Monday, January 14, 2013

Alice Munro's Dear Life

Back in early December, when my husband steered me away from Alice Munro's Dear Life on the express shelf at the library, I knew he'd bought it for me for Christmas. While waiting for it, I read reviews on the internet, and learned that Dear Life includes several stories I'd already read in Harpers and The New Yorker. In fact, I'd ripped out the magazine pages on which the stories appeared, to have the pleasure of rereading them once the magazines were discarded.  Now I can throw out those magazine pages, because I have the stories in book form.

The reviews were favourable, laudatory, adulatory, except for one that said, in effect, that Munro's stories in this collection were too pre-planned and not sufficiently free ranging. In fact, Munro's collections have always included both structured stories and meandering ones. In  Dear Life, the stories "Leaving Maberly" and "Train" take us on a wandering journey and end with just a hint of theme.

Most reviewers were ecstatic over the last four stories in Dear Life, which, Munro says, "form a separate unit, one that is autobiographical in feeling ,thougb not, sometimes, entirely in fact." She adds that these stories are the "first and last - and the closest - things" she has to say about her own life. These days, the memoir seems to be everyone's literary form of first choice - though not mine. People love things that are "true", whatever "true" means. I liked these autobiographical stories, but also liked many that are imaginative constructs, like "Haven" and "Gravel."  Having taught memoir writing for many years, I'm a bit bored with things that are supposed to be more true just because they're life based. I like some artifice and creativity.

The stories in Dear Life, no matter whether or not they're close to actual life, are well-written and insightful.  I loved the domineering man in "Haven" getting his comeuppance. I liked "Dolly", which features an older couple, so much in love that they are planning to leave this earth together. Their happiness is disturbed when the husband's wartime flame turns up accidentally on their doorstep selling cosmetics. To the wife's dismany, the magic between the two former lovers is still there. The outcome shows the wisdom that comes with age."Corrie", a story about love and blackmail, explores  fairness in a relationship. One person has felt unfairly treated for many years, and seeks to right the balance, dishonestly.

I was fascinated by the second story, "Amundsen." In my grade school social studies, Roald Amundsen, Norwegian polar explorer, was a key figure. Here,"Amundsen" is the name of a town in Muskoka. The story takes place in a TB sanitorium during a winter in the 1940s. Alister, the doctor seduces the young teacher at the hospital, gets engaged to her, then dumps her.   Mary, a friendly teenager, the daughter of the cook, becomes the teacher's friend, and tells her that she used to play hookey from her town school to spend time with a teenaged patient, and that the doctor was their pal, and took them tobogganing until the other girl became too  ill.  At one point in the story, the doctor hurts Mary's feelings, foreshadowing his subsequent treatment of the teacher.

The winter setting is as cold and bleak as the Arctic or Antarctic, and in a sense, the doctor is an explorer, performing surgeery on patients. He seems more comfortable with a young girl that he can boss around, rather than with the teacher, a woman of marriageable age. It's as if his psychological and emotional development has frozen.

Reading about Roald Amundsen, I learned that he never married, and that at one point in his life fostered two native girls. There was no suggestion of impropriety in the account of Amundsen and these children, and in Munro's story, no hint of anything wrong in the friendship of the doctor and the two girls.  I'm wondering, though,  if Munro happened to be reading about Roald Amundsen and decided to extrapolate some elements of his story in creating her work of fiction.

The  unconvincing element in "Amundsen" is that, although the teacher is hurt at being dumped, and sees that the doctor's treatment of her may be a pattern, she remains in love with him even as a married woman many years later.

Several stories in Dear Life show a child at the mercy of fate, waiting to see what will happen next. In fact, "Gravel" shows a child who gets tired of waiting and makes a fatal bid for attention, and a mother who puts her own needs above those of her children. In "To Reach Japan", a mother, who is also a poet,  is torn between her own needs and those of her little girl.  What I liked most about "To Reach Japan" was the depiction of a truly terrible literary party that the central character attends in the hope of finding a congenial and supportive group of writers.

The theme of a woman's needs versus her obligations (or, perhaps, the conflicts between tseveral good things she wants) recurs in many Munro stories.  So often we are shown a mother, engaged in a creative activity, or trying to be, who feel that she is neglecting her children, because her head and heart are elsewhere.  Other times Munro writes about "writer's guilt"; the feeling that one should be doing something more profitable and practical with one's time.  Both maternal guilt and writer's guilt are shown in her famous story, "The Office."  I have felt my share of writer's guilt in days gone by, so I understand it. Mother's guilt is harder for me to fathom. I know of mothers who leave their young children daily to go to work, and they don't seem to be  guilt-racked. Perhaps this angst is peculiar to women in creative, arty jobs. Admittedly, Munro's stories are often set in the '50s and '60s, when a mother was supposed to be devoted to her children body and soul, 24-7.

At the end of her autobiographical stories, Munro writes that she did not go home for her mother's last illness or her funeral. "We say of some things that they can't be forgiven," she writes, "or that we will never forgive ourselves. But we do - we do it all the time."  Presumably Munro is speaking in her own voice here, not through a character.  Having read her entire body of work, including the final four stories in Dear Life, I would like to tell her to put guilt behind her, that she has nothing to feel guilty about.

Friday, January 11, 2013

All My Sons at OLT

On Wednesday evening Roger and I went to see the performance of Arthur Miller's All My Sons at Ottawa Little Theatre. Having seen Death of a Salesman and having read The Crucible, I was eager to experience another Miller play. All My Sons, set in post-World War II America, is about an affable factory owner named Joe Keller who failed to prevent the sale of flawed airplane parts to the military,  thus indirectly bringing about the deaths of  twenty-one American pilots. Worse, he  shifted the bulk of the blame to his former plant manager and former neighbour, who is in prison during the time frame of the play.

The audience learns this information gradually. The opening scenes show an attractive upper middle class back yard, and at first, the play seems to be about the family's grief for their son lost in war, and the surviving son's complicated feelings. It is that, to an extent, but that's not the whole story. Having served only a short term in prison, Joe Keller is back home, welcomed in his community, manufacturing household appliances now in the factory which his son, Chris, seems destined to take over. But when the discontented Chris invites Anne, the the former manager's daughter, to visit, with a view to proposing marriage to her, the wartime negligence rises as an issue again.

Wednesday evening was  opening night, and all the actors did very well. There were a few flubbed lines, but the dramatic tension was so great that a few stammers and occasional speechlessness seemed realistic.  Cheryl Jackson was strong as Kate Keller, the mother who believes that her elder son, missing in World War II, will still come home. Mike Kennedy, who plays Joe, the affable villain, was also very effective in his role.  The lighting and sound were effective too; the play starts and ends with a bang.

It's a treat to see the work of one of the great playwrights of the 20th century. Clearly, Arthur Miller was much much more than  one of Marilyn Monroe's husbands.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

A good bad book

My Christmas was rich in books. I received two hardcover novels ( as oldfashioned as that may seem) and a gift certificate with which I bought The Child's Child, a new Barbara Vine novel by Ruth Rendell. As Barbara Vine, Rendell writes about social issues, with a different cast of characters in each novel. I  have enjoyed several Vine novels in the past, particularly The Chimney Sweeper's Boy and was pleased to discover this new one.

The Child's Child , to my way of thinking, is not up to her usual standard. The fact that it is a novel within a novel should not be a problem; indeed, since Rendell is exploring changing  attitudes toward homosexuality and "unwed motherhood",  the two plots, one "then", the other "now", allows a comparison and contrast of social mores. The problems lie in characterization, research, and narrative choices.

Key characters,  imaginative in some areas of life, are astonishingly obtuse in other matters. Two of  the characters, in the 1920s section, construct an elaborate scheme to pass themselves off as a married couple. This fake marriage is necessary for the plot, but, logically, the young pregnant girl could have just as easily been presented as a young widow.  The young man and woman worry that the cleaning lady will realize that they sleep in separate rooms, not stopping to think that the girl's advancing  pregnancy, then her need to nurse the baby at all hours, are explanation enough.  Another example of character naivete for plot reasons is the gay man writing explicit letters to his unconsiderate lover, never stopping to think that his inamorato may use them to blackmail him.  Rule One in writing a suspense novel is, "Don't have your characters do silly things for the sake of the plot."

I was not  convinced that Rendell's depiction of 1920s social attitudes was entirely accurate. World War I, which shook up moral values,  must have had an impact on even the most static communities, but apparently not so in the lower middle class Bristol community she depicts. I didn't expect it to be like Paris in the 1920s, but would it really be such an island of rigid morals?

Grace, the narrator/protagonist of the 21st century section, is a doctoral student in English literature writing her thesis on the depictions of "unwed motherhood" in English fiction. Unfortunately, the gaps in her knowledge make her unconvincing. She seems unaware that social arrangements like marriage and legal concepts like legitimacy may be connected, historically, to the rise of private ownership.  Nor does she realize that, in some societies, all additions to the population were welcome. She seems unaware of the avant garde thinking of the Fabians and the Bloomsbury group.   In short, she is only vaguely aware that different social classes in different eras had different rules regarding "unwed motherhood." Her own decision to raise her baby in a unique social arrangement, rather than a traditional "Mum and Dad" one, could have been elaborated upon, to create the psychological depth for which Barbara Vine novels are admired.

Rendell/Vine creates vivid scenes in the first part of the novel, but in the last third, there is too much narration and not enough dramatization. Was she rushing to meet a deadline, summarizing because there wasn't enough time to "show"? The tragic ending to the "olden days" part of the story comes as no surprise; but the burst of action near the end of the present day part seemed tacked on.

Having said  these negative things about The Child's Child, should I toss my copy into the recycling bin? Absolutely not.  While  the novel would have benefited from  revision,  it is worth reading for the themes it explores. One troubling theme is the idea that members of one oppressed group do not necessarily feel a kinship toward those in other oppressed groups, but may hate and fear them.

This novel made me think of the current debate within The Writers' Union of Canada as to whether authors of non-traditionally published books should be admitted to membership. Currently, a self-published, p.o.d. published or electronically published book will not get an author admitted to TWUC; the book must be traditionally published.  TWUC members opposed to opening up the membership claimed that alternatively published books are badly written, badly edited, and unmarketable.  This may be true of some alternatively published books, but some traditionally published books fall short of the mark, as well.

Quality is  in the eye of the beholder. A "flawed" book has its merits, too.