In Ontario

Carol Shields

  • Friend of My Youth by Alice Munro
    Chatto, 273 pp, £13.99, October 1990, ISBN 0 7011 3663 4

The Canadian writer Alice Munro once likened a good short story to a commodious house whose every room possesses an exterior door. So accommodating a house, she wrote, is capable of admitting visitors through any number of openings, just as a story can be entered by way of its separate sections or paragraphs or even its individual sentences or words. The rewards for the reader, she suggests, have to do with language rather than with the sequence of narrative, the rhythm and surprise of linguistic persuasion overriding the fortunes of those who populate the pages of novels – what these characters want and what they eventually get.

It is a pleasure, then, to open Alice Munro’s new collection of short stories, Friend of My Youth, and find on every page the particular satisfactions of prose that is supple, tart and spare, yet elegant and complex. A typical Munro sentence, with its exact and loving syntax, gestures toward worldliness, toward literary sophistication and art, while at the same time guarding, by means of her unpredictable cadences and spirited vocabulary, the particular salt and twang of rural Ontario – the corner of the universe that Alice Munro calls home. Her voice is unmistakably her own. Artlessness collides with erudition in almost every paragraph, but in Munro’s hands these contradictions seem natural, just one more manifestation of a planet whose parts are unbalanced, mismatched, puzzling and random.

Friend of My Youth is Alice Munro’s seventh book. Readers familiar with her work are often taken with the lovely fresh suddenness of her titles. Dance of the Happy Shades, her first book (1968), finds its name in a young child’s piano piece, a name brimming in the title story with the kind of minor-key paradox that spills out into the whole of the book. Something I’ve been meaning to tell you (1974) pays tribute to a favourite theme, the accidental or unintentional gaps in communication that crown us with misery or misunderstanding or, very occasionally, with salvation. Who do you think you are (1978, published in England under the title The Beggar Maid) picks up as a running thread that familiar rebuke to those who have the audacity to reach beyond the expectations of others. Munro’s new book takes as its reference the flowery, scented phrases once used, twenty or thirty or forty years ago, in the salutations of letters. ‘My dearest Mary, my darling Ruth’, ‘My dear little Joanne’, ‘My dear old friend Cleta’, ‘My lovely Margaret’, ‘Friend of my youth’.

Such beseeching endearments are scorned by the woman who is the narrator of the book’s title story. ‘My dearest Mary, my darling Ruth’ – these are the terms used by the narrator’s mother when writing letters to her old school friends; they represent, to the daughter’s mind, self-conscious pleas for attention, powdery, pathetic appeals for love, for validation. She is enraged that her mother, who is dying slowly of a paralysing disease, can find the energy to pick up a pen and enter into a conspiracy with falsehood. ‘ “I have friends all over the country,” she would say defiantly. “I have dear, dear friends.” ’

In fact, the mother clings to a skewed remnant of memory. As a young woman (‘a young woman with a soft, mischievous face and shiny, opaque stockings on her plump legs’), she went off to the Ottawa Valley to teach in a one-room country school, and there she boarded with a local family, the Grieves sisters, one of them married, the other not. This eccentric household – they are members of the strict Cameronian religious sect – enacts before the young woman’s eyes a drama bubbling with melodrama and farce. The teacher lives with them through a season of death, passion and betrayal, taking everything in, but maintaining a curious and giddy detachment; she is young, after all, and engaged to be married, her tenure with the Grieves family is short, she can afford dispassion, even a measure of generosity.

Years later, though, she looks back and romanticises the experience. If only she were a writer, she tells her grown-up daughter, she would put it all in a novel and title it The Maiden Lady. Her memory is prepared to sift and resettle actual events, touching up certain episodes, assigning blame and reward, and bringing the story to rich, ripe resolution. The daughter is offended by her mother’s cheap and easy distortions. She herself, given a chance, would tell the story differently, bringing hardness to its turnings, bearing down on its erotic suggestiveness. The gulf between mother and daughter widens, and this is where Alice Munro, having brought us this far, overturns our expectations. We are ready to be reassured, to be told that the daughter will come to an understanding of her mother, that we are on the cusp of one of those slightly embarrassing but nevertheless satisfying archetypal reconciliations.

It is not to be. The mother stands by her account, refusing revision or compromise and announcing to her daughter, by means of a mocking smile, her claim to a kind of exalted loneliness. The story, in fact – and it is the finest in the collection – makes a powerful and positive statement for the integrity of the self which is preserved by a steadfast resistance to the notions of others. To be understood, Munro suggests in the radiant, divergent final paragraph, is to be invaded or colonised: hanging on to your own life may mean the excommunication of all others.

Relying on the complexity of its narrative threading, on detail, voice and perspective, the story offers one further aesthetic surprise: a range of sympathy capable of embracing both the mother’s brave self-delusion and the daughter’s stubborn rejection of romanticism. The forces of grace and blame are assigned with a cool eye, with an even hand, and this willingness to allow for contradiction blows across Alice Munro’s fiction like a gust of oxygen.

The enchantment to be found in Munro’s books lies in the countless, vivid shocks of recognition between reader and writer. The stories deal with the rewards and punishments of erotic love, with girls becoming women, and sometimes, particularly in the early books, with how women make compromises in order to remain human. She writes, too, about how people survive the lives they’re born into, their moments of shame, displacement and illumination. Many of the stories are cunningly hinged to moments in time: these stories draw breath from narrowly avoided accidents, the mock suicide, the almost-tragedy, the near brush with happiness.

Details of place are strikingly, almost photographically evoked. Once, speaking about a book she loved as a child – it happened to be Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Emily of New Moon – Munro admitted to having been drawn in by what was ‘going on behind, or beyond, the proper story ... life spreading out behind the story, the book’s life’. In the same way, her own work owes its vividness to the attention she pays to atmosphere, the listed contents of parlours and kitchens, handbags and pockets. She is wonderful describing faces, gestures, a pitch of voice, an article of clothing, the private clamour of an object or thought that drifts out of the past and forms a connection with the present.

In a superb story, ‘Miles City, Montana’, from an earlier book, the narrator, a young married woman, describes what she calls her ‘real work’. This work is not just looking after her husband and house and children, but, as she says, the ‘wooing of distant parts of myself’. These distant parts, these concealed layers of existence, excavating them and holding them up to the light of day – that is what forms the substance of Munro’s fiction.

After her first book of short stories in 1968, her publisher, and her readers too, waited eagerly for her to produce a novel. It has not happened, though Lives of Girls and Women (1971), with its linked stories and common protagonist, is sometimes thought of as a novel. She is, it has turned out, a writer more at home with shorter structures. Always concerned with the authenticity of material, it may be that she believes that the episodes that make up our lives conform to the hummocky shape of the short story rather than to the slow rising action of the conventional novel, with its final rewards and resolutions, obstacles overcome and goals realised – a pattern that has not proved all that useful to the experience of women.

Munro has gone a long way toward reshaping the short story for her purposes, or rather unshaping it. Strange bits of the world go into her work: digressions of every sort, family histories, notes on cultural artefacts (she has an eye for such notations), newspaper articles, old letters, and, very often, seemingly random anecdotes beaded on a thin string of narrative. It is as though the disorderly men and women who inhabit her pages require extra elbow room; wonderful new openings are for ever appearing – into the past, the future, into a joke or a dream or a flight of fancy. Some stories come out as one long sigh, but others are broken into segments or even, as in the story ‘Oh, what avails’, into miniature chapters with their own titles. The meaning of a Munro story emerges from this complex patterning rather than from the tidiness of a problem/solution set-up or the troublesome little restraints of beginnings, middles and ends.

The time line moves all over the place. Sometimes she will stop a story and say, ‘I forgot to tell you that –’ sometimes, as in ‘Oh, what avails’, she fast-forwards into the future, presenting a scene in which a woman imagines how her husband will welcome her home after a weekend of adultery. Yet another story, ‘Differently’, concludes by shifting into an old time-frame, a woman revisiting not the scenes of high drama and conflict in the life, but a rare buried moment of peace and reflection. Munro is good at handling long windy stretches of time, whole lifetimes or generations, and the stories here seem even bolder in this respect.

Occasionally, as in the story ‘Five Points’, she will take two apparently separate stories and turn them, one against the other, eliciting sparks of reference and discord. The story-within-a-story, that staple of Victorian fiction, turns up in ‘Goodness and Mercy’; other stories work along a strand of loosely related incidents, one opening into the next like a set of rooms; this discursiveness, this willingness to ramble and remark and wonder, resembles nothing so much as the way women, sitting over a mug of tea, tell each other stories, of confession and consolation, stories that seem dredged from some cosmic lost-and-found bureau or pieced together out of shared scraps.

Underlying the fluidity of structure is a formal complexity; the trace of deliberation is lightly drawn on even the most sprawling and diffuse material. Munro is a writer who cares deeply about the shape her books take. A few years ago, shortly before the publication of one of her collections, she realised that the arrangement of the text had gone awry, that certain stories did not belong together; it was a writer’s nightmare; locked into a contract, she would have to live with the flawed book or else assume the not inconsiderable cost of printing new galleys. She made the second choice, and ended up with the book she wanted.

Her new book contains one story, ‘Menesteung’, that is about fiction, the materials that go into a narrative, the how of a story rather than the what. Little flags from the past – newspaper reports, scraps of verse and gravestone inscriptions – play against the ‘I’ of the narrator and the ‘she’ of the narration. This may sound like a bowl of post-mod bubble soup, but the story charms; it also disturbs. Its subject, the genteel lady poet, Almeda Roth, yearns for the substance of authentic love.

One thing she has noticed about married women, and this is how many of them go about creating their husbands. They have to start ascribing preferences, opinions, dictatorial ways. Oh, yes, they say, my husband is very particular. He won’t touch turnips. He won’t eat fried meat. He can’t stand organ music. He would kill me if I took one puff of tobacco. This way, bewildered, sidelong-looking men are made over, made into husbands, heads of households. Almeda Roth cannot imagine herself doing that. She wants a man who doesn’t have to be made, who is firm already and determined and mysterious to her.

A man appears in the role of rescuer, a widower named Jarvis Poulter, and for a brief moment it seems he may be the one to save her. But the narrative turns out to rest on a micro-circuitry of lost opportunities, missed connections.

Munro seldom offers accounts of her work; she claims she would rather not let her left hand know what her right hand is doing. But a credo of sorts can be located in an earlier story, ‘The Stone in the Field’. The stone in question marks the grave of a mysterious farm labourer, a Mr Black, the illicit lover of one of the farmer’s daughters – or so legend suggests. The narrator, hungry for legends of her own, visits the field and finds that the stone has been removed. A kind of relief sweeps over her, for she has grown suspicious of the desperation that drives people to make stories of mere stones. And she knows that the manufactured stories can never match the potency of the real; the connections are too easily arrived at, too pat, too consoling, and too selfishly derived. ‘I no longer believe that people’s secrets are defined and communicable,’ she says, ‘or their feelings full-blown and easy to recognise. I don’t believe so.’

Occasionally one of Munro’s stories remains enigmatic, even after several readings. For years I’ve puzzled over a story called ‘Fits’, while delighting in its texture, and I am baffled now over one of the stories in this new book, an absorbing, sharply detailed story called ‘Hold me fast, don’t let me pass’, which is (I think) about the porous nature of history, how much of it simply drains away to nothing. All the elements of the story seem in place, and yet it refuses, in its wider sense, to open up for me. Nevertheless, I’m sure the key is there if I can only find it.

Munro is careful about leaving keys. A reader can almost always find in the closing pages of a Munro piece a little silver ingot of compaction, an insight that throws light on the story. These sentences are often her most graceful, and they are skilfully embedded in the text, cushioned by the colloquialism and ease that define her writing. In ‘Pictures of the Ice’, for example, a retired clergyman and his young housekeeper cherish their secrets but find redemption in complicity. We require, it seems, in our moments of courage or shame, at least one witness. ‘No matter how alone you are,’ the housekeeper thinks, ‘and how tricky and determined, don’t you need one person to know?’ Georgia, the main character in ‘Differently’, buffeted by time, disappointed by love and friendship, thinks: ‘People make momentous shifts, but not the changes they imagine.’ There is something old-fashioned and solid about these statements, generously, even humbly offered.