Margaret Atwood: A Triptych

by Beth McAuley

Published at 2016-01-12

Triptych: From the Greek adjective meaning "three-fold": tri = three, ptysso = to fold, or ptyx = fold. Usually a panel painting that is divided into three sections and hinged together to be folded shut or displayed open. The middle panel is typically the largest and is flanked by two smaller related works, although there are triptychs of equal-sized panels.


Margaret Atwood (MA) has been a thread in the tapestry of my literary/reading life since she came onto the Canadian literary scene in the early 1970s. I have been in her presence three times over the years. The most recent occasion of seeing the renowned author inspired this triptych.   


Panel 1: 1972, Montreal

When I was a student at Sir George Williams University in Montreal, MA gave a reading that might have been from her recently published novel, Surfacing, or from her earlier publication, Power Politics: Poems. The venue was a glass-panelled room of the university’s two-room art gallery. It was the smaller room at the end of a long hallway. The hallway ran along a larger glass-panelled room that was featuring an exhibit of paintings. I believe it was an afternoon reading, and by the time I arrived, the room was overflowing and I had to stand in the hallway with many other fans, quite a distance from the main event. So I “heard” more than “saw” the author. I remember hearing her distinctive voice for the first time. It was a voice I would hear many more times over the coming years on radio show interviews.


As an aside: While I was listening to MA read, I was admiring the art through the glass window and saw a piece I fell in love with. After the reading I went into the gallery and took a closer look. It was on sale for $75.00. A fortune at the time, but I had to have it. The painting, which I still own and still admire, is Vigilance by the artist Jovette Marchessault, who is also a writer. Her novel Lesbian Triptych was published by Women’s Press in 1985, where I happened to be volunteering at the time. I had the luck to have lunch with Marchessault at that time and told her that I had bought her painting (not sure I added “at a Margaret Atwood reading”).


Panel 2: 1985, Toronto

MA had generously agreed to do a reading at the Toronto Women’s Bookstore. On this occasion she was reading from her novel, The Handmaid’s Tale. The bookstore was overflowing for this afternoon event, but this time I was in the room and saw as well as heard her reading. Afterwards, there was a book signing on the store’s second floor. I stood in line with her other fans for her signature. She was very friendly and sociable with everyone, and I was honoured to be in such close proximity. She signed my copy and returned it, and having just finished the novel, I couldn’t resist saying to her, “I love your last line.” She looked a bit puzzled as if she could not quite remember, but said “Thank you” and returned my book to me. (And, no, I am not going to tell you what that last line is.)


Panel 3: 2015, Toronto

It was a mid-December evening in the city and I was on my way home from the office. As usual, I was taking the southbound subway at College Station. The platform wasn’t too crowded at 7 p.m. I noticed two women sitting on one of the benches as I began walking towards the end of the platform. One woman was bent over her smartphone, the other was sitting near the edge of the bench, waiting patiently. She caught my attention—then I took a second look and noticed it was MA. “HELLO!” I boomed, as is my tendency when I spot a star. The young woman looked up, startled. MA smiled at me for the quickest moment and then glanced away politely, as if to say, “Please keep on walking,” which I did. But I was delighted to have spotted her and to have had the chance to greet her so enthusiastically. It made my day!


I have to say that I haven’t read MA’s most recent novel, The Heart Goes Last. If I had, I could have bellowed out an addition to my greeting: “Great book!” Or, “Great last line!” As it is, I will have to wait for another chance to attend a reading, which means I have some catching up to do.


Novels I confess to not yet reading: The Blind Assassin (2000); Oryx and Crake (2003); The Penelopiad (2005); The Year of the Flood (2009); and MaddAddam (2013).