Posts Tagged ‘Margaret Atwood’

Dystopia time again

March 28, 2017

51VHe12RxJL._AC_US218_Margaret Atwood’s novel has been clearly on the radar ever since it was first published, but is making waves again since the election of D Trump in the US, and is due to appear as a TV series next month. I’ve also spent a year or so working on a study guide to the text, for sixth form students, which has recently been published. There was a film made by the German director Volker Schlondorff in 1990, but it’s a film that’s better passed over because of its gratuitous change to the ending of the novel.

So I’ve been reflecting on twentieth century dystopias more generally; Atwood’s novel for me sits alongside Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World, and the three novels all have pertinent things to say about the current state of the world, from radically different perspectives. To many of us, the present situation in the UK and in the US verges on the alarming – or am I being too cautious? – and revelations by Wikileaks and Edward Snowden among others only increase our feelings of paranoia.

51OG8UQrofL._AC_US218_Orwell’s new-found relevance is obvious, with the huge growth in surveillance, both by the state and other organisms, of all citizens, made easier by the development of the web and mobile technology, and justified by authority in the name of security against terrorist threats. Smart TVs now do perform the functions of Big Brother’s telescreens, your mobile will reveal your location, and everything you do online is likely to be logged somewhere… and yet the state does not need to stamp out dissidence in the way Orwell imagined – a boot stamping on a human face, forever – because Huxley’s vision coincides, and has made such violence redundant.

51VS8inU1TL._AC_US218_Huxley’s future is even more sinister, in many ways, because based on hedonism: offer humans pleasure, through sex and drugs, and you can render them passive slaves, incapable of rebellion because they are totally uninterested. It’s hard not to feel that in some ways and in some places this is already happening: alcohol is cheap, recreational drugs are available, sex is a commodity to many, and there are so many shiny shiny consumer durables to distract and use up one’s money, before being thrown away and replaced – ending is better than mending! One learns that there are so many people who cannot conceive of being without their mobile phone or online 24/7, and who are totally uninterested in any security threat or monitoring of their lives via these desirable devices.

The fact that I can still say that Atwood offers a gender perspective on current dystopian trends feels patronising at the same time as its truth underlines the still-existing inequalities in what some would have us believe is a post-feminist age. Perhaps her vision is sharper viewed from the USA where the fundamentalist Christian right wing is still hell-bent on restricting access to reproductive rights and maternity leave; some of the language used and the proposals made by various public figures recently have been truly shocking. In Atwood’s Republic of Gilead, after the right-wing coup, women have been openly objectified and commoditised, under the guise of freeing them from the worst aspects of their lives now. And, of course, it’s men who have been kind enough to do this. All in the name of religion, too. It will be interesting to see what aspects are foregrounded in the TV series; Atwood said at the time of the novel’s publication that she wrote of nothing that wasn’t either happening or possible already – back in 1985. She didn’t let men, religion or feminists off the hook…

It’s worth comparing how the three novels are differently presented, too: Orwell offers a traditional narrative, but filtered brilliantly through his invented language Newspeak, which shapes the alternative facts for the regime, Huxley offers a non-linear, modernist narrative, jigsaw-like in places, but Atwood is probably most original and experimental. Offred’s narrative is her mind, her consciousness and her emotions, fragmented like her life was before, and is in the new times; it has both a dream-like (nightmare-like?) quality as well as an immediacy which bring us up short. Atwood allows her to revel in words and language, to ask sharp questions, and to shock us…

Here we have three very powerful novels, more relevant today than they have been for some years: we should read, reflect and let them inform our conversations and actions. Here’s your essay title:

Which of these three novels do you think is most relevant to 2017? Justify your choice.

On freedom

December 29, 2016

Freedom is one of those words most often taken for granted, not really thought about or understood properly, a totem which can be crassly used to belabour those with whom one does not agree. I found myself scanning my bookshelves, as I often do when I’m reflecting on how to frame and develop a blog post, looking for novels that tackled the subject, and was struck by the fact that there weren’t/ I haven’t any from before the twentieth century… did this really mean that freedom wasn’t an issue in earlier times in the way it has become more recently?

I’m sure for thinkers, philosophers and theologians freedom was theoretically an issue, in the sense of free will, or how much scope we have for choosing and acting as we would like to, and this aspect of freedom continued into the twentieth century with the existentialists. Those of my generation will surely remember reading Sartre’s Roads to Freedom trilogy, or even seeing the excellent BBC adaptation of it in the 1970s: we were each free to deliberately make the choices we wanted to, in order to validate our existence… or not, as the case might be. Certainly the question of freedom has become a theme in literature in the last few decades.

When I wonder why this might be, I think we need to look at its opposite, oppression and slavery. The United States technically got its house in order with the abolition of slavery after the Civil War; the question of freedom for slaves is explored in such novels as Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Huck’s mental gymnastics as he considers the issues while travelling with Jim the escaping slave on the raft down the Mississippi are as clear an exposition of the issues as any I’ve come across.

Russia, and then the Soviet Union, was rather different, and has perhaps determined how the issues were framed in the twentieth century. Serfdom was finally abolished in the 1860s; it hadn’t been quite the same as slavery in the US, but wasn’t terribly different it its effects. But then the authorities continued to deprive political dissidents of their freedom and march them in chains into exile in Siberia: Chekhov wrote about this in his travelogue The Island; Dostoevsky experienced it first-hand. And the Soviets took this much further; the West was easily able to frame the picture of the Soviet Union as a land where nobody was free.

As is so often the case, this is rather an oversimplification. We need to consider two kinds of freedom, freedom from and freedom to. In the West we have foregrounded the latter, and ignored the former: we are free to move where we like, to travel where we wish, to work at whatever profession we choose, to live where we like, to believe what we like and worship how we choose, and everyone should similarly be free. Fine, all well and good, as long as we have the necessities of life – actually the money, if we are honest – to allow us to exercise these freedoms.

George Orwell is often regarded as the author who explored these issues most clearly in – allegedly – his devastating critiques of communism, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-four. The animals win their freedom and are then oppressed even worse than previously. In Nineteen Eighty-four everyone is under Big Brother’s constant gaze and has no freedom of action or speech. Except that we oversimplify. The animals abdicate their responsibilities: freedom once won has to be watched over and preserved by everyone; Big Brother’s gaze is the watch of the totalitarian state, of whatever political colour or direction; it’s convenient but untrue merely to say Orwell is criticising communism.

Margaret Atwood, in her dystopian vision The Handmaid’s Tale, is a writer who invites us to look much more carefully at freedom from and freedom to. At some level the latter is a bourgeois luxury that most of the world cannot even dream of enjoying. Before you can be free to do loads of things, you need freedom from hunger, thirst, homelessness, violence, unemployment, and a few other things besides; most of the world would settle for this kind of freedom. And, like it or not, the Soviet Union and its allies did assure these freedoms as a minimum: there was shelter for everyone (yes, quite grotty flats sometimes, but better than railway arches), food was cheap, very cheap (not a lot of choice and frequent shortages), everyone had a job (and yes, some were pointless, make-work schemes and often you had to work where you were sent) and so could earn money. The basic essentials of life were available cheap.

I’m not saying the Soviet Union was better, or that I’d like to have lived there. What I am saying is that the attitudes we have, the slogans we parrot and the freedoms we allegedly need, are worthy of deeper consideration than they are given, and that we need to be aware of the very privileged positions from which we pontificate.

Counterfactuals, or alternative histories

February 20, 2015

We are reading about our own era, our own time, but the world is not ours: it’s slightly different, or greatly different, but things have changed, and we are mesmerised, drawn in to see what happens, why it is like this. There has been a fair amount written about alternative histories recently; it’s a genre I’ve always enjoyed, so it’s time to share my thoughts and recommendations…

At the obvious level, such writings are fantasy: that world is never going to exist. The novel is entertainment, often very good entertainment – and yet it is more. It is thought-provoking in the reader because it reflects the consequences of a different choice at some time in our past, and as humans we make choices all the time. It may reflect a different outcome to an action or an event, an effect of chance, and we are reminded that we are at the mercy of events, at the mercy of our own flawed decisions. On the micro level this is the story of our life, and on the macro level it becomes history.

There are some wonderful novels which consider ‘what if’, such as a successful Spanish Armada conquering England in 1588 (Pavane, by Keith Roberts), the Reformation never happening (Kingsley AmisThe Alteration), the Confederacy wins the American Civil War (Ward Moore’s Bring The Jubilee), the Nazis succeed in building their thousand-year Reich (Swastika Night by Katharine Burdekin), the Axis Powers win the Second World War (The Man in the High Castle by Philip Dick), Christian fundamentalists take power in the USA (The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. I also have a whole collection of short stories written a century ago imagining the various possible outcomes of the coming Great War between Britain and Germany.

Historians have mocked the value and significance of alternative histories. I don’t see why; it’s hardly encroaching on their territory. But they have made the valid point that there are many factors involved in a chain of events, that no one, single change can be that powerful in isolation – for instance, the First World War would have happened even if Princip’s bullets had missed their target, the Second World War would have happened even if Hitler had been assassinated…

On that last question, I’m reminded of a fascinating novel La Part de l’Autre by Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt, which I don’t think has been translated into English. It’s about a young Austrian would be art student; it begins as a single story but forks into two different tracks and becomes two parallel novels in the same book. One track follows Adolf Hitler (for it is he) through failure as an artist, experiences in the great war, into politics and the rest is history. The second track imagines that same student a successful artist who serves in the Great War and comes home to develop a successful career as an artist; events gradually diverge from the ones we know: Hitler’s life as an artist has a public effect, the Second World War still happens though without his help, but still provoked by the injustices of the Treaty of Versailles… It’s not a brilliant novel, but it is fascinating and compelling precisely because the author has written the two diverting stories in parallel so we can see the gradual unfolding and diverging of the alternate history before our eyes.

For me, such writing is entertaining, and it’s valid as an exercise in humans reflecting on themselves, their choices and their errors and the consequences of these, and, as a citizen, I could wish that certain people did an awful more of that.

Gender and reading (again)

November 29, 2014

I’ve written on this topic before, but a news story this week, about recent research that shows we tend to read books written by our own gender, has had me thinking about the subject again. I did some quick (and not very systematic) research that showed that by far the greater proportion of books on my shelves were by men, and that, according to my reading log, this year only 21 out of 78 read books so far were by women…

Somewhere I’d fondly imagined that I might have done rather better: for instance, I spent the best part of three years in an earlier existence researching Feminism and Science Fiction (you will have to go to the Science Fiction Foundation in Liverpool to access a copy of my thesis) and that says something, to me at least, where my sympathies lie.

Considering my bookshelves more closely: pre-twentieth century, there’s some kind of a balance, with Jane Austen and George Eliot fully represented: I have a picture of the nineteenth as a women’s century in literature; certainly the two already named tower above Dickens and Hardy for me. When it comes to the twentieth century fiction, men win. In science fiction, it’s not so clear, particularly given my thesis, and if I were to award my prize for achievement in twentieth century SF, at the moment it would go to Ursula LeGuin, as you might guess from some of my recent posts, although Philip Dick would come a very close second. Again, with my travel writing section, men far outdistance women writers, but if I had to choose my favourites, they would be women travellers such as Ella Maillart and Isabella Bird.

Then I tried thinking about what is actually going on. More books, quantity-wise, are written by men. I’m a boy, so I like boys’ books? Simplistic, but some topics or subjects naturally appeal more to males than females, and I can’t be that much of an exception. I make those choices, and to a certain extent, there’s a self-fulfilling prophecy happening here. Historically, there’s always a sorting and sifting process going on with fiction in terms of what will stand the test of time, and it’s interesting that so much of the fiction written by women in the nineteenth century is at the top of the pile. Does this mean that Margaret Atwood and Pat Barker (to name but two) will stand out from the last century?

In the end, though it feels like a cop-out, I have to say that I don’t choose books by the gender of their authors, I choose books because they look tempting and I want to read them, and though I suppose if I went through my reading journal for the forty years for which it exists I’d still find a preponderance of books written by men, the books by women I have read have always made me think. Women do write about different things, differently, and inevitably pose a challenge to the other gender.

Margaret Atwood: The Handmaid’s Tale

November 6, 2014

9780099496953 I can’t off-hand remember how many times I’ve taught this text to sixth-formers. After a few years, I’ve come back to it, in order to write a study guide. As always, there is something new to notice, even when coming back to a text one is very familiar with.

For a novel that’s been around for thirty years or so, and can be described as ‘speculative fiction’, it’s dated remarkably little; many of the ideas that Atwood found already part of society when she was writing are still evident. Certainly it reads more convincingly that, for instance, Nineteen-Eightyfour thirty years after that novel was first published.

Offred’s story – that of a woman in the newly established Republic of Gilead, in the eastern part of the former USA, a fertile female assigned to a deserving male for breeding purposes – still has the power to shock, but, more importantly, to make the reader reflect on so many aspects of the power relationships between men and women in society. However, it was not this aspect of Atwood’s novel that spoke most strongly to me this time around.

The tone of the narrative is marvellously developed and sustained: Offred tells her story is the first person, experiencing, feeling and describing, with even her dialogue and that of others subsumed into the texture of her narrative, partly by the very simple device of not using inverted commas to demarcate any speech. This reinforces the timelessness of her story, in which most of her life is just waiting around, frittering time away, being bored, and being tormented by her memories of her past. She is intensely focused on words, language and meaning; she tunes into plays on words, definitions, shades and changes; even her illicit nighttime encounters with her Commander are filled with games of Scrabble… the time she has on her hands, this superfluity, adds an almost poetic quality to her narrative. It’s highly effective, helping draw the reader more deeply into Offred’s tortured being.

The second thing that struck me even more forcefully this time was the cleverness of Atwood’s narrative structure; the layering of the stories reminded me more than once of Shelley‘s Frankenstein. This deliberate – and oh so subtle – shifting of our perspectives and opinions nudges us in the direction of realising the complexities of the sexual-political issues Atwood is exploring via Offred’s experiences. And Atwood offers us no easy answers; it’s no strident feminist diatribe with all men as the enemy, and the deficiencies of our own society are as much under the microscope as the horrors of the Gileadean future.

In the end, for me the crux is the human desire for intimacy with another, and what becomes of that intimacy. Atwood has written a novel which will stand the test of time as well as or better than other dystopias of recent years, and which will not lose the power to make its readers think deeply about themselves as well as their world.


July 24, 2014

Dystopias are the other side, and seem to be a more recent development, perhaps reflecting our recently-developed ability to destroy the planet and exterminate our own species entirely – a whole subset of the genre looks at post-nuclear war scenarios – and they have a rather different purpose from utopias: they are written to warn…

To create a dystopia, a writer extrapolates from some currently trend or possibility. In the 1950s and 1960s, this was usually the danger of planet-wide atomic war; in the 1970s and 1980s, ecological disasters and overpopulation emerged as themes. Extrapolation accepts that x is currently happening, and imagines what the situation might be like in y years if nothing changes in human behaviour… there are 7+ billion people on the planet now, what happens when there are far more? Global warming is having x effect now, what will the situation be like in y years if nothing is done to address the issue?

Clearly, a dystopia is easier to imagine, and to write, with none of the difficulty of imagining how we might get from our now to the perfection of a utopia, for instance; you just carry on regardless…

The value of writers writing to warn as well as entertain, using imagination, is important: scientists and experts can write official reports warning of x disaster if y is not done at once, or over the next z years, but a reader’s response and reaction to fiction is rather different; dry and dusty officialspeak is replaced by the imagination, the bringing to life of a particular scenario, peopled by humans with whom we may identify and empathise, as we see ourselves in their situation

If utopia is an attempt to visualise a perfect society or world, then perhaps dystopia imagines the worst possible world, though not necessarily for everyone. Disaster and/or oppression may be ecological, nuclear, political, social or religious. Let’s consider some key examples (and, as I write, I realise that I shall reserve the post-nuclear apocalypse scenario for a later post of its own).

Margaret Atwood‘s The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopia for all women in the imagined society of Gilead (future USA), who are merely vessels for reproduction. Arguably, it is a utopia for some of the men, particularly those in power or with privilege. And yet, as the story progresses, it’s clear that it isn’t, as the creators of that society have managed to banish intimacy for everyone, and the coda to the novel makes it clear that the society eventually collapsed. A similar novel, in which the state – this time in Britain – takes control of women’s reproductive capacity can be found in Benefits, by Zoë Fairbairns.

A forgotten, but chilling warning from 1937, Swastika Night by Katharine Burdekin, imagines what the world would look like seven centuries after a Nazi conquest of the world.

The archetypal political dystopia is probably George Orwell‘s 1984, although it resembles a much earlier Soviet dystopia, We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin, in which everyone also is reduced to a number, and surveillance is facilitated by everyone living in transparent buildings. Orwell’s dystopia is more complex, as is its visionary history: in the actual years prededing 1984 the novel acquired a bogeyman effect as everyone feared the world really would turn out that way; consequently the novel seemed really dated when the times didn’t develop according to the prophecy. More recently, with the revelations of our surveillance society, perhaps Orwell’s’ world is coming into its own again?

And then, there’s Brave New World, a utopia or a dystopia or both, depending on your perspective…(for more on this novel, see my previous post).

What dystopias have in common is writers warning against removal of freedom: what we must think further about is that it’s our Western freedom to, with its focus on individual self-expression, rather than a freedom from, which much of the rest of the less privileged world might be rather more interested in. Our fetishistic, capitalist freedom facilitates consumption and profit, with a circumscribed individual freedom as a side-effect, whereas freedom from, say, violence, hunger, homelessness, unemployment would probably lead to the greater happiness of far more people. But that’s another story…

Writing from other worlds…

July 7, 2014

As English is the dominant world language, and it’s ours, I have always felt that literature from other countries barely gets a look-in in the UK. It’s one of the reasons why I read French Literature at university along with English, and have worked to sustain my working knowledge of one other language. And then, there’s the fact that, proud as I am to have the language of Shakespeare as my mother tongue, I’m in fact only half English. The other half of me is Polish, and this has always reminded me that there is another world, there are other worlds out there…

It’s not possible for anyone to keep up with all the literature in the world; I don’t know how long ago that might once have been possible. So I’m aware that, even though I read quite widely, I’m only scratching the surface of what’s out there. When I read other people’s blogs about literature, I see how much else there is that I have no awareness of. So I choose, I follow certain tracks for certain reasons. This means that others are inevitably ignored. I have always been interested in Eastern European literature, particularly that written during the time of the various so-called communist regimes of the Cold War; it was fascinating to observe truths being told even under the eyes of the censors. Now, of course, that writers there have the same ‘freedoms’ as we have in the West, they are writing more of the same stuff that we produce. Having my origins in the outcome of the Second World War, I have also been fascinated with how Germans have come to terms (or not) with what was done by them and in their names during the Hitler years; I suppose Gunter Grass and Heinrich Boll spring to mind at once.

Something fascinated me with Latin America and magic realism – I can’t remember what or when – and I like the perspective it offers on life and story-telling. And a chance discovery of the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris and its amazing bookshop opened my eyes to some of the literature of the Arab world: so very different, but, as importantly, just as valid a perspective on the world as our own. Amin Maalouf and Naguib Mahfouz spring immediately to mind.

I would find it almost impossible to justify what I’m about to say, which is that, in comparison with the literature I’ve just described above, I have found a great deal of the English and American literature I have encountered from the same time-period, ie since the Second World War, rather dull, introspective, navel-gazing even. I’ll counter this immediately by mentioning Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale as instances of new and exciting anglophone writing, but also categorise them as the exceptions that prove the rule.

Reading through what I’ve just written, I’m realising that I can’t just leave things there; I’m going to have to explore some of the bold and sweeping statements I’ve made in more depth and detail, and attempt to be clearer and fairer…

to be continued…

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