The Allure of Atwood's Toronto: Long a Destination for Writers and Literary Fans, This Eclectic City Has Provided the Setting for Many Popular Novels by Canada's Leading Author

By Spencer, Guylaine | Americas (English Edition), November-December 2005 | Go to article overview

The Allure of Atwood's Toronto: Long a Destination for Writers and Literary Fans, This Eclectic City Has Provided the Setting for Many Popular Novels by Canada's Leading Author


Spencer, Guylaine, Americas (English Edition)


"Literature is not only a mirror; it is also a map, a geography of the mind," wrote Margaret Atwood some three decades ago. If one were to map this novelist's territory, the physical borders would follow pretty closely those of a certain northern city on a lake. Indeed, Margaret Atwood is Toronto's own. And Atwood's avid readers have long identified her many internationally acclaimed novels with Toronto, whether they are dwellers of the city or not. In fact, those who aren't Torontonians feel they know the city precisely because Atwood has been weaving bits and pieces of the Canadian metropolis into her work ever since she began writing fiction.

Take Yorkville, for example. This small Victorian-era neighborhood straddling Bloor Street West between Avenue Road and Yonge Street was once an independent village but is now part of Toronto. Despite its growth, it still retains a distinctive small-town air. In Cat's Eye (1989), Atwood's haunting contemplation of time, friendship, and feminism, the young Elaine visits her teacher and lover Josef in his apartment here on Hazelton Lane.

The novel is set in the early 1970s, when Yorkville was a hippie hangout. At that time, the creative community took a sleepy, aging neighborhood full of scruffy nineteenth-century houses, stables, and warehouses, and converted it into a bustling collection of coffee houses, art galleries, and colorful shops. Atwood, who was part of the burgeoning Canadian literary movement, gave poetry readings at the Bohemian Embassy cafe, a popular hangout of the times that also hosted singers Joni Mitchell, Gordon Lightfoot, and Neil Young.

Once it was fashionable to say how dull Toronto was, remembers Cat's Eye's Elaine, who's lived in British Columbia for some years, but now, she's told, her old city is "New York without the garbage and muggings."

Indeed, the area has changed dramatically since the flower-child era. Today Yorkville is a hive of designer boutiques and pricey restaurants and bars. The coffee houses are gone, but twenty-odd art galleries still survive, including the Ontario Crafts Council's Guild Shop, and a number of dealers in native and Inuit art, such as Gallery Gevik, Feheley Fine Arts, Kinsman Robinson Galleries, and Maslak McLeod Gallery. This is still a good area for a quick overview of the Canadian fine arts and contemporary crafts scenes.

On the western border of Yorkville, the handsome Park Hyatt Hotel (built 1929-36) graces the corner of Avenue Road and Bloor Street West. The rooftop bar with patio on the eighteenth floor offers a great panorama of the city and a lovely breeze when the weather is right. In Cat's Eye, Elaine and Josef share a drink here. "We sit on the outside patio," says Elaine, "drinking Manhattans and looking over the stone balustrade.... This is one of the tallest buildings around. Below us Toronto festers in the evening heat, the trees spreading like worn moss, the lake zinc in the distance."

In an earlier novel, The Edible Woman (1969), which humourously considers the role of women in marriage and society in the late sixties, the brooding, food-sensitive Marian and orderly Peter meet at the hotel rooftop bar, "one of Peter's favorite places for a quiet drink," to negotiate their strained engagement. "Being up that high gives you a sense of the vertical which is rare in the city," comments Marian, who watches the city lights from the patio, hoping that a flicker of lightning on the eastern horizon will bring an air-clearing storm.

For many years, this cozy retreat from the noise and crowds of Bloor Street has served as a watering hole for Canadian authors, including Mordecai Richler, Graeme Gibson, June Callwood, Peter Gzowski, as well as Atwood. Framed cartoons of writers hang on one wall, and in a glass case nearby are copies of Canadian books such as Mordecai Richler's novel Joshua Then and Now, Adrienne Clarkson's novel A Love More Condoling, and James Chatto's nonfiction work The Man Who Ate Toronto. …

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