Suspicion of Sentiment

Benjamin Markovits

  • Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage by Alice Munro
    Chatto, 323 pp, £14.99, November 2001, ISBN 0 7011 7292 4

‘It was love she sickened at,’ Alice Munro wrote in The Beggar Maid. ‘It was the enslavement, the self-abasement, the self-deception.’ If that’s her attitude it doesn’t promise much romance for her latest collection, despite its title; and in fact the book describes not so much love as the subtle changes in loyalty and disposition of which sexual love is only one (and not the most important) example. Munro once said that ‘the whole state of being in love is one that I haven’t written about nearly as much as I want to.’ Though this book may seem to be another attempt at it, she prefers to talk around her subject, linking her stories through something slightly different. ‘What on earth is this feeling that somehow things have to connect or . . . have to be part of a larger whole?’ she asked on another occasion. She is most interested in moments of insight and the difficulties her characters (never mind their author) face in trying to connect them. Love deceives partly because it requires constancy, in both senses of the word, to an individual and a state of mind. It’s no accident that Munro prefers short stories to novels.

That said, her book reads as a book, which is all the more remarkable given the variety of narrators, and narrative styles, it employs: from the traditional device of the title-story (a marriage induced by two schoolgirls’ practical joke) to the seemingly undoctored memories of ‘Family Furnishings’. Partly, the stories are bound together by their roots: in Ontario, where Munro grew up, and Vancouver, where she spent much of her first marriage. And they are rich in local detail, tags of both place and class: the brave and faded dignity of Mr McCauley, who dressed for business every day, despite the fact that there was no business to be done, and who, having ‘walked everywhere’ during the war ‘to set an example’, ‘still seemed to be setting an example, fifteen years later’; the ‘flowering nettles with pinkish-purple clusters’ that stung an adulterous couple, once childhood sweethearts, in the golf-course bushes where they sheltered from a shower of rain; the curious ‘sump pump’ on which Polly decided to spend her money, the first time she raised enough cash to visit her cousin in the city; the father’s countrified turn of phrase in ‘Family Furnishings’ – ‘he seems to get on all right by hisself.’

Yet these details tend to mislead rather than reveal, to suggest a greater comfort in being at home than in fact exists. Mr McCauley continues his brave show, ‘hands clasped behind his back . . . like a kind landlord inspecting his property or a preacher happy to observe his flock’, despite the fact that ‘half the people that he met had no idea who he was.’ The ‘flowering nettles’ that left such marks on the reunited lovers prove to be nothing more than ‘joe-pye weed’; the narrator has been stung by a plant she did not see and could not, it seems, have identified anyway. Cousin Polly, when she makes it to the big city at last, receives a cold welcome from the family. She has become stuck in a past that no longer applies, and the sump pump is only one detail that suggests this backwardness. It even turns out that the father’s ungrammatical turn of phrase has been put on for relatives: had they ‘not been present, he would more likely have said “himself”’. The opening line of the book announces a world in which local varieties will become harder and harder to explore. ‘Years ago,’ Munro begins, ‘before the trains stopped running on so many of the branch lines . . .’

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