Margaret Atwood woke up this morning to her 81st birthday.
For her this past year has been both an annus horribilis and an annus mirabilis.
Horribilis because her beloved husband, Graeme Gibson, died last September at age 85. Two years earlier, Gibson was diagnosed with dementia, but far from closing in his world, she expanded it, bringing him on her many trips, together alone or in front of large crowds. Theirs was a love-match. He died in London just as she was launching the world tour for The Testaments, which was bought once every four seconds in Britain, and in the US the publisher’s initial print run of 500,000 had to be re-upped — twice. Gibson’s adult children were able to come and say goodbye and, in the words of his partner of 47 years, he had been “declining and he wanted to check out before he reached any further stages of that.”
But Margaret Atwood marched on. In February we saw her at the Hay Festival in Cartagena, Colombia where Peter Raymont’s film about her, A Word After A Word After A Word is Power, opened the festival. “I never thought I would be a popular writer,” she said in the film. “I only wanted to be a good one.”
Annus Mirabilis because if the size of the SRO crowds in the auditorium and the long lines outside are any clue, Margaret Atwood is the world’s most popular good writer.
Like most adult Canadians, Atwood has been part of my DNA forever. While I bought into her idea that the one word defining Canadians is Survival, I avoided reading her books – too arch, too dry – or hearing her talks – too arch, too dry for – for half a century.
Then in 2018, I saw her at Writers at Woody Point, the stridently user-friendly author’s festival in Newfoundland where she got on stage and forced the 200 of us in the old church hall to roll in the aisles. I kid you not. Atwood was no longer the sere and caustic critic. She was a sit-down comedienne – and has remained so ever since. Funny Girl.
Unlike most people in their 80s, Margaret Atwood hasn’t withdrawn from the world. Rather, she embraces it with even more enthusiasm, inviting us in to share its treasures, with new ones pouring out every day. Maybe she’s happier because she won the 2019 Booker Prize, which she shared with Bernadine Evaristo last October after the judges broke their own rules and declared a tie.
Or because The Handmaid’s Tale, the TV series based on Atwood’s 1985 novel, was nominated for 54 (that’s right) Emmys and won 15. It’s no surprise that both The Testaments and The HandMaid’s Tale have become intellectual mainstays of people a quarter Atwood’s age: they connect perfectly to some of the most alarming political currents of our time.
Today is as good a time as ever to ponder the sheer volume of what she’s written since 1961: “18 books of poetry, 18 novels, 11 books of non-fiction, nine collections of short fiction, eight children’s books, and two graphic novels, plus many small press editions of both poetry and fiction.” Her Wikipedia biography lists her as an “inventor” too because she also invented the LongPen that makes it easy to write documents remotely – and robotically.
Margaret Atwood is that rarest of all Canadians — a polymath who knows it and uses it to stride the world’s stage.
Now at 81, it seems even “age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety.”
But I do wish those Nobel judges in Stockholm would understand this and reward her so that we and the rest of the world can celebrate the prize she really deserves.
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If you would like to hear Roger Martin, author of When More Is Not Better, explain why too much of a good thing is not a good thing, especially efficiency, join us today, November 20th at our next RamsayTalks Online. Click here for more details.