||The Wilds Of The Past
by Peter Buitenhuis
In these new stories by Alice Munro, the narrators travel
deep into memory and the `imagination of disaster`
IN ONE OF 1-14E stories in this collection, a character observes: "Honey ... professors are dumb. They are dumber than ordinary. I Could be nice and say they knew about things we don`t, but as far as I am concerned they don`t know shit."
There I am, pinned and wriggling on the wall, and with the nagging sense that maybe she is right. There is the magic in Alice Munro`s writing that neither I nor any other professor that I have read on her work has been able to explain. But I still can`t resist taking LIP the challenge she presents to the fools of contemporary criticism like myself.
Let`s take ;I tilt at the title story, "Friend of My Youth," which provides a telling introduction to the rest because, in a rare moment of confession, Munro talks about the creative process in the act of writing the story and offers a way into the magic of her writing. Its genesis is autobiographical, since the narrator talks about her mother who died in her early 50s after suffering from a paralysing disease for the last decade of her life. This is a situation that Munro has dealt with in earlier stories. Like Munro`s own mother, the Young teacher in the story, before her marriage, taught at a small Country school in the Ottawa valley and boarded with a farming family. Their story forms the substance of "Friend of My Youth." Flora, one of the two daughters in the family and "the friend of my youth" of the title, is engaged to a Young farmworker, Robert; but Robert marries Flora`s younger sister, Ellie, after getting her pregnant. The parents of Flora and Ellie die. Ellie has many painful and unsuccessful pregnancies and becomes more and more infirm. Flora spends many hard years looking after her and the house as well as helping on the farm, until, finaIly, a nurse is hired to look after the almost helpless Ellie. Ellie dies soon afterwards, hut, instead of marrying Flora, Robert marries the nurse, a horrible, selfish, brassy woman. `So Flora has twice been stood tip, and seems to he condemned to spend the rest of her life on the farm in humiliating servitude.
The teacher, later on the narrators mother, tells this story to her daughter, and she would add, "If I Could have been a writer I do think I could have been then I Would have written
the story of Flora`s life. And do you know what I Would have called it? `The Maiden Lady.- The 15-year-old narrator sees what her mother would have made of the tale: "She would make
[Flora] into a noble figure, one who accepts defection, treachery, forgives and stands aside, not Once but twice."
It is part of the narrators growing tip to want to reject this sentimental interpretation of events:
I felt I great tog of pieties and platitudes lurking, an incontestable crippled-mother other power, which would capture and choke me. There would he no end to it. I had to keep myself harp- rongited and cynical, arguing and deflating. Eventually I gave up even that recognition and opposed her in silence.
The narrator has her own interpretation of Flora: "Rejoicing in the bad turns done to her and . . . spying on the shambles of her sister`s life. A Presbyterian witch, reading out of her poisonous book." As I Young girl the narrator makes tip her own ending to the story, in which Flora becomes crippled with arthritis and ends up being cared for by the former nurse of tier now Robert`s wife. This version is a variation of the Situation analysed by other feminist writers in which a woman accept," martyrdom and the role of victim as it means of control -- a way out of the trap of dependency.
This version of the narrators story ends in a way curiously similar to the conclusion of Edith Whartons superb short novel, Ethan Frome. Ethan and his lover, who is crippled in a crash of a sleigh while they are escaping from the farmhouse and Ethan`s barren marriage, end up being cared for by his awful wife in a living and unendurable hell. I suspect that one of the motives in the fiction of both writers was revenge against the cloying pieties of their upbringing -- in the one case New York upper-class, in the other Ontario middle-class. For both, the proprieties and sentimentalities represent a curb to the artistic temperament to the imagination of disaster, as Henry James called it. Both writers often realize in their fiction life`s tragic and ironic potentialities, not the sentimental possibilities that would have been celebrated by their feminized culture.
However, life clumsily intervenes again in Munro`s story. Shortly before her death, the narrators mother gets a letter from Flora in which she relates how she has left the farm and is now clerking in a store in the nearby town. In the light of this new information the narrator has to set to and reinvent the ending to her version of the story. She even imagines going into a store in this town and meeting "a tall handsome woman, nicely turned out," who she knows is Flora.
All this invention and reinvention is remembered in the light of the recurrent dream that the narrator has of tier mother in which she reappears as she was before her illness in all her "lightness, impatience and confidence," and forgives the narrator for her opposition and revolt. But the forgiveness brings not only relief but also a feeling of having been tricked and cheated. "My mother," the narrator writes, "moving rather carelessly out of her old prison, showing options and powers I never dreamed she had, changes more than herself. She changes the bitter lump of love I have carried all this time into a phantom -,Something useless and uncalled for, like a phantom pregnancy." The narrator recognizes that "the bitter lump of love" -- her opposition to her mother -- has sparked the creative energy that has given rise to SO Much of her fiction. Without that opposition and unhappiness she has to find other sources of creativity, otherwise she has only "a phantom pregnancy."
Munro`s original fictional impulse is here marvellously clarified and illuminated. The narrator feels guilty for having revolted and in a way rejected her mother and appropriated her story. She feels guilt in still being alive so long after her mothers painful and ignominious death. Added to that is tier recognition of the tact that the past will not stay dead, but reinvents itself through dream to change failure into achievement, which breeds further resentment against her mother for removing a potent source of her creativity. All these factors contribute to the duplicity of memory and the complexity of human relationships, and to the perpetual deceit and ambiguity of the creative process, which plays such tricks with reality.
"Friend of My Youth" provides a clue to the other stories many of them set in the mythical town of Walley, Ontario, which is modelled on Wingham, the town in which Alice Munro lived as a child, much as Margaret Laurence`s Manawaka was modelled on the Neepawa of her youth. Each of these stories is set in the distant past of the narrator. This past is reinvented and reshaped by the structure of a framing device that allows the narrator to revisit the past. Thus each story contains within it, as Bharati Mukherjee has said in a perceptive review of this collection in the Neu, York Times Book Review, "parallel narratives of inquiry and retrospection. Retrospective wisdom softens the confusion of the present." A surprising number of the stories are about sexual betrayal, a subject favoured by Munro because of the contradictory and complex emotions that adulterous relationships engender. Moreover, sexual betrayal is integral to he period, the 1960s and `70s, in which most of the stories are set. In "Oh, What Avails," the narrator reflects:
Many parents got divorced, most of them shipwrecked by affairs, at about the same time. It seems that all sorts of marriages begun in the fifties without misgivings, Or without misgwings that anybody could know about, blew up in the early seventies, with a lot of spectacular -- and, it seems now, unnecessary, extravagant -- complications.
In one story, "Oranges and Apples," the supposedly cuckolded husband, Murray, actually encourages his wife`s adultery, for lie senses that his own colourless and unsuccessful life is inadequate to his wifes imagination. Having inherited a prosperous business and considerable property, he has lost the lot through bad judgement and now runs a small holiday resort with his beautiful wife, Barbara. When a tall and romantic Polish emigre named Victor moves into a nearby horse-farm with his shrewish English wife, its not long before Murray and Victor become good friends. When Victor splits up from his wife, lie is invited by Murray to move into an empty caretaker`s cottage on his property. Soon Murray is convinced that Victor and Barbara are having an affair. He car) never he sure, however. So one evening he invents a pretext for Barbara to visit Victor in his cottage, almost pushing her into going. Is it that the virtual certainty of it sexual encounter would be better than not knowing, or is it that he believes that Victor, in his exotic and romantic way, can give her something that he himself cannot? It could also be that, in forcing the liaison, he may at least he able to retain some control over both his wife and his friend. But even after this incident he cannot quite he Sure.
Barbara has said: "We are never going to talk about it... We never will. O.K.?"
The frame of this story is a trip into town years after these events. The purpose of the trip is to hear the result of a biopsy that the doctor has ordered after Barbara has had a growth removed. Barbara goes alone to the doctor`s office. As he waits for her report, the threat of her death lends a poignancy to Murray`s whole retrospection. "`It wasn`t anything. It wasn`t anything bad. There is nothing to worry about,"` Barbara tells him after she has heard the result of the test. To Murray, the remark appears to refer not only to the result of her biopsy, but also to her affair with Victor, so it is tinged with the same kind of ambiguity. Is it life or death, is it adultery or fidelity? Neither Murray nor the reader knows.
There is also a shimmering ambiguity about another tale of `60s infidelity, "Differently", in which three couples go through marital break-ups. The sexual merry-go-round appears to be some sort of reaction from the delusively secure world of the `40s and `50s in which the characters emerged into so-called maturity. The narrator, Georgia, thinks about her former husband: "She had entered with Ben, when they were both so young, a world of ceremony, of safety, Of gestures, concealment. Fond appearances. More than appearances. Fond contrivance"
Two of the wives, Georgia and Maya, embark recklessly on affairs. The denouement of the story comes when Maya has a brief sexual encounter with Georgia`s lover -- which Georgia bitterly resents. The whole sexual house of cards falls apart. It suddenly appears to be a huge sham -- a worse sham even than the "fond contrivance" of marriage. Georgia abruptly leaves her husband. "Such cold energy was building in her she had to blow, her house down," Georgia thinks in retrospect.
Once again, the story is framed by a later event -- a visit that Georgia pays to Maya`s former husband, Raymond, now remarried. Of course the visit is a failure, a parody reunion, that brings back only regret. "I guess we never behave as if we believed we were going to die," she tells Raymond. When Raymond asks her how we should behave, she simply responds, "Differently." But of course nothing can be different from what we did when we did it. To think differently is only another illusion.
Each of these wonderful stories merits discussion, but I will make space for the only story which goes against the grain of the contemporaneity of this collection. It is called "Meneseteung," the title echoing the oddness of its setting and theme and referring to the Indian name of a local river. In an uncharacteristic move, Munro has gone back more than a hundred years to set the story in the "wilds of Canada West" in the 1860s and `70s. It is actually in the same region as the setting for other stories, near the shores of Lake Huron, then in an early stage of development, with raw towns and stump farms dotting the region. It is as if Alice Munro, like some other contemporary Canadian writers, is trying to get in touch with the ghosts of ancestors who populated her region -- to prove a link with the past.
The protagonist, Almeda, is the only surviving member of a prosperous family in this town, living by herself and writing the sort of verse common at the time, full of sentimental and pious lines about stars and flowers and graveyards. The narrator takes off from the photo of Almeda and her verse and weaves a story about her in which her comfortable beliefs are shaken by a violent and sordid incident that takes place behind her house: a drunken man beats up and almost kills his wife. The cosy world that Almeda has constructed around her maidenhood collapses in the face of this drunkenness and brutality. Added to this is the indignity of being seen by the man next door -- a possible suitor -- barefoot and in her nightgown when she runs to his house in search of help. Almeda thinks and worries about these experiences, but, like the narrator`s mother in "Friend of My Youth:` she could not have dwelt on such things in her verse without glossing over and sentimentalizing what she felt. An Ontarian "maiden lady," she did not have the genius or the courage to write the kind of poetry that Emily Dickinson was writing at that time in Amherst, Massachusetts. Almeda`s subversive thoughts have to take the form of fantasies. One of them is remarkably close to an idea expressed in Emily Dickinson`s poem, "Title Divine": "`My husband` -- women say -- /Stroking the Melody -- /Is this the way?" Almeda thinks: "One thing she has noticed about married women, and that is how many of them have to go about creating their husbands.... Oh yes, they say, my husband is very particular. He won`t touch turnips...." So women of the time created personae of authority to justify their own submissive role -- even to avoid taking responsibility for their lives. Almeda shrinks back forever into her maidenhood to avoid this issue completely.
Alice Munro is the Emily Dickinson of prose. With wonderful economy, intensity, precise imagery, and striking phrases, she captures the complex relationships, forlorn loves, dark truths, metaphysical conjectures, and subversive observations that we find in Dickinson`s poetry. There is a phrase that ends one of the stories in this collection that Dickinson could well have used: "The accidental clarity! Both writers achieve this clarity by imaginative gift and magical association. Like Dickinson, Munro is ironic and witty, and has a fine sense of rhythm and pace.
Writing 100 years later, Munro, of course, encounters a different world, one in which speculation about death and the hereafter has been replaced by thoughts on sexuality and contingency. Moreover, the authority of God the Father, which is so pervasive in Dickinson`s poetry even when ironically treated, has all but disappeared. In Munro`s world, women have increasingly emerged to question the authority of the Father. In fact, most of the fathers or lovers or other men in her stories have little authority beyond that which is attached to their professions, which are seldom discussed. In personal relationships they are usually selfish and ineffectual.
The Father`s authority has been replaced in Alice Munro`s world by Mother the Engenderer. (This collection is dedicated to the memory of her mother.) Her presence has been inescapable since Munro`s earliest fiction. In a story in her third collection, Something I`ve Been Meaning to Tell You, the narrator talks about her attempts to reach and portray her mother: "With what purpose? To mark her off, to describe her, to illumine, to celebrate, to get rid of her; and it did not work, for she looms too close, just as she always did." She looms even more closely in this collection, although there is a sense that Munro has come to terms with her at last, as the title story, "Friend of My Youth," indicates. Is it part Of the coming of age of women fiction writers that they no longer are concerned with those former authority figure,", tile fathers, and can relate more directly to mothers, just as male writers tend to relate more directly in fiction to their fathers?
What else has changed over the years in Alice Munro`.`) work from collection to collection` No question that Alice Munro has achieved a Surer mastery with each publication, also a richer irony, and a greater range of effects. A deepening perspective has been gained through her being a mother of daughters herself. It has been possible to trace the progress of motherhood, from diapers to dialogue, right through the Successive volumes of her stories. In Friend of MN Youth, Alice Munro sounds an increasingly elegiac note, as she a little wistfully looks back at the wildness and follies Of Youth that she once chronicled first-hand. The framing device that appears in almost Lill the stories introduces a "once- upon-a-time" quality that at once distances and explains the "liberated" world that she chronicles. Most of all, she demonstrates again in this collection her endless capacity for imaginative transformation -- her ability to take the prosaic facts of autobiography, of heard anecdote, of invented incident, and make them something funny, pathetic, tragic, or elemental. We have to be grateful for the way in which she reveals to us the Patterns Of our lives and for the toughness of a mind that can trace, with both irony and compassion, the changing currents of morality.