Monday, June 02, 2008

Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage by Alice Munro

I want to talk to you today about one of the most brilliant writers ever to write, and since she is still alive, I would also say she is one of the two or three best writers writing today. Readers I know, especially those who are also writers, await each new work of hers with an eagerness bordering on avarice, and several I have known have confessed that upon discovering her, they have felt compelled to read up everything she has written in the space of a few days or weeks. Her name is Alice Munro, and what makes what I have said above even more incredible is that she is almost exclusively a writer of short fiction, short-stories so-called. And so many readers have told me how they avoid short stories, how they find them tempting but incomplete and disappointing. If you are one of those readers suspicious of short fiction, now is your chance to give up your suspicions. Each of Munro’s stories opens up such a universe, such emotional richness and complexity, that instead of seeming like short stories, they seem to be novels that have been reduced down to an astonishing essence. One commentator, after the usual comparison with Chekhov and other masters of short fiction, insists that Munro’s ability to capture so much so quickly makes novelists seem almost wasteful in needing so many words to say their piece.

The collection I am talking about today, Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, was published in 2001 and is one of the very best of the dozen books that comprise her life’s work. If this is the first Munro that you read, you will be one of the lucky ones who has a baker’s dozen left for the future. Space them out like dessert; savor them for times when you begin to doubt the power of fiction to capture and hold your attention. Or simply plunge in and read them all, prepared to be amazed, transported, enlightened.

As the title of this volume makes clear, Munro is at her very best when talking of relationships, and while it is the lives of girls and women she knows best, I think you will also find her depictions of sons and lovers, husbands and boyfriends to be both right on the mark and incredibly compassionate and forgiving. Although quite able to write about big-city life and the larger world, she is most at home when talking about ordinary people in small towns in Canada. There are only nine stories in this volume, and each could be a novel; indeed, each seems like a novel that simply leaves some parts to be filled in by the imagination of the reader.

Munro does not write about the rich or the beautiful or the famous; rarely do her characters have much power or influence in the world. But that is not to say that they do not have depth nor that the reader cannot learn a lot about relationships and the world by reading her. My task now will be to try in just a few words, a few quotes, to entice you into reading one of her stories; after that, the hook will be set.

While the male characters in Munro’s stories are often shadow figures, away at work when the women meet, or on the sidelines during illness and family crisis, Munro understands that their emotional reticence is as much a part of their upbringing as is the emotional intelligence of many of her female characters. Many of the stories in this volume are about death and illness and dying, but then so much of life is about such things. One story, “What is Remembered,” begins with preparations for a funeral—a youngish husband and his wife going to the funeral of a childhood friend of the husband. But the husband has said almost nothing about the death itself, or about the friend, their childhoods together. He talks only of the funeral and the preparations for it.

His suit to be cleaned, a white shirt obtained. It was Meriel who made the arrangements, and Pierre kept checking up on her in a husbandly way. She understood that he wished her to be controlled and matter-of-fact, as he was, and not to lay claim to any sorrow which—he would be sure—she could not really feel. She had asked him why he had said, ‘Suicide,’ and he had told her, ‘That’s just what came into my head.’ She felt his evasion to be some sort of warning or even a rebuke. As if he suspected her of deriving from this death—or from their proximity to this death—a feeling that was discreditable and self-centered. A morbid, preening excitement.
Young husbands were stern, in those days. Just a short time before, they had been suitors, almost figures of fun, knock-kneed and desperate in their sexual agonies. Now, bedded down, they turned resolute and disapproving. Off to work every morning, clean-shaven, youthful necks in knotted ties, days spent in unknown labors, home again at suppertime to take a critical glance at the evening meal and to shake out the newspaper, hold it up between themselves and the muddle of the kitchen, the ailments and emotions, the babies. What a lot they had to learn, so quickly. How to kowtow to bosses and how to manage wives. How to be authoritative about mortgages, retaining walls, lawn grass, drains, politics, as well as about the jobs that had to maintain their families for the next quarter of a century. It was the women, then, who could slip back—during the daytime hours, and always allowing for the stunning responsibility that had been landed on them, in the matter of the children—into a kind of second adolescence. A lightening of spirits when the husbands departed. Dreamy rebellion, subversive get-togethers, laughing fits that were a throwback to high school, mushrooming between the walls that the husband was paying for, in the hours when he wasn’t there.

In another of the stories, “Comfort,” we are told about a small town biology teacher who is dying of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and about his lifelong struggle with school-boards and religiously conservative parents who want creationism taught as an alternative to evolution. The story actually begins with the suicide of the teacher, a suicide that his wife knows is coming and has to some extent prepared for, although he has not told her that he has chosen just this day and this time. I spent a good part of the last year reading what have been called the evangelical atheists, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and others, and I very much appreciate their bravery in writing their warnings about religious fundamentalism. But I have to say that Munro is able to point out many of the same dangers in a much more understated way, and one which somehow understands the allure of tidy, simplistic religious worldviews while also seeing the blindness and ignorance they perpetuate. I wish I could say just how and why this reader did take comfort in the simplicity and honesty of this rather sad story.

Munro is the master of ‘what if?’ stories. What if she had let the affair happen, had even run off with the other man? What if the child had not died? What if she had decided to leave this small town and go to college?

Maybe you didn’t find out so much, anyway. Maybe the same thing over and over—which might be some obvious but unsettling fact about yourself. In her case, the fact of prudence—or at least some economical sort of emotional management—had been her guiding light all along.

My suspicion is that readers who really dive into Munro’s world will learn a lot about themselves, a lot about relationships, about love and life and death.

No comments:

Post a Comment