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The Need to Disguise

Kevin Stevens

Too Much Happiness, by Alice Munro, Chatto & Windus, 303 pp, £17.99, ISBN: 978-0701183059

 

On the surface, Alice Munro’s world is a narrow one. Most of her stories are set in small-town Ontario, where she grew up and still lives, with occasional forays into British Columbia, where she lived as a young woman and still winters. Her protagonists are invariably women whose ages, circumstances and concerns are not that distant from those of Munro herself at the different stages of her life. Her themes are domestic and familiar: mother-daughter conflict, sexual coming of age, marital discord, the social differences between men and women and how those differences shape the way we live.

 

This is not to say that Munro is an autobiographical writer. However, as she says herself: “I’ve pretty well followed my own life in terms of what I think about and what I see.” A late starter, she published her first collection in 1968, at the age of thirty-seven. Across forty years she has written twelve collections of stories and a single novel, Lives of Girls and Women, which is really a sequence of stories disguised as a novel. She is a pure short story writer in an age when commerce and taste have led many readers to judge short story writers to be, in the words of Charles McGrath of The New York Times, “people who learn golf by never venturing onto a golf course but instead practicing at a driving range”. The real game, by implication, being the novel.

 

Thus confined, generically and geographically, Munro’s work has occasionally been described, especially early in her career, as limited or regional (as if all realistic fiction isn’t regional). Few critics make that mistake anymore. Serious readers who have spent time with Munro’s books know that she is a modern master, in the tradition of Eudora Welty, John Cheever, and William Trevor, a status formally acknowledged earlier this year when she was the third recipient of the Man Booker International Prize. Her sense of form and her ability to shape narrative to the demands of her subject matter are unmatched. She is anything but narrow.

 

Like the work of all great writers, Munro’s stories are resistant to practical criticism. Analysis of setting, theme, character, language and plot, while it helps us understand her art, is so much less than the full picture. When you finish a Munro story, more often than not you are arrested. You sit there, reluctant to begin the next piece in the volume, overcome by the narrative force and emotional impact, certainly, but mostly struck by the magic of the achievement. How does she do it? You find yourself leafing back through the narrative, rereading the simple sentences and clear observations, trying to make sense of the subtle architecture of feeling, created as if by sleight of hand, that has her characters so convincingly making the discoveries they do, and her readers so eagerly following along, participating, as great literature demands of us, in recognition and sympathy.

 

Munro makes us rethink geography. Her finite settings contain infinite worlds of drama and complexity, and her landscapes are altered not only by the passing of time but also by the shift of terrestrial perspective that comes with life-changing incident. Such change is characteristically captured in “Differently”, from her great 1980s collection Friend of My Youth, about a woman who has embarked upon her first extramarital affair:

 

The map of the city that she had held in her mind up till now, with its routes to shops and work and friends’ houses, was overlaid with another map of circuitous routes followed in fear (not shame) and excitement, of flimsy shelters, temporary hiding places, where she and Miles made love, often within hearing distance of passing traffic or a hiking party or a family picnic.

 

Much of Munro’s magic comes from the sense that the world is not as fixed as it appears. Dream, memory, fantasy, the life of the body: these forms of interpreting daily reality attain, in her fiction, modes of meaning that complement and challenge narrow definitions of setting just as her characters negotiate what life offers with behaviours that run against expectation. The surface realism of her fiction is often a thin crust covering an alternate reality, a rational overlay to a mysterious world.

 

From “Five Points”, a story from the same collection:

 

In dreams you can have the feeling that you’ve had this dream before, that you have this dream over and over again, and you know that it’s really nothing that simple. You know that there’s a whole underground system that you call “dreams”, having nothing better to call them, and that this system is not like roads or tunnels but more like a live body network, all coiling and stretching, unpredictable but finally familiar – where you are now, where you’ve always been. That was the way it was with them and sex, going somewhere like that, and they understood the same things about it and trusted each other, so far.

 

How powerful is that last adverbial phrase. So far. It qualifies, expands, creates suspense. It reminds us that character, like geography, is subject to change. It hints at mystery while moving us firmly into the realm of history: “where you are now, where you’ve always been”.

Munro deepens our sense of history in many ways: with her ability to give the shortest of stories the breadth of a novel; her manipulation of time; her skill at juxtaposing episodes from different lives and different phases within a life for resonance and effect; her paralleling of personal detail and public event. But mostly she convinces us that the history of every individual life is as complex and as subtle as any communal narrative, each stage experienced in itself and iteratively – lived, relived, remembered, reinterpreted.

 

And she is masterly in her exploration of the connections between personal choice and the often invisible movement of history. In the title story of Friend of My Youth, one of her masterpieces, the narrator contemplates her reaction to the sexual history of an old friend of her mother’s, and how she and her mother, so different on the surface, share an essential similarity:

 

My mother had grown up in a time and in a place where sex was a dark undertaking for women. She knew that you could die of it. So she honoured the decency, the prudery, the frigidity that might protect you. And I grew up in horror of that very protection, the dainty tyranny that seemed to me to extend to all areas of life, to enforce tea parties and white gloves and all other sorts of tinkling inanities. I favoured bad words and a breakthrough, I teased myself with the thought of a man’s recklessness and domination. The odd thing is that my mother’s ideas were in line with some progressive notions of her times, and mine echoed the notions that were favoured in my time. This in spite of the fact that we both believed ourselves independent, and lived in backwaters that did not register such changes. It’s as if tendencies that seem most deeply rooted in our minds, most private and singular, have come in as spores on the prevailing wind, looking for any likely place to land, any welcome.

 

After publication in 2006 of The View from Castle Rock, Munro disturbed her readers by announcing that she might be finished with writing. Spending so much of her life being an observer, she said, had raised fears that she was missing out on “life as an ordinary person”. However, she discovered that she “wasn’t very good at not writing” and resumed after three months. The fruit of her resumption is Too Much Happiness, a volume of ten stories that reminds us of Munro’s enduring qualities while proving that she continues, as she approaches her eightieth year, to fashion new ways of expressing her still evolving sense of history.

 

Had Munro actually ceased writing, The View from Castle Rock would have been a suitable swansong. It included several previously unpublished stories that she had felt were uncomfortably close to the facts of her own life, as well as others drawn from research into her family’s history in Scotland and Canada. In her foreword to that collection she explains how these stories do “something closer to what a memoir does – exploring a life, my own life, but not in an austere or rigorously factual way”. They are forceful, personal, wistful. There is a feeling she had to delve deep into her sense of self to write them.

 

In an “Art of Fiction” interview with the Paris Review in 1994, Munro said of William Maxwell’s memoir, Ancestors, that “he did the thing you have to do, which is to latch the family history onto something larger that was happening at the time – in his case, the whole religious revival of the early 1800s … If you get something like that, then you’ve got the book.” In The View from Castle Rock Munro creates a similar context. Beginning in the Scottish Borders in the eighteenth century, she follows the progress of the Laidlaw family as it emigrates to North America and eventually settles in Huron County, Ontario, where she was born and raised. Austere Protestantism, a spirit of philosophical enquiry, and straitened personal circumstance form a thread of common experience that stretches across three centuries. Themes long familiar to Munro’s readers are broadened by historical sweep and a different kind of imagining. The book is full of quotations and letters and voices that are borrowed from Munro’s research and skilfully braided together. Not since the linked stories of The Beggar Maid, her Booker-nominated collection from 1978, had she offered readers such a unified work.

 

Too Much Happiness builds on this different engagement with history, especially in the title story. As Munro notes in the book’s acknowledgements, this novella-length fiction is a response to her discovery of Sophia Kovalesky, a nineteenth century mathematician and novelist who was the first woman to hold a chair in mathematics at a European university and the first woman elected to the Russian Academy of Sciences. It isn’t the first Munro story set in this period, but unlike “The Albanian Virgin” or “A Wilderness Station”, the older subject matter is not framed by contemporary parallels. Though it is easy to see the similarities of Sophia to other Munro protagonists (she is a widow and a mother, an intellectual woman in a male-dominated culture, a woman in pursuit of personal and professional happiness), the characterisation and imagining of someone so distant from the author in time and place is a new departure and a great triumph.

 

Seasoned Munro readers will know before they read the first sentence that the story’s title is ironic. The narrative begins near the end, on New Year’s Day 1891, in a cemetery in Genoa. Sophia is with her lover, Maxsim, a scholar who is collecting inscriptions from the tombstones.

“You know one of us will die,” she says. “One of us will die this year.”

Only half listening, he asks her, “Why is that?”

“Because we have gone walking in a graveyard on the first day of the New Year.”

“Indeed.”

“There are still a few things you don’t know,” she says in her pert but anxious way. “I knew that before I was eight years old.”

“Girls spend more time with kitchen maids and boys in the stables – I suppose that is why.”

“Boys in the stables do not hear about death?”

“Not so much. Concentration is on other things.”

There is snow that day but it is soft. They leave melted, black footprints where they’ve walked.

 

This conversation, with its ominous closing image, foreshadows Sophia’s death in Stockholm a month later, a slow, painful end that is chronicled in terse paragraphs that conclude the story. It also, with typical grace and brevity, sets in motion the narrative and its theme: after years of promise, the relationship with Maxsim, we will discover, is moribund, its failure partly the result of the very differences between the sexes implied in their exchange. Although he is a Liberal, banned from teaching in Russia because of his politics, Maxsim cannot help but be influenced by the prejudices of the time, and allows her success as a mathematician to rankle, to undermine their love and damage their plans for marriage, on which she had allowed her happiness to depend.

 

Between the premonition and Sophia’s death, the story moves with practised ease from present to recent past to distant past, gradually creating a picture of Sophia and her plight that moves us as much as any of Munro’s modern tales. It is a familiar narrative strategy, as Munro has often pointed out in interviews.

 

In my own work, I tend to cover a lot of time and to jump back and forward in time, and sometimes the way I do this is not very straightforward. I feel that this is something that people may find they have to adjust to, but it’s a way of saying whatever it is that I want to say, and it sort of has to be done this way. Time is something that interests me a whole lot – past and present, and how the past appears as people change.

 

This device – which is really much more than a device, so central is it to Munro’s aesthetic – enables readers to hold multiple strands of the narrative in their consciousness, creating cross-sections of event and feeling that allow for rich expression of pathos and irony. So, for example, when Sophia expresses her naive belief, early in life but late in the narrative, that “life can be perfectly satisfying without major achievements ... There need be no agonizing”, the reader already knows what agonising lies ahead. Later, as Sophia “desperately but happily” works on her submission for the prestigious Bordin Prize, she contemplates the prospect of a double triumph: professional plaudits and confirmation that Maxsim intends “to make her the woman of his life”. But after she wins the prize, he cannot accept her success; he decamps to Paris with another woman and writes her a frosty note. Though the relationship sputters fitfully until her death, a rift has opened that will never close. They do not marry.

 

The story’s arc of bitter discovery is brilliantly realised in a style that is plain and dispassionate, with a narrative arrangement that is highly elliptical. More than ever we are reminded of Munro’s sensitivity, as VS Pritchett said of Chekhov, “to the musicality of simple language”. Her point of view delicately balances the dramatisation of Sophia’s consciousness with an objectifying clarity that, among other things, convincingly recreates fin de siècle Europe. Sophia’s plight is presented intensely but without sentimentality, leaving us with a powerful summary of a complex woman’s life that has the flavour of both memoir and historical document, but is quite simply a great novella.

 

This combination of power and economy is evident throughout Too Much Happiness. Opening sentences are charged with pithiness and suspense:

 

I am amazed sometimes to think how old I am.

I am convinced that my father looked at me, stared at me, saw me, only once.

I suppose there was talk in the house, afterwards.

 

As are closing sentences:

 

I grew up, and old.

Never know.

 

The subject matter is also charged. Munro’s early work focused on love’s ambiguity and the Updikean notion that sexual blessings are mixed. While she hasn’t abandoned these themes, more recently her concerns have intensified around mortality. So you would expect from a writer approaching eighty. But these stories rely to an unprecedented extent on violent incident. They remind us that Munro is influenced by Flannery O’Connor as well as Eudora Welty. The opening story, “Dimensions”, is a disturbing account of a woman who realises that the only person who understands her suffering is her institutionalised husband, who has murdered their three children. Other pieces feature homicidal children, sexual perversity, terminal illness and fatal accidents.

 

A triple murder is also part of “Free Radicals”, the story of a grieving widow and cancer victim, Nita, who is taken hostage in her own home by a man on the run who has killed his parents and sister. The links between the recent death of her husband, Rich, her illness, and the man’s dangerous presence are subtly explored in a confrontation between Nita and the psychopath in her kitchen. Realising that “the fact that she was going to die within a year refused to cancel out the fact that she might die now”, she tells the man a story of her own, meant to convince him that she is as evil as he is. The story within a story tells how she poisoned “the girl my husband was in love with”. Of course there is no such person. Or rather she was once that girl herself, and instead of being poisoned had poisoned Rich’s first marriage.

 

In “Free Radicals”, Munro weaves present circumstance with several strands of personal history, real and imagined, not just for formal reasons already discussed, but also as a way of exploring how alternate realities, including fiction, reveal deeper truths. Nita and Rich have been happily married, yet the story Nita is forced to tell to save her life hints at a buried guilt. Her lies revive past choices and unmask their impact on the present. When the stranger has gone and Nita is left, shaken, in the kitchen, she wonders if she should write to Rich’s ex-wife.

 

Dear Bett, Rich is dead and I have saved my life by becoming you.
What does Bett care that her life was saved? There’s only one person really worth telling.
Rich. Rich. Now she knows what it is to really miss him. Like the air sucked out of the sky.

And so beneath the near melodrama of murder, adultery, imprisonment and cancer lies a simple, hard-felt domestic truth: the inevitability of unhappiness, or happiness desperately compromised. The air sucked out of the sky. As the narrator of another story within a story in “Fiction” muses:

 

It almost seemed as if there must be some random and of course unfair thrift in the emotional housekeeping of the world, if the great happiness – however temporary, however flimsy – of one person could come out of the great unhappiness of another.

This cosmic balancing could be said to be Munro’s great theme, running from her earliest stories of childhood and family trouble to the mid-life dramas of failing relationships to the battles her older characters wage with illness, death and the past.

And the balance in Too Much Happiness usually falls on the side of misery. “Deep-Holes” begins with a traumatic accident and progresses to a larger tragedy. On a family picnic, Alex and Sally’s son Kent falls into a crevasse and is badly injured. Though he recovers, the accident prefigures a lifelong inability to scale the bluffs of ordinary life. After high school, he disappears for three years before sending a letter to his parents.

 

Kent said that he had been luckier than most people in having had what he called his near-death experience, which had given him perhaps an extra awareness, and he must be forever grateful to his father who had lifted him back into the world, and to his mother who had lovingly received him there.

 

Back into his world, but not into theirs. He never writes to them again. Years pass and Alex dies. Then Kent’s sister catches a glimpse of him in a news report and traces him to a house in Toronto, where he is living in squalor as a monk of sorts. The story climaxes with an emotionally searing meeting between Sally and Kent, or Jonah as he now calls himself. After a painful exchange he shocks his mother with the comment that he has agreed to meet her only to see if his father had left any money that his cult might use to improve the condemned house it occupies. He grants her no emotional quarter whatsoever. “Maybe we’ll be in touch,” she says hopefully as they part, but the story’s ending is unremittingly bleak.

He’s sick. He’s wearing himself out, maybe he’s dying. He wouldn’t thank her for clean sheets and fresh food. Oh no. He’d rather die on that cot under a blanket with a burned hole in it.
But a cheque, she can write some sort of cheque, not an absurd one. Not too big or too small. He’ll not help himself with it, of course. He’ll not stop despising her, of course.
Despising. No. Not the point. Nothing personal.

 

 

There is something, anyway, in having got through the day without its being an absolute disaster. It wasn’t, was it? She had said maybe. He hadn’t corrected her.

 

 

And it was possible, too, that age could become her ally, turning her into somebody she didn’t know yet. She has seen that look on the faces of certain old people – marooned on islands of their own choosing, clear sighted, content.

 

How poignant those double spaces, implying absence and suffering; how grim and ironic the final adjectives; how destructive the alternatives left to Sally, self-deceiving out of self-defence.

 

History, in Munro’s universe, is mapped to the fate of individuals, usually women, and driven by the pursuit of happiness, usually expressed as the search for love. Even when not withheld or compromised, love often takes the diluted forms of longing, obsession, possession or commodity. And though it remains the sole source of beauty, it lives in a shadowy, ambiguous world resistant to rational inquiry and best explored in dream, memory and story.

And what of the narratives she has fashioned to explore this world? It seems that she was aware of fiction’s distinctive properties from the beginning. In a recent interview, when asked about her first memories, Munro said: “The earliest thing I can remember is the need to protect, the need to hide, the need to disguise. And this is so your self will not perish.” She could have been describing her stories. Too Much Happiness proves yet again that for Munro fiction is an act of faith in art’s unique ability to preserve and interpret the contradictions and complexities of the self. And that few can match her touch: her unerring sense of the right words, the right structure, the right voice to capture the wonder and heartbreak of life’s most intense moments. Most other writers feel juvenile beside her.

 

When she received her Booker International Prize at Trinity College Dublin last June, Munro described in her acceptance speech how she used to walk around the yard outside her house at seven years of age dreaming up a happy ending for “The Little Mermaid”. Seventy years later, “the happy ending has been discarded”, but she’s still at work, searching for “resonance, some strange beauty on the shimmer of the sea that was the Little Mermaid and her deathless lover”.


Kevin Stevens is a Dublin-based novelist and writer on literature, history and jazz.


This essay was first published in summer 2012.

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