"The Knife-thrower’s Precision"

Laudatory speech by Eva Menasse


Eva Menasse
© © juergen-bauer.com

What a joy and an honour it is to deliver a speech in praise of Margaret Atwood! She has long been a role model and a source of motivation for me, first and foremost thanks to her literary oeuvre. This makes it all the more painful to have so little time today, since I cannot possibly do justice to her body of work in the few minutes I have. Indeed, I would much prefer to give several hour-long lectures about the knife-thrower’s precision with which she sketches her characters and renders them utterly unforgettable in the space of only three or four sentences. I would much prefer to delve deeply into the dramaturgical genius with which she sashays from one temporal level to the next, especially in her short stories. And, of course, I would much prefer to spend hours elucidating her famous x-ray vision – that unique perceptive faculty that compels her to leave no stone unturned amongst the wealth of human subterfuge and ignominy, only then to provide us with some comfort via her trademark mischievous humour.

Equally as worthy of praise and admiration is Margaret Atwood’s political voice. This voice speaks directly out of her literature, but it can also be heard time and again outside of her fiction, that is, in pointed interviews and, most recently, in Payback, her intelligent and entertaining piece on the subject of financial debt. In this book, she shows how economic missteps have often enough precipitated a hero’s downfall in works of literature, too. Indeed, she proves that this fall is not always brought about by moral failings alone. And yet, somehow, we neglect the fact that Madame Bovary – to name just one example – was not only deep in despair, but also deeply in debt. Who knows what might have happened to her otherwise? Might she have survived? No doubt as a heavily damaged soul, but still. In novels, we tend to overlook these things – the complicated and poisoned relationship between creditor and debtor, the whole budgetary disaster of it all, etc. – preferring to focus our attention on the emotional drama taking place. This is precisely what Margaret Atwood – an almost frighteningly well-read writer – examined with Cassandra-like prophecy in this outstanding series of non-fiction essays written in the summer of 2008, that is, only months before the collapse of Lehman Brothers sparked the global financial crisis.

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Margaret Atwood is also an immensely creative and prolific author. Her work is characterised by a tropical diversity that stretches from delicately sketched autobiographical stories all the way to elaborately designed novels of speculative fiction. I’m not sure whether she herself knows how many books she’s written. Either way, she has achieved something that remains an exception for women in our day; she has become a world star on the global stage of literature. Many of you are likely familiar with the game “Women & Literature”; perhaps we can even play it at lunch after the ceremony. One person names a country and the others try to name a contemporary female author of international fame and standing from that country. The game goes fast in some of the world’s most popular languages, and there are a couple of lucky countries; indeed, for Margaret Atwood’s home country of Canada, another female author comes quickly to mind, much like that adage about London buses. (For those not familiar with the saying about London buses, it goes like this: You wait ages for a bus and then two come along at once.) And yet, as we all know, a spontaneous game of Women & Literature will no doubt display a world map containing some huge blank spots. We also all know that this is not the fault of women.

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It has often been said that women’s issues are one of Margaret Atwood’s central themes. I would like to disagree. Based on my own woeful experience, I am highly aware that in the case of women writers, much more attention is paid to the statistical relationship between male and female characters and men’s and women’s issues. I would even submit that only female authors are asked questions such as “Do you find it difficult to empathise with your male protagonists?” and “Why are there so many patchwork families in your work?”

I would argue that the author of The Handmaid’s Tale – probably Atwood’s most well-known novel – automatically overqualifies herself and thus prevents her from being pushed into the “women’s issues” corner. Indeed, this novel, which is supposedly about the oppression of women, is actually a novel about totalitarianism, an ideology whose first victims always happen to be women.

I believe Margaret Atwood’s work is particularly suited to showing the guise in which literature must appear in order to achieve a political effect. In fact, her work shows how scrutiny of political and social issues can be introduced without bending literature or weighing it down. On the contrary, the grounding that emerges via the contemporaneity of fiction is what gives rise to the urgency and depth in the first place.

In this sense, in the work of Margaret Atwood, the idea of so-called “women’s issues” – which almost always carries a tinge of condescension – is automatically extended to questions of power and impotence, that is, to those issues that have been the subject of literature since the very beginning, from Homer to the Nibelungenlied and from Shakespeare to our present day.

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I read The Handmaid’s Tale about one-and-a-half years ago by chance, 32 years after it was first published and for reasons completely unrelated to our happy occasion today. It was one of those books I’d always wanted to read, one of those books that somehow finds its way into your hands. It is a fascinating read and a memorable literary experience, especially thanks to the one-person perspective rigorously implemented by the author, which provides the reader with only as much knowledge as the protagonist herself has. She apparently used to be called June, but is now simply addressed with a patronym indicating which man she currently belongs to. As narrated by this recently enslaved woman, the story generates a deep sense of claustrophobia. Margaret Atwood somehow manages to transfer her protagonist’s experiences directly onto us; indeed, as soon as we open the book, we immediately find ourselves in an archaic world full of oppression and surveillance. In an instant, we realise that we, too, might wake up one day to a world changed into something that is not entirely foreign and unknown, but radicalised in a direction that seems merely to lie dormant in our present day. Much like democracy, equality between men and women is not an irreversible state.

While I read The Handmaid’s Tale, I asked myself on almost every page whether this was one of those novels that had become more pertinent thirty years after its first publication. I asked myself whether our way of reading had changed over the decades and whether the appeal of the novel lies precisely in this fluidity. Indeed, the image of a brutal surveillance state in which the few still-fertile women are forced to work as birthing machines – enslaved as surrogate mothers for the new upper class – varies from page to page. At times, it recalls fundamental Christian sects, then Islam in its worst form; at times, it feels like the Middle Ages, then like a not-too-distant future in which the effects of environmental catastrophe have merged with a new form of prudery. These images are interwoven in such a way as to force a fatalistic question: If we human beings, at some point, actually cause enough destruction to actually ruin our world, wouldn’t it be imperative that we devote ourselves to preserving our species at any cost? Wouldn’t it make sense to consider sacrificing the freedom of one still-fertile woman for the greater good? As in all of Margaret Atwood’s dystopias, the focal point of the narrative is the destruction of the environment, not the oppression of women. Indeed, when the habitat critical to our survival becomes scarce, it is only logical that we relapse into all imaginable forms of totalitarianism.

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Some of the book’s most discomforting yet exquisitely comical passages are contained in flashbacks to the liberal world – highly familiar to contemporary readers – that existed before the merciless Puritans seized power. The effortless combination of these two contrasting sentiments – i.e., discomfort and wit – is additional proof of Margaret Atwood’s mastery. These flashbacks shine a light on our well-known debates surrounding feminism: When a woman dresses in a permissive way that flaunts her body, is this solely an expression of self-confidence, a true expression of freedom? Or can it be seen as an unintentional submission to an entirely sexist image of women? Was June’s mother’s generation made up of grumpy, overalls-wearing feminist ideologists – in Germany, we would refer to them as the “Emma Generation”? Or has the new generation of women taken a dangerousstep backwards by thinking that equality between men and women has long since been achieved and that early feminist pioneers are unpleasant bores? Margaret Atwood places these thorny issues like pin pricks at the edges of her actual story. Indeed, I would argue that the strength of this novel from start to finish lies in the fact that it does not specify its intention; it remains open for contradictions and interpretation. While it is quite clear that the human-breeding regime is repugnant and brutal, we nevertheless feel tangible sympathy with some of its representatives, many of whom soon find themselves caught in the very unfree system that brought them to power in the first place.

Doesn’t this approach imply that society had already long since set itself on a direct path to the fundamentalist revolution? This is a question we ask ourselves today more urgently than thirty years ago, and this is one of the reasons why The Handmaid’s Tale is now experiencing an almost unlikely renaissance in the U.S.; that is, of course, in addition to having an American president who boasts of sexually harassing women. The novel is now best known as a television series, the genre that many consider to have replaced the serialised novels highly popular in the 19th and early 20th centuries. In fact, The Handmaid’s Tale just won five Emmys, including the award for Outstanding Drama Series. What more could a writer want than to have an “old” work become more relevant and successful than ever, over three decades after it was first published? Perhaps only that the course of the world would not seem to follow one’s own fearful visions.

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As I mentioned, we have too little time to even approximate the riches found in Margaret Atwood’s work. This is why I wanted to focus on the highly successful combination of literature and socio-political analysis she demonstrates so impressively in The Handmaid’s Tale. When this combination is successful – that is, when political and socio-political consciousness flows into the art of narration – each element grows far beyond its respective realm.

Political insight, however, cannot be sprayed over a narrative like water from a sprinkler. Indeed, it’s quite the opposite. An author like Margaret Atwood is primarily a storyteller. She uses her deep familiarity with the essence and political mindset of human beings as the groundwater for enriching her stories. We see this in many of her short – but by no means small-scale –stories just as much as in her grand futuristic novels, such as the MaddAddam trilogy, which takes place at a time when mankind has almost entirely eradicated itself due to the unrestrained manipulation of human, animal and plant genes.

This is the point at which a second fundamental talent comes in very handy, one that is just as indispensible to good writers as a keen eye for detail. One might even refer to it as the very opposite of detail, namely a talent for calculation, a foresight that allows an author to draw the entire line from start to finish. Indeed, when Margaret Atwood takes note of an erratic water drip, she is more than capable of narrating us all the way to the tidal wave.

Using less mathematical terms, one might refer to this talent simply as a capacity for imagination, that is, as an imagination that grows and spreads out in all directions. It is the vital organ this writer uses to process, digest and mould everything – including autobiographical elements.

There is a special charm in reading several books by the same author over a short period of time. After a while, one starts to notice definite correlations, motif variations and autobiographical mycelium. Canada’s wild and raw nature is one such motif in Margaret Atwood’s work. However, this nature, although potentially deadly, is never hostile; only human beings are capable of having hostile intentions. In fact, for those who know and respect it, nature becomes a mighty protector, as we see in Surfacing, one of her first novels; a girl who grew up in and around the forests and lakes of Canada – much like the biologist’s daughter Margaret Atwood – experiences a life crisis and literally digs herself into the ground in an attempt to crawl back into the arms of nature.

A number of other characters pop up time and again in Margaret Atwood’s books: for example, an older brother who is portrayed as a much-admired yet emotionally unreachable scientific genius. There is also a bright and clever mother who is nearing the end of her life, has lost the ability to see and can only hear a bit in one ear, forcing her children to speak loudly into this remaining ear as if down a long tunnel, never knowing whether the things they say even arrive. Another recurring character is the figure of the Eastern European refugee; charming and sympathetic to women, he only barely escapes distant wars to then carefully conceal his trauma from an unsuspecting Canadian society. The most dazzling specimen of this type plays the leading role in “Wilderness Tips”, one of my favourite Margaret Atwood stories. The tour de force she achieves here on only thirty pages is almost impertinent; it is the story of the complicated relationship of three sisters among themselves as well as with that heartbreaking rascal, this time embodied by a Hungarian who marries the youngest sister – a pure but naive beauty – but also sleeps with the insolent, life-loving middle sister for decades out of pure habit. The story takes place on a single morning over a maximum of two hours, with the author using her magic hand to simultaneously reveal stories of decades past. And she does all of this in a splendidly overblown tone that crackles with irony. She entertains us to such an extent that it alleviates the moral indignation we feel over the monstrous act performed in the final pages by our George – this is not his real name, but nobody would have been able to pronounce his real name.

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There is another recurring theme in the oeuvre of Margaret Atwood, one that is neither in the foreground nor exactly hidden: women as creative beings. Be they painters, poets, editors or illustrators, none of her female characters have very high opinions of themselves or their freelance professions, even if these careers nevertheless make it possible for them to earn a living. Not only do they battle their own critical eye, they are also constantly playing down their success in front of men. In her novel Cat’s Eye, this predicament leads to a number of delightful scenes in which the main character, a successful painter, stays for a couple of days in her ex-husband’s studio decades after their divorce. Back in the day, her ex used to see himself as an uncompromising artistic genius; today, he crafts body parts out of plaster for horror films. When they were young, he had not concealed the fact that he thought her art was irrelevant. She, in turn, had been forced to face the question as to whether she should even continue to work creatively. At the time she had said: “There is freedom in this: because it doesn't matter what I do, I can do what I like.” And now, in the days leading up to the vernissage for a large-scale retrospective of her artwork, she finds herself living between his half-heads and ripped-off arms.

Margaret Atwood brings this rich constellation to new satirical heights in Stone Mattress, her latest book of stories. The first three tales are woven into a type of triptych: we are introduced to Constance, a wonderful old woman who, when she doesn’t know what to do, receives instructions from her dead husband from the great beyond. She prefers to retreat to her computer, that is, into a file called Alphinland, and only slowly does the reader come to know that confused Constance is actually a rather famous woman and the creator of a popular worldwide fantasy series that has been turned into a film and computer game. The second story focuses on the love of her youth, Gavin, a prize-winning poet, whose fame is based on the rather explicit love poems he wrote years back, as a Canadian wannabe Ovid, to “my lovely” – the nom de plume of our young Constance. Now old and ill, he has had his fill of women, even of his third wife, who is 30 years his junior and has once again brought a devoted doctoral student home to visit; but our poet is nevertheless stunned to find out that the young lady is not at all interested in his sonnets, but rather in the sci-fi crap produced by his first girlfriend, Constance, whom he eventually weeps for – in moments of deep self-pity – as his only true love and muse. These three stories once again showcase Margaret Atwood’s dramaturgical talent in its full splendour. Her compositional mastery stands in staggering contrast to the crude and bawdy humour with which she delves into the horrors of aging, down to its most embarrassing details. But the most comical element remains her hidden reference to her own life’s work, namely, that women who write are and will forever be quirky and crotchety figures who lack the talent to stylise themselves the way men do. At least in this sarcastic triptych, the pompous man must own up to his own shameless self-presentation in the end, that is, when death comes knocking at the door.

Is this really a hidden ironic reflection on the author herself, or is it just a very entertaining story? As everywhere in Margaret Atwood’s work, it is both. Her stories are realistic, true and always paradigmatic. Above all, they reveal to us other possibilities. They show us that possibilities lie everywhere and in all things. Simply by living, we constantly make decisions that destroy possibilities, day by day, year by year. Only in writing can we bring such possibilities back to life, that is, shed a light on the alternatives and laugh and cry about what might have been. One such possibility was that this great writer, this mischievously giggling wise woman, would receive the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade. And now, this possibility has become a richly deserved reality.

Translated into English by The Hagedorn Group.