Let us be sexist. The Progress of Love is a woman’s book, particularly interesting to men who want to know what women think of them and know about them. Alice Munro is a 56-year-old Canadian who has been married twice: she is particularly concerned with the knowingness derived from broken relationships. One of the 11 skilful stories in this book (her sixth collection) is called ‘Lichen’ – a fungoid growth or eruption used as an image for the progress of love. A civil servant called David, his grey hair dyed, has come to visit his ex-wife, Stella: he brings with him his new partner, Catherine, but he is already sick of her and obsessed with a third woman, the pleasingly trollopy Dina. David accompanies Stella on a visit to her aged father in the Balm of Gilead home. As they leave, he thinks that this troll-like woman, to whom he was married for 21 years, knows him too well: ‘He could never feel any lightness, any secret and victorious expansion with a woman who knew so much. She was bloated with all she knew.’ Nevertheless, he embraces Stella in the hospital corridor – and, just then, a pretty nurse passes, pushing a trolley and calling: ‘Juice time. Orange. Grape.’ David feels a very slight discomfort at being seen by such a young and pretty girl in the embrace of Stella. It is not an important feeling – ‘It simply brushed him and passed’ – but Stella knows about it. She says:
Never mind, David. I could be your sister. You could be comforting your sister. Older sister.
Smiling David replies: ‘Madam Stella, the celebrated mind reader.’
Earlier in this compact story, Stella has introduced David to one of her neighbours, a cheery bore called Ron who has retired early and says: ‘You wouldn’t believe how much we find to do. The day is never long enough.’ Stella knows something horrid is going to happen because of the serious voice, ‘respectful and attentive’, in which David says: ‘You have a lot of interests?’ He brings out of his pocket something which he keeps cupped in his palm, and he flashes it to the bore with a deprecating smile, saying: ‘One of my interests.’ It is a photograph and he subsequently shows it to Stella, saying: ‘That’s my new girl.’ Stella says: ‘It looks like lichen ... Like moss on a rock.’ He points out Dina’s spreading legs, monumental, like fallen columns, and between them is what she called lichen – though it is really more like ‘the dark pelt of an animal’, de-limbed for the furrier, the ‘dark silky pelt of some unlucky rodent’. David is perversely tempted to show this picture to his current partner, Catherine. ‘She makes me want to hurt her,’ he tells Stella. ‘I think the best thing to do would be to give her the big chop. Coup de grâce.’ He tries to give the photograph to Stella, to evade the temptation, but she will not accept it. When David and the doomed Catherine have gone, Stella finds the photograph tucked behind the living-room curtains, sun-faded now so that the black pelt really looks like lichen. ‘This is David’s doing. He left it in the sun.’ She had said it looked like lichen, though she knew what it was at once, and now her words have come true.
There are many sharp observations in the dozen pages of this dispiriting story. Stella’s house is in an area of remodelled farmhouses or winterised summer cottages by the shores of Lake Huron, plenty of comfortable, retired folk, a weaver and a gay dentist – its sunny bleakness exposed when Stella says: ‘It’s nice for us pensioned-off wives ... I’m writing my memoirs. I’ll stop for a cash payment.’ David remarks casually: ‘You know, there’s a smell women get. It’s when they know you don’t want them any more. Stale.’ David feels fresh. He tells Stella about the redundant Catherine, nearing forty and dated – ‘She’s a hippie survivor really. She doesn’t know those days are gone.’ Like a boy, he sneaks off to telephone young Dina, the doomed successor to Catherine and Stella. His freshness pleases Stella’s father, as they discuss motor-cars in the Balm of Gilead Home. ‘Daddy was so pleased to see you,’ says Stella. ‘A man just means more, for Daddy. I suppose if he thought about you and me he’d have to be on my side, but that’s all right, he doesn’t have to think about it.’ The fact is that Stella’s tolerant knowingness is a form of complicity with David’s wilful selfishness – a complicity not uncommon among women who write skilfully about men.
‘Lichen’ has been singled out because it is so characteristic of Alice Munro’s stories. In ‘White Dump’ we read: ‘They had found out so much about each other that everything had got cancelled out by something else. That was why the sex between them could seem so shamefaced, merely and drearily lustful, like sex between siblings.’ In ‘Jesse and Meribeth’ a schoolgirl has a crush on a married man, who offers her a sort of paternal advice: at once patronising and sexy, he urges her to appreciate ‘the reality of other people’ – and the schoolgirl thinks: ‘What do I want with anybody who can know so much about me?’ This girl is influenced by certain children’s books in which ‘girls were bound two by two in fast friendship, in exquisite devotion’: with her special friend she plans to change their names, herself taking a boy’s name, Jesse, to the displeasure of their schoolmistress. Jesse is not altogether different from Callie, in ‘The Moon in the Orange Street Skating Rink’, a stoical little boarding-house ‘slavey’, who likes to wear boys’ clothes: she attaches herself to two athletic lads, skaters and acrobats, who try out their limited sex-knowledge on her. Callie says: ‘It would take a lot more than that stupid business to hurt me.’
Other women are more easily frightened, like Marietta in ‘The Progress of Love’. She hated barbers’ shops, hated their smell, asked her father not to put any dressing on his hair because the smell reminded her. ‘A bunch of men standing out on the street, outside a hotel, seemed to Marietta like a clot of poison. You tried not to hear what they were saying, but you could be sure it was vile.’ More confident women have their expectations disappointed – like the liberal-minded old lady who allows hippies to swim in her lake and, as a result, returns from her morning swim naked and disconsolate, after an unfortunate experience. ‘Christ, Mother!’ says her son, throwing her a tablecloth. Her daughter-in-law ‘responds to the story’ in strange fashion, embarking on an affair with a handsome airman. These clever, powerful and convincing stories are always satisfying, one at a time, when they appear in Grand Street or the New Yorker: but to read a collection in a book, one after another, is rather dispiriting. The gentle tolerance is almost nurse-like: some of these characters, one feels, should be denounced.
In Ruth Jeremy Cooper displays a feminine consciousness with a peculiarly English style of dead-keen soppiness. Ruth is a lonely young lady in Somerset: she addresses God as ‘Goddi’ and her mother calls her ‘Ruthiemoo’. At first, this novel seems a sweet-tongued, yawn-making book for children, as Ruthiemoo natters with forced enthusiasm about uninteresting irrelevancies. She is an artist, working on ‘the tall artist’s stool Twinkle had found for her in a Shepton junk shop, the friendly one beyond the railway station’, and everyone is ‘so kind to her, everyone tried so hard. And her dear Dr Fletcher in Eastney, well, he was a saint – there was no other word for it.’ Granny’s bed has ‘the softest, shiniest, deepest eiderdown Ruth imagined could ever exist’ and the parson is equally lovely: ‘Dear Reverend Hibbs, he was such a sweetie. He was a holy man, a Man of God, she just knew he was.’ Dr Fletcher and the Reverend Hibbs and dear old Major Sayers, the bird-killer, with his twinkling eyes and bushy grey eyebrows, they form as dim a background as the village gentry in early Agatha Christie. Ruth rattles on about her Xmas prezzies: ‘Mrs C’s bumper Rowntree pack and Auntie Peachey’s Beano Annual. She knew for certain Dad’s present was another family boardgame and desperately hoped it was Cluedo – “I accuse Professor Plum in the Ballroom with the Spanner”; or it might of course be Colonel Mustard with the Lead Piping ...’ Ruth’s trusty servants, ‘locals’ from the village, maintain the Agatha Christie style, as they pipe up in traditional prole-speak: they are the sort of proles who pronounce ‘what’ as ‘wot’ and ‘though’ as ‘tho’ (so do I, actually) and they drop their ‘g’s’ trustily:
‘Tuesday it were,’cos I were doin’ the brass. Such a noise! Proper pandominion. Screechin’ and hollerin’ and bangin’. All manner of noise!’
The bitter pill beneath this Mummerset sugar is the information that Ruthiemoo is mad – almost as mad as Myra Hindley. Ruth admits that ‘she had beaten Mum over the head with the dust-pan brush. How could they possibly understand? They were bound to put her in the Muriel Kenny ward.’ The whole village knows about it: they can see ‘the spider’s web scar beneath Mum’s make-up, on her temple, a damaged nerve fluttering on her eyelid, the shadowy depression and gristly swelling on her skull.’ A kindly doctor tells Ruth that she gets too angry, and Ruth thinks: ‘A virgin at 32. Had she no right to be angry?’ Jeremy Cooper suggests that another reason for Ruth’s madness is that during her childhood she saw Dad spanking Mum, merrily and sexily, with a hairbrush. Hence the dustpan brush. However implausible we may find this amateur psychoanalysis, we cannot dismiss the story airily, for it seems to refer embarrassingly to a real-life case-history. Ruth is said to have painted a good picture, hung at the Royal Academy, depicting ‘two moth-eaten 18th-century dolls standing in an upended cardboard box roughly tied with string’. This picture is reproduced on the dust-cover of Ruth and is said to be the work of the late Jane Urquhart: it was ‘left to Jeremy Cooper after Urquhart’s untimely death following a long battle against debilitating mental illness’. Jeremy Cooper has thought fit to display the picture at Hatchards bookshop in Piccadilly, to promote the sales of Ruth.