Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Thursday, 2 February 2012

"Hateship, friendship, courtship, loveship, marriage" by Alice Munro (Vintage, 2002)

Interviewed by Jeanne McCulloch in The Paris Review she said

  • "Well I think that "Jack Randa Hotel," which I quite like, works as an entertainment. I want it to, anyway. Although a story like "Friend of my Youth" does not work as an entertainment. It works in some other way. It works at my deepest level."
  • "I didn’t last at [my first creative writing] job at all. I hated it, and even though I had no money, I quit. ... It was terrible. This was 1973. York was one of the more radical Canadian universities, yet my class was all male except for one girl who hardly got to speak. They were doing what was fashionable at the time, which had to do with being both incomprehensible and trite; they seemed intolerant of anything else."

I don't like usually like long, entertaining stories, and I suspect I sometimes like supposedly "incomprehensible and trite" pieces. On e-notes they say

  • "In Munro's works the mundane is juxtaposed with the fantastic, and she often relies on paradox and irony to expose meanings that lie beneath the surface of commonplace occurrences."
  • "Many critics echo the sentiments of Catherine Sheldrick who states that the stories of Alice Munro present "ordinary experiences so that they appear extraordinary, invested with a kind of magic." It is this emphasis on the seemingly mundane progression of female lives that prompted Ted Solataroff to call Munro a 'great stylist of 1920's realism, a Katherine Anne Porter brought up to date.'"
  • "Occasionally faulted for limiting herself to a narrow thematic range, Munro is, nevertheless, widely regarded as a gifted short story writer whose strength lies in her ability to present the texture of everyday life with both compassion and unyielding precision."

I've now read 2 books of hers, and some stories in anthologies. I've seen little of the fantastic, quite a lot of irony. There's a high body-count (though death is an "ordinary experience" I suppose). Compassion? Yes. Precision? Not sure. Some effects are only possible if many words are used - I think Proust's work exhibits that type of effect, with precision. In places Munro's work requires a similar patience on behalf of the reader. I'm still coming to terms with the stamina required. On p.224 for example there's this paragraph (part of a 24 page story) - "She looked down at the table napkins, which were folded in quarters. They were not as big as dinner napkins or as small as cocktail napkins. They were set in overlapping rows so that a corner of each napkin (the corner embroidered with a tiny blue or pink or yellow flower) overlapped the folded corner of its neighbor. No two napkins embroidered with the same color of flower were touching each other. Nobody had disturbed them, or if they had - for she did see a few people around the room holding napkins - they had picked up napkins from the end of the row in a careful way and this order had been maintained". This is Meriel attending a post-funeral buffet at the parents of the dead boy. It says something about the guests and whoever set the table but we hear nothing more of them, and in any case it's rather verbose. It tells us something about Meriel's state of mind (later that day sleeps with a stranger). It slows the pace. Maybe that's the point.

The title story of this book is 50+ pages long. 6 characters have a voice, one of them a shopkeeper who could have been chopped were space at a premium.

In "Floating Bridge", Jinny, 42, is being told a rude joke by a stranger when we learn that she's been recently told that her cancer's in remission. A boy who may know about her illness drives her home, shows her some Nature on the way, then kisses her. I guess the title has a symbolic significance.

I think I've read "Family Furniture" before. The title story also features a pile of furniture. We see the narrator's changing attitude to Alfrida, a rather larger-than-life character. The narrator used details about Alfrida (who she didn't much like) in a story. The narrator has views about men

  • "[In] my aunts' houses ... too, you could come upon a shabby male hideaway with its furtive yet insistent odors, its shamefaced but stubborn look of contradicting the female domain", p.105
  • "All of my experience of a woman with men, of a woman listening to her man, hoping and hoping that he will establish himself as somebody she can reasonably be proud of, was in the future. The only observation I had made of couples was of my aunts and uncles and of my mother and father, and those husbands and wives seemed to have remote and formalized connections and no obvious dependence on each other", p.107
  • "in my experience ... Men looked away from frightful happenings as soon as they could and behaved as if there was no use, once things were over with, in mentioning them or thinking about them ever again. They didn't want to stir themselves up, or stir other people up.", p.110

Later the narrator says "I had ended my marriage for personal - this is, wanton - reasons". Much later we learn more about the men (the narrator's father included) who Alfrida befriended.

Powerplays/conventions between the sexes and highlighting of gendered social roles feature in several stories.

  • "Well, of course he was wrong. Men are not normal, Chrissy. That's one thing you'll learn if you ever get married.", p.263
  • "It was the women who kept the conversation afloat. Men seemed cowed by the situation.", p.297

In "Comfort", Nina returns home to find that her terminally ill husband, Lewis, had killed himself as she knew he'd intended. She looks for a suicide note, has trouble making the appropriate arrangements. In a flashback we hear of Lewis's problems with Creationists in his classroom.

In "Nettle" a woman leaves her family to write (and have a non-committal affair). She meets by chance a childhood heart-throb.

I didn't get much from "Post and Beam". "What Is Remembered" interested me more. Muriel sleeps with a stranger - unplanned, just once. In the thirty years that her marriage continued, she thinks back to that episode, the ferry how nuances of phrasing changed the atmosphere, how "Take me somewhere else" meant more than "Let's go somewhere else", new memories and realisations strike her.

"Queenie" is in unnumbered sections sometimes as short as half a page. A women stays with her step-sister (who left at 18 to live with a music teacher) and sees that the relationship's unpleasant. Later the step-sister leaves again and the sisters lose contact.

"The Bear Came Over the Mountain" is another story where the first paragraph gives the reader lots of detail. We follow the course of Fiona's dementia. In a care home she forms an attachment with the wheelchaired Aubrey. Fiona goes downhill when Aubrey goes back home. Grant, Fiona's husband, visits Aubrey's home to ask his wife if Aubrey could visit Fiona - ironic because over the years Grant's had many affairs. The wife refuses, but later phones Grant asking about a date. Grant doesn't reply immediately. He visits Fiona, asking if she recalls Aubrey. She doesn't. Her health's improved.

Repeated details include flat-chested women, tall women, "house, not an apartment", and suicides. She leaves gaps of decades, begins with a fragment.

Some details from the stories are repeated in the Paris Review interview

  • On p.101 it says "At the end of my second year I was leaving college - my scholarship had covered only two years there. It didn't matter - I was planning to be a writer anyway. And I was getting married.. In the Paris Review interview she says "[I was a serious writer by the time [I] went to college ... I knew I would only be at university two years because the scholarships available at that time lasted only two years. ...I got married right after the second year. I was twenty."
  • On p.158 it says "my father shot and butchered the horses that were fed to the foxes and mink. In the Paris Review interview she says "When my father died, he was still living in that house on the farm, which was a fox and mink farm"

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