Sept. 18, 2006
Atwood on ‘The Penelopiad’
BY nancy condon
Writers of Western literature have three treasure troves of potential stories from which to steal, and Canadian writer Margaret Atwood has plundered them all: the Judeo-Christian bible, folklore and classical mythology have all been rich sources for the author's award-winning short stories, poems, plays and novels, which include "The Handmaid's Tale" and "The Blind Assassin."
At Glenn Memorial on Sept. 7, to deliver the annual Nix Mann Endowed Lecture, Atwood spoke to an audience of more than 1,000, about the process that culminated in her latest novel, "The Penelopiad." Atwood took this story from Homer's "The Odyssey" but relates it through Penelope, the long-suffering wife of the protagonist Odysseus. From the vantage point of the afterlife, Penelope describes the time her husband was away, how she fended off more than 100 suitors and his return after 20 years of absence. Sharing the narrative spotlight in the hereafter are 12 maids Odysseus hanged at the end of " The Odyssey ."
Witty and irreverent, Atwood traced episodes in her life where treasure chests opened their goods to her, and pointed to many well-known tales. As a child, for example, she and her schoolmates had to recite biblical verses daily, "with no explanation of what they meant," but were spared verses depicting gruesome, sexually explicit and disturbing scenes that are common throughout the bible and that provide inspiration for much of contemporary and classic literature. Biblical themes are famously present in the works of Shakespeare, C.S. Lewis and, of course, Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code."
Atwood described how the story of Persephone, Greek goddess of the underworld and Zeus' daughter, has been used so often it would be futile to list all the works, but mentioned Louise Glück's Persephone poems and Joan Didion's "A Book of Common Prayer," about a mother's search for her daughter who was swallowed up by the underworld similar to Persephone. With wry humor, Atwood read her poem "The Siren Song," a funny interpretation of the song sung by one of three half-bird, half-female creatures in Greek mythology that lured sailors to their deaths.
Atwood traced the genesis of "The Penelopiad" to one morning in Edinburgh, Scotland, too early for her to have had her morning coffee, when she was approached--"ambushed, really"--by Jamie Byng of Canongate Books. Byng asked her to join a project in which a number of writers were being invited to re-tell myths in their own words. Atwood, caffeine-less, agreed, and began the odyssey that resulted in her most recent book. At first, she said, she tried to draw on North American motifs--a relatively new jewel in the treasure chest of folklore--but "couldn't get the kite to fly." At one point she even told her agent she wanted to back out. Eventually, however, she returned to classical mythology, and drew on the feelings from her first reading of "The Odyssey" as a 15-year-old high school student. She was both horrified and fascinated by the hanging of Penelope's maids at the end of the story. "They've been bothering me ever since," she said. "There was something about that hanging that was not only gruesome but suspicious. The evidence that supposedly condemned them just didn't add up." So she retold the story, with Penelope as narrator, both funny in her take on her own childhood and life and moving in her guilt about the deaths of the maids.