‘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 . . .’
In other words, Munro may have a keen eye for detail, of both place and class, but she is not a local writer in the sentimental sense. ‘I began to want to treat people who are like we are, who are complicated and deceptive, and in a sense, more interesting,’ she has remarked, accounting for the increasingly cosmopolitan tone of her stories. Her characters take too little satisfaction from their homes to define themselves by them. They move too often as well – generally from country childhoods to city adulthoods, ill at ease in both, dissatisfied and oppressed by the former, overwhelmed and compromised by the latter. The transition usually involves some betrayal, and the betrayal usually involves men. In ‘Post and Beam’, Lorna’s resentment of her once-loved cousin Polly breaks into the open. ‘You don’t want me,’ Polly declares at one point:
Her eyes were on Lorna all the time, brimming not just with her tears, her bitterness and accusation of betrayal, but with her outrageous demand, to be folded in, rocked, comforted.
Lorna would sooner have hit her. What gives you the right, she wanted to say. What are you leeching onto me for? What gives you the right?
Lorna knows of course where Polly’s right lies: in shared roots, a common heritage, childhood and hometown. But she also knows that other, later rights conflict with Polly’s: her husband’s, for example, not to mention her own. The story concerns the bargains she makes between her desires and her duties, bargains which Munro assures us are only temporary. ‘It was a long time ago that this happened. In North Vancouver, when they lived in the Post and Beam house. When she was 24 years old, and new to bargaining.’ It is significant that the bargain is limited not just by a particular time, but by a particular place as well, even by a particular house.
The nature of the betrayal in ‘Family Furnishings’ is perhaps the most significant. The narrator, a writer recalling her rural childhood, describes her relationship with her father’s cousin Alfrida, whose ‘cosmopolitan’ irreverence used to charm the family. Yet when the narrator grows up and makes it to the city herself, she consistently avoids Alfrida out of what seems to be embarrassment. Later she uses Alfrida’s history (related in confidence) in her work, though ‘not until it had become quite unimportant to think about who had put the idea into my head in the first place’. This seals their separation, unbroken until the narrator’s father’s funeral, at which Alfrida’s daughter informs her that her mother ‘said you were kind of a cold fish. That’s her talking, not me. I haven’t got anything against you.’ The remark is prompted, significantly, by a dispute over the details of a memory, a story told by the two cousins, Alfrida and the writer’s father. Alfrida’s daughter has pointed out only what the reader already suspected, or rather, what the reader has noticed in another form – the quality that links Munro’s women and the stories told about them. It would be kinder to describe it as a concern for appropriate feeling, rather than simple coldness – but the two often look alike, and Munro herself clearly worries about the similarity. Her sympathy for and interest in women suspicious of sentiment, careful in their measurement of emotion, meticulous over their memories, holds the collection together.
Johanna, the plain, loveless protagonist of the title-story, sets out to buy a dress for what she believes to be her upcoming marriage to the father of her charge, Sabitha. ‘Even when she was younger,’ Munro writes, ‘she could never have contemplated such extravagance, not just in the matter of money but in expectations, in the preposterous hope of transformation, and bliss.’ She does not know that her expectations are based on forged love letters, written by Edith, Sabitha’s friend, as a practical joke; nevertheless, she constitutionally suspects her own insignificance. ‘We had his daughter and her friend with us,’ Johanna tells the shopkeeper, after describing her ‘fiancé’, ‘thinking that in a way it would have been more accurate to say that he and Sabitha and Edith had her, Johanna, with them.’ That Johanna’s uncharacteristic hopefulness receives some reward says less about the virtue of romantic notions than about the ability, when necessary, to adapt even to the illusion of love, of bliss.
Suspicion of bliss also plays its part in ‘Floating Bridge’, in which Jinny, a woman dying of cancer, is forced to endure her husband’s happily accepted social obligations before being taken home. ‘On his face there was an expression of conscious, but helpless, silliness. Signs of an invasion of bliss.’ (The word ‘invasion’ is significant: Jinny does her best to keep such attacks at bay.) She waits for him in the car while he accepts some food at the house of her nurse’s family; and she remembers another unpleasant social occasion, a game in which people had to tell you what they really thought of you. ‘Everyone was wrong’ about her, Jinny remembers: ‘she was not timid or acquiescent or natural or pure. When you died, of course, these wrong opinions were all there was left.’ Jinny is so preoccupied with accuracy, with what is right, that when the one great certainty in her life – her imminent death – is removed by a favourable diagnosis, she feels as if ‘a dull, protecting membrane that she had not even known was there had been pulled away and left her raw.’ The concern for appropriate feeling can be both an enemy and friend to happiness. It allows Munro’s women to extricate themselves from loves and lives that no longer matter to them, strictly speaking; but it often seems to hold them back from greater joy.
Curiously, it is a man, Lewis from the story ‘Comfort’, who offers the best example of meticulous objectivity – of someone who carefully and accurately measures what matters in life. He is a teacher, like many of Munro’s characters, and becomes embroiled in a dispute about Creationism. His position is predictable, and predictably inflexible; and the fuss eventually forces him to resign. Nina, his wife, does little enough to dissuade him, though she is temperamentally less stubborn than her husband; and his insistence allows Nina to look objectively at her own penchant for objective truth. ‘He was on his guard against anything that verged on sentimentality, and from his point of view, much did. She came to be very sensitive to this distaste, almost to share it.’ The course of their relationship (in its way the most loving in the book) is crucial to the collection. Lewis, like Jinny, is dying.
Nina would not have thought him capable of even the most useful self-deception. But she could never have imagined him overtaken by physical collapse, either. And now that one unlikely thing had happened, couldn’t others? Was it not possible that the changes that happened with other people might occur with him too? The secret hopes, the turning aside, the sly bargains?
Lewis himself is almost relieved at his diagnosis, which explains the physical deterioration he had attributed to nerves brought on by his battle with the schoolboard. ‘I was afraid I was neurotic,’ he says, ‘but I only have amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.’ And husband and wife laugh at the joke together, in a place where laughter is ‘most uncommon’.
The fact that he kills himself to escape increasing debilitation while his wife is playing tennis is less chilling than the note he leaves. Much of the story involves the way Nina comes to terms with her husband’s ultimate lack of sentiment. Insofar as Munro (and Nina) reach a conclusion in the matter of such callous honesty – and indifference of this kind and how it should be seen is central to the book, literally and figuratively – they lean towards acceptance, even admiration, rather than rejection. The image Munro evokes as Nina buries her husband’s ashes suggests something of the character of the ‘cold fish’, only this time the quality seems rather honourable, even courageous.
She got the box open and put her hand into the cooling ashes and tossed or dropped them – with other tiny recalcitrant bits of the body – among those roadside plants. Doing this was like wading and then throwing yourself into the lake for the first icy swim, in June. A sickening shock at first, then amazement that you were still moving, lifted up on a stream of steely devotion – calm above the surface of your life, surviving, though the pain of the cold continued to wash into your body.
Some echo of that last line appears in every story of the book, describing distance above the surface of life, the joy of survival, and the coldness that accompanies both. ‘I think my heroines – the ones I’m closest to – are more curious than anything else,’ Munro has said. ‘Maybe that’s a cool quality, but it can be a pretty hot quality as well.’
Munro’s women remain clearer than her men. Her men are never caricatured, but what interests her is the way a personality responds to its role in the world, and the roles that concern her most are women’s. The wonder is that her characters are as likable as they are – and this says something both about her sympathies and about the extent to which an absence of sentimentality is attractive in itself. For the most part the women make indifferent mothers. (Children play a role in the stories, though the first, immediate childhood experienced by her characters remains more significant than the second, mediated version. ‘It was the women,’ Munro comments, who could, in contrast to the men, ‘slip back – during the daytime hours, and always allowing for the stunning responsibility that had been landed on them, in the matter of the children – into a kind of second adolescence.’) The men are always distant if not difficult fathers. Neither partner appears particularly faithful; and even their adulteries have an impersonal quality, are rarely committed out of much feeling. Love itself features surprisingly little for stories so generally concerned with sexual relations. Munro is less interested in shared lives than in the way in which one person sees her role (it is generally, though not always, her role) in a relationship.
Her characters are rarely cruel and never wicked. If infidelities barely trouble them, this is only because their lives matter so much more to themselves than they possibly could to anyone else. Simple unsentimentality demands such a recognition. Munro herself describes this view and the reaction to it in ‘Family Furnishings’. Her father, the heroine recounts, had reservations ‘about what might be called my character. About the fact that I had ended my marriage for personal – that is, wanton – reasons, and the way I went around justifying myself – or perhaps, as he would have said, weaselling out of things.’ Only schoolgirls are cruel, since they know no better; and the very old, because they forget. The difficulties in between stem mostly from the inadequacy of sentiment, and the trouble of honesty. And yet the stories feature a surprising number of what Munro’s characters themselves would probably dismiss as the most sentimental of gestures: significant kisses. A young man returning from his shift offers to drive Jinny, exhausted by her cancer, back home, while her husband chatters away inside. The kiss he gives her on the floating bridge, his first ever with a ‘married woman’, is also the first she can remember that seems to be ‘an event in itself. The whole story, all by itself. A tender prologue, a wholehearted probing and receiving, a lingering thanks, and a drawing away satisfied.’ In other words, a pleasure that requires no reference to anything else; a moment lived for. And Nina, the wife of the stubborn schoolteacher, recalls the time the local undertaker kissed her – ‘not on the mouth, not on her face, but on her throat. The place where an agitated pulse might be beating, in her throat . . . As if everything about her was recognised then, and honoured, and set alight’ – an act her meticulous husband may have resented more for its metaphorical extravagance than for its infidelity.
Munro is honour-bound to undermine the purity of such moments, as in the story ‘What Is Remembered’, in which an otherwise faithful wife dwells on and manipulates the memory of her single infidelity again and again, even after both husband and lover have died, to see if she could still put the recollection to ‘some use during the time ahead’. Munro knows when to make a point, when to dismiss it, and when to offer an insight only with ironic reserve. Ironic reserve is perhaps her most characteristic gesture, and she remarks herself in the conclusion to ‘Family Furnishings’ that
The work I wanted to do . . . seemed more like grabbing something out of the air than constructing stories. The cries of the crowd came to me like big heartbeats, full of sorrows. Lovely formal-sounding waves, with their distant, almost inhuman assent and lamentation.
This is what I wanted, this is what I thought I had to pay attention to, this was how I wanted my life to be.
The undertone of youthful naivety she gives the final declaration does not mean she has any wisdom to offer in its place; and the excellence of these stories suggests such ambitions are good enough.