passages from these novels that appear in the story are actually some of the best things in the book: "She rose from her chair and shrank back against the shelves of fine leather-bound books, each with Redmond's family crest stamped in gold on the spine...Charlotte pulled away, seeking wildly for some object with which to defend herself. She seized a weighty copy of Boswell's Life of Johnson (The things that titillate us!--ed.)...He was not the first importunate nobleman she'd had to fend off, and it was not her fault she was young and pretty."

p. 136--Back in childhood. Her father was a doctor who was emotionally cold and distant. She had no idea how great his being a doctor was until she went to his office one day. She had thought him just another bourgeois loser before that: "He looked much more impressive than he ever had at home, he looked like someone with power." Still, at the end, he was "a man in a cage, like most men". Thank you sweetheart.

pp. 146, 155, 157--Back to young adulthood, now in England, where she meets the exiled Polish count, who, characteristic of the melancholy nature of his race, offers the following observation: "I later found that almost anyone would tell you you were wise if you confessed you had no talent." The exiled Polish count also makes a living by writing romance novels (also under a pseudonym; is this really the case, that lots of sophisticated bohemians are making a killing secretly writing romance novels?); it is he who gets Joan into the profession. His method of writing approximates the fantasy I imagined my own life would be like at this point back when I was twenty-five: "...chain-smoking Gauloises...and drinking one glass of tawny port per evening." I've had a bottle of port in my liquor cabinet for several years that I break out on occasion but it's really sweet and I don't particularly like it. More on the Polish count, of whom you can see I am somewhat fond: "Anyone from across the Atlantic Ocean was a kind of savage to him, and even the English were questionable, they were too far west." Did I mention that he relieved the Joan character of her virginity? She was around 18 or 19, and he was in his 50s at least. I have to believe intelligent women undervalued by the men their own age especially must get something in the long term out of these affairs with older men of experience, (not to mention the rejuvenation and good it does the men), if approached in a sensible spirit on both sides.

pp. 166-7--Joan fantasizes about various communist dictators, especially Chairman Mao. Yikes! "I thought of Castro as a tiger in bed...with those cigars and that beard...But Mao was my favorite, you could tell he liked to eat. I pictured him wolfing down huge Chinese meals...happy children climbing all over him...he wrote poetry, he had fun...I liked to think about him in the bathtub, all covered with soap...beaming away and very appreciative, while some adoring female--me!--scrubbed his back." O.K.

I make a reference to a passage back in Canada about girls doling themselves out which obviously fascinated me, but I can't find where it was now, what precisely it referred to, or whether it was something that would ever have applied to me in any conceivable hypothetical situation.

p. 174--"When I reached the flat, the Indian radical was sitting cross-legged on the floor, explaining to Arthur, who was on the sofa, that if he had sexual intercourse too much he would weaken his spirit and thereby his mind, and would become politically useless." This would only ever apply to lesser (beta) males. As long as you don't get emotional about it you can have sex five times a day and be politically stronger than all the same people you were always stronger than.

p. 194--"I wanted him to stay with me, and the alternative he was proposing was a trip to Northern British Columbia to work in an asbestos mine." The romantic interest by the way has shifted from the Polish count to a young impassioned Communist type (talk about a breed that has died out more or less utterly). This guy's instincts for not fawning over women, etc, are not bad, but in the end he has a couple of downfalls that he cannot overcome, the first being that he is never successful in anything, and the second that he is not sexually exciting in the way which the times (i.e. the 60s) required people to be (indeed he is quite boring). So he gets thrown over.

We are more than halfway through the book so I think this will get done in 2 parts easy.

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