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Negotiating with the Dead:

A Writer on Writing

By Margaret Atwood

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Cambridge, 219 pages, $27.95

T here aren't many writers for whom readers cock a collective ear and ask, "What's she going to do now?" After 25 books, translated into 35 languages, Margaret Atwood is a writer who has scratched her name on the tablet of the English language. She belongs to the world.

Delivered to a Cambridge University audience in 2000, Negotiating with the Dead springs from the Empson Lectures, named after English scholar William Empson. The pleasures of orality ripple through these book-bound talks on writing. Atwood tells the tale of her relationship with words in a charming voice. She's good craic, as the Irish would say.

She teases, probes, tickles, punches and enlightens. Her new book is very much a voice performance. Her last line, from Ovid, is, "By my voice I shall be known." She has laboured long in the wordmines (her coinage), so when she opens her mouth about her trade, you're inclined to listen. As reader and intellectual, she speaks lightly on weighty subjects.

Early in her narrative, Atwood asks what a writer is. She considers the roles of prophet, seer, jester and witness. She asks questions: "Who are you writing for? Why do you do it? Where does it come from?" (I'll tell you her answers later.) She wades into mythology with the ease of her former teacher, Northrop Frye, and sweeps across Western literature with casual erudition. You get to see the muscle of her mind, in its leapfrogging and hopscotching, making strange and original connections veiled in playfulness. You get to overhear personal bits about her tomboy mum, her entomologist dad and her storytelling brother.

The side-dishes are as interesting as the main courses. Just when you think, for instance, that 1984 has been talked to death, Atwood finds something fresh to say. She says that the writer Winston Smith (a diarist) finds his perfect reader -- the quest of all writers -- in O'Brien, by whom he's betrayed and reconfigured. Atwood play-acts the curses of writing with these delightful lines: "Your Aunt Lila won't speak to you because she thinks she is Madame X, the profligate floozy in your latest novel, and she never did any such thing, and how dare you . . ." She quotes fellow-scribbler Mavis Gallant: "I still do not know what impels anyone sound of mind to leave dry land and spend a lifetime describing people who do not exist." She investigates "Graphomania. Compulsive logorrhea."

At the age of 10, Atwood reads the complete Poe. At 12, she falls in love with Sherlock Holmes. As a youngster, she has trouble understanding Hemingway's Hills Like White Elephants, and she confesses that D. H. Lawrence's The Rocking-Horse Winner still haunts her. She reads Stephen King and raids Elmore Leonard.

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Mixed in with these reading revelations, Atwood comments on three important magicians: Prospero, the Wizard of Oz and Mephisto. The threesome shows her to be as comfortable with the lowbrow as the highbrow, and permits her to showcase her connecting mind. Most magicians, it seems, drip a little of totalitarianism.

In the 1982 film Mephisto, the Nazi-leaning actor Hofgen declares his need of theatre and theatre's need of him. Atwood shrewdly responds: "How right he is -- totalitarianism is always somewhat theatrical. And, like the theatre, it leans heavily on illusion: grand facades, with squalor and string-pulling behind the scenes."

It takes a little time for Atwood's voice to warm up. The early sections of the book might have been written by another equally astute reader and word-gifted writer. The last section could only have been written by Atwood. She saves her best music for last.

She regards Gilgamesh as the first writer. He learns by going down, by going into the dark, by loss. The price of writerly clairvoyance is loss, the loss of a loved one, whether Gilgamesh's Enkidu or Orpheus's Eurydice. You can't see and keep. The writer only gets to see and let go.

In her litany of loss, Philoctetes ought to have a place too. The snake-bitten magic bowman, the archetypal artist, who loses a part of himself in order to perform his artistry, carries his darkness within. Sometimes loss is personal, a dismemberment of wholeness. Sometimes the self, rather than the other, is broken.

In her final section, Descent: Negotiating with the Dead, Atwood bites into a subject worthy of her teeth-marks. She's blithely at home in the interstices of folklore, anthropology, mythology and literary criticism. She hits her note and holds it. Explicator and visitor of the Underworld, Atwood earns her introductory words: "Possibly, then, writing has to do with darkness, and a desire . . . to enter it, and, with luck, to illuminate it . . ." Gilgamesh, after a long journey, returns to write his story on a stone.

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P.S.: Answers to Atwood's who, why and where: Brown Owl (Atwood was a Brownie and her first writing was for her leader); the fear of oblivion; the Underworld. J. S. Porter is the author of Spirit Book Word: An Inquiry into Literature and Spirituality .

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