- Rosemary Sullivan (Author)
The Red Shoes: Marget Atwood Starting Out. Harper Flamingo (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Dawn Thompson (Author)
Writing A Politics of Reception: Memory, Holography and Women Writers in Canada. University of Toronto Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Rosmarin Heidenreich
After her stunning biographies of the tragedy-ridden lives of writers Elizabeth Smart and Gwendolyn McEwen, in The Red Shoes Rosemary Sullivan seeks to identify the circumstances that have made Margaret Atwood a phenomenally successful writer, a veritable cultural icon, who has nevertheless been able to lead a happy, harmonious family life in a household complete with "major appliances," a term used by Atwood to express her subversion of the romantic stereotype of an artist’s life. This stereotype is subsumed in the title: The Red Shoes, a 1940s film based on a fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen, is about a dancer who has to choose between art and love. She ends up choosing her art, which costs her her life. Margaret Atwood saw the film as a child, and never forgot its message.
As in her previous biographies, Sullivan makes no attempt to disguise the fact that she is very much in sympathy with her subject. In the case of Atwood, who has been variously described as a Medusa, an intimidating ice-queen, and a man-hating feminist, Sullivan’s marshalling of facts and anecdotes attesting to Atwood’s personal warmth, generosity and commitment to people as well as causes sets the record straight. Sullivan is equally clear-eyed in her discussion of the critical reception of Atwood’s work: she quotes positive and negative reviews fairly, presenting a balanced overview of how the works were seen when they first appeared. The one exception to this is Atwood’s critical book, Survival, where Sullivan, adopting Atwood’s position, seems to disqualify the criticisms leveled at it as personal attacks. With its strictly thematic approach, Survival, given that it was published at a time when postmodernism was at its height, was seen by many writers as well as critics as simplistic, reductive and unacceptably selective. Established authors whose works did not corroborate, or, indeed, contradicted Atwood’s thesis were quite simply excluded.
Although the facts of Margaret Atwood’s biography, both personal and literary, are familiar enough to serious readers of Canadian literature, Sullivan’s book con tains descriptions of encounters and anecdotes that are not only delightfully gossipy but also highly illuminating: the reactions of the two Margarets (Atwood and Laurence), whose reputations mutually intimidated the two writers, on first crossing paths in the washroom after receiving Governor-General’s Awards (for poetry and fiction respectively); Timothy Findley’s moving depiction of Atwood’s first visit, with Graeme Gibson, to Stone Orchard, his farm in southern Ontario; the account of Atwood’s and first husband Jim Polk’s bizarre wedding ceremony.
What Sullivan has also done, in this meticulously researched and documented book, is to frame the biographical narrative with perceptive, quasi-sociological vignettes of the Zeitgeist that characterized Canadian life from the 1940s to the 1970s. Her sidebars on the cultural life of Toronto through these crucial decades, besides being informative in themselves, reveal Atwood’s role in the various subcultures that grew up around institutions such as the Anansi Press and the Writer’s Union.
In her introduction, Rosemary Sullivan describes her book on Margaret Atwood as a "non-biography" written from "the middle distance," whose intention in examining Atwood’s life is to shed light on the transformation of the role of women writers from muse to confident writer. Pointing to the number of successful female writers of Atwood’s generation, she remarks that "[T]hese women have irrevocably changed the iconography that attaches to both the male and the female artist." Sullivan makes a strong case that Margaret Atwood has played a unique, but also paradigmatic, role in transforming women writers’ understanding of the relationship between life and art.
Dawn Thompson’s book examines works of five Canadian women writers using the principle of the holograph to describe the constant changes in perception generated by the production and reception of literary texts.
The virtuality of memory is crucial in applying this holographic principle. Alluding to her epigraphs, in which she cites Foucault and Derrida, Thompson defines memory as a construct, a sort of work-in-progress, that can be rewritten, repositioning its various elements, becoming a vehicle for changing reality and hence a political strategy. Holography is an intriguing and productive concept to apply to literary texts, particularly postmodern ones: in holography there is no horizon, no fixed point of view, thus theoretically obliterating the "horizon of expectation" usually seen to be central to the interaction between text and reader. However, Thompson focuses less on the phenomeno-logical implications of holographic memory in writing and reading literary texts than on its emancipatory potential. This political focus is reflected in the works she analyzes, all with strong autobiographical features, written by lesbian, black, Métis and French-Jewish-Canadian women authors respectively (Nicole Brossard, Marlene Nourbese Philip, Beatrice Culleton, Régine Robin). Margaret Atwood is represented with Surfacing, on the grounds that it "employs experimentation with language and memory to point towards a Utopian integration of women into their environment."
The holographic approach Thompson proposes is suggestive and original. It is therefore regrettable that she does not present a full and systematic overview of her theoretical apparatus at the outset. Instead, to augment her brief introductory chapter, she has inserted lengthy theoretical discussions at various points in each of the chapters dealing with the works themselves, which disrupts her readings of the texts and at times threatens to bury them. It also results in some repetition. Thompson draws on quantum physics and neurobiol-ogy as well as a great variety of literary theories, making liberal use of the disparate discourses derived from them in each of her applications. This occasionally results in a blurring of the intended focus and in prose that is sometimes ponderous. At only a little over 100 pages, this volume is simply not substantial enough to sustain the multiple theoretical premises that it seeks to accommodate.
- Seeing Emily, Seeking Carr by Rober Thacker
Books reviewed: This Woman in Particular: Contexts for the Biographical Image of Emily Carr by Stephanie Kirkwood Walker
- Japanese Memories by Susan Fisher
Books reviewed: Hiroshima Traces: Time, Space, and the Dialectic of Memory by Lisa Yoneyama, Narrative as Counter-Memory: A Half-Century of Postwar Writing in Germany and Japan by Reiko Tachiban, O-Bon in Chimunesu: A Community Remembered by Catherine Lang, and The City of Yes by Peter Oliva
- Surviving Memory by Anne Kaufman
Books reviewed: Girl At the Window by Byrna Barclay
- Autobiographical Acts by Rocío G. Davis
Books reviewed: Begin Here: Reading Asian North American Autobiographies of Childhood. by Rocío G. Davis
- Canadian Heroines by Catherine Carstairs
Books reviewed: 100 Canadian Heroines by Merna Forster and Raincoast Chronicles 20: Lilies and Fireweed: Frontier Women of British Columbia by Stephen Hume
MLA: Heidenreich, Rosmarin. Languaged Memory. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 25 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #177 (Summer 2003), (Duncan, Wiebe, Jameson, Thérault, Martel). (pg. 186 - 188)
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