Early in November, I attended the premiere of A Word after a Word after a Word is Power, the documentary by Nancy Lang and Peter Raymont, filmed during the final year in which Margaret Atwood was writing The Testaments.
It would also turn out to be the last year of her husband’s life, so it captures on film many moments they shared in that year as well.
In case you, like me, had the idea that that would have meant an endless series of events in which Graeme Gibson sat and watched/waited, it was more about their bird-watching activities and literary- and activist-related ventures throughout the years (although Atwood is quick to say that she is not an activist – she’s often asked to contribute to causes but considers real activists to be the ones who are doing the heavy-lifting).
One detail I gleaned from the documentary had an unexpected impact on my recent rereading of The Handmaid’s Tale, the fact that she set it on the campus of Harvard, that the layout of the school was a convenient overlay. It’s something not a lot of people realize, she says. But here it is:
“To the tolling of the bell we walk along the paths once used by students, past buildings that were once lecture halls and dormitories. It’s very strange to be here again. From the outside you can’t tell that anything’s changed, except that the blinds on most of the windows are drawn down. These buildings belong to the Eyes now.”
I imagined Atwood sitting at that typewriter in Berlin and thinking about her schooldays. As though she was checking a mirror and just tilted the glass back over her shoulder, to view herself in the past, to construct this new horrifying narrative of the future. Which is actually, given that it’s based on historical events, a reflection of the past into the future.
Now that I’ve read The Testaments, I find myself reaching for this image of a mirror once again. But is it a mirror, or simply a pane of glass. The connection between these two volumes, The Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments is so closely intertwined, the relationship so tightly knitted, that it’s difficult to parse out the individual elements.
Handmaid’s: “By telling you anything at all I’m at least believing in you, I believe you’re there, I believe you into being. Because I’m telling you this story I will your existence. I tell, therefore you are.”
Testaments: “In that case, I would destroy these pages I have written so laboriously; and I would destroy you along with them, my future reader.”
The elements which I remarked about recently, as standing out in my rereading of Handmaid’s – time, the significance of gaps and absences, perspective – also play important roles in The Testaments. Those readers who believe The Testaments falls short? They weren’t paying attention.
Handmaid’s: “Waiting is also a place; it is wherever you wait. For me it’s this room. I am a blank, here, between parentheses. Between other people.” [This from Offred. Whose narrative exists in a parenthesis in a whole ‘nother way, once readers have read the three women’s narratives in The Testaments.]
Testaments: “Time, however, is different when you’re shut up in the dark alone. It’s longer. Nor do you know when you’re asleep and when awake.” [This from Aunt Lydia. Whose time in the dark is not titled as such. But it can’t help but recall all the portions of Offred’s narrative in Handmaid’s, titled “Night”, cyclically punctuating her story.]
Handmaid’s: “A rat in a maze is free to go anywhere, as long as it stays inside the maze.” [Offred’s narrative is doubly constrained, as a record of her life of confinement in Gilead, but recorded later, so confined by what she remembers, what she chooses to write down, after she has escaped but before she is free.]
Testaments: “My mood was not melodious. It was rather one of a rat in a maze. Was there a way out? What was that way? Why was I here? Was it a test? What were they trying to find out?” [If you didn’t know this was Aunt Lydia, these phrases would seem to suit Offred better. The position of women in Gilead seems to vary, from the colours of their outfits to their relative access to particular privileges, but ultimately they are all imprisoned.]
Handmaid’s: “No mother is ever, completely, a child’s idea of what a mother should be, and I suppose it works the other way around as well.” [In Offred’s imprisonment, she has ample opportunity to consider the ways in which she disappointed her mother’s idea of a daughter, of the ways in which she disappointed her daughter’s idea of what Offred/June should have been.]
Testaments: “Right then she was only a torn-up picture. She was an absence, a gap inside me.” [In much the same way, another character in this new narrative struggles to understand what it means to be a daughter without a direct experience of mothering, with the constant awareness of a space where that experience might have been.]
In both The Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments, the stories of women who came before and women who would come after are lost and reclaimed, recorded and reconsidered.
In the hands of another writer, this could have less to do with perspective, beyond the obvious (that each character has her own truth). In Atwood’s hands, the narrative is meticulously constructed so that the relationship between what can be known and what must be known is appropriately complex.
And we, as readers, are wholly engaged, because we are in a unique position, having only these two volumes of archival material to study: we know things that the characters might have known (but could/did not) and we can assemble an enviable understanding across time and space.
Something else that Atwood discusses in the documentary is the pressure she felt to complete this narrative, not only in the wake of 35 years of questions that readers raised (as described in the note which follows The Testaments) but also in the wake of the 2016 election in the United States.
At seventy-seven years old, she chose to act. And I find myself wondering whether she knew, when she was a young woman, walking those campus quadrangles at Harvard, memorizing that space in that time, that she would need to know those pathways. That later, in her forties, she would retrace those steps in her mind and turn the journey into The Handmaid’s Tale. And that later again, in her seventies, she would look over her shoulder once more, in order to reassess the trajectory that lies ahead, and turn that into The Testaments.
All to ask: where have we walked before, where will we choose to walk next? I think about situations like this, and this, and how much every choice matters. We can choose our own direction. And we must.