Read from to October 28th to November 11th 2014
“Forsooken” but not forsaken
In a time of either careless abandon or generous inclusion of any literary technique ever thought of, Alice Munro still manages to surprise the reader, not only with her deceptive narrative perspective or her sly manipulation of the timeline, but also with the unexpected development of well-known themes, the powerful recreation of places and people and the plethora of significations.
I read so many volumes of short stories, including one of hers, but I can hardly recall holding a better one in my hand. The first and the last stories of this amazing book are masterpieces. The other eight are not far behind. On the whole, a perfect ten that undoubtedly puts Alice Munro among the geniuses of the genre.
All tales are about relationships, which end or not in marriage, the main theme of the book, suggested firstly by the title in which the word stands alone like a purpose or an end, then it is developed and mirrored, sometimes indirectly, in each of the ten stories with its own theme.
The first, Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, combines the Cinderella motif with the theme of fate to create maybe an allegory of the creator that loses the reins gradually as his growing creation asserts its independence. The unexpected finale is however only one of the surprises of a text that continually changes the tone and the point of view, falsely foreshadowing to suggest that the story is not the same for every character, just as it is not the same for every reader. Unfolding slowly, it is in turn an unsolved mystery for the station agent, a happily ever after for Johanna, an unpunished wrongdoing for Mr McCauley and an amusing hoax for Edith. Among them all, the most frustrated will feel Edith, whose demiurgic work is reversed in the mockery she thought for a long time was solely hers to display:
It was the whole twist of consequence that dismayed her—it seemed fantastical, but dull. Also insulting, like some sort of joke or inept warning, trying to get its hooks into her. For where, on the list of things she planned to achieve in her life, was there any mention of her being responsible for the existence on earth of a person named Omar?
This complicated multi-perspective will not be used in the other stories, even though in many the third narrative will hide a first person perspective. Most of them will go in, though, for the surprise element, skilfully leading the plot towards its unexpected climax, often alluding to some other mythical motif.
In Floating Bridge, Jinny’s tiredness is opposed to her husband’s callousness, but the eventual compassion of the reader is thwarted by the secret she eventually reveals – the doctor informed her that her cancer is in remission. In a Persephone gesture, she celebrates her revival by drinking from the fountain of youth.
The cruelty of the creative mind is explored once again in Family Furnishings, where the black sheep of the family is used only for literary purposes by a narrator with the same lack of warmth as the one in the Faustian Post and Bean. In Queenie, the lost-sister theme is developed using the contrast between reality and expectations. In Comfort and Nettles both heroines make their descensus ad inferos, one in an orphic attempt to retrieve her husband’s traces, the other to apportion the loss and the guilt. In What Is Remembered Meriel rewrites “Madame Bovary” the other way around.
If the first story masterfully broke the perspective, to rearrange it according to its own inner rules, the last one, The Bear Came Over the Mountain, does the same with the time. The storyline moves to and fro, zigzagging through different points of the past not necessarily in a Proustian way, but rather following some secret demand of the narrative to reveal the design of the complicate relationship between memory and fidelity. The story ends brilliantly with the image of the innocent heroine tripping over words she begins to forget in the arms of her unfaithful husband who pledges not to forget about her:
“You could have just driven away,” she said. “Just driven away without a care in the world and forsook me. Forsooken me. Forsaken.” He kept his face against her white hair, her pink scalp, her sweetly shaped skull. He said, Not a chance.
Runaway reminded me of Joyce. Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage is in a class of its own, a landmark oeuvre rather than a satellite work. Definitely a must-read.