The Red Shoes
Margaret Atwood Starting OuteBook
International award-winning and best-selling author, Canadian cultural icon, feminist role model, "man-hater," wife, mother, private citizen and household name -- who is Margaret Atwood? Rosemary Sullivan, award-winning literary biographer, has penned The Red Shoes: Margaret Atwood Starting Out, the first portrait of Canada's most famous novelist, focusing on her childhood and formative years as a writer and the generation she grew up in.
When Margaret Atwood was a little girl in 1949, she saw a movie called The Red Shoes. It is the story of a beautiful young woman who becomes a famous ballerina, but commits suicide when she cannot satisfy one man, who wants her to devote her entire life to her art, and another who loves her, but subjugates her to become his muse and inspiration. She struggles to choose art, but the choice eventually destroys her.
Margaret Atwood remembers being devastated by this movie but unlike many young girls of her time, she escaped its underlying message. Always sustained by a strong sense of self, Atwood would achieve a meteoric literary career. Yet a nurturing sense of self-confidence is just one fascinating side of our most famous literary figure, as examined in Rosemary Sullivan's latest biography. The Red Shoes is not a simple biography but a portrait of a complex, intriguing woman and her generation.
The seventies in Canada was the decade of fierce nationalist debate, a period during which Canada's social imagination was creating a new tradition. Suddenly everyone, from Robertson Davies to Margaret Laurence was talking, and writing, about a Canadian cultural identity. Margaret Atwood was no exception.
For despite her tremendous success that transcends the literary community, catapulting into the realm of a "household name," Margaret Atwood has remained very much a private person with a public persona.
Rosemary Sullivan reveals the discrepancy between Atwood's cool, acerbic, public image and the down-to-earth, straight-dealing and generous woman who actually writes the books. Throughout, she weaves the issues of female creativity, authority and autonomy set against the backdrop of a generation of women coming of age during one of the most radically shifting times in contemporary history.
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Margaret made a distinction: personally, art was a vocation, a gift, which required all her imagination and commitment. But publicly, it was also a profession, with rights and responsibilities. Ironically, the romantic notion of the artist confronting demons alone in an attic freed society of any responsibility for art. The artist suffered, by definition, and was placeless in a culture where he or she had no social role. Margaret was beginning to see the artist as completely different from the romantic cliche. The artist was meant to actively shape society, and not be its victim. When the artist actually spoke out, though, society often felt threatened.
"I'm interested," [Margaret Atwood] would say, "in edges, undertows, permutations, in taking things that might be viewed as eccentric or marginal and pulling them into the center." She would become someone who was always looking for a space to stand - on the borderline between city and bush, between reason and feeling, between fear and empathy. She was someone who learned from that wild world what she would call "the gaping moment" - "a sense of the hole in the sky." She would say that, for her, the city world was the fearful place where she had to learn the mysterious codes of behaviour that everyone else took for granted.
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