Monday, February 22, 2010

Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro

I have said before that I think Alice Munro is the best living writer anywhere. She continues to worry her many devoted readers by telling us that she is through writing, but up to now, she has continued to write and to publish. Somehow, I can’t imagine her living and not writing. Her latest collection of short fiction is entitled Too Much Happiness, and it was published in hardback in late 2009. I would be willing to bet that not many of her fans could hold off for the paperback copy; she is just too good.

From the beginning of her career, many of her stories have been quirky, describing circumstances that one would not usually dream up, let alone witness. In this latest collection, some of the stories are so odd that I, at least, found myself disturbed by them, wondering why she chose to write them. Perhaps an article in the newspaper caught her attention, and she felt the need to flesh out the short article, give it a context. At any rate, each story, even the oddest ones, has the ring of truth to it. Despite the title, there is not much happiness in most of these stories, but they grab and hold the reader.

As usual, she writes about what would be called ordinary people and usually of small towns. And although each of the stories is quite short, each gives the impression of being a sketch of what could have been a much longer piece, could have been a novel. Although Munro often begins with a single incidence, she then has an almost uncanny ability to describe or spin out threads reaching back to the past and hurtling towards a future. One story, “Child’s Play,” begins with a summons to a quite old woman, Marlene, from a friend of the same age, Charlene, who is gravely ill. But why is she reaching out now after so many years without any contact? Only gradually do we learn why Marlene feels obliged to respond to the summons despite the long hiatus in their friendship, why she still feels an odd intimacy with her. “This intimacy I’m talking about—with women—is not erotic, or pre-erotic. I’ve experienced that as well, before puberty. Then too there would be confidences, probably lies, maybe leading to games. A certain hot temporary excitement, with or without genital teasing. Followed by ill feeling, denial, disgust.”  But this is an intimacy of a different sort, one that requires a response.

I found myself both interested in and troubled by the stories long after I put the book down, driven to return to some of them in order to look for early clues to the bizarre track the story would take, and often enough finding that clue in the first pages, sometimes the first lines, of the story.

I absolutely refuse to give away any of the twists and turns of these marvelously written stories, but I do want to comment on the last of the stories and the one for which the whole collection is named, “Too Much Happiness.” Munro, herself, must have become intrigued by what she had discovered about a real-life woman, a late 19th century Russian mathematician by the name of Sophia Kovalevsky. There is no doubt that she was a marvelous mathematician, famous even in her own day and at a time when few women were encouraged or even allowed to study and teach high-level mathematics. The story begins with a quote by Kovalevsky: “Many persons who have not studied mathematics confuse it with arithmetic and consider it a dry and arid science. Actually, however, this science requires great fantasy.”

Kovalevsky is so talented, so ingenious, that she wins a prestigious award, The Bordin Prize. All papers for the award had to be submitted anonymously, and had this not been the case, it is more than highly unlikely that she would have won it, unlikely that any woman would even have been considered for such an award in a science dominated by men.
The compliments quite dizzying, the marveling and the hand kissing spread thick on top of certain inconvenient but immutable facts. The fact that they would never grant her a job worthy of her gift, that she would be lucky indeed to find herself teaching in a provincial girls’ high school.
What becomes obvious in this story is not only Munro’s fascination with this woman mathematician, but her fascination with mathematics itself, and the ways in which it resembles, or can resemble, great works of art. "Rigorous, meticulous, one must be, but so must the great poet.” And how remarkable that Kovalevsky was ever able to study and do the scholarly work that she did, having to lie and cheat even in order to get out of Russia and to the teachers and universities that would facilitate her discoveries “because no Russian woman who was unmarried could leave the country without her parents’ consent."

No doubt Munro did loads of historical research preparing to write this rather long short story, but no amount of research could account for the details in her story, the descriptions of the interior life of Kovalevsky. Instead, it is Munro’s splendid imagination, her ability to spin out lovely quilts from mere threads of historical information that accounts for the richness and completeness of the story. As one of Kovalevsky’s friends remarks to her in an attempt to comfort her regarding a relationship with a man, “Always remember that when a man goes out of the room, he leaves everything in it behind….When a woman goes out she carries everything that happened in the room along with her.” Just so, and Munro carries with her not only the sparse details that can be gathered from newspaper articles or historical accounts but all the rich life that her imagination furnishes to flesh her stories out. She is simply unparalleled as a writer of fiction.

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