Things happen all the time

James Wood

  • Selected Stories by Alice Munro
    Chatto, 412 pp, £16.99, November 1996, ISBN 0 7011 6521 9

There are writers for whom reality seems a secret novelty; and there are writers for whom it seems a shared habit. In the first category-which would include Dostoevsky, Conrad, Svevo – nothing is entirely recognisable, everything seems to have been burned out of recognition by the difficulty of its entry into the world. This is the strangeness they offer, and which we enjoy. In the second category, reality is born in an open ward. It makes its appeal to a known world. It is not that the writer’s reality is necessarily familiar to the reader, but it is familiar to its characters. We learn to judge oddity by seeing it through them. In this category are Tolstoy, Chekhov; and in our age the late V.S. Pritchett and Alice Munro.

Alice Munro is such a good writer that nobody bothers anymore to judge her goodness, as people long ago stopped judging Pritchett’s – her reputation is like a good address. She is surely Pritchett’s great rival at the evocation of a world that functions like a morbid conspiracy. Like him, she has written again and again about lower-middle-class gentility (rural Canadian rather than urban English), and its self-obsessed obedience. Like his stories, Munro’s are fat with community: her characters steal their lean solitude from the thickness that surrounds them. These thieves struggle against the pieties and self-satisfactions of their world, and sometimes, in order to live, they will have to construct fantasies, lavish internal fictions. At such moments, they may resemble the community they are escaping; they may simply substitute their own singular private fantasy for a shared public one.

And they will do this not with desperation but with mild comedy. One of Munro’s narrators describes her mother thus: ‘This cousin was a legal secretary, and she worked for a senior partner in what my mother always called, in her categorical way, “the city’s leading law firm”.’ In a flash, this mother is caught, in the same way that Chekhov, in ‘Anna Round the Neck’, catches a man who instructs his new wife to bow to local dignitaries at the opera, or Pritchett catches a man, in ‘The Fall’, who boasts to his accountant friends about his famous brother, the movie actor, and his famous stage-fall. Like these others, Munro’s lady is caught in her provincialism of soul; but she is at the same time caught in the act of trying to escape provincialism. Her boast is both a sign of ordinariness and a longing to throw off ordinariness. Writers like Munro and Pritchett see the managed restlessness of ordinary life.

Munro is a great realist, and her powers come from her sense of the way in which communities – especially small, socially anxious, limited ones – construct and guard their reality. She has lived for many years in a rural town in Ontario. I once visited it. It is near water (Lake Huron) but seems landlocked: swamped by land, by the flat lakes of corn that surround it for miles and miles. She knows this area as Faulkner knew Oxford, Mississippi, and is known: unwelcome visitors, foolish enough to ask the way to Munro’s house, are often given false directions by townspeople. As a writer, she knows what it is to want to escape a shared reality, yet she writes well about those who can only enforce this reality. ‘Postcard’ tells the story of Helen, a girl of modest means and modest education who believes she is about to be engaged to Clare MacQuarrie, the most prominent bachelor in the small town of Jubilee. Helen does not love MacQuarrie, who is fat and bald, and 12 years older than she is. Indeed, she considers herself to be doing him a bit of a favour. But she is in awe of his prominence. As she explains (she narrates the story), ‘there’s a certain kind of men in Jubilee and I guess every small town that you might call public men. I don’t mean public figures, important enough to run for Parliament or even for mayor (though Clare could do that if he wanted to be serious), just men who are always around on the main street and you get to know their face.’

The story is delicate. It becomes clear that Helen is a humble fantasist. News arrives from Florida, where MacQuarrie is supposedly holidaying, that he has married an American woman there. Helen has been used. In a fit, she drives round to MacQuarrie’s house, parks outside, and leans on the car horn until something happens. The whole town knows about the jilting, of course. Buddy Shields, the night constable, tells her to forget it, and to move on. Even in her distress, Helen is amused that Buddy Shields should be telling her what to do: she used to teach him in Sunday school and once ‘caught him reading Leviticus on the sly’. But Buddy – implacable, tactless, earnest and puffed up with the law – drives her home, and lectures her as he drives: ‘But let me tell you things happen all the time, only thing to do is just go along, and remember you’re not the only one.’ He tells her a tale about two lovers in the town. The speech displays Munro’s absolute control of her material, her lack of sentimentality:

Last week we got a call and we had to go out to Dunnock Swamp and there’s a car stuck in there. This old farmer was waving a loaded gun and talking about shooting this pair for trespassing if they didn’t get off his property. They’d just been following a wagon track after dark, where any idiot would know you’d get stuck this time of year. You would know both of them if I said their names and you’d know they had no business being in that car together. One is a married lady. And worst is, by this time her husband is wondering why she don’t come home from choir practice – both these parties sing in the choir, I won’t tell you which one – and he has reported her missing. So we got to get a tractor to haul out the car, and leave him there sweating, and quieten down this old farmer, and then take her home separate in broad daylight, crying all the way. That’s what I mean by things happening. I saw that man and wife downstreet buying their groceries yesterday, and they didn’t look too happy but there they were. So just be a good girl, Helen, and go along like the rest of us and pretty soon we’ll see spring.

This is very good writing. There is the comic irrelevance of Buddy’s sermon, combined with its terrible relevance: the couple he describes are at least together, a state which Helen has not even achieved; there are the blundering repetitions and non sequiturs: ‘you would know both of them if I said their names’; ‘that’s what I mean by things happening’; ‘they didn’t look too happy but there they were’; there is Munro’s swift evocation of small-town disapproval: ‘both these parties sing in the choir, I won’t tell you which one.’ And note how discreetly she captures a sense of stiflement: Buddy refers to ‘the’ choir even as he acknowledges that there is more than one – because in a small place, everyone will know which choir is meant. And there is the faint, odd, utopian poetry of the last phrase (‘and pretty soon we’ll see spring’). We are broken into several minds: we feel Helen’s torment but also share her amusement; we see Buddy’s doltishness, yet his loyalty to the actual – ‘go along like the rest of us’ – is moving.

Often – and often in this representative selection of her work – Munro begins a story in the present and then moves back several decades, to the Forties and Fifties. The community’s sense of itself is tightened by this backwards placement, while the pool of shared values enlarges Munro’s freedom. ‘Smoke a cigarette if you want to,’ Helen’s mother says in sympathy, when they hear the news of MacQuarrie’s marriage. It is one of those grey concessions which Munro observes so well, and which are hard to find amid contemporary liberality. But occasionally one feels that she makes things easier for herself by limiting her canvas to small societies in smaller times. Often, her stories move around the disruption brought to a community by an exotic outsider. At such moments, the exoticism or danger of the interloper can seem unconvincing or uninteresting, because Munro appears to have loaded the dice by making the invaded community so unexotic to begin with. In ‘The Turkey Season’, for instance, she colours in the tiny world of a turkey-plucking barn, and its bleak personnel – an old man, some collapsed women, a little schoolgirl (who narrates the tale). A handsome young man arrives at work. He flaunts his sexual superiority, and harasses one of the women. But we are not sure how: ‘All I ever found out was that Brian had either done something or shown something to Gladys as she came out of the washroom and she had started screaming and having hysterics.’ Brian’s naughtiness is not important enough to hang the story on. And his behaviour seems trivial not only because it is opaquely rendered, but because the world he disrupts seems too ready to have been disrupted by precisely Brian’s kind of danger. The story is written from within the community; it has a complacency.

Munro is generally vigilant, however. Her stories deploy the self-calibrations and self-protectiveness of small towns against themselves. In ‘Dance of the Happy Shades’ she describes the way a room of smug matrons is silenced by the piano-playing of a girl with Down’s syndrome. As in ‘Postcard’, one is happy to have one’s assumptions softly confounded. We are told about an old piano teacher, Miss Marsalles, and her annual parties. The mothers of the local area are disdainful of Miss Marsalles’s teaching, and only keep their daughters with her out of loyalty. She has a ‘spinster’s sentimentality’ about her pupils, whom she never corrects. To her, children’s hearts are holy. Her parties, which always include a concert by the pupils, are invariably awkward – cramped, stiff, with wilted sandwiches. But now that Miss Marsalles has moved to a tiny bungalow on Bala Street (‘Bala Street, where is that?’) she has become not so much an awkwardness as one of those ‘painful subjects which it is crude and unmannerly to discuss’.

Stiffened by duty, the mothers turn up to the bungalow on Bala Street. Secretly, they hope this will be the last party. Halfway through, the door opens and a group of handicapped children is passed in. They are Miss Marsalles’s pupils at a special school. The matrons are rigid with embarrassment. One of the new arrivals plays a piece called ‘Dance of the Happy Shades’. She plays superbly: ‘What she plays is not familiar. It is something fragile, courtly and gay, that carries with it the freedom of a great unemotional happiness.’ Miss Marsalles does not look surprised or triumphant. She looks as if she always expected this musicianship from a handicapped girl. Though Munro does not block this in heavily – she has immense tact, and great wells of unsentimentality – we realise how mistaken the matrons have been. Miss Marsalles’s soft-headedness is actually a stern charity. And the ‘great unemotional happiness’ which the music speaks is hers. The mothers go home, stilled by this incursion, by this ‘communiqué from the other country where she lives’.

The prose of these stories is not lavish: it is intelligently starved; not sticky with metaphor, or crowded with detail. There are times when this disappoints. But Munro’s prose is not deprived, either. Many times, she finds exactly what she needs, as in this description of a bourgeois villa: ‘A narrow house, built of soot-and-raspberry-coloured brick, grim little ornamental balconies curving out from the second-floor windows, no towers anywhere but somehow a turreted effect; dark, pretentious, poetically ugly – the family home’. As so often in Munro, the strength of this description flows out of its high familiarity and Munro’s open appeal to the known: somehow turreted in effect but lacking any towers, yes – ‘the family home’.

She has an acute eye for comic detail, in particular the comedy of fastidiousness. In ‘The Beggar Maid’, an ambitious man notices that a friend of the woman he is wooing ‘mispronounced Metternich in front of him. He said to her later: “How can you be friends with people like that?” ’ (That is almost as good as the man in Chekhov’s ‘The Russian Master’ who repeatedly torments a new young teacher by expressing surprise that he has ‘never read Lessing’.) Or Mr Florence, from ‘The Progress of Love’: ‘His favourite place to be was in his car. His car was a royal blue Chrysler, from the first batch turned out after the war. Inside it, the upholstery and floor covering and roof and door padding were all pearl gray. Mr Florence kept the names of those colours in mind and corrected you if you said just “blue” or “gray”.’ Tiny seeds of comedy lie hidden in the folds of every story in this collection. In ‘The Ottawa Valley’, for instance, a family are in a graveyard. The little girl asks her mother: ‘What is pacem?’ The response: ‘“Latin,” said my mother approvingly.’

It is difficult to trace an autobiographical watermark in these stories; the paper is too thickly other, properly turned outward, away from the author. Over the course of this selection, however, a kind of Veronica is chalkily visible: she is a mother (many of these stories are about mothers) in middle age. She is coping with reduced circumstances. She is conspiratorial with other women, but largely ignores her husband, who is emotionally wooden. She is pious, prayerful. And she is ill – two mothers in these stories develop Parkinson’s disease, another has cancer, another a stroke. But only slowly does she relinquish the forgivable snobberies, the social measurements, the provincial fantasies, the anxious monitoring which Munro sees so beautifully. Even in sickness, this mother has a high regard for herself: ‘My mother’s hair was done in two little thin dark braids, her cheeks were sallow, her neck warm and smelling of raisins as it always did, but the rest of her under the covers had changed into some large, fragile and mysterious object, difficult to move. She spoke of herself gloomily in the third person, saying: “Be careful, don’t hurt Mother, don’t sit on Mother’s legs.” ’ This mother, who recurs throughout the book, may not be an autobiographical ghost. Seen so tenderly yet so comically, betraying herself in the act of protecting herself, she can, however, be seen as the spirit of these stories.