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.

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