Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Alice Munro

“She was learning, quite late, what many people around her appeared to have known since childhood – that life can be perfectly satisfying without major achievements. It could be brimful of occupations that did not weary you to the bone. Acquiring what you needed for a comfortable, furnished life, and then to take on a social and public life of entertainment, would keep from ever being bored or idle, and would make you feel at the end of the day that you had done exactly what pleased everybody. There need be no agonizing.
Except in the matter of how to get money.’

It’s a good example of a technique – in one short sentence explode or defuse or illuminate or add meaning to the previous passage or passages. There are many better examples in Alice Munro’s latest collection of short stories, ‘Too Much Happiness’. But that would have meant retelling whole stories.

The quoted passage is in the middle of the title story in the collection. By coincidence – at that stage I had not read this final story - I put on yesterday’s blog comments about the Russian writer Turgenev. Munro’s tale has a Russian protagonist travelling in Europe and its style carries the feeling and flavour of that nation’s 19th century writing. Rarely does Munro stray in her settings from the provinces of Ontario and British Columbia. It’s not comfort zone, it’s the amount of material than can be quarried. Her tone, crisp as the Canadian climate, uses the detail of her life in a non-revelatory manner. In this particular story, on a wider canvas, Munro projects her normal interests and concerns - a successful experiment that leaves me wishing she had done it at least a little more.

I wrote glowingly about Alice Munro in my blog of 28 May 2009. I’m grateful to Fiona Kidman who first suggested that I read her work. I’ve always found her writing rewarding and I revelled in this new collection. Rarely do I put down a tale of hers without feeling sad at being human, and yet at the same time extremely glad to be human. A reviewer says you finish a Munro story and close the book and feel less lonely than you did before you read it. I’m not sure, I sense I feel lonelier than before but also more humble about the variety of the human spirit.

Yes, that’s the way things happen. We are individual in a community – we belong but are unique. Experience shapes us. It’s all presented so subtly and gracefully. Few writers have her skill at denoting space, place and time. In a kitchen and then suddenly a bedroom. The linkage is there but so effortless and swift it happens in the blink of a phrase. And every tale is different. I liked ‘Some Women’ in this collection. It is an unusually straight narrative except for the opening paragraph and the concluding sentence. A story within two bookends that collectively forms a different unit.

If you’ve not read Munro before, this is probably not the best book to start with for it is blacker and more gothic than earlier ones. There are three murders. Mortal fear exists and birth defects exist. But none of the characters shake their fists at the universe about the indignity of their situation. The author precisely dissects how events unearth fresh understandings. For that reason alone this book is well worth reading. They're damn good stories in their own right as well.

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