Monday, December 31, 2012

Dear Life by Alice Munro

What a wonderful treat on this last day of 2012 to be reviewing a book by Alice Munro who told her readers at least two books ago that she was through writing, or at any rate, writing for publication. Fortunately for us, she has not been able to abide by her own declaration. In my opinion, Alice Munro is not simply the greatest writer of short fiction alive, she is flat out the best living author. In her latest collection of short stories, Dear Life, she continues to dazzle her readers with stories of what would usually be called ordinary people who live in small Canadian towns, or, less frequently, in the larger cities of Toronto and Vancouver. 

I’m sure she would think my use of the word ‘dazzle’ humorous and hyperbolic, but that is due to the fact that she is as humble and unassuming as are most of her characters. As I’ve said of her before, she shows just how extraordinary the lives and events of so-called ordinary folks are when seen through the eyes of a brilliant and compassionate mind. Her humility shines out particularly in the final four selections entitled “Finale”:
The final four works in this book are not quite stories. They form a separate unit, one that is autobiographical in feeling, though not, sometimes, entirely so in fact. I believe they are the first and last—and the closest—things I have to say about my own life.
We learn from her what it was like to grow up with a mother who, even before beginning to show symptoms of Parkinson’s disease at a young age, stood out as a loner, looked at askance by both the dirt poor farm family from which she had escaped and by the town-folk who are put off by her too-proper, school teacher grammar and vocabulary. Her father could adjust both language and demeanor to the country people they lived around; he could blend in, could pass, in ways that his wife never could.

Alice, too, became a loner, neither a country farm girl nor one able to fit in with the town-children with whom she attended school. “Girls got married and had babies, in that order or the other. In grade thirteen, with only about a quarter of the original class left, there was a sense of scholarship, of serious achievement, or perhaps just a special kind of serene impracticality that hung on, no matter what happened to you later. I felt as if I were a lifetime away from most of the people I had known in grade nine…”

I know that she would chastise me for spending even this much time talking about the few pages of autobiographical pieces in this collection; for her, it is the observation of the lives of others that is paramount—revealing the luster and mystery in the lives of those seen as dull and commonplace.

I can’t possibly describe or do justice to the array of stories in this collection, but let me concentrate on just a couple of them. In the first story, “To Reach Japan,” Munro describes the train-station parting of a young man and his wife, and in her typical but ingenious way plunges from the simple parting to a description of their very different lives, their pasts, their unique complementarity. 
…his light-colored skin was never flushed like hers, never blotchy from the sun, but evenly tanned whatever the season.

     His opinions were something like his complexion. When they went to see a movie, he never wanted to talk about it afterwards. He would say that it was good, or pretty good, or okay. He didn’t see the point in going further…
     Greta should have realized that this attitude—hands off, tolerant—was a blessing for her, because she was a poet, and there were things in her poems that were in no way cheerful or easy to explain…
     It would become hard to explain, later on in her life, just what was okay in that time and what was not. You might say, well, feminism was not. But then you would have to explain that feminism was not even a word people used. Then you would get all tied up saying that having any serious idea, let alone ambition, or maybe even reading a real book, could be seen as suspect, having something to do with your child’s getting pneumonia, and a political remark at an office party might have cost your husband his promotion. It would not have mattered which political party either. It was a woman’s shooting off her mouth that did it.
I have said that the stories are of ordinary, even simple people, but each story is surprising, even shocking in its own understated way. Another story, “Train,” begins with a young soldier returning by train to his hometown. Without letting the reader in on the motivations of this young man, Munro describes how, as the already slow train slows even more for a curve, he throws his duffle bag off, and then quickly jumps off himself. Dazed and hobbling, he makes his way to a small, tumble down farmhouse where a woman gives him a meal and a bed in exchange for his fixing the horse trough. The woman, Belle, is sixteen years older than Jackson, the young man, and after he spends a day fixing the trough, she gives him a second meal of pancakes and begins to talk.
They sat on kitchen chairs outside the back door until after the sun went down. She was telling him something about how she came to be here, and he was listening but not paying full attention because he was looking around and thinking how this place was on its last legs but not hopeless, if somebody wanted to settle down and fix things up. A certain investment of money was needed, but a greater investment of time and energy. It could be a challenge. He could almost bring himself to regret he was moving on.
He does stay on, and not for a day or two, or even for a season or two, but for years, as if this is not particularly surprising. And then, as so often occurs in Munro’s stories, she writes what seems almost an outline for a novel, giving the reader only paragraph or two for long swaths of time in which the farm and farmhouse are fixed up, revitalized.  It is only in the last few lines, after Jackson has taken Belle to Toronto for surgery on what is quite obviously a cancerous tumor and has begun yet another drop-in life fixing up a rooming house that the reader is finally told why, now many years earlier, he jumped from the moving train. I’m not about to let you in on the surprise; you will have to read and discover for yourself.

As always, I hunger for all the parts of the ‘novel’ left out, the lives that seem already there and waiting for her to describe. Instead, I turn the page into a new world,  a new sketch, bursting with surprise and the half told—a sigh of both satisfaction and regret that the little diamond of a tale is over. She is simply a storytelling genius.

Monday, December 10, 2012

When Nietzsche Wept by Irvin D. Yalom

“History is fiction that did happen. Whereas fiction is history that might have happened.” Irvin Yalom used these words in an essay describing the writing of his 1992 book, When Nietzsche Wept. Although I usually prefer to review contemporary fiction, this book came into my hands only recently when a colleague and I were trying to decide what we ought to read together. Yalom is Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry at Stanford University and still lives and practices in Palo Alto. He has written several textbooks on psychotherapy, and I suspect that he is more comfortable as an academic writer than as a writer of fiction. There is something a bit stiff about his fiction, but the complex plot of this book and the historical insights regarding its real-life characters make it well worth reading. When I began reading it, I could not imagine choosing to review it, but by the time I finished it, felt that I must.

The book is set in Vienna in 1882 where the famous physician, Joseph Breuer, had his medical practice. The other characters of note in the novel are Fredrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, Lou Salome, and Bertha Pappenheim. Breuer is at that time already famous both as a physician and medical researcher, and young Freud is a protégé and frequent visitor at Breuer’s home and a medical student finishing up his degree. Besides his well known research in the physiology of respiration and equilibrium, Breuer also became interested for a brief time in his career in psychology. Indeed, his work with a patient he calls Anna O, actually a young woman, Bertha Pappenheim, who herself became famous later in her life as a social worker, was very influential in the development of psychotherapy, or what Breuer called “the talking cure.” Anna O. suffered from numerous debilitating ailments and was under the daily care of Breuer for a considerable period of time. It is alleged that Breuer was able to cure Anna O. of many symptoms simply by uncovering the origins of the symptoms.

In fact, as Yalom is quick to admit in his afterward, Breuer and Nietzsche never actually met, but they well might have had Nietzche’s friends been able to persuade him to visit Breuer for treatment of his horrible migraines and for suicidal depression. In Yalom’s fictional account, Nietzsche’s stunningly beautiful friend, Lou Salome, approaches Breuer and asks him to treat Nietzsche in order to save the future greatest philosopher of Europe, but she insists that Breuer cannot ever tell Nietzsche that it is she who has requested his intervention, nor that it is more for treatment of his depression than his migraines that is required.

The story then spins itself out as a kind of mystery in which Nietzsche’s existential philosophy contributes to Breuer’s talking cure. I won’t be giving away much of the mystery by telling you that Nietzsche does consult Breuer, not for psychological help, but for a diagnosis of his many physical ailments, his migraines at the top of the list. Nietzsche initially refuses to go to a clinic Breuer works out of both because it would require a winter stay in Vienna (which he insists would exacerbate his medical problems), and because he simply cannot afford a stay in the clinic. Breuer’s offer to treat him for free and to make space available for him at the clinic also free of charge both raises Nietzsche’s suspicions (since his view is that no one every really wants to help another, but only seeks to dominate and increase one's own power), and somehow offends his dignity; he does not accept charity. Nietzsche leaves Breuer with a demand that he be sent a bill for services, and announces his intention to leave Vienna for southern Europe the next day. 

Fortunately for Breuer, Nietzsche is struck with a mighty migraine before he can depart Vienna, and the hotel keeper finds Breuer’s card in Nietzsche’s coat and seeks him out to attend to the extremely ill and unconscious Nietzsche. 

While it is Nietzsche’s suicidal depression that Salome hopes Breuer can cure, it turns out that Breuer, too, is in a crisis of depression—unable to reciprocate the love and care his wife Mathilde extends to him or to really attend to his three young children, unable to stop fantasizing about his recent patient Anna O., and no longer sufficiently driven by either his medical research or his patients. 

Breuer is able to drastically shorten the duration and intensity of Nietzsche’s migraine, and again exhorts him to enter his clinic for treatment. Finally, in what begins simply as a ploy to overcome Nietzsche’s reluctance, Breuer confesses to Nietzsche his own suicidal depression and begs Nietzsche to treat him with his profound philosophical insights, to attempt a philosophical cure of Breuer’s mental malaise.

Breuer has by this time read two of Nietzsche’s early works, The Gay Science, and Human All Too Human, and insists that in this case it is the physician who requires healing from the patient. Finally, Nietzsche agrees to begin talking to Breuer about his existential crisis, and to do so under the guise of being a patient at Breuer’s clinic.

I realize that this sounds like quite a convoluted plot, and it is both fanciful and complicated, but Yalom’s interest in German philosophy along with his lifelong work as a psychoanalyst make for a fascinating read. Along the way, the reader is treated to what I think is a very perceptive interpretation of Nietzsche’s puzzling doctrine of eternal recurrence, and tantalizing suggestions about how Nietzsche’s ideas of existential freedom accord with parts of psychoanalytic theory. There are also passages in which female characters, Breuer’s wife Mathilde and an assistant whom Breuer fired because of domestic problems caused by his obsession with Anna O., criticize in very insightful ways the so-called freedom sought by the men—a freedom that appears to be quite exclusively male.

In the end, it is Breuer who is cured as he comes to accept Nietzsche’s claim that he must will what is necessary, and then live what is willed, but Nietzsche also learns something along the way about friendship, and comes to realize that the desire for human companionship need not always be viewed as weakness.

The book has stayed with me, and the more I have thought about it, the more I have wanted to recommend it to others.