The RSL welcomes new Companions of Literature – RSL Review 2013
Maureen Duffy, Jenny Uglow & Anthony Gardner
Filed under: Awards
The RSL welcomes Margaret Atwood, Brian Friel and Alice Munro as Companions of Literature
As soon as I saw the name in the list of RSL autumn events I knew I had to act at once. Few women writers enjoy an international reputation like Margaret Atwood – only perhaps Nadine Gordimer, Toni Morrison, Marguerite Duras and Doris Lessing. Few have been made Companions of Literature: eleven women out of some 50 appointed since 1961. Atwood is a writer who has never been bound by what is often seen as traditional female literary territory, but has claimed the freedom to range through all media, and through past, present and future. Not surprisingly the event was fully booked within a few days: a sell-out reminiscent of the rush for Olympic tickets.
Hosted jointly by the RSL and the Canadian High Commission, it took place at Canada House – that great liner of a building which forms one side of Trafalgar Square – on the first bitterly cold night ushering in winter. As we lucky ones approached, the maple-leaf flags were fluttering along its full length above the lit windows as if specially displaying for the occasion. Atwood was about to collect another two awards to add to her existing total of 97, first as a Fellow of the RSL since 2010 and now as a Companion of Literature. Would she choose the Byron pen or the Dickens quill to sign the Fellows’ register?
She chose the Dickens quill though as poet as well as novelist either would have been appropriate. Then she was joined on the platform by Peter Kemp, who sketched in a writing career of ‘great versatility and variety’ encompassing some 50 books, beginning in 1961 with her first, award-winning collection of poems Double Persephone. Four collections later, the first novel appeared.
Characterising her work as combining ‘sardonic wit, rich language and sharp intelligence’, Kemp asked what was necessary to the making of a writer. Atwood’s answer was ‘solitude and books’. Growing up in the Canadian wilds (her father was an entomologist) with only her immediate family around, and in a house that didn’t have gas or electricity or even running water, books were the only source of food for her intellect and imagination, while for entertainment there were the eagerly awaited ‘funny papers’, kept to be read and read again and imitated by Margaret and her brother.
Kemp suggested that will power might also have been needed. Atwood described how tough it had been then for aspiring Canadian writers, in danger of being crushed between America and Britain, and driven abroad to one or the other if they were looking for a literary milieu and a publishing industry, a situation she was to analyse in Survival.
Deciding to be a writer at sixteen, ‘out of ignorance’, she looked around to see how it could be done, rejecting the writing of True Romance stories for magazines as a way of earning a living: ‘I couldn’t bring myself to do that.’ Instead she took up waitressing but found it was an incredibly tiring job and not one she would recommend to would-be writers. So she decided to go to university and with her degree was able to get a teaching post at British Columbia. By 1972 she was reviewing, and writing scripts, to support her other work.
Peter Kemp’s question about writerly discipline gave her a chance to descant – with great wit and irony, a wry smile pointing up her words – on the physical pains of the eight-hour stint at typewriter or computer, and the unsureness of a book’s outcome (witness the two unfinished works that languish in a drawer). Meanwhile, ordinary life has to go on, and writers today – especially women – don’t have the luxury of a coddled Jamesian domesticity, eased by a bevy of servants.
The main interview ended with Atwood’s spirited defence of the writer’s use of genres, from folk tale and fable, through gothic and romance to thriller and chick-lit, as she has constantly done in her own work. Then it was the turn of the audience to question her,and although she must have been tiring, there was no sign of impatience or of flagging. The answers came fluently and surely, often with turns of phrase that had the audience laughing out loud: a truly bravura performance. ‘How has Canadian literature changed?’ she was asked. Could she predict the influence of social media on literature? She instanced 70 per cent of short stories now on Twitter, filling the gap left by the withdrawal of newspapers and magazines from the field, and providing access to literature for the very young or those who don’t have contact with the book world.
Finally she was asked if Alias Grace’s real life protagonist was guilty. ‘She never told,’ was the reply. ‘It’s an open question.’ Generously she signed books and bits of paper for the long queue of admirers who had applauded and cheered her at the end of a consummate performance, for the wisdom, dispensed with its leavening of wit, and the flickering smile, inviting us into her conspiracy.
Alice Munro is today’s finest short-story writer – indeed one of the purest writers in any form of fiction. Her stories are loose, resonant, elliptical; only on reflection do we feel the structure of art and judgment underpinning the lives we enter in vivid snatches. The tales are haunting, in the genuine sense, rising up in memory, often uncomfortably, wreathed in the breath of hidden pasts, doubtful futures. The style is quiet, like the author herself, who has never sought the flashy side of fame, despite the many prizes and awards that have come her way, including the Man Booker International Prize in 2009. Many of her stories are set in the small towns, villages and lonely farms around Lake Huron in Onatario, where she herself grew up. A master of the small, revelatory detail, she eschews generalisations, although some themes recur with a probing insistence: the yearning of girls and young women for wider horizons; the way men, apparently secure in a blinkered sense of strength, suddenly find themselves weak with loss or desire; the welling up of memory in the old; the viciousness of small-town hypocrisy; the gulf between children and well-meaning parents.
From her first collection, Dance of the Happy Shades, in 1968, a whole community of characters have sprung from Munro’s compassionate yet ruthlessly unsentimental imagination. She continues to surprise and to cross boundaries: her latest collection, Dear Life, contains four poignant stories, which are, as she says, ‘autobiographical in feeling, though not, sometimes, entirely so in life’. Yet this volume is subtly different from its brilliant forerunners in another way, surprising the reader with perpetual suspense. The stories drive on, forbidding us to put the book down until the end – or open ending – has arrived. It is wonderful to see how Munro’s art is still developing, making us long for more. The people she conjures on to the page, glimpsed at moments of crisis, or of sudden insight, or unresolvable dilemmas, remain with the reader like companions, walking the shores, near to the edge. If anyone should be named as a true Companion of Literature, it is surely Alice Munro.
As the Times critic Benedict Nightingale was leaving the opening night of Dancing at Lughnasa, his wife turned to him. ‘If you don’t give that play a good review,’ she said, ‘I’ll never speak to you again.’ She need not have worried. When Nightingale recently listed his most memorable theatrical experiences, he placed Dancing at Lughnasa at number one. The play’s huge success in Dublin, London and New York confirmed Brian Friel as the most admired Irish playwright since Samuel Beckett, and the most popular since Sean O’Casey.
Last summer’s Donmar Warehouse revival of Philadelphia, Here I Come! (1964) was a testament to the author’s enduring appeal. In the half century since the play’s first production, the small-town Ireland it portrays had changed almost beyond recognition; but the themes of parental estrangement and regret for lost love remained as potent as ever, while the subject of emigration was a wound reopened by Ireland’s post-Celtic-Tiger depression.
The play’s device of using two actors to play one character – Gar Private and Gar Public – was early proof of Friel’s genius for building a complex drama from a deceptively simple idea. Fifteen years later came Faith Healer, with its four conflicting monologues, and in 1980 another masterpiece, Translations, in which the Irish and English characters’ failure to understand each other’s languages (though both speak English on stage) is put to brilliant use as a source of both conflict and comedy. Few who saw the love scene between the mutually uncomprehending Irish country girl and English soldier can have forgotten its ingenuity, hilarity and beauty.
During a career that has spanned Ireland’s modern Troubles, Friel has shown a rare dexterity in his approach to political issues, whether in a contemporary setting (The Freedom of the City) or a historical one (Translations, The Home Place). Like O’Casey, he never lets us forget that the intransigent attitudes of governments and ideologues are built on disregard for the richness and variety of individual lives.
All the qualities of a good companion – humour, compassion, intelligence, generosity, verbal virtuosity and self-deprecation – are magnificently embodied by Brian Friel.