Friday, November 11, 2005

Lecture: Margaret Atwood's The Penelopiad

Last night L. and I attended a reading by Margaret Atwood. I first read her novel, Cat's Eye at the suggestion of my book club. I quickly followed up with The Handmaid's Tale and then The Blind Assassin. These three books are just the tip of an impressive iceberg—she has many novels, books of poetry, essays and children’s literature as well.

The event was organized by Newtonville Books and held at the New Art Center, both in Newton. The venue was sold out, but it was an intimate space with about one hundred folding white plastic chairs in front of a raised stage. A heavy navy curtain hung at the rear of the stage and tiny white holiday lights adorned the arch. Hardwood floors tripled the excited chatter in the room.

I had dashed off to Newton a few weeks ago after an email update from the bookstore announced the event. Tickets were not available online or by phone. Rather they requested a visit to the bookstore and the purchase of her new book, The Penelopiad, and a surcharge to cover our entrance fee. The twenty minute drive took me nearly an hour and a half—due to faulty directions I swear! The bookstore, which has an enormous presence online and through its weekly author readings, is a relatively unassuming and cozy place. Since I had scouted the route, our trip there last night was in due time.

I had strong-armed L. to arrive quite early. I hate to be in a rush and I did not want to arrive late or even slightly harried to the event. The cocktail hour began at 6:30, and we arrived closer to 7:00. The reading began promptly at 7:30 and lasted almost exactly one hour, including the question-and-answer session.

The audience was mostly women, but there was a smattering of men and all ages were represented, though the average attendee was over thirty, well-healed and artfully coiffed. There were a few stunning crones who were given a helping hand and moved through the crowds on their own (well-deserved) red carpet.

After a brief welcome by Eric Phelps, director of the New Art Center, and by Betty from the Bookstore, Atwood took the stage. She wore a wide-collared coral button-down shirt beneath a black shawl with simple black pants. Her fringe of silver curls framed her face. She appeared elegant, but unpretentious when her cutting wit began to sizzle across the podium as she discussed the content and the genesis of her latest work.

In Homer’s Odyssey Odysseus' faithful wife Penelope does a lot of weeping, weaving and waiting. Atwood set out to retell the myth through two narrators: Penelope herself and the Twelve Maids, who are hanged upon Odysseus’ return to Ithaca. Atwood noted that Homer’s work (or work that has been attributed to Homer) is an epic poem that draws on some, but not all, of the oral myths of his time. In fact, there are stories and more information about Penelope in other ancient sources that didn’t make it into the Odyssey. Atwood made use of these.

For example, in the Odyssey Penelope weeps often and is famously chaste. Other sources reveal that she had one lover or perhaps made lovers of all one hundred suitors. It is also learned that Penelope’s father was Icarus, who tried to drown her when she was a child, and her mother a Naiad—a water nymph. Thus Penelope weeps because she is half-naiad, not necessarily because she pines so deeply for her long-lost Odysseus. Also revealed is that Helen of Troy is Penelope’s cousin, which creates all kinds of family tension between the beautiful Helen and the clever (but less pretty, damn it) Penelope.

The mythological sources do attest that both Odysseus and Penelope were renowned liars, that famous guile. The sources all agree that Odysseus had short legs. Thus he needed his guile even to win Penelope, whose hand in marriage was given to the winner of a foot race. Odysseus had actually tried to win Helen’s hand first, and when he lost he made a deal with Helen’s new husband (or her father?) that he would help him win Penelope by cheating at the foot race. He had to cheat due to those famously short legs. Perhaps he put a drug in the other runners’ wine. Penelope used her guile to either hold off the suitors or to keep them secret as her lovers. She also outwitted them with her ploy to weave a death-shroud and she set up the contest of the bow at the end. Finally she even tested Odysseus at the end with the secret of their marriage bed. Atwood takes these details and uses them to paint a more complete picture of clever Penelope.

Atwood read from the novel, a hilarious section in which Penelope and Helen meet in the underworld as Helen is about to take a bath. The entire novel is narrated from the afterlife, by the way, where Helen of course does not have a body that needs bathing. But she bathes to afford a glimpse of beauty to the hordes of men who follow her every ethereal move.

It was a short reading but very lively as Atwood took up the coy voice of Helen and the witty responses of Penelope as she read.

Atwood then took questions. I will try to tease out some of her responses here, as she really came to life with clever replies that the audience heartily loved.

She was asked about the genesis of this work. She told us that she was at a book fair in Edinborough and was having breakfast with a young publisher who set forth his plan for a series of re-told myths. He laid out his ambitious plans before she had had her coffee. She agreed to do one in his proposed series--having no idea what she was going to write—a bad idea, she noted. All the writers in the series would receive the same page allotment, a rather small number (which was attractive), as well as the same fee, a “paltry sum,” she laughed. But, as she said, “It was Help a Young Publisher Day,” and so she gave herself, reluctantly it seemed, to the task.

As a North American writer, she first attempted to re-tell a myth of her region. She found this impossible after several false starts. Finally the deadline loomed and she fumbled around and hit upon the Odyssey. She commented that while Penelope had never gotten much press in the modern world, since she read the Odyssey in school at age fifteen she had always been disturbed by the hanging twelve maids. “So much of writing,” she said, “is unfinished business.”

An audience member asked Atwood to talk about her own reading pleasures. Atwood was quick to say that she will read anything—even airline magazines or the back of the cereal box. She buys magazines in airports—news, science and commented that she had read two interesting pieces in Gentlemen’s Quarterly. She admitted to reading the equivalent of Harlequin romances to check out how things are changing—years ago the women were allowed to be governesses, nurses or art restorers. Men weren’t allowed to say much—just look sufficiently brawny. Now the women get to be doctors and lawyers and the men get complete sentences! She mentioned that she likes to read Stephen King, comic books and advertisements—although today’s advertisements have fewer words and more images.

She told a quirky little anecdote about reading an advertisement for the old Old Dutch cleanser (I’m not familiar with it myself, but here is a link with some images--none of which seem to be the one she described) when she was young—maybe five years old. There was a Dutch maid who had a broom to scare away the dust in one hand and in the other a can of the cleanser. But on the can in her hand there was the exact same picture of a maid with a broom in her hand and can of the cleanser. She noticed the infinite regression and wondered at it—what it meant for the poor maid, and perhaps for all women. The costumes for the women in “The Handmaid’s Tale” were inspired by that ad, except that she made them red.

She was then asked about how she started to write science fiction. She discussed her childhood growing up in the 1940’s in the golden age of “Flash Gordon” and coming of age with Ray Bradbury as her influences. She also quipped that science fiction “is where theology went after Milton.” It is where we set forth our ideas of how the world should or could be organized and governed. She noted that humans, Hitler, for example lay out their plans for the future well in advance, but that he was not believed. She cautioned belief when we read of diabolical plans that may seem like science fiction at the time.

For the most part the remaining questions had to do with her work as a writer. One young woman writer asked her for advice for an aspiring novelist. Atwood replied with a question, “To what does the young novelist aspire?” After a round of laughter, the young woman (not me, by the way!) said that she aspired to publication. Atwood did have some practical wisdom:
1) write the novel;
2) get an agent that loves you and understands your work (rather than a “big name”);
3) you are own your own; and, somewhat kindly,
4) good luck.

Another aspiring writer, I assume, asked her about her writer’s habits. Atwood said that she had always admired those who had a routine. She couldn’t handle it. She writes when she writes, in bursts, but not at a regular time each day. In the beginning, she would have long panic attacks and then end up at a movie after having written nothing. Now she has managed to compress her panic attacks into five minutes of sheer terror and then she gets on with the writing. She used to be a night time writer, but switched to writing in the day when she was caring for her daughter. One thing she knows for sure, if she would have waited for a routine, she never would have written a thing. I liked this last bit of advice. I have tried to discipline myself to have a set writing time in the mornings and feel terrible when I can't make it happen---perhaps I shouldn’t be so rigid with my practice after all. Perhaps.

When asked which of her many, many works is her favorite, she launched into a very funny comparison of a parent having to choose which of their children they love the best. Impossible to do—they each have their own gifts—and fatal because the others would certainly hear about it.

One of the last questions asked if she was working on something new. “Yes I am. Will I tell you? No.” She laughed at her emphatic response, but explained that she never talks about her new works. If she talks about them, she doesn’t write them.

A round of warm applause closed the Q & A and then the small mass that we were tried to arrange ourselves in an orderly fashion—we had been encouraged twice by the director to be civilized. He must have had experience with the bookie enthusiast crowds—things got a bit tense as people jostled for places in line to have Atwood sign precious copies of her new book or treasured well-worn classics. Luckily we all settled down and decorum reigned.

As I have written before, having an author sign my book always makes me uncomfortable. First of all, it is a strange kind of autograph seeking, which I find a bizarre custom, a slightly repellant longing. Then there is the impossibility of saying anything of consequence to the author who is churning out his or her signature. The whole thing is a bit sticky and stomach-churning for me. Getting so close and personal, but not really having a real encounter seems so sad. A bit. Is that just me? But she was as gracious as could be and I thanked her at least four times (I had three books signed). I am proud to say, I did not blather at all. Just smiled and glowed and tried not to stall the line.

I had briefed L. about Atwood herself and her newest book. I think he enjoyed the evening—the art, the sold out venue, Atwood’s aura and her wit. It was good to have his company. As we headed back to the car, the November air was chilly and suddenly we realized we were hungry. We had eaten a rushed dinner in order to make it on time, but after the excitement had ebbed we needed ice-cream calories. We contemplated stopping to buy a carton of Ben & Jerry’s. Right then we passed the huge glass windows of Cabot's Ice Cream & Restaurant filled with a lively crowd. We had never heard of the place, but it was clearly a beacon in the night. The sundae we shared was enough for four people—we couldn’t even finish it all! There is something singular about dipping your spoon into a mess of ice-cream, syrups and whipped cream—knowing there is more in your dish than you could possibly ingest, but the pleasure of trying is sweet indeed.


Kevin Holtsberry said...

Sounds like a wonderful time. Thanks for sending me the link.

Sarah said...

MY comment is this:
Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you, happy birthday dear number 5, happy birthday to you!!!!!
From Number 1
Love you lots and see you at Christmas time.