Read from January 5th to 16th 2019
Given that I have already reviewed three of Alice Munro’s books (Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, (the best of all to date, in my humble opinion) Runaway and The View from Castle Rock) and given that the eleven short-stories in The Progression of Love develop similar themes and motives (in the same unique style, of course) such as love, loneliness, bigotry, family, etc., by using her well-known narrative tools (broken timeline, subtle irony, free indirect style etc.), I decided to let the narrators speak this time. However, because the book left me wondering whether love is a work in progress, or a progression towards something else, I’ll just try to point which way it goes in three kinds of love observed (fillial, fraternal and spousal), illustrating it with a quote.
Filial love could “evolve” into either self-deception or resentment. The narrator of the first story (that also gives the book title) tells to whoever wants to listen how her mother had burned in front of her husband the three thousand dollars (a small fortune in those times) she inherited from her much hated father even though they were very poor, underlining once and again, in a voice full of admiration, how, as a supreme proof of love, her husband did not think for a second to stop her. But the story is not true and she knows it:
Why, then, can I see the scene so clearly, just as I described it to Bob Marks (and to others—he was not the first)? I see my father standing by the table in the middle of the room—the table with the drawer in it for knives and forks, and the scrubbed oilcloth on top—and there is the box of money on the table. My mother is carefully dropping the bills into the fire. She holds the stove lid by the blackened lifter in one hand. And my father, standing by, seems not just to be permitting her to do this but to be protecting her.
On the other hand, the narrator in Mile City, Montana, remembers how irrationally resentful and judgmental she felt towards her parents when she was a child and a boy in their town accidentally died:
I charged them with effrontery, hypocrisy. On Steve Gauley’s behalf, and on behalf of all children, who knew that by rights they should have sprung up free, to live a new, superior kind of life, not to be caught in the snares of vanquished grownups, with their sex and funerals.
The love for siblings implies often the same self deception or resentment. The now adult Colin in Monsieur Deux Chapeaux knows that the love for his younger brother has become also his burden, from the age of thirteen when Ross had tricked him into believing he had shot him dead:
He knew that to watch out for something like that happening—to Ross, and to himself—was going to be his job in life from then on...
Violet, who has taken care of her sisters from a very tender age and whom her fiancé broke up with when he found about her siblings some despicable behaviour, tricks herself into believing it was her who sacrificed her love for the sake of the family:
That was the way Violet saw to leave her pain behind. A weight gone off her. If she would bow down and leave her old self behind as well, and all her ideas of what her life should be, the weight, the pain, the humiliation would all go magically. And she could still be chosen. She could be like the June grass that the morning light passed through, and lit up like pink feathers or streaks of sunrise cloud. If she prayed enough and tried enough, that would be possible. (A queer streak)
Most of the stories illustrate spousal love, and the various ways it transforms itself when confronted with betrayal. For the “pensioned-off” wife in Lichen, who has mockingly got the power to transform the new women in her husband’s life in mere parasite plants, born from his infatuation and vanishing as soon as he tires of them, the sentiment has become caricatural witchcraft:
She said, “Lichen.” And now, look, her words have come true. The outline of the breast has disappeared. You would never know that the legs were legs. The black has turned to gray, to the soft, dry color of a plant mysteriously nourished on the rocks.
In Circle of Prayer, Trudy, remembering both her happy and sad times with her husband who meanwhile had left her for another woman, discovers that love (and the end of it) is nothing more than a “breathing space”:
She sees her young self looking in the window at the old woman playing the piano. The dim room, with its oversize beams and fireplace and the lonely leather chairs. The clattering, faltering, persistent piano music. Trudy remembers that so clearly and it seems she stood outside her own body, which ached then from the punishing pleasures of love. She stood outside her own happiness in a tide of sadness. And the opposite thing happened the morning Dan left. Then she stood outside her own unhappiness in a tide of what seemed unreasonably like love. But it was the same thing, really, when you got outside. What are those times that stand out, clear patches in your life—what do they have to do with it? They aren’t exactly promises. Breathing spaces.
On the contrary, for Isabel, who has left her perfect family behind, the breathing space is outside the suffocating, dutiful love she too often had convinced herself she had to feel:
She knew about Laurence’s delicacy and kindness, as well as she knew his bullying and bluffing. She knew the turns of his mind, his changes of heart, the little shifts and noises of his body. They were intimate. They had found out so much about each other that everything had got cancelled out by something else. That was why the sex between them could seem so shamefaced, merely and drearily lustful, like sex between siblings. Love could survive that—had survived it. Look how she loved him at this moment. Isabel felt herself newly, and boundlessly, resourceful. (White Dump)
The same dutiful love leads a husband towards deliberate blindness in front of the strange behaviour of his wife (who apparently had enjoyed the sight of a murder scene so much she jealously kept the gory details for herself), by convincing himself that the victims were, at the end of the day, of no importance:
He thought of himself telling Peg about this—how close he had to get before he saw that what amazed him and bewildered him so was nothing but old wrecks, and how he then felt disappointed, but also like laughing. They needed some new thing to talk about. Now he felt more like going home. (Fits)
The book ends with a verse in Old Norse I don’t know how to pronounce and couldn’t verify is real but I liked the sound of in my own invented pronunciation:
Seinat er at segia; svá er nu rádit. (It is too late to talk of this now: it has been decided.) (White Dump)