Chatto & Windus

Dearly by Margaret Atwood

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March 2021, no. 429

Margaret Atwood began as a poet and transformed herself into a factory, producing work of great energy and range. Since her first collection, Double Persephone, appeared in 1961, she has published more than sixty books of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction. She is a librettist, a maker of eBooks, graphic novels, and television scripts, and, with the serialisations of The Handmaid’s Tale and Alias Grace, a beloved global phenomenon. Much of this work builds on genre fiction bones: the gothic romance, the dystopian novel, and speculative fiction. But now it has become difficult to see her poetry as anything more than an adjunct to her prose, attracting attention less because of its merits as poetry than because it is an Atwood production.

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There was never any question that The Testaments, Margaret Atwood’s coda to The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), would be a gargantuan blockbuster, a publishing Godzilla. Giddily hyped and fiercely embargoed, bookshops across the world counted down the minutes until midnight on September 10 (GMT), when the envy-green volume ...

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The Rape of The Lock helped secure Alexander Pope’s reputation as a commanding poet of the early eighteenth century. This mock-epic poem, based on a real incident, satirises the trivialities of high society by comparing it with the epic world of the gods. One of Pope’s acquaintances, Lord Petre, cut off a ringlet of hair from his paramour Arabella, thereby causing a breach of civilities between the two families. Pope was asked to write a poem to make jest of the situation and to reconcile the disgruntled parties. Its success was due to the disparity between content and form, between his mischievous coupling of petty vanity and the lofty grandeur of traditional epic subjects. The rape of Helen of Troy thus becomes the theft of a curl of hair; instead of gods and goddesses there are ‘sylphs’ or guardian spirits, and great battles are converted to gambling bouts and flirtatious sparrings.

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David Malouf’s fiction has been justly celebrated for its veracity. His prose, at once lyrical and precise, has an extraordinary capacity to evoke what a character in an early story called the ‘grainy reality’ of life. For Malouf, small concrete details convey a profound understanding of the defining power of memory. He has a strong sense of the way the most mundane object can embody the past, how its shape or texture can send us back to a specific time and place and mood, just as Proust summons a flood of memory from the aroma of a madeleine dipped in tea. This tangible quality to memory is essential to our sense of self. The prisoners of war in The Great World (1990), for example, cling to their memories as a bulwark against the potentially overwhelming horror of their experiences. They treasure anything, however small, that provides a physical link with home, knowing that these relics help them to reconstruct the past and thus retain a grip on their identity and their sanity.

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Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir are both mythical figures. They are also a mythical couple, a symbol of lifelong intellectual and personal commitment to each other and to commonly espoused causes. Of the two, Beauvoir is probably the more widely read today, because of her foundational role in the development of feminism, and the relative accessibility of her writing. In comparison, Sartre’s work, with the exception of his elegantly self-mocking autobiography, Les Mots (1966), is more difficult. His opus is as eclectic as it is voluminous – covering philosophy, prose fiction, theatre, political essays and literary criticism – and it is often dense. With Beauvoir, the reader is always in the presence of a person; with Sartre, we witness above all a mind at work, a brilliant intelligence grappling with whatever problem or issue it has decided to take on. In both cases, their work had a profound impact, mirroring and inspiring fundamental changes in thought and mores. Sartre and Beauvoir shared a philosophy – which went, somewhat loosely, under the name of existentialism – that held that human individuals and societies had the capacity to determine their own destiny, free of the weight of history and tradition. In the wake of World War II, and in the context of the ideological stalemate and nuclear threats of the Cold War, this philosophy of possibility and freedom offered an alternative to the ambient pessimism. It promised not passive resistance but transformative action by and for a humanity willing to create its own future.

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The Justice Game by Geoffrey Roberston

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June 1998, no. 201

The memoirs of any barrister still in harness are, by definition, advertising. The mystery of The Justice Game is what on earth Geoffrey Robertson needs to sell. He is much too busy already. A queue of life’s victims wanting his help in court would stretch twice round the Temple. But drumming up business is not what the book is about. Its real purpose, I suspect, is to show that, despite a certain radical reputation, Robertson is a sound man.

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Initial appearances notwithstanding, The Great World is not a grand, epic title. It is a phrase of the wide-eyed naäf, gaping at the wondrous, which is anything beyond his experience, especially any tawdry, flashy concoction. In fact, David Malouf’s primary ‘great world’ is an entertainment park of that name in Singapore where ...

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Back in 1964 before I left the University of Tasmania, Amanda Howard (now Lohrey) introduced me to a serious, nondescript first-year student who, she told me, would go far. Twenty years later Peter Conrad is a Fellow at Christ Church, Oxford, and author of a number of well-regarded books on literature, opera, and television, with a reputation established on both sides of the Atlantic.

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Many of our strongest writers are also numbered among our most commanding critics; and in some cases – Dryden, Johnson, Coleridge, and Eliot – it is not easy to tell whether their greater contribution is to literature or literary criticism. Part of the problem, of course, is that at this high level the distinction tends to break down: criticism becomes literature in its own right and often on its own terms.

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C.J. Koch in this powerful and evocative novel, The Double Man, has applied a psychoanalytic model of human personality to fairytales and the fantastical world of myth: the pursuit of illusion as reality. Its ingenious double life is that of a modern-day fairy tale coupled with the face of 1960s man, paralysed with the despair of his era: its inability to cope with the breakdown of shared values and beliefs. Richard Miller is both the prince of the archetypal fairytale and the prototype of modern man trying to create a private reality out of ancestral beliefs. The Double Man recalls W.B. Yeats’s dread of the ‘rough beast…its hour come round at last’, and the warnings of Goethe who foresaw a time of such chaos: when odd spiritual leaders would emerge and man would turn full circle to find popular truth in ancient myths and legends.

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