The Red Shoes

The Red Shoes

Margaret Atwood Starting Out

Book - 1998
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When Margaret Atwood was a little girl in 1949, she saw a movie called The Red Shoes. It is the story of a beautiful young woman who becomes a famous ballerina, but commits suicide when she cannot satisfy one man, who wants her to devote her entire life to her art, and another who loves her, but subjugates her to become his muse and inspiration. She struggles to choose art, but the choice destroys her.

Margaret Atwood remembers being devastated by this movie, but unlike many young girls of her time, she escaped its underlying message. Sustained by a strong sense of herself, Margaret Atwood achieved a stratospheric literary career. How did a young girl, in those pre-feminist days, create the instinctive capacity to believe in herself? As pre-eminent biographer Rosemary Sullivan says: "The answer has to do with the mystery of self-confidence".

Self-confidence is just one fascinating side of our most famous literary export, examined by Rosemary Sullivan in The Red Shoes: Margaret Atwood/Starting Out. Not a biography, but a portrait of a woman and her generation -- this is the unfolding of an enigma. For despite her tremendous success that transcends the literary community, catapulting her into the realm of a "household name", Margaret Atwood has remained very much a private person with a public persona. Rosemary Sullivan reveals the discrepancy between Atwood's cool, acerbic public image and the down-to-earth, straight-dealing and generous woman who actually

Publisher: Toronto : HarperFlamingoCanada, c1998
Edition: 1st ed
ISBN: 9780002554237
0002554232
Branch Call Number: 819.354/ATW -S 4565nf 1

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vickiz
Dec 31, 2009

Margaret made a distinction: personally, art was a vocation, a gift, which required all her imagination and commitment. But publicly, it was also a profession, with rights and responsibilities. Ironically, the romantic notion of the artist confronting demons alone in an attic freed society of any responsibility for art. The artist suffered, by definition, and was placeless in a culture where he or she had no social role. Margaret was beginning to see the artist as completely different from the romantic cliche. The artist was meant to actively shape society, and not be its victim. When the artist actually spoke out, though, society often felt threatened.

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vickiz
Dec 20, 2009

"I'm interested," [Margaret Atwood] would say, "in edges, undertows, permutations, in taking things that might be viewed as eccentric or marginal and pulling them into the center." She would become someone who was always looking for a space to stand - on the borderline between city and bush, between reason and feeling, between fear and empathy. She was someone who learned from that wild world what she would call "the gaping moment" - "a sense of the hole in the sky." She would say that, for her, the city world was the fearful place where she had to learn the mysterious codes of behaviour that everyone else took for granted.

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vickiz
Nov 30, 2009

Rosemary Sullivan does a superb job of balancing her portrait of the young Margaret Atwood in her childhood, young adulthood and early career with a solid critical assessment of the burgeoning Canadian literary scene and canon. Sullivan also ably dovetails Atwood's place in the Canadian literary realm, as well as Atwood's precocious and always growing potential at that point to influence and shape it. Sullivan also captures Atwood's own sense of balance, grounded in a loving and supportive upbringing, between personal and emotional health, artistic exploration and integrity, and professionalism. Here is an excerpt that expresses it well:

"Margaret made a distinction: personally, art was a vocation, a gift, which required all her imagination and commitment. But publicly, it was also a profession, with rights and responsibilities. Ironically, the romantic notion of the artist confronting demons alone in an attic freed society of any responsibility for art. The artist suffered, by definition, and was placeless in a culture where he or she had no social role. Margaret was beginning to see the artist as completely different from the romantic cliche. The artist was meant to actively shape society, and not be its victim. When the artist actually spoke out, though, society often felt threatened."

Atwood is and continues to be engaged and impressive (for example, the Globe and Mail just named her Canada's Nation Builder of the Decade in Arts, and she tweets voraciously at www.twitter.com/MargaretAtwood), and Sullivan is impressive in her portraiture and context setting. Even if one does not particularly care for Atwood's works (although there is a range of genres and subject to please most omnivorous readers) or politics, "The Red Shoes" is still an absorbing and inspiring examination of a life and a calling well, healthily, optimistically and fiercely lived.

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