Margaret Atwood: A personal odyssey and how she rewrote Homer

Odysseus we know - but who was Penelope? And who better to put flesh on that ghostly presence than Margaret Atwood? The novelist talks to Boyd Tonkin
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Predation and survival, the dance of the hunters and the hunted, runs like a red thread through the explorations of human nature, and non-human nature, that have made Atwood one of the most widely admired and avidly followed writers at work in the world today. Times are perennially tough in Atwood territory, with the graces of civilisation often a thin veneer waiting for a lethal crack from without - or, generally, from within. In 1972, her landmark guide to Canadian literature carried the title Survival; 30 years later, the harassed vagrant "Snowman" stumbled through a mutant-infested genetic wasteland left by ecological disaster and botched science in the novel Oryx and Crake.

This summer, the writer who recalls that "I spent a lot of my childhood without electricity" worked at an Inuit sewing, healing and literacy camp on the treeless side of the Canadian far north. These days, the polar bears in the region are hungrier than ever, "because of global warming. The shore ice, which they usually go on to hunt seals - that's diminishing." So those ravenous predators approached the camp; not once, but five times. Luckily, "we had three excellent hunters with us. They simply knew how to chase off the bears, and what to do next. And I slept like a baby in my tent, because I knew that they were standing guard, turn and turn about, all night."

When Atwood surveys the wild and perilous pre-modern world of Homer and the Odyssey, as she does in The Penelopiad (Canongate), you feel that she can draw on more than merely the written sources. A famously supportive home life in Toronto for more than 30 years with the novelist and naturalist Graeme Gibson (they have a late-twenties daughter, Jess) is the base camp from which she treks out time and again into the artistic, the moral and - often enough - the actual wilderness. Atwood still thrives where Graham Greene yearned to patrol: on the dangerous edge of things.

The Penelopiad forms part of the series of retold myths that Jamie Byng of Canongate - in partnership with a dozen other European publishers - has commissioned from the gods and goddesses of modern literature (see book review, page 24). She reports that Byng, like a sprite out of some Border ballad, "leapt out from behind a gorse bush in Scotland and talked me into it". That, in itself, was a coup that the golden-voiced charmer Odysseus himself might envy.

With her books taught in about three-quarters of British universities, the novelist, poet and critic - now 65 - has scaled such heights of eminence that even her screen adapters can pick up the Nobel Prize. That gong has this month gone to Harold Pinter, who in 1990 scripted Volker Schlöndorff's film of The Handmaid's Tale. Written in 1984, her dystopian vision of a woman-controlling Puritanical theocracy remains, for an army of readers, the dry, fierce quintessence of Atwood's endlessly speculative fictions.

Sitting in her publisher's west London office, Atwood sounds neither dry, nor fierce, but given rather to delighted hoots of laughter that punctuate her carefully phrased answers. She purrs with pleasure at the honour for her collaborator, whose work she admiringly described as "prickly, bothersome, mordant and dour", and as "coming up on you sideways with an alarming glare". Now, she says: "I was particularly touched by the picture of him in the paper in which he looked childishly happy - innocently happy. Which is not a look you usually see coming from Mr Pinter. He looked genuinely surprised - 'How could this be happening?' It was quite lovely."

Fine of feature, neat of phrase, Atwood can mix warm and funny with exacting and erudite. Maybe that's not a combination that journalists often expect. Previous interviewers have from time to time returned with tales of Pinteresque silences at the court of a supercilious ice queen. That may say much more about them than her - especially if they came to seek some gushing confessional. According to the maxim she passed on in her 2002 Cambridge lectures, Negotiating with the Dead: "Wanting to meet an author because you like his work is like wanting to meet a duck because you like paté." Atwood remains very much the airborne fowl, not the inert quarry.

This, as any serious fan of her work will grasp, is a writer who revels not in artless self-expression but in the liberating discipline of form. At one point as we talk, she quotes the Canadian scholar Robert Bringhurst, who said that "form in poetry is like the wing of a bird. It does not cause flight to happen, but without it there would be no flight." " That's my feeling about form in general," Atwood says. "Unless you know what the form is, breaking out of it would be pointless. Take dress codes. Unless you know that you're supposed to wear a ballgown and long gloves, coming in a miniskirt instead is pointless." That enabling command of form and rules may shape a poem, a play, a novel, a review - or even a mere interview.

Spun from low-status material on the margins of classical culture, The Penelopiad creates a form all its own. As she works from the Odyssey and other traditional stories, Atwood resurrects the long-suffering wife of Odysseus - and the 12 young "maids" (that is, slaves) so bafflingly hanged when the hero returned to Ithaca after his long adventures in the wake of the Trojan wars. It sounds, in the abstract, rather like the sort of low-temperature, left-handed exercise with which garlanded authors may sometimes while away the time as a bigger idea comes slowly to the boil. Not with Atwood, who will kill a fledgling work off rather than nurture a misbegotten book.

Indeed, she made two false starts on other legendary yarns before settling on Penelope - one a Native American story, the other the Norse myth about the creation of humanity out of two logs of wood ("But I couldn't get the logs of wood animated!"). Then, at long last, "out of my unconscious, where I keep so many things, there appeared in particular the hanged maids, who have always bothered me about the Odyssey".

Atwood's Penelopiad has its Pinter-like side: the fraught court of Ithaca, its wily king absent, heavy with secrets and silences and lies. And it has its wild struggle for survival, too. Penelope, the woman alone, learns to cope with the desertion of the alpha-male hunter-warriors for Troy and then for their cross-Mediterranean escapades with seductive sirens and scary giants. Meanwhile, the pesky suitors - 100 or more - gather to violate her maids, to eat her out of goats and pigs, and to pressure her into an enslaving match.

Much of Atwood's most powerful fiction - think of The Robber Bride, Alias Grace, Cat's Eye or The Blind Assassin - brings to the fore female transgressors of demonic, or heroic, zest and heft. The theme of good girls versus bad women bubbles like a stream of mischief through the invigorating collection of essays and articles, Curious Pursuits, which Virago published earlier this year. "Female bad characters can act as keys to doors we need to open," argued Atwood's celebration of "Spotty-Handed Villainesses" in 1993, "and as mirrors in which in which we can see more than just a pretty face... Such characters can pose the question of responsibility, because if you want power you have to accept responsibility." An earlier essay on "The Curse of Eve" runs: "I myself have never known an angel, a harpy, a witch or an earth mother. I've known a number of real women, not all of whom have been nicer or more noble or more long-suffering or less righteous and pompous than men."

Yet now the high priestess of strong wrongdoing picks patient Penelope, that ancient role-model of docile wifely virtue. As Atwood admits, Penelope has been "in general somewhat neglected for the very simple reason that in the Odyssey she does four things: weaving, waiting, * * weeping - and she does sleeping. You can't get around the fact that she spends a great deal of time in the Odyssey crying: to show how much she cares that Odysseus isn't there, how beleaguered she feels, and how lost and alone and unhappy she is."

Most modern writers taking a revisionist tour around the old Greek tales would, as Atwood acknowledges, "much rather have written about murderous Clytemnestra or scandalous Helen. Those are much more dramatic subjects." Indeed, in Atwood's version, Helen dogs her smart but plain cousin Penelope in life, annoyingly pleased with all that ship-sinking, hero-slaying sexiness. And she bugs her even in the Underworld, sashaying through the asphodel fields of Hades like an ageing diva in a nightclub.

So Atwood, at usual, has set herself a thorny formal task: take this mythical dutiful doormat, and make her fly. "What's to say about someone who's merely good?" she asks rhetorically. "It was the Victorian idea that a lady should never get her name into the paper, except for three times in her life: born, married, died. Other than that, you stayed out of public view and concerned yourself with the healthy home. So that was the fate of Penelope. But, as she says in the first chapter, I don't approve of this version. There's more to it, and to me."

There certainly is. In part, Penelope flies with the help of the sardonic, deadpan voice Atwood lends her, a tone - half Dorothy Parker, half Desperate Housewives - which "came quite easily". This princess of patience, left in the lurch and beset by a crowd of voracious hangers-on, seems to have grown into spiky irony as into a suit of armour. "Wouldn't you?" Atwood asks. "And she's had a whole lifetime of keeping her mouth shut. Now that she's dead, she doesn't have to do that any more, because nothing is at stake. It's like those tell-alls that people do at the end of their lives."

Atwood also makes her put-upon heroine a shrewd estate manager and stand-in ruler, running the dirt-poor "goat-strewn rock" of Ithaca while the big boys play away from home. "If you come to think of it, she must have been doing a lot more than she's shown as doing in the Odyssey, because there's nobody else in charge of the outfit... She must have been a much more active, practical person than she's shown as being." Nobody's fool, Atwood's Penelope sees through the returning Odysseus's disguises and shares a flair for fibs and ruses with her errant husband. "There are two ways of fending things off if you don't want them to happen," Atwood explains. "One is by force - which is not available to her. The other is by guile. So she has to use guile. And that is also Odysseus's big stock-in-trade. When in doubt, lie - but lie well."

In short, Atwood does with Penelope what she recommends to the spinner of subversive fairy-tales in an essay on the Brothers Grimm - seek "the creative retelling, the utopian dream, the sudden reversal, the rightly-chosen wish", and then "the renewed sense of wonder may instead be ours". That creative reversal applies to the hanged maids as well. No longer the hushed-up victims of a random atrocity, omitted entirely in many modern versions of Homer, they feature in The Penelopiad as an all-singing, all-stinging chorus line of lippy ghosts who take their revenge on Odysseus and the suitors in rhymes that range from a rap to a shanty to a Gilbert and Sullivan patter.

Atwood believes, following leads from Robert Graves and Mary Renault, that the maids' ruthless murder may symbolise "the overthrow of a matrilineal moon cult" by male-dominated patterns of power and faith. Through this anthropologist's lens, Odysseus looks like a usurping " year-king", a temporary top-dog who "at every turn, dodges his moment to be sacrificed" and so ushers in the whole patriarchal system. "There must have been a time when, particularly as warfare came to the fore, men acquired more power in the theological structure," Atwood says. "You can see why; it's the upper-body strength, of which Odysseus has quite a lot."

For Atwood, such ancient myths can still tell us living truths. They function, she argues, as "a big map of the psyche. They are a big map of the human-ness of human beings, and they lay out in the various bits of themselves the full range of human desires and fears - which are in fact what drive the world. It certainly isn't reason or logic. It is desire and fear, and that's true of even the most supposedly real of things: the stock market."

Local geography and climate may change the scenery of myth, she says. " The ice monsters of the north would not have appeared in the Amazon forests. But the basic stuff - love, hate, death, life, famine, plenty, animal helpers, the fates of souls, creation myths, what will happen at the end of the world - those are all fixtures. You could add that language and narrative are the most important human inventions. And once you've got a language with a past tense and a future tense, you're going to have a mythology."

Atwood has written that all writers have to move from "now" to "once upon a time", and all "must descend to where the stories are kept" but "must take care not to be captured and held immobile by the past. And all must commit acts of larceny, or else of reclamation." An act of both larceny and reclamation, The Penelopiad shows Atwood making off with an especially well-guarded cultural treasure - and making it new, as she always does.

Like every wise heroine of myth, however, she won't tempt fate or push her luck. "Maybe I'll never do anything again. Who can tell?" she frets. So, I ask, is she working on another novel? "Yes!" More howls of laughter. "That's no guarantee. It could be a complete failure. I could throw it out as I have thrown others out in their turn." Bears or tales, only the fittest will survive.

Margaret Atwood's 'The Penelopiad: The myth of Penelope and Odysseus' is published by Canongate (£12)