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  • Immagine del redattorePeter Byrne

Out of the Backwoods with Atwood

Photo by Berkay Gumustekin on Unsplash

For visitors to Toronto decades ago, it felt like a city that had gathered together all the drowsy inhabitants of the British Isles for a big sleep. Margaret Atwood was born in Ottawa in 1939 and came to study at the sedated city’s university in 1957. Her career as a writer would accompany the birth of a megacity. Her first writings were published in the college literary journal, aptly named Acta Victorianna. Her poems back then were as far from her latest book, Old Babes in the Wood (2024) as the multicultural world city of today is from the hungover colonial outpost of her student years. Dozing, it had deserved the irony of “Toronto the Good” and “The City of Churches”, but opening its eyes, it even had a North American sin-city scandal. In 2013, its Mayor, Rob Ford, was caught on a cellphone video smoking crack cocaine.

Not that Atwood’s personal life had a similar wild turn. Her early marriage, divorce and remarriage were middle-class norms for their time. But her prolific literary productions were of an unusual variety, striking out in half a dozen directions. Their acrobatics deserve praise and a perusal that they will not get here. To suggest Atwood’s scope, consider that she tried to define Canadian identity. Critic Northrop Fry had seen it as an urge to build a wall against outside forces, a garrison mentality. This was plausible with oceans on both sides, arctic waste above and the bumptious U.S.A. below. Atwood boldly applied Fry’s view to Canadian writing. She found it was charged with strong feelings of community seen as a bulwark against a just as strong fear of nature. Another fundamental Canadian trait, she said, was an imperial mindset, like that of Washington, London, and Paris.

The intent of Old Babes in the Wood is highlighted in its title. These sixteen stories over 257 pages concern old women—Atwood is eighty-four—who in their greener years have been independent-minded and lively participants in life. The expression is taken, of course, from the phrase “Babes in the wood,” very naive persons easy to dupe, suckers, one of whom, P.T. Barnum assured us, was born every minute. The saying has been around  since 1561 and been badly  abused repeatedly, reaching its nadir in 1998 with the launch of the TV series by that name, advertised as “A peek into the steamy lives of three young women who share a flat in London, and their neighbour Charlie, a middle-aged divorcee.”

Atwood has trouble from the outset sitting down with her coevals. In her first four stories, the female narrator, mixing with her juniors, reverts to her doings in her prime years. It’s true that an elderly (i.e. old) couple drift around the edges, the cutesy named Tig and Nell, The latter seems a whimsical good-egg while the former a gruff and loveable male stand-in to uphold heterosexuality.

There are detours. The Dead Interview is with George Orwell, an Atwood influencer, who comes back from the grave to illustrate what will be a theme of these collected stories: Things ain’t what they used to be, Times Change, or, for those who haven’t cottoned on to it yet, We grow older.

But what exactly does Atwood mean by old in the title of her book? Her 2024 definition of the adjective couldn’t differ more from that of Ambrose Bierce:

Old, adj, In that stage of usefulness which is not inconsistent with general insufficiency, as an ‘old’ man. Discredited by lapse of time and offensive to the popular taste, as an ‘old’ book.”

Bierce was a grump and 19th-century tough. Atwood’s adjective would mean: Formerly active women, snarky with each other, full of hypochondria  and nostalgia for their better looks of former years.

At this point, before a bit of science-fiction whimsey, Impatient Griselda, some readers will feel trapped in one of those cheerful manuals for old folk that  teach them how to stave off senility with bouts of chair yoga, finger-wrestling or launching into a new career as a seated stand-up comedian. “Patience, patience,” the reader murmurs, “remember Griselda,” and turns the  page. Bad Teeth is about two philosophic Old Babes. One says, “Clock up enough years,…and you can dance on a table provided you can still clamber up there. You can have sex with the mailman and nobody will care….You can make six kinds of fool of yourself because you’re a fool for just being old.”  But the two of them are soon back to 1956 when the Hungarian Revolution had an impact on Canada by sending it a raft of worldly-wise New Canadians who might say, “Soviet bureaucracy, Canadian Bureaucracy, it’s all the same.”

Free for All touches freely on all of Atwood’s concerns: Female old folk in a vague future still compete in homemaking and make snide over the ineptness of competitors’s—we mustn’t say girls’s— dress sense. A spiteful matriarchy concocts drastic ways to survive the venereal plagues that rage. In Metempsychosis  a snail tells the tale of its soul’s pilgrimage: ”How crude are the sex procedures of humans compared with those of snails!”  and other wisdom of the sort, like “…  although snails experience passion, they don’t understand jealousy.”

More than once, the reader of these stories has to decide whether they are delightful fantasy or simply page-fillers. Airborne starts silly but ends genuinely funny. It plays on the fact that old people—here women—get absorbed into dilating on their ailments and on desperate cosmetic solutions to growing old. But this particular clutch of oldies take the habit into the stratosphere. They discuss a crony’s breast implants:

“Why did he think she needed big breasts? She’s seventy-five!”

“Never say die ….Or not until you get there.”

With A Dusty Lunch we are back with Nell and Tig whom we thought had departed on their doddering way. No, they have only turned back to survey the charm of Tig’s youth. Let us pass on to Widows: “What fun we used to make of death!” and less glum, “People of our age can flirt like that without it being seriously inappropriate, because both parties know nothing will come of it.”

But wait a moment. Things have changed. The jokey stories are over. Tig has died, and widowed Nell become absorbed in missing him. Something  touching is afoot. Their shared objects, like a griddle he made pancakes on, speak to her of him. Atwood is, in fact, mourning the death of her life partner, Graeme Gibson, who died in 2019 and to whom her book is dedicated. She is moving, heartrendingly so, almost Chekovian.

It should be noted that Atwood’s idea of the short story isn’t that of a tight little weapon with each absolutely necessary word cut in stone. Nor is it of George Saunders’s American innovative school, fractured and full of blank space. [George Saunders: Lincoln in the Bardo] Her stories are more like long paragraphs from her novels.

Margaret Atwood, in spite of occasional homebody triviality, is a major artist. The Venice Biennale of 2024 was right to open with her latest poem that takes its name, Los Desastres de la Guerra, from a series of etchings by Francisco de Goya that are exhibited beside it.

“Many have travelled far

to the place of fire and blackout,

the time without words.

Some have survived,

though not intact.

No one comes back.


Damaged people damage people,

and so on.


All are lethal.”

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