Margaret Atwood is almost mythical herself, a magnet for truths and half-truths, accolades and criticisms. But, like her new version of the ancient heroine Penelope, she is sardonic about the whole myth-perpetuation business.
So maybe that's why Atwood found Penelope so easy to recreate in The Penelopiad, her rewrite of the Greek myth of Penelope and Odysseus. Atwood, like Penelope, immediately sees beyond the heroic posturing of Odysseus, Penelope's crafty husband who deserts her for decades, and Telemachus, her walking-in-dad's-footsteps son. Penelope, in Atwood's hands, is a wry woman making do, fully aware of the mythology (that is, public opinion) surrounding her.
"The guy is gone. She's left with this baby that she's raising, and he turns into this lippy teenager who essentially borrows the family car without asking" — or, given that this is the ancient world — "he takes a ship and goes off secretly," Atwood adds in her characteristic monotone, laughing under her breath. Whether ancient Greece or the contemporary world, it's all just the usual family dynamics. "Remove the fancy language, and that's what it is," Atwood says.
The Penelopiad, officially due in stores this weekend, is one of the first arrivals in what could be this season's biggest publishing blitz — a series in which famous writers reinterpret the world's myths that is being simultaneously released in more than 30 countries.
Along with The Penelopiad, the first round of books in the series includes Jeanette Winterson's Weight, a staccato rewrite of the myth of Atlas and Heracles, and Karen Armstrong's academically minded book-length essay A Short History of Myth. Given the many international publishers involved and the writers still coming on board, the series is attracting attention throughout the industry.
But sitting in a meeting room at Random House Canada's Toronto office a few weeks before the Myths series kicked off, Atwood is content to mull the personal details of the life of Penelope, that ever-faithful, ever-patient wife who, according to some ancient versions of the tale, let a suitor or two (or 120) slip through the back door and into her confidence while Odysseus was away fighting the Trojan War and getting lost in other sagas.
Atwood's Penelope is aware of the naughtier versions of her myth, perpetuated by ancient oral sources other than Homer's The Odyssey, which is perhaps more complementary in its depiction of Penelope as the long-suffering wife. This Penelope acknowledges the steamier side those other versions, but it's all just hearsay, she claims. Written in the first person, Atwood's Penelope also retells her tragedy with a certain irreverence in the Greek satyr-play tradition.
"Oh, she's pretty sarcastic. But think of her situation," Atwood says.
"She knows perfectly well she's been married off, as people were. Noble family women were vehicles for wealth transfer and power consolidation. She knows all about that."
Penelope also knows that her husband (the scheming politician or salesman of Greek mythology, as Atwood describes him) and their son were involved in the murder of her 12 maids. Add in the sexpot Helen of Troy, along with all the other family rivalries and power grabs associated wit Penelope and Odysseus, and you have "a kind of gigantic ancient Dallas," Atwood says with a laugh.
The Penelopiad, a quick read that's already garnering good reviews, could be seen as a blockbuster made to order.
The rest of the Myths series, which will include contributions from A..S. Byatt, Donna Tartt, Victor Pelevin and others, is to follow the same format. Each book is small and only 150 to 200 pages long, with not much text per page.
The series was dreamed up by Jamie Byng of Edinburgh-based Canongate Books, who has since risen to international prominence as publisher of the best-selling novels Life of Pi and Vernon God Little. He originally mentioned the idea one night at the Frankfurter Hof hotel in 1998 in a gathering of a small Who's Who of international publishing: Louise Dennys of Random House Canada and Knopf Canada, Arnulf Conradi of Berlin Verlag and Morgan Entrekin of Grove/Atlantic.
"It was very much one of those great Frankfurt Book Fair nights, where you are sitting around with like-minded fellow publishers and looking at book ideas," Dennys says. The notion of keeping the Myths series light and fun, rather than heavy and scholarly, was key.
"The fun of it is something that has, in fact, remained with the series since the beginning, and it's very much a part of Margaret Atwood's book and some of the others that are coming down the pipeline too."
New books in the series could still be coming out in 2015 or 2030, Dennys continues.
"The way that it is being conceived at the moment and the way in which writers are approaching it is that we are looking to go forward over the next 10, 20 years — to do something that will involve all the great myths of the world, reinvented and rewritten for our contemporary times."
In rewriting the Penelope myth, Atwood limited herself to sources such as The Odyssey and other ancient versions. She didn't invent anything, she says, other than dialogue and the occasional scene that transposes modern-day elements, such as a brief mock trial held in the afterworld. Winterson's recreation of Atlas and Heracles, on the other hand, includes the nice touch of having Atlas rescue a dog from a Russian Sputnik.
Would Atwood like to tackle another myth?
"No!!" she blurts out in a surprisingly girlish, uncharacteristic voice. "No, why would I?" she says, resuming her usual cool demeanour. "No. No reason for me to do another one."
And this makes one wonder: In the end, is The Penelopiad a product of Atwood's or the publisher's inspiration? As Atwood says jokingly, Byng, in particular, cornered her into contributing to the series.
Still, given how amusing and innovative Atwood is in handling the myth, with Penelope and Helen having catty exchanges in the afterworld and the dead maids singing in judgment, the point isn't so much in the originality of the story, but in the storytelling.