I’m having a little flirtation with Canadian literature – reading two Canadian books within a week!
Kevin from Canada has written a perceptive essay about similarities between Australia and Canada, and he’s right: we do have much in common and these similarities influence preoccupations in our literature. However there is one difference which is all-encompassing to Australians: Canada is geographically connected to the rest of the world – and we are not. We’re not even connected with New Zealand, our nearest English-speaking neighbour with a sort-of-similar history as a British colony, but it’s over 2000km away across the Tasman Sea. We don’t have the same accent and we can’t get their TV or radio stations. We don’t know who their TV stars are, or their football leagues. We don’t watch their films and we don’t take any notice of their literary awards (except here at ANZ LitLovers, of course!) Most of us have never been there either.
In Canada you can walk, ride or drive to another country. Not only that, but what’s just over the border is the most powerful and influential country in the world, the US. During the Vietnam War, draft dodgers slipped over the border to Canada, and Canadian kids dreaming of excitement and adventure could plan similar cross-border excursions. Yes, you can get into, and you can get out of Canada without too much fuss, and what’s more, you can fly to Europe and see the rest of the world without too much trouble and expense as well.
If you travel to Australia by ocean liner, as I did as a child, you have some understanding of just how far away it is from everything. By comparison, 20 hours in a plane to Europe is just a crude glimpse of its isolation, though the air fare would give most Canadians pause for thought. Yes, it’s tiresome and expensive to get into, and out of, Australia. It’s well within living memory that a phone call to England was prohibitively expensive, that world news came by unreliable cable, that letters from grandparents in the UK took 6 weeks to get here. Well, satellites and the internet may have changed communication, but the geographical isolation persists: it still takes hours and hours in a plane to get anywhere.
Wars are fought overseas; trends and fashions are overseas; status and power are overseas, and added to this sense of being marooned a long way away from everything – though watching it on TV – is the fact that we’re in the southern hemisphere. Our seasons are upside down; Christmas doesn’t come with snow, April doesn’t bring Spring showers. We feel left out and vaguely embarrassed when everyone else is talking about blizzards in December or heat waves in June.
Published in 1988 Cat’s Eye, by Margaret Atwood, traces a Canadian childhood and adolescence in the forties and fifties, a time when Australia was still culturally isolated from the rest of the world yet resolutely British in character. (Post war migration brought Europeans here in large numbers to boost our pathetically small population, but they had yet to influence our way of life.) What’s fascinating for me, is how close Atwood’s observations are to my understanding of what Australia was apparently like then too. (I was born post-war, and didn’t arrive here till the 60s, but I’ve eavesdropped on lots of (mostly scornful, rarely nostalgic) conversations about Australia in the 40s and 50s, and of course I’ve read stories set in the period such as Steven Carroll’s The Art of the Engine Driver as well as non fiction such as The Australian Ugliness in which Robin Boyd derided Australia’s 1950s conformity). Yet, seen through the prism of Atwood’s feminism, it seems that little girls in Canada were pretty much like little girls in Australia too: preoccupied with fitting in, with being good, and with surviving the spite and cruelty of other little girls whose malice was enough to scar the psyche for life.
The novel tells the story of Elaine Risley, an artist revisiting Toronto for a retrospective of her works. It’s not a place of happy memories: after a peripatetic childhood while her father researched insects in the Canadian wilderness, Elaine and her brother Stephen have to adapt to living in a half-finished house (the builder absconded); to attending school, and to fitting into the pre-assigned gender roles of the period. While for Stephen this seems effortless, for Elaine it is a torture made up of betrayals, cruelties, rejections and occasional real harm. She is powerless to deal with it, and her mother’s feeble efforts to protect her from it are sabotaged by Elaine herself. She goes on sabotaging herself right through adolescence and into adulthood…
Her ‘best friend’ and most malicious tormentor is Cordelia. Why did her parents name her thus, wonders Elaine, and rightly so, for she is nothing like Shakespeare’s Cordelia at all.
…these are ways of delaying time, slowing it down, so I won’t have to go out through the kitchen door. But no matter what I do, and despite myself, I am pulling on my snowpants, wadding my skirt in between my legs, tugging thick woollen socks on over my shoes, stuffing my feet into boots. Coat, scarf, mittens, knitted hat, I am encased, I am kissed, the door opens, then closes behind me, frozen air shoots up my nose. I waddle through the orchard of leafless apple trees, the legs of my snowpants whisking against each other, down to the bus stop.
Grace is waiting there and Carol, and especially Cordelia. Once I’m outside the house there is no getting away from them. They are on the school bus, where Cordelia stands close beside me and whispers in my ear: ‘Stand up straight! People are looking!’ Carol is in my classroom, and it’s her job to report to Cordelia what I do and say all day. They’re there at recess, and in the cellar at lunchtime. They comment on the kind of lunch I have, how I hold my sandwich, how I chew. On the way home from school I have to walk in front of them, or behind. In front is worse because they talk about how I’m walking, how I look from behind. ‘Don’t hunch over,’ says Cordelia. ‘Don’t move your arms like that.’
They don’t say any of the things they say to me in front of others, even other children: whatever is going on is going on in secret, among the four of us only. Secrecy is important, I know that: to violate if would be the greatest, the irreparable sin. If I tell I will be cast out forever. (P119-120)
There is much more to it than this, but I want to avoid spoilers…
Atwood’s feminism is alert to the incongruity of the power games these little girls play. They do it, it seems, because they don’t have any other power. Like the adult women, they are excluded from the real action in this period; they have no one to prey on but each other. While the girls’ mothers may dabble in the arts, absorb themselves in religion, or play homemaker in a kind of desperation, they have no careers, no income, no power and no status. School teachers are caricatures in drab clothing; they are irrelevant. (Even in the 70s when Elaine goes to hear Stephen deliver his lecture on astrophysics, the audience is mostly men.) Yet Elaine is conflicted about the ‘women’s meetings’ she goes to in adulthood; she sees herself as a collaborator in male/female stereotyping too.
Atwood’s humour is both droll and biting. Here’s Elaine in the new department store:
I revolve through the revolving doors into Simpsons, where I become lost immediately. They’ve changed the whole thing over. It used to be sedate wood-trimmed glass counters, with gloves in standard models, appropriate wristwatches, accent scarves in floral prints. Serious-minded good taste. Now it’s a cosmetic fairground: silver trim, gold pillars, marquee lights, brand-name letters the size of a human head. The air is saturated with the stink of perfumes at war. There are video screens on which flawless complexions turn, preen, sigh through their parted lips, are caressed. On other screens are closeups of skin pores, before and after, details of regimes for everything, your hands, your neck, your thighs. Your elbows, especially your elbows: aging begins at the elbows and metastasizes.
This is religion. Voodoo and spells. I want to believe in it, the creams, the rejuvenating lotions, the transparent unguents in vials that slick on like roll-top glue. ‘Don’t you know what that junk is made of?’ Ben said once. ‘Ground-up cock’s combs.’ But this doesn’t deter me, I’d use anything if it worked – slug juice, toad spit, eye of newt, anything at all to mummify myself, stop the drip drip of time, stay more or less the way I am. (p113)
The most poignant scene was, for me, at the end, when Elaine – successful in art, happily partnered, and mother of two dear little girls, - finds herself envying two daggy old ladies on the bus.
They seem to me to be amazingly carefree. They have saved up for this trip and they are damn well going to enjoy it, despite the arthritis of one, the swollen legs of the other. They’re rambunctious, they’re full of beans; they’re tough as thirteen, they’re innocent and dirty, they don’t give a hoot. Responsibilities have fallen away from them, obligations, old hates and grievances; now for a short while they can play again like children, but this time without the pain.
This is what I miss, Cordelia; not something that’s gone, but something that will never happen. Two old women giggling over their tea. (p420-1)
This was my sixth Atwood, and my last book for 2009 – a great one to end on. Happy reading in 2010, everyone!
The only other review I could find is at Time Magazine.
Author: Margaret Atwood
Title: Cat’s Eye
Publisher: Bloomsbury, 1989
Source: Personal copy ($8.00, secondhand, Diversity Books in Mentone)