Survival by Margaret Atwood

>> Monday, May 4, 2009

Survival, by Margaret Atwood, is not a new book. It was originally published in 1972 - the edition I have been reading this week was published in 2004 by McClelland & Stewart, and includes a new introduction by Atwood.

Survival, I think, should be required reading for any student of Canadian Literature. It wasn't for me - it has been referenced several times throughout the course of my studies, and we were given a chapter of it to read for my first CanLit course - but really, the book is so important, that now that I've read it I can't imagine that I would ever teach Canadian literature and not include it on the syllabus.

I am glad I ordered it... I've actually had it sitting here for several months ...just didn't get to reading it until all of my papers and marking were done.

ANYWAY, in a comment thread somewhere that I can no longer find, we were talking about differences between US and Canadian lit... and that the US tends towards a frontier mentality - good vs evil; conquering, all that good stuff - while Canadian literature tends to focus on survival.

All of that is discussed in Atwood's Survival. Not that she takes credit for coming up with all of the concepts - she clearly states that she is, in this work, drawing on the work of Northtop Frye (the other book I bought with this one and will likely talk about sometime soon) and others.

In the 2004 Introduction, Atwood writes:

We now take it for granted that Canadian literature is an acknowledged category, but this proposition was not always self-evident. To have any excuse for being, the kind of book I had in mind had to prove several points. First, that, yes, there was a Canadian literature - such a thing did indeed exist. (This turned out to be a radical proposition, and was disputed by many when the book appeared.) Second, that this body of work was not just a feeble version of English or American, or, in the case of francophone books, of French literature, but that it had different preoccupations, which were specific to its own history and geopolitics (6).
The book provides exactly that - evidence and examples to prove that there is such a thing as Canadian literature, and highlight its differences. Each chapter builds on the original themes of survival, and especially victim/victimizer. I was particularly interested in chapters dealing with First People, women and "the paralyzed artist" - but have found every chapter interesting and relevant.

This is a highly readable and entertaining book - SUCH a relief after all of the theory and other assorted forms of academic torture I have been reading over the past year....and it really is not at all as dated as one might expect of something written more than 30 years ago. In fact, it is not at all dated.

I highly recommend Margaret Atwood's Survival for anyone interested in Canadian literature.


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