Meeting Margaret Atwood: Like most Irishmen of my generation I knew little about women

Michael O’Loughlin describes meeting one of his literary heroes in Prague, the author of Cat’s Eye which opened his eyes to the reality of female relationships

Margaret Atwood and Michael O’Loughlin: She listened patiently to my gush, but was more interested in talking enthusiastically about the new Netflix production of Alias Grace, particularly its Irish aspects

Margaret Atwood and Michael O’Loughlin: She listened patiently to my gush, but was more interested in talking enthusiastically about the new Netflix production of Alias Grace, particularly its Irish aspects

 

One day in 1988, a large brown padded envelope dropped into my letterbox in Amsterdam, with an Irish postmark. I occasionally reviewed books for Irish papers, and this parcel came from the great and sainted Ciaran Carty, then literary editor of the Sunday Tribune.

I opened the parcel and out popped a large hardback novel: Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood. I had heard of Atwood alright, but I wasn’t sure why he had sent this to me. With a few exceptions, I wasn’t a great reader of novels, and tended to review poetry or books related to the Irish emigrant experience. I sat down dutifully to read it, but was almost immediately stricken with a sense of horror. This tale of a group of female friends and their lives from childhood to maturity was one of the most disturbing things I had ever read.

Like most Irishmen of my generation I knew little about women, having attended single-sex schools. True, I had a mother, a female partner, and recently, a daughter, but as I read, I realised I knew nothing at all about the reality. I bothered every woman I encountered with the question: are women really like this? Can there be any truth to this book at all?

The story of Elaine and her tormentor Cordelia, and the other girls who joined in, shocked me with its depiction of bullying and the general calculated cruelty of a small, single-sex group, the way friendship combined with envy, the toxic mixture of love and hate which seemed to fuel their relationships, and the way all this seemed to be accepted as the norm – could this really be true? Sadly, most women responded, with scornful resignation, that this was often the case. After this book, I would always look on women, especially teenagers, in a different way, when I observed their dealings with each other.

Last year, in Prague, our paths finally crossed. I was there as writer in residence for Unesco City of Literature, and Atwood had just been awarded the prestigious Kafka Prize, widely seen as a precursor to the Nobel, and was coming to Prague to collect it. I was as eager as any teenage pop fan to meet Atwood and tell her how her book had changed my life.

The award ceremony followed the usual pattern. After some laboured blather from the functionaries, an academic delivered a very long, learned and weighty introduction to the work of both Kafka and Atwood. And then it was her turn to speak. Accepting the trophy and the cheque for €10,000, she delivered a sprightly, self-deprecating and hilarious speech, perfectly illustrating the cultural differences between Mitteleuropa and the Anglo-Saxon world.

She referred to her first experiences of Kafka as a student in Toronto in the 1950s. Kafka, she said, who was her first great literary love, had belonged on a shelf alongside Jean-Paul Sartre and perhaps Jack Kerouac, in a basement jazz cafe she used to frequent. She described the cafe, how it was full of existentialist types in black turtlenecks. She longed to have one too, but being an exceptionally poor student, all she could afford was a scratchy blue sweater.

After the award ceremony, as Atwood posed for photographs with local worthies, I tried to explain the turtleneck story to a bemused Mayor of Prague. I tried my best, but soon realised that cafe life in the age of Stalin and the years after his death, even in relatively liberal and jazz-loving Prague, might have been slightly different than in the West.

At the reception after the award, in a beautiful room with huge, wide-open windows overlooking the Old Town Square, I finally got to discuss my Cat’s Eye experience. The publisher and publicist made repeated attempts to usher Atwood away to the official dinner, but with steely, gentle, politeness she shooed them away, so she could hang out with her readers. She joined the assorted bunch of poets, literary survivors of 1968 and old American hippies who were tucking heartily into the excellent wines and delicious pancakes kindly provided by the City of Prague.

She listened patiently to my gush, but was more interested in talking enthusiastically about the new Netflix production of Alias Grace, which was just about to appear, particularly its Irish aspects. Having eaten and drunk, and chatted to everyone who wanted to chat to her, she eventually allowed herself to be led away .

I watched her go, thinking: in any room full of uniform black turtlenecks, she will always be the girl in the scratchy blue sweater.

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