I feel particularly unqualified to write about Alice Munro’s short stories. She has written a lot of them in a career that began more than 50 years ago, and so far I’ve read just one collection (of 8 stories), Runaway (2004). It’s hard to know where to start with a short story writer who has been so prolific over a longish period. I bookmarked this page on LitHub in 2019 and, noting that many of the stories it links to were published in The New Yorker, I took out a cheap, year-long introductory subscription to that publication, intending to read as many of the stories listed on the bookmarked page as I could get free access to. In the end, I read only two or three. (I did use the New Yorker subscription to read stories by Sally Rooney, Kevin Barry, Salman Rushdie, Mary Gaitskill, Madhuri Vijay and a few others, so it didn’t go to waste.)
The following year, I watched Pedro Almodóvar’s film, Julieta (2016), on French tv, and was slightly bemused in the credits that it was based on three stories from Runaway. I had enjoyed the film and was curious to see how the work of a Canadian short story writer could have been transformed into a film set in Spain, and about Spanish characters. So it was decided: Runaway was to be my way into the work of Alice Munro. I first read it in December of last year, and then again in the last week as preparation to write this post.
In short, the main reason that I feel unqualified to discuss Munro’s stories is a general unfamiliarity with her work, combined with the recognition that it has been much loved and much discussed among readers and critics over a period of several decades. Why am I doing this then? The answer is that, to an even greater extent than usual, I’m writing this post for my benefit rather than for yours. Rereading the stories after a gap of just three months, I was dismayed by how little I remembered. The final story, “Powers” (the title is taken from Wordsworth’s “The World Is Too Much with Us”) is a poignant, affecting narrative covering a period of 45 years, from 1927 to the early 1970s, a long view that allows the reader (and ultimately some of the characters) to see how these characters have deceived themselves and others, failed to achieve what had once seemed to be in store for them, and shirked the responsibilities they had undertaken, indeed asked for.
When I describe the themes in such general terms, they sound hackneyed or stereotypical but Munro embodies them in stories of a specificity and detail that regularly surprises the reader. The events described are distinctive and vivid — and one would expect them to be memorably so. Yet, when I started to reread “Powers” a few days ago, I had just two very vague impressions as to what happens in the story, and no idea at all what the “Powers” of the title were, and who had exercised them, or claimed to (and much later disclaimed them). I had completely forgotten the existence of one important character. And yet, in December, I had been every bit as moved by the story as I was again on Tuesday night. How is it possible to be emotionally affected by a tale and then forget it so promptly and so thoroughly?
I can’t answer as to how, but I can say that such forgetfulness has been normal for me for as long as I have been reading. It used to bother me, when I was reading a novel for the second or maybe third time that there were whole episodes or plotlines that seemed completely new to me. For a while I felt guilty about not paying more attention, not trying harder to ensure that I “grasped” the story, the theme or the argument as the case might be. Eventually, I accepted that there didn’t seem to be much I could do to improve my recollection of what I had been reading. This may have had several obvious disadvantages but it had one major advantage: I could reread to my heart’s content without it ever seeming like a chore. (I hope it’s clear by this point that I’m writing this post mainly as a reminder to my future self.)
It wasn’t till much, much later, within the past 5 years or so, that I came to see that, because of SDAM, my difficulties with remembering episodes, events and storylines applies equally to real life as to the fiction I read! I intend to write more soon about SDAM as it affects my reading and writing; but for now I ought to get back to Munro’s stories.
The three stories that Almodóvar adapted seem much more like individual works that stand independently of each other than his film does: there they are woven into a single plot. In “Chance” the central character, Juliet, is taking a long train journey across Canada. She is 21 and a PhD student in Classics, and is on her way to Vancouver to take up a temporary job as an unqualified Latin teacher in a private school. The journey will take several days. She rebuffs an unprepossessing man who has said to her:
“I just saw you there reading your book all by yourself and I thought, maybe she’s all by herself and got a long way to go too, so maybe we could just sort of chum around together?” (p. 56)
Juliet isn’t accustomed to having to put off this kind of approach, and she doesn’t feel very comfortable about it.
It was the first victory of this sort that she had ever managed, and it was against the most pitiable, the saddest opponent. She could hear him now, chewing on the words chum around. Apology and insolence. Apology his habit. And insolence the result of some hope or determination breaking the surface of his loneliness, his hungry state.
It was necessary but it hadn’t been easy, it hadn’t been easy at all. In fact it was more of a victory, surely, to stand up to someone in such a state. It was more of a victory than if he had been slick and self-assured. But for a while she would be somewhat miserable. (p. 57)
It doesn’t help her mood that the defeated “opponent” commits suicide by going under the train. She discusses her feeling of guilt with a man named Eric, a fisherman who lives on the coast of British Columbia, north of Vancouver, whom she had earlier asked about the body on the tracks.
They went on talking about this for a considerable time, in low voices, but so forcefully that people passing by sometimes looked astonished, or even offended, as people may when they overhear debates that seem unnecessarily abstract. Juliet realized, after a while, that though she was arguing — rather well, she thought — for the necessity of some feelings of guilt both in public and in private life, she had stopped feeling any, for the moment. You might even have said that she was enjoying herself. (p. 69)
Eric isn’t going as far as Vancouver this time but she visits him on the coast when her temporary job has finished and they end up living together without being married until their daughter is 13, when he is killed in a storm at sea. One significant difference between the story and the film is that, in Munro’s story, Juliet and Eric don’t have sex on that train journey. Juliet is embarrassed to be menstruating and tells Eric that she is a virgin.
In the second story of the three, “Soon”, Juliet visits her home town in the east of the country with her (and Eric’s) one-year-old daughter, Penelope, and learns how little she knows her about parents and how mistaken are some of the ideas she had about them and their lives.
The third story is titled “Silence”, and it centres on a painful absence. Penelope, who was an infant in the previous story, is almost 21 at the beginning of this one and is completely withdrawing from her mother’s life. Penelope goes on a spiritual retreat and Juliet never sees her again. The woman apparently in charge of the retreat (whom Juliet privately calls “Mother Shipton”) tells Juliet that Penelope had believed that, growing up, she had missed out on “the spiritual dimension”, which she needed for her inner growth.
For five years after Penelope’s disappearance, Juliet gets a birthday card, addressed in her daughter’s handwriting but with nothing written inside, each year on Penelope’s birthday. After five years the cards stop and Juliet hears nothing more. Years go by. Juliet is at first reluctant to move, in case Penelope wants to get in touch with her. It seems likely that Penelope resents something that Juliet did or didn’t do, but Juliet never gets to hear what. It might be the fact that Penelope wasn’t told about her father’s death immediately and was kept away from Eric’s Viking-style funeral on the beach.
After many years, Juliet runs into Heather, the friend whom Penelope had been staying with at the time of Eric’s funeral. By chance, Heather had seen Penelope three weeks earlier in Edmonton, where she was buying school uniforms for two of her five children.
“… We were both flabbergasted. I didn’t know her right away but she recognized me. She’d flown down, of course. From that place way up north. But she says it’s quite civilized, really. And she said you were still living here …” (p. 155)
So Penelope hadn’t told Heather that she hadn’t been in touch with her mother for years, and she appeared to know (or to have guessed correctly) that Juliet was still living in Vancouver. Juliet wonders if Penelope has looked her up in the phone book and, if so, what that means. She admonishes herself not to let it mean anything. She deduces that, if Penelope and her boys had flown down to Edmonton, she must live in Whitehorse or Yellowknife.
Where else was there that she could describe as quite civilized? Maybe she was being ironical, mocking Heather a bit, when she said that. (p. 155)
Juliet will resist the temptation to fly to Whitehorse or Yellowknife, “Places where she could loiter in the streets, devise plans for catching glimpses” (p. 156). That would be mad, not to mention humiliating.
In the film, Julieta eventually gets a letter from her daughter, with a return address, and (if I’m remembering accurately, something I woudn’t count on) mother and daughter eventually meet face to face. This is quite different from the way the short story ends. Juliet tries to reconcile herself to the fact that her daughter is living a different life now; is, in fact, a different person, someone who has “no use” (p. 157) for Juliet:
There was nothing to worry about, or hold herself in wait for, concerning Penelope. Penelope was not a phantom, she was safe, as far as anybody is safe, and she was probably as happy as anybody is happy. She had detached herself from Juliet and very likely from the memory of Juliet, and Juliet could not do better than to detach herself in turn. (p. 157)
The Penelope Juliet sought was gone. The woman Heather had spotted in Edmonton, the mother who had brought her sons to Edmonton to get their school uniforms, who had changed in face and body so that Heather did not recognize her, was nobody Juliet knew.
Does Juliet believe this? (p. 157)
We don’t know what Penelope thinks or believes, of course, but it seems likely that she misunderstands her mother as badly as Juliet has misunderstood her parents, and that in each generation the child has genuine grievances of which the parent is entirely unaware.
Two other stories in the collection focus on conflict between parents and children. “Trespasses” is about Lauren, the almost eleven-year-old daughter of a small-town newspaper editor and proprietor. Lauren’s parents are very open with her. She calls them by their first names and she knows about drugs, pregnancy, abortions, sex parties and more besides. Yet there are tensions and secrets, such as as what it is that makes her parents fight so viciously every so often, and why they’ve kept the ashes of a cremated baby since before Lauren was born. When the older receptionist of the hotel where Lauren’s father, Harry, has breakfast befriends Lauren, and suggests to her that she might have been adopted, Lauren is open to considering the possibility. But what really happened is weirder, and sadder.
“Passion” is another story in which the protagonist looks back on her coming of age from several decades later. Grace’s parents died when she was a child but she becomes attached to the family, particularly the mother, of her boyfriend, Maury (who assumes he is her fiancé). They haven’t had sex: “Maury was ready, but not willing” (p. 173). When she cuts her foot on a clamshell, Maury’s older half-brother, Neil takes her to the local hospital to get an antitetanus injection. Neil is a doctor with a drink problem and he has already put a suture in her foot with a steady hand, though “Grace has noticed a smell she had learned to identify this summer working at the inn — the smell of liquor edged with mint” (p. 180).
It is the day before Thanksgiving (i.e. a Sunday), so the roads are quiet and very few places are open. After their visit to the hospital, Neil takes Grace on a long, rambling drive. She is expecting to have sex, but what she gets is her first driving lesson and a long wait outside a bootlegger’s while Neil gets drunker inside. Grace has to use her new skill to get them most of the way home. After he has dropped her off at the hotel where she works, Neil crashes the car — whether deliberately or because of his drunken state is not clear — and is killed. This catastrophe severs Grace’s relationship with her substitute family but in exchange she gets what is needed to “insure her a start in life” (p. 196).
The paperback edition that I read (Vintage, 2019) has a 2004 New York Times Book Review essay by Jonathan Franzen added as front matter without page numbers. Though Franzen is unreservedly enthusiastic about Munro’s fiction, he admits that it tends to show a lack of thematic variety:
Here’s the story that Munro keeps telling: A bright, sexually avid girl grows up in rural Ontario without much money, her mother is sickly or dead, her father is a schoolteacher whose second wife is problematic, and the girl, as soon as she can, escapes from the hinterland by way of a scholarship or some decisive self-interested act. She marries young, moves to British Columbia, raises kids, and is far from blameless in the break-up of her marriage … [v–vi]
That’s not intended as disparagement, rather the opposite, as he has earlier told us:
All fiction writers suffer from the conditon of having nothing new to say, but story writers are the ones most abjectly prone to this condition. There is, again, no hiding. The craftiest old dogs, like Munro and William Trevor, don’t even try. [v]
But even in his praise, Franzen is not being (on the evidence of this collection at least) entirely fair. He is exaggerating for comic effect. It’s true that all these protagonists are women, and most of them are able to look back on lives in which they made some kind of mark on the world. They are all “bright”. Juliet has taught Latin, enjoys reading Greek and had started a PhD before she met Eric. After Penelope’s withdrawal, she develops a career conducting interviews for Provincial Television and becomes a recognizable figure.
“Tricks” is the story of Robin, who each year goes to see a play at the Shakespeare Stratford Festival, and doesn’t read the text beforehand. She goes alone because she doesn’t know anyone else who would be interested. When we first meet her she is a trainee nurse; at the end of the story she has an apparently senior post in the Psychiatric Ward of her hospital:
She does not have to dress like a nurse now, because she works part-time and only on this floor. (p. 261)
She took some extra courses to qualify herself for treating psychiatric cases, but it’s something she had a feeling for anyway. (p. 265)
Grace, the central character in “Passion” had finished high school a year late, having taken the final exam twice:
It was never necesssary to study all the subjects offered, and at the end of her first year — what should have been her final year, Grade Thirteen — Grace tried examinations in History and Botany and Zoology and English and Latin and French, receiving unnecessarily high marks. But there she was in September, back again, proposing to study Physics and Chemistry, Trigonometry, Geometry and Algebra, though these subjects were considered particularly hard for girls … She did creditably well in all three branches of mathematics and in the sciences, though her results were nothing like so spectacular as the year before. (p. 166; ellipsis added)
When the principal told her that “this was getting her nowhere” and asked what her plans were, she replied that “she just wanted to learn everything you could learn for free” (p. 166).
So, these characters have a “family” resemblance, but the details of their stories, and the way they respond to what happens to them, are really quite different. We don’t know whether Grace had a daughter but, if she had, and if that daughter had opted out of Grace’s life, do we think that Grace would have behaved in the same way as Juliet did? Robin had an older sister, Joanne, an invalid because of childhood asthma, who was difficult to get along with. Robin stayed and looked after Joanne till she died. Can we imagine Nancy (from “Powers”) doing the same? Lauren (“Trespasses”) might grow up to be like any of these women. Or none.
Franzen’s unequivocally favourable assessment has something in common with Christian Lorentzen’s unfavourable one, published in the London Review of Books not long before Munro was awarded the Nobel prize in 2013. Lorentzen says he read “ten of her collections in a row”, an approach almost guaranteed to draw his attention to similarities, repetitions and patterns, and not one to be recommended in relation to any short story writer’s work. I’ve been reading more collections than usual these days: four of the last seven books I’ve finished fall into that category: I suspect that my attitude to collections is slowly changing. I expect to have more to say about that soon.
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