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Readers' Group Companion to Alias Grace

Readers' Group Companion to Bodily Harm

Readers' Group Companion to Cat's Eye

Readers' Group Companion to The Edible Woman

Readers' Group Companion to The Handmaid's Tale

Readers' Group Companion to Lady Oracle

Readers' Group Companion to Life Before Man

Readers' Group Companion to Surfacing

Other titles by Margaret Atwood:

Alias Grace

Bluebeard's Egg

Bodily Harm

Cat's Eye

Dancing Girls and Other Stories

The Edible Woman

Good Bones and Small Murders

The Handmaid's Tale

Lady Oracle

Life Before Man

Surfacing

Wilderness Tips

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Reader's Companion to The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood

Anchor Books trade paperback, ISBN 0-385-49103-4, $12.00 US

Nan A. Talese/Doubleday hardcover, ISBN 0-385-26008-3, $23.50 US

Bantam Books paperback, ISBN 0-553-56905-8, $6.50 US

Bantam/Seal paperback, ISBN 0-770-42616-6, $8.99 CAN

Reader's Companion to The Robber Bride © 1993 by Nan A. Talese/Doubleday.


"A provocative version of the war between the sexes; entertaining, imaginative and suspenseful, it finds Atwood in rare form."
--starred review of The Robber Bride from Publishers Weekly


Table of Contents:

1. Introduction to the Book Group Companion
2. Margaret Atwood: Biography
3. From Sandra Martin's Review of The Robber Bride from Quill & Quire
4. Margaret Atwood's Address to the American Booksellers Association Convention 1993
5. "The Robber Bridegroom" by the Brothers Grimm, Translation by Jack Zipes
6. Selected Poems by Margaret Atwood

"The Robber Bridegroom"
"Siren Song"
"She"
"The Loneliness of the Military Historian"
"This is a Photograph of Me"
7. Topics for Group Discussion
8. Miscellany


 
Introduction to the Book Group Companion

Remember the days when you could spend hours talking with friends over coffee about an idea--before the numbing effect of too much television, and too little time, when the excitement of discovering a new writer was something you just couldn't wait to share? These pleasures are returning for thousands of Americans, as the fine art of conversation makes a comeback in living rooms and bookstores across America. The evidence is the near explosive growth of book groups and salons from coast to coast.

For those who already belong to a book group, we don't need to tell you how much fun it is to get together with friends--or even strangers--and engage in a lively discussion. For those who don't belong to one, perhaps The Robber Bride, the layered and wickedly funny novel by Margaret Atwood, will give you the impetus you need to join one, or to start one of your own.

Why select this novel? From the moment word got out that the manuscript for the new Margaret Atwood novel had arrived, dozens of Atwood's fans lined up, begging for an early look. After all, isn't Atwood the author who gave us The Handmaid's Tale, the most chilling vision of the future since Orwell, and, subsequently, Cat's Eye, one of fiction's most haunting returns to childhood? Early readers of The Robber Bride were not disappointed. We searched the halls seeking each other out. What is Atwood trying to tell us? Who is Zenia? What really happened in that hotel?

The discussions went on over lunch, between meetings, and in the elevators. Great, lively talk about men, women, war, sex, childhood, lies, and truth; it was all there, just waiting to be explored.

Thus, this book group companion is our way of inviting you to join in the conversation. Get a copy of The Robber Bride, pull up a chair. As soon as you open The Robber Bride, you'll be in the hands of a writer who loves to challenge her readers, but one who obviously knows how to have a little fun along the way.

Nan A. Talese, Publisher & Editorial Director, Nan A. Talese Books

Marly Rusoff, Associate Publisher, Doubleday


 
Margaret Atwood: Biography

Margaret Atwood was born in 1939 in Ottawa and grew up in northern Ontario, Quebec, and Toronto. She received her undergraduate degree from Victoria College at the University of Toronto and her master's degree from Radcliffe College.

The daughter of a forest entomologist, Atwood spent a large part of her childhood in the Canadian wilderness. At the age of six she began to write "poems, morality plays, comic books, and an unfinished novel about an ant." At sixteen she found that writing was "suddenly the only thing I wanted to do."

Throughout her writing career, Margaret Atwood has received numerous awards and several honorary degrees. She is the author of more than twenty-five volumes of poetry, nonfiction and fiction, including two children's books, and three volumes of short stories. Her eighth novel, The Robber Bride, has her trademark virtuoso wit and trenchant gaze, this time employed on a tale of three women, once classmates at the University of Toronto, and the influence wielded on them by a fourth classmate--the seductive and destructive Zenia.

Ms. Atwood's work has been published in more than twenty countries. She has traveled extensively and has lived in Boston, Vancouver, Montreal, London, Provence, Berlin, and Edinburgh.

Margaret Atwood now lives in Toronto with novelist Graeme Gibson and their daughter Jess.


 
From Sandra Martin's Review of The Robber Bride, appearing in Quill and Quire, September 1993:

Playful. That's a one-word response to Margaret Atwood's new novel, The Robber Bride. But playful, as in everything she writes, in a highly tuned, complex, and artful way. Playful with razor blades, for tangling with an Atwood novel is always a tantalizing and potentially wounding business. She is not, in my view, a conventional novelist, preoccupied with theme and character and solving the imaginary problem, what if...? or, what kind of person would...? Instead, it seems to me, her novels challenge readers to answer the question, what do you think about...? Decoding an Atwood novel is partly about determining the nature of the question, and mostly about formulating a reasoned rather than merely an emotional response to the tale she has spun and the task she has set.

The Robber Bride opens on Tuesday, October 23, 1990, as Libra moves into Scorpio, as Atwood informs us. Three middle-aged Toronto women--Tony, a military historian; Charis, a flower child; and Roz, an entrepreneur--who have been friends since university, are meeting for lunch in a trendy Queen Street restaurant called The Toxique. The seemingly disparate trio are bonded by their mutual hatred and fear of a fourth classmate, the evil marauder Zenia, who has the power to bridge their defenses, steal their lovers, and even to come back from the dead and bewitch their children with her nefarious wiles.

No fairy tale, not even Grimms' version of "The Robber Bridegroom" (which Atwood has shamelessly appropriated and combined with various body parts and peccadilloes associated with contemporary Canadian sirens), has a villain more dastardly than Zenia. Neither were there ever victims with such compelling and grisly tales of childhood neglect and sexual abuse as the three friends. They are the raw stuff of encounter groups and feminist consciousness-raising. Zenia systematically befriends and betrays each of the women, metaphorically slaying one a decade, enabling Atwood to romp and rampage through the sexual and cultural history of the past 30 years.

Zenia gets hers in the end in a climax more reminiscent of Daphne du Maurier than the Brothers Grimm, but along the way there are some delightful bits of business.

My favourite image is one that I liken to Atwood herself, even though she has printed a ferocious disclaimer on the copyright page. It is early morning at Tony's midtown Toronto house. Nobody else is awake and Tony is in a corner of her basement beside the extra refrigerator sitting at her sandtable "bought at a daycare-centre garage sale," playing her favourite game. Instead of sand, the table contains a three-dimensional flour-and-salt paste map of Europe and the Mediterranean, and instead of building castles, Tony re-creates famous battles using kitchen spices, "cloves for the Germanic tribes, red peppercorns for the Vikings, green peppercorns for the Saracens, white ones for the Slavs." The cozy image of the female military historian doing research using cloves and peppercorns invites a comparison with the high-tech computer demonstrations so often presented on television and in strategy rooms by male military historians.

And it also invites a comparison with Atwood, the computer-illiterate novelist who writes with pen and paper because she can't type. Sometimes the old methods suffice, as a glance at the page-long list of her previous books will attest. But the over-riding image is of Atwood, the master strategist, moving her characters around the gameboard of The Robber Bride, tantalizing them, damming up escape routes, thwarting their passions. Dependent though it is on the old technology, The Robber Bride is the closest thing to a sensate interactive video game that comes between two covers. The challenge is a worthy one; confronting politically correct feminism. But there are myriad tangled paths and gossipy diversions to beguile the reader along the way. So play at your own risk.


 
Margaret Atwood's Address to the American Booksellers Association Convention
Miami, Florida, June 1, 1993

It's a great honour to be here this morning, and in such distinguished international company. I have always enjoyed talking with booksellers, though I usually do it in bookstores. I like to lurk around and pretend to be a customer, and ask searching questions, because who if not a bookseller lives where the rubber meets the road bookwise?

In fact, my first contact with the official world of books was not with publishers--it was with booksellers. This was in Canada, in the early sixties, which was when I began to write seriously--by which I mean that I myself took it seriously. Others, somehow, didn't. About the most positive comment I got was from a friend of my mother's, who said, "That's nice, dear, because it's something you can do at home." She was right, too. My parents felt I should be a botanist. Not that they had anything against writing, but they didn't want me to starve to death.

I, on the contrary, was all in favour of starving to death, because wasn't that what artists did? Or they got TB, or consumption, or brain poisoning in Paris from drinking absinthe, or, at the very least, they suffered neglect in rat-infested garrets. These things were in the cards for me, so I was in a hurry. I might snuff it by the age of twenty-six, like John Keats, so I'd better get cracking.

At that time, the publishing world in Canada was a lot less pretentious than I was. It was small and cautious, and suspicious of wild-eyed twenty-one-year-olds, which I was--although I myself felt I was pushing late middle age, and couldn't understand why it was taking me so long to turn into Emily Brontë, or Herman Melville, or Samuel Beckett, or whoever I thought I would shortly become. Most young writers in that somewhat sparse publishing climate began by self-publishing, me included. I had the use of a small flat-bed press, and with the help of a friend I painstakingly hand-set my first book--which was extremely short, luckily, because there was a shortage of A's and we had to disassemble each poem before we could set up the next one. We ground out the enormous total of 250 books; and dressed in my long black beatnik stockings and with my hair pinned back into an existentialist bun--it took about two hundred hairpins and I looked like a porcupine, but nobody could say I wasn't in earnest--I trotted around to all the bookstores I knew, and foisted my freshly minted books upon the bemused managers. They sold for fifty cents, retail.

Jump ten years, to the early seventies. I wasn't dead yet; moreover, I didn't even have any romantic major diseases or life-threatening addictions. I'd tried the garrets, and opted for central heating. I wasn't Emily Brontë, but I did have a modest reputation as a distinguished woman of letters, and/or a rug-chewing radical maniac, depending on your point of view. By this time, I had published several volumes of poetry and a first novel--The Edible Woman--which some reviewers hailed as the cutting edge of feminism, and which others said showed an immaturity that I would doubtless grow out of later, once I had come to terms with the proper woman's role.

In 1972 I did a tour of four towns in the Canadian Near-North. "Near-North" means it isn't above the Arctic Circle but can still get fairly chilly. Some of these towns had never encountered a writer in the flesh, which meant I had at least as much drawing power as that month's movie, which everyone had seen anyway. I read in high-school gyms and Oddfellows Halls, and the question periods afterwards were, to put it mildly, direct--or let us say that no one was too concerned about my water symbolism. My favourite author's question of all time--because it's so simple to answer--dates from one of those readings: "Is your hair really like that, or do you get it done?"

The other question I got asked a lot wasn't nearly as easy to answer. It was "Why do you write?" People were really puzzled, they really wanted to know--what would drive a person to it? I hadn't really thought about this before, so I didn't have much of an answer. I'm not sure I have one now, but here's a beginning of what I should have said in Arnprior, Ontario, in 1972.

I spent much of my early life in a forest. I don't mean a village in a forest, I mean a forest, pure and simple. My father was a forest entomologist; for three quarters of every year he did his insect research there. We lived in a cabin with a wood stove and several kerosene lanterns. There were bears and wolves and moose and loons. When my mother wanted a fish for dinner, she would just make a cast off the end of the dock.

This sounds like an idyllic childhood, and in a way it was. But in addition to no electricity and no running water, there were also no movies, no theatres, no art galleries, and no radios on which you could get much more than a crackling noise during thunderstorms. However, there were many books. Books were what you did when it was raining; they were the entertainment, they were the escape, they were the extended family, and I read them all, even when they weren't supposed to be for children. I was traumatized early in life by the death of that poor horse in Orwell's Animal Farm, which I thought was going to be about user-friendly bunnies, sort of like Peter Rabbit; and I became haunted by the accusing, voyeuristic eye-in-the-keyhole that used to be on the covers of the Dell murder mysteries. But whatever I was reading held my full bug-eyed attention.

So the short answer to "Why do you write" is--I suppose I write for some of the same reasons I read: to live a double life; to go places I haven't been; to examine life on earth; to come to know people in ways, and at depths, that are otherwise impossible; to be surprised. Whatever their other reasons, I think all writers write as part of this sort of continuum: to give back something of what they themselves have received.

One of my favourite books as a child was Grimm's Fairy Tales, the unexpurgated version--the one with the red-hot shoes. My parents sent away for it by mail order without knowing just how unexpurgated it was, and then worried that it would terrify my brother and myself. It didn't terrify us, but it did fascinate us; and it's from Grimm's that I've derived the title of my forthcoming novel, The Robber Bride.

In the original story, it's "The Robber Bridegroom"--a tale of a wicked maiden-devouring monster--so why did I change it? Well, I was sitting around one day thinking to myself, Where have all the Lady Macbeths gone? Gone to Ophelias, every one, leaving the devilish tour-de-force parts to be played by bass-baritones. Or, to put it another way: If all women are well behaved by nature--or if we aren't allowed to say otherwise for fear of being accused of antifemaleism--then they are deprived of moral choice, and there isn't much left for them to do in books except run away a lot. Or, to put it another way: Equality means equally bad as well as equally good.

From what I've just said, you will realise that The Robber Bride is a book with a villainess in it. What kind of villainess? Well, to begin with, a villainess who knows how to make an entrance. On October 23--when, as you're aware, the sun passes from Libra into Scorpio--or, if you aren't aware, you'll find it out on page 2--three women friends are having lunch in a Toronto restaurant called The Toxique. A reader was once quoted as saying, "I like Atwood's books because I can depend on her characters to grow old along with me," and so it has come to be; thus all of these women are what the French refer to as "of a certain age." The first one is an ambidextrous military historian, whose specialty is siege techniques of the Middle Ages. The second one has psychic leanings, a complex past, and a good reason for never eating pigs. The third one is a business wheeler and dealer with gambling tendencies. When they have reached the dessert, which is assorted sorbets--I like to be specific about food--in comes a fourth woman, whose funeral service all three of the others attended five years before.

This returnee--who, due to the wonders of modern plastic surgery, is very well preserved--did awful things to the first woman in the sixties, awfuller things to the second one in the seventies, and the awfullest things of all to the third one in the eighties. In a novelistic structure based on nineteenth-century symphonies with leitmotifs, Russian dolls-within-dolls, "Goldilocks and the Three Bears," and boxed sets of gift soaps, we learn about the various awful things. Then we return to the present to find out what happens next. Will the perambulating nemesis do more awful things to our three heroines? Or will they, for a change, do awful things to her? I don't mean to imply that there is no love, compassion, sex, plangent lyricism, deep insight, wit and humour, metaphysical speculation, and language wielded with the skill of a tightrope walker crossing Niagara Falls blindfolded in this book; I certainly intended to put in some of those. But on top of that, there are awful things. Well, why not? Life contains awful things. By the time you've reached a certain age, you notice.

What do I hope the reader will get out of all of this and, indeed, out of any book she or he may read? Exactly what I myself like to receive--and frequently do receive-- from the books of others. There's one word that sums it up; it's a quality without which all other qualities, in books or in life, ring hollow. It takes many forms--forms of the mind, forms of the heart, forms of the soul. It includes both tragedy and comedy, and the play of language, and Memory, the mother of all nine Muses, and, above all, the experience of getting your socks knocked off. The desire for it explains--when we go back in our lives to look for causes--why we are all readers here, and why you do what you do, and why I do what I do, and why my vocation is also my obsession. It was a favourite word of the poet William Blake, and it's in the full sense of his use of it that I invoke it now. That word is Delight; and this is what I wish for you as readers--Delight, in all of its bookly incarnations.

To Delight.

I thank you.

--Margaret Atwood


 
"The Robber Bridegroom"

By the Brothers Grimm
Translation by Jack Zipes

"Fairy tales have sometimes been faulted for the Handsome Prince Syndrome for showing women as weak and witless and in need of rescue--but only some of them actually display this pattern. In 'The Robber Bridegroom,' the male lead is no rescuer; he merely poses as a handsome prince. Really he's a murderer, and the female protagonist escapes from him, and destroys him, through cunning, concealment and entrapment."
--Margaret Atwood
Reprinted by permission from the Foreword by Margaret Atwood for the Franklin Library's Signed First Edition


Once upon a time there was a miller who had a beautiful daughter, and when she was grown-up, he wanted to see her well provided for and well married. If the right suitor comes along and asks to marry her, he thought, I shall give her to him.

It was not long before a suitor appeared who seemed to be very rich, and since the miller found nothing wrong with him, he promised him his daughter. The maiden, however, did not love him the way a bride-to-be should love her bridegroom, nor did she trust him. Whenever she looked at him or thought about him, her heart shuddered with dread.

One day he said to her, "You're my bride-to-be, and yet, you've never visited me."

"I don't know where your house is," the maiden replied.

"My house is out in the dark forest," said the bridegroom.

She tried to make excuses and told him she would not be able to find the way. But the bridegroom said, "Next Sunday I want you to come out and visit me. I've already invited the guests, and I shall spread ashes on the ground so you can find the way."

When Sunday arrived and the maiden was supposed to set out on her way, she became very anxious but could not explain to herself why she felt so. She filled both her pockets with peas and lentils to mark the path. At the entrance to the forest, she found that ashes had been spread, and she followed them while throwing peas right and left on the ground with each step she took. She walked nearly the whole day until she came to the middle of the forest. There she saw a solitary house, but she did not like the look of it because it was so dark and dreary. She went inside and found nobody at home. The place was deadly silent. Then suddenly a voice cried out:

"Turn back, turn back, young bride.
The den belongs to murderers,
Who'll soon be at your side!"


The maiden looked and saw that the voice came from a bird in a cage hanging on the wall. Once again it cried out:

"Turn back, turn back, young bride.
The den belongs to murderers,
Who'll soon be at your side!"


The beautiful bride moved from one room to the next and explored the entire house, but it was completely empty. Not a soul could be found. Finally, she went down into the cellar, where she encountered a very, very old woman, whose head was constantly bobbing.

"Could you tell me whether my bridegroom lives here?" asked the bride.

"Oh, you poor child," the old woman answered. "Do you realize where you are? This is a murderers' den! You think you're a bride soon to be celebrating your wedding, but the only marriage you'll celebrate will be with death. Just look! They ordered me to put this big kettle of water on the fire to boil. When they have you in their power, they'll chop you to pieces without mercy. Then they'll cook you and eat you, because they're cannibals. If I don't take pity on you and save you, you'll be lost forever."

The old woman then led her behind a large barrel, where nobody could see her.

"Be still as a mouse," she said. "Don't budge or move! Otherwise, it will be all over for you. Tonight when the robbers are asleep, we'll escape. I've been waiting a long time for this chance."

No sooner was the maiden hidden than the godless crew came home, dragging another maiden with them. They were drunk and paid no attention to her screams and pleas. They gave her wine to drink, three full glasses, one white, one red, and one yellow, and soon her heart burst in two. Then they tore off her fine clothes, put her on a table, chopped her beautiful body to pieces, and sprinkled the pieces with salt. Behind the barrel, the poor bride shook and trembled, for she now realized what kind of fate the robbers had been planning for her. One of them noticed a ring on the murdered maiden's little finger, and since he could not slip it off easily, he took a hatchet and chopped the finger off. But the finger sprang into the air and over the barrel and fell right into the bride's lap. The robber took a candle and went looking for it, but he could not find it. Then another robber said, "Have you already looked behind the barrel?"

Now the old woman called out, "Come and eat! You can look for it tomorrow. The finger's not going to run away from you."

"The old woman's right," the robbers said, and they stopped looking and sat down to eat. The old woman put a sleeping potion into their wine, and soon they lay down in the cellar, fell asleep, and began snoring. When the bride heard that, she came out from behind the barrel and had to step over the sleeping bodies lying in rows on the ground. She feared she might wake them up, but she got safely through with the help of God. The old woman went upstairs with her and opened the door, and the two of them scampered out of the murderers' den as fast as they could. The wind had blown away the ashes, but the peas and lentils had sprouted and unfurled, pointing the way in the moonlight. They walked the whole night, and by morning they had reached the mill. Then the maiden told her father everything that had happened.

When the day of the wedding celebration came, the bridegroom appeared, as did all the relatives and friends that the miller had invited. As they were all sitting at the table, each person was asked to tell a story. The bride, though, remained still and did not utter a word. Finally, the bridegroom said, "Well, my dear, can't you think of anything? Tell us a good story."

"All right," she said. "I'll tell you a dream: I was walking alone through the forest and finally came to a house. There wasn't a soul to be found in the place except for a bird in a cage on the wall that cried out:

'Turn back, turn back, young bride.
The den belongs to murderers,
Who'll soon be at your side!'


Then the bird repeated the warning.

(My dear, it was only a dream.)

"After that I went through all the rooms, and they were empty, but there was something about them that gave me an eerie feeling. Finally, I went downstairs into the cellar, where I found a very, very old woman, who was bobbing her head. I asked her, 'Does my bridegroom live in this house?' 'Oh, you poor child,' she responded, 'you've stumbled on a murderers' den. Your bridegroom lives here, but he wants to chop you up and kill you, and then he wants to cook you and eat you.'

(My dear, it was only a dream.)

"The old woman hid me behind a large barrel, and no sooner was I hidden than the robbers returned home, dragging a maiden with them. They gave her all sorts of wine to drink, white, red, and yellow, and her heart burst in two.

(My dear, it was only a dream.)

"One of the robbers saw that a gold ring was still on her finger, and since he had trouble pulling it off, he took a hatchet and chopped it off. The finger sprang into the air, over the barrel, and right into my lap. And here's the finger with the ring!"

With these words she produced the finger and showed it to all those present.

The robber, who had turned white as a ghost while hearing her story, jumped up and attempted to flee. However, the guests seized him and turned him over to the magistrate. Then he and his whole band were executed for their shameful crimes.

From The Complete Stories of the Brothers Grimm, translated by Jack Zipes, illustrated by John B. Gruelle, Bantam Books, 1987.



Selected Poems of Margaret Atwood
 
The Robber Bridegroom

He would like not to kill. He would like
what he imagines other men have,
instead of this red compulsion. Why do the women
fail him and die badly? He would like to kill them gently,
finger by finger and with great tenderness, so that
at the end they would melt into him
with gratitude for his skill and the final pleasure
he still believes he could bring them
if only they would accept him,
but they scream too much and make him angry.
Then he goes for the soul, rummaging
in their flesh for it, despotic with self-pity,
hunting among the nerves and the shards
of their faces for the one thing
he needs to live, and lost
back there in the poplar and spruce forest
in the watery moonlight, where his young bride,
pale but only a little frightened,
her hands glimmering with his own approaching
death, gropes her way towards him
along the obscure path, from white stone
to white stone, ignorant and singing,
dreaming of him as he is.

From Selected Poems II: Poems Selected and New 1976-1986 by Margaret Atwood. Copyright © 1987 by Margaret Atwood. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.

 
Siren Song

This is the one song everyone
would like to learn: the song
that is irresistible:

the song that forces men
to leap overboard in squadrons
even though they see the beached skulls

the song nobody knows
because anyone who has heard
it is dead, and the others can't remember.

Shall I tell you the secret
and if I do, will you get me
out of this bird suit?

I don't enjoy it here
squatting on this island
looking picturesque and mythical

with these two feathery maniacs,
I don't enjoy singing
this trio, fatal and valuable.

I will tell the secret to you,
to you, only to you.
Come closer. This song

is a cry for help: Help me!
Only you, only you can,
you are unique

at last. Alas
it is a boring song
but it works every time.

From You Are Happy by Margaret Atwood. Harper & Row, January 1975.

 
She

The snake hunts and sinews
his way along and is not his own
idea of viciousness. All he wants is
a fast grab, with fur and a rapid
pulse, so he can take that fluttering
and make it him, do a transfusion.
They say whip or rope about him, but this
does not give the idea; nor
phallus, which has no bones,
kills nothing and cannot see.
The snake sees red, like a hand held
above sunburn. Zeroes in,
which means, aims for the round egg
with nothing in it but blood.
If lucky, misses the blade
slicing light just behind him.
He's our idea of a bad time, we are his.
I say he out of habit. It could be she.

From Selected Poems II: Poems Selected and New 1976-1986 by Margaret Atwood. Copyright © 1987 by Margaret Atwood. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.

 
The Loneliness of the Military Historian

Confess: it's my profession
that alarms you.
This is why few people ask me to dinner,
though Lord knows I don't go out of my way to be scary.
I wear dresses of sensible cut
and unalarming shades of beige,
I smell of lavender and go to the hairdresser's:
no prophetess mane of mine,
complete with snakes, will frighten the youngsters.
If my eyes roll and I mutter,
if my arms are gloved in blood right up to the elbow,
if I clutch at my heart and scream in horror
like a third-rate actress chewing up a mad scene,
I do it in private and nobody sees
but the bathroom mirror.

In general I might agree with you:
women should not contemplate war,
should not weigh tactics impartially,
or evade the word enemy,
or view both sides and denounce nothing.
Women should march for peace,
or hand out white feathers to inspire bravery,
spit themselves on bayonets
to protect their babies,
whose skulls will be split anyway,
or, having been raped repeatedly,
hang themselves with their own hair.
These are the functions that inspire general comfort.
That, and the knitting of socks for the troops
and a sort of moral cheerleading.
Also: mourning the dead.
Sons, lovers, and so forth.
All the killed children.

Instead of this, I tell
what I hope will pass as truth.
A blunt thing, not lovely.
The truth is seldom welcome,
especially at dinner,
though I am good at what I do.
My trade is in courage and atrocities.
I look at them and do not condemn.
I write things down the way they happened,
as near as can be remembered.
I don't ask why because it is mostly the same.
Wars happen because the ones who start them
think they can win.

In my dreams there is glamour.
The Vikings leave their fields
each year for a few months of killing and plunder
much as the boys go hunting.
In real life they were farmers.
They come back loaded with splendor.

The Arabs ride against Crusaders
with scimitars that could sever
silk in the air. A swift cut to the horse's neck
and a hunk of armor crashes down
like a tower. Fire against metal.
A poet might say: romance against banality.
When awake I know better.

Despite the propaganda, there are no monsters,
or none that can be finally buried.
Finish one off and circumstances
and the radio create another.
Believe me: whole armies have prayed fervently
to God all night and meant it,
and been slaughtered anyway.

Brutality wins frequently,
and large outcomes have turned on the invention
of a mechanical device, viz. radar.

True, sometimes valor counts for something,
as at Thermopylae. Sometimes being right,
though ultimate virtue by agreed tradition
is decided by the winner.
Sometimes men throw themselves on grenades
and burst like paper bags of guts
to save their comrades.
I can admire that.
But rats and cholera have won many wars.
Those, and potatoes
or the absence of them.
It's no use pinning all those medals
across the chests of the dead.
Impressive, but I know too much.
Grand exploits merely depress me.

In the interests of research
I have walked on many battlefields
that once were liquid with pulped
men's bodies and spangled with burst
shells and splayed bone.
All of them have been green again
by the time I got there.
Each has inspired a few good quotes in its day.
Sad marble angels brood like hens
over the grassy nests where nothing hatches.
(The angels could just as well be described as vulgar,
or pitiless, depending on camera angle.)
The word glory figures a lot on gateways.
Of course I pick a flower or two
from each, and press it in the hotel
Bible, for a souvenir.
I'm just as human as you.

But it's no use asking me for a final statement.
As I say, I deal in tactics.
Also statistics:
for every year of peace there have been four hundred
years of war.

From The Times Literary Supplement, September 14-20, 1990. Published in London.

 
This is a Photograph of Me

It was taken some time ago
At first it seems to be
a smeared
print: blurred lines and grey flecks
blended with the paper;

then, as you scan
it, you see in the left-hand corner
a thing that is like a branch: part of a tree
(balsam or spruce) emerging
and, to the right, halfway up
what ought to be a gentle
slope, a small frame house.

In the background, there is a lake,
and beyond that, some low hills.

(The photograph was taken
the day after I drowned.

I am in the lake, in the center
of the picture, just under the surface.

It is difficult to say where
precisely, or to say
how large or small I am:
the effect of water
on light is a distortion

but if you look long enough,
eventually
you will be able to see me.)

From The Circle Game by Margaret Atwood. Copyright © 1978. Reprinted with the permission of House of Anansi Press.



"A rattlesnake that doesn't bite teaches you nothing."
--Jessamyn West

"Only what is entirely lost demands to be endlessly named: there is a mania to call the lost thing until it returns."
--Günter Grass

"Illusion is the first of all pleasures."
--Oscar Wilde


 
Topics for Group Discussion:

1. In The Robber Bride Tony says that people like Zenia don't get into your life unless you invite them in. What devices does Zenia use to first gain entry into the lives of Tony, Charis, and Roz? How does she alter her techniques to attract and control men?

2. Is there one character you identify with more than others? Why?

3. On the surface, Tony, Charis, and Roz are not a bit alike yet similarities exist. For example, during their childhoods they each developed what could be called "dual" identities. How do the psychological devices they developed as children help or hinder them? In what ways do their own children differ from them?

4. While seeming all powerful, the constantly changing Zenia lacks a center of her own. Is it possible for women to achieve the same kinds of power that men do in today's society, or do they have to break rules and operate as outlaws? Discuss Charis's grandmother. Do women have a kind of power that is different from male power?

5. Magic can mean two things: sleight of hand played by stage magicians, and true "magic," or supernatural ability. What role does each kind of "magic" play in the novel, if any?

6. The name of the restaurant where Zenia reappears is called The Toxique. What role does naming--of persons and places--play in this novel?

7. War provides a subtext, and even possibly a framework, for this novel. The male characters are not the only ones affected by it. How are the others affected? How is Zenia affected? Which wars are mentioned?

8. Read the poem "The Robber Bridegroom," reversing gender as you read. What does this poem, taken together with the poem "She," tell us about the nature of evil?

9. Discuss the poem "The Loneliness of the Military Historian". What does it tell us about differences between the way men and women traditionally deal with violence? Does Atwood make a value judgment?

10. The American writer Lewis Hyde has asked, "Why is the Trickster the Messenger of the Gods?" Is Zenia a trickster? Is she also a messenger of the gods, and how?

11. Is there a difference between the lies others tell and Zenia's lies? Are there "good" lies and "bad" lies? Do the hearers play a role in the construction of these lies?

12. Think of female villains from literature and film. What do they seem to have in common? Is female villainy different from the male variety?

13. William Blake said of Milton's Paradise Lost that Milton often seemed to be of the devil's part without knowing it. Does Atwood have a sneaking sympathy for Zenia? Do you?


 
Miscellany

There is an international association of scholars, teachers, students, and others who share an interest in the work of Margaret Atwood. Called the Margaret Atwood Society, its main goal is to promote scholarly study of Atwood's work. The Society publishes an annual, end-of-year newsletter with annotated bibliography, as well as a midyear issue; and, as an official MLA Allied Organization, it meets annually in conjunction with the Modern Language Association convention. For membership, contact Mary Kirtz, Department of English, University of Akron, Akron, Ohio 44325. Membership is $10.00.

For those interested in pursuing the fairy-tale images in Margaret Atwood's work, Margaret Atwood's Fairy Tale Sexual Politics by Sharon Rose Wilson was published by the University of Mississippi Press in December 1993.

Eudora Welty was also inspired by the Grimms' fairy tale "The Robber Bridegroom"; in 1977 she wrote her own interpretation, in a novel, The Robber Bridegroom, published by Harcourt Brace & Co.

For a fascinating historical perspective on the influence of women's clubs in America read The Sound of Our Own Voices: Women's Study Clubs 1860-1910 by Theodora Penny Martin. It is an exploration of a self-education movement that had a tremendous impact on the lives of American women. Known as "The Light Seekers," these small local groups of women met in each other's homes to study art, music, history, geography, and literature. Beacon Press.

Utne Reader: The Best of the Alternate Press is a bi-monthly magazine that launched a salon movement that has grown to include thousands of people worldwide. The magazine often features reports from salons. For more information, contact the Neighborhood Salon Association, c/o Utne Reader, 1624 Harmon Place, Minneapolis, MN 55403. E-mail address: salons@utnereader.com.

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful citizens can change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."
--Margaret Mead


Report from the Front

According to Virginia Valentine, a buyer from the Tattered Cover Bookstore in Denver, many book clubs in her area are reading Women of Sand and Myrrh by Hanan al-Shaykh. Banned in several Middle Eastern countries for its explicit sensuality, this is one of the few novels available by a contemporary Arab woman. "While not for the faint of heart, this thought-provoking novel is an absolutely riveting read," reports Virginia. An Anchor paperback.


For information on this book group companion contact Marly Rusoff, Doubleday (212) 782-9794

Special thanks to Judy Byrne, David Cashion, Jesse Cohen, Sarah Cooper, Janet Foltin, Nancy Kochanowicz, Phoebe Larmore, Jacqueline Ledonne, Diane Marcus, Lucretia O'Conner, Patricia Pinckney, Jerome Rosenberg, Daniel Schaffer, David Schwartz, Katy Stone, Linda Stormes, Paul Wagenseil, Sharon Wilson.