Split Self: Single Nation
- Margaret Atwood (Author) and Victor-Lévy Beaulieu (Author)
Deux Sollicitudes. Éditions Trois-Pistoles (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Sonia Mycak (Author)
In Search of the Split Subject: Psychoanalysis, Phenomenology, and the Novels of Margaret Atwood. ECW Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Nathalie Cooke
The link between these two books is Margaret Atwood: her novels are the subject of Mycak’s critical analysis; and Deux Sollicitudes records interviews between Atwood and Quebec writer Victor-Levy Beaulieu. But whereas one book is about division—specifically in those complex and, Mycak argues, "divided" protagonists who narrate Atwood’s novels—the other involves Atwood in a symbolic and historic gesture aimed at overcoming division—on the cultural and national level.
Deux Sollicitudes, as its play on "Two Solitudes" suggests, represents a symbolic coming together of Canada’s two distinct cultures. The book transcribes an extended discussion—in French—between two of Canada’s foremost authors, which took place in their homes in Toronto and Trois-Pistoles in 1995 (the year of the referendum), and aired in twenty segments on Radio-Canada between January and June 1996. Indeed, that Atwood spoke French throughout these discussions is itself a clear gesture on her part towards cultural unity. Further, the book opens with a discussion of common cultural ground—as Atwood talks about her childhood near Temiscaming—and moves towards a frank and amicable acknowledgement of differing opinions about national politics only towards the end of the book. As Doris Dumais says in her preface, "c’est dans une fraternelle complicité qui’ils se raconteront l’un à l’autre."
The preface, clearly addressed to a French Canadian reader, provides a brief introduction to Margaret Atwood while assuming a familiarity with Victor-Levy Beaulieu. By the end of the book, however, all readers have had a leisurely introduction to both writers through discussions on such wide-ranging topics as cultural background, childhood, writing, literature, politics. The Atwood section (when Victor-Levy Beaulieu interviews Atwood) tends to follow her life and career in loosely chronological fashion as the two writers begin to get to know each other; the Beaulieu section (when Atwood interviews Victor-Levy Beaulieu), largely a function of Atwood’s interviewing technique and Beaulieu’s engaging willingness to speak openly and daringly, moves quickly from a discussion of his personal life to larger discussions about philosophy, literature, life. That his literary interests have led him towards such well-known writers as Balzac, Hugo, Joyce, Kerouac and Melville makes the discussion accessible for those not intimately familiar with Quebec literature. Those same readers might notice typos relating to names of English-language writers (Margaret Lawrence, Moody, Munroe, Beatrix Porter, Seaton, Shelly) and book titles (Proulx’s The Shipping Years, for example); but these strike me as technicalities in a book which provides, in interesting and readable form, a wealth of information about both writers as well as a glimpse into their perspective on the cultural contexts of their time.
The divided "Atwoodian subject" lies at the heart of Sonia Mycak’s critical book. Mycak uses psychoanalysis, phenomenology and poststructuralism (particularly notions of discursivity), not to mention a pretty sophisticated vocabulary (despite Mycak’s glossary of terms, I still found myself needing a dictionary in places), in the service of a surprisingly traditional premise. Working on the assumption that, as she puts it, "character analysis is a perfectly respectable form of literary criticism," Mycak explores the divided, "fractured, disintegrating, alienated, or displaced" protagonists in six of Atwood’s nine novels in order to provide close readings of the novels and to investigate and explain the divided self. Period. That is actually where Mycak distinguishes herself from other critics, most of whom do acknowledge the problematically divided protagonists in Atwood’s work, but do so in order to make a different point—about the author, her narrative strategies, the reader or reading process, or about the divided self’s relevance to the novels’ larger feminist, postcolonial or ideological concerns more generally. As if to compensate for the lack of these secondary critical objectives, at the beginning of each chapter Mycak is careful to summarize her argument and to point out how her reading of the novel challenges or goes beyond those of other Atwood critics. The effect is that Mycak proves herself to be very aware of the critical context of her work, and in clear control of her own argument.
Mycak is careful to point out that she is not a psychoanalytic theorist per se, but rather that she uses the "nontherapeutic function of the discipline" so as to render more precise her analysis of character. She aims, that is, to describe Atwood’s characters rather than to suggest "cures" for them, as many critics have done to date. How often, for example, have we heard that Joan Foster of Lady Oracle should just "get it together"—phrased in more formal critical terms, of course!
Of the missing novels: in an appendix, Mycak argues that The Handmaid’s Tale and Surfacing are "fundamentally different in form," and would, therefore, be better served by approaches focusing on gender difference and genre; and, because of the timing of publication, no discussion of Alias Grace is included. The latter is particularly unfortunate since Grace Marks is surely one of Atwood’s most obviously divided protagonists. But Atwood is hard to keep up with. As it is, Mycak’s close reading of The Robber Bride is one of the first commentaries on the novel published in book form.
Detailed discussion of Alias Grace is also absent from Deux Sollicitudes, because the discussions were taped as Atwood was in the process of writing the novel and she is superstitious about commenting on a work in progress. Beaulieu, on the other hand, does talk about his various literary projects, but he is such a prolific writer (three books written by Victor Levy Beaulieu were published by ï¿½?ditions Trois-Pistoles in 1996 alone) that constraints of time and space make detailed commentary on individual works impossible. (One exception occurs when Beaulieu outlines his family’s reaction to the partially autobiographical novel, Race de monde.)
Both books make a significant contribution to the dialogue surrounding the work of these well known writers. They also remind us that, for Atwood and Beaulieu, the work of writing is ongoing and (happily) so is the dialogue between writers in Canada.
- Three Independent Critics by Graham Good
Books reviewed: Uncommon Readers: Dennis Donoghue, Frank Kermode, George Steiner, and the Tradition of the Common Reader by Christopher J. Knight
- Isn't That Funny? by Lisa Close
Books reviewed: Humor in Contemporary Native North American Literature: Reimagining Nativeness by Eva Gruber, Drew Hayden Taylor: Essays on His Work by Robert C. Nunn, and Me Sexy: An Exploration of Native Sex and Sexuality by Drew Hayden Taylor
- Exploring Canadians by Erika Behrisch
Books reviewed: The Journeys of Charles Sangster: A Biographical and Critical Investigation by Frank M. Tierney and Wild West Women: Travellers, Adventurers and Rebels by Rosemary Neering
- Lectures en miroir by François Ouellet
Books reviewed: Louis Hamelin et ses doubles by François Ouellet and François Paré
- Frye's Critical Commentary by Graham Nicol Forst
Books reviewed: Northrop Frye on Literature and Society: 1936-1989. Collected Works of Northrop Frye. Vol. 10 by Robert D. Denham and The "Third Book" Notebooks of Northrop Frye: 1964-1972. Collected Works of Northrop Frye. Vol. 9 by Michael Dolzani
MLA: Cooke, Nathalie. Split Self: Single Nation. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 19 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #177 (Summer 2003), (Duncan, Wiebe, Jameson, Thérault, Martel). (pg. 170 - 171)
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