“Love never dies,” says a character from Alice Munro’s 1994 collection, Open Secrets. And the woman listening to him feels “impatient to the point of taking offense. This is what all the speechmaking turns you into,” she thinks, “a person who can say things like that. Love dies all the time….”
The birth and death of erotic love, and the strange places people are led to because of it, “on the lookout for an insanity that could contain them,” as it is put in “Vandals,” another story in that same collection, is Munro’s timeless subject. In her new collection, Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, showing that the impulse toward love, if not love itself, dies hard, she follows her characters’ erotic lives straight through the chemotherapy ward, into the nursing home, on into the funeral parlor. In “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” a faithless husband puts his wife into a nursing home only to watch her acquire there a new, wheelchaired beau. In “Family Furnishings” a woman in a nursing home incessantly chants “fit as a fiddle and ready for love.” In “Floating Bridge” a terminally ill woman is led out into the woods for a kiss by a strange young boy who is both god of love and angel of death—Munro would naturally see these figures entwined. In “Comfort” the protagonist has a romantic encounter with an undertaker, whose activities of bloodletting and body cavity drainage (like the taxidermist-lover in “Vandals”) suggest perhaps one darkly funny opinion of Munro’s regarding the drama of love. The narrator of “Queenie,” surrounded by couples, “each…with its own heat and disturbance,” notes her own desire for solitude, “for there was nothing I could see in their lives to instruct me or encourage me.”
Like Henry James, Alice Munro knows that love’s “floating bridge” between worlds—and over swamps—can bring a ruinous fate as easily and indifferently as can its absence. But Munro also knows that the arranging of love, improvised or institutional, and the seismic upheavals of its creation and dismantling—the boards rising and falling precariously beneath the feet—is both a kind of pornography of life as well as the very truth of it: it is often the most persuasive and defining force in the shape of individual existence and individual fate. Not that this is to be valued, or judged—in Munro’s world there is a powerlessness before the whole matter—only that such a thing is to be maturely understood and perceptively watched. “Their marriages were the real content of their lives,” she writes in “Comfort,” “…the sometimes harsh and bewildering, indispensable content of her life.” Unlike James, a permanent tourist in the land of marriage and romantic union—a subject endlessly suited to the short-story genre—Alice Munro is intimately informed about what actually goes on there, and it is but one of the many reasons she is (to speak historically, and to speak even, say, in a Russian or French or Irish saloon, loudly and unarmed) one of the world’s greatest short-story writers. As the writer Ethan Canin once said, “The stories of Alice Munro make everyone else’s look like the work of babies.”
She is also interested in social class. And there is not one of her stories in this new book that does not put together characters with real if subtle class divisions between them. This Munro does with a neutral, unsentimental eye and limber sympathies. In the stories she tells, a character’s passage across these divisions may be thwarted or assisted by love, or by ambition or by art, or by the tiniest, imperceptible sorts of revolutions, enacted in loneliness, or conspiracy, or both. She has a vision of the world that is like a novelist’s, and a typical Alice Munro story contains a novel’s breadth and satisfactions, in miniature, fitted in like a ship in a bottle, or a beautiful bonsai tree. Because she tends toward the long story, and writes with a long view of life as well, time is both her subject and her medium, its mysteries and flukes both pondered and employed. Her narratives leap and U-turn through time, and the actual subject and emotion of a story may be deferred in such gymnastic travel, or may be multiple or latent. The particular and careful ways Munro’s themes are laid into her narrative trajectories cause them to sneak up upon the reader. They surprise—like the rogue but graceful syntax of a fine but complex wine.
Possibly there will be some consensus among her readers on the new collection’s weak link as well as its crown jewel. As to the former, the title story may come under the most fire, but it is here that Munro lays out one of her signature themes—the random, permanent fate brought about by an illusion of love. The story proceeds at first like a ronde, passing its point of view from a peripheral train station agent to a Scottish housekeeper buying a ticket, on through the various characters (the housekeeper’s former employer, the employer’s shoemaker, the shoemaker’s daughter, the daughter’s friend, who is the housekeeper’s former charge), who all have some bearing on the outcome of the story.
A fictitious epistolary courtship is staged by the two girls, who have only random mischief on their minds, but it sets in motion a real marriage between the Scottish housekeeper and her employer’s former son-in-law, replete with a baby named Omar. “For where,” thinks the young, undiscovered author of the love letters, “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?” The remark contains Munro’s sly amusement at how things turn out between men and women (“…her heart had been dry, and she had considered it might always be so. And now such a warm commotion, such busy love”), as does the awkward title, which is the girls’ game of writing down the letters of a boy’s name then ticking off “the counted number on your fingers, saying, Hateship, friendship, courtship, loveship, marriage, till you got the verdict on what could happen between you and that boy.” The title, by the end, loses its ungainliness, acquires much rightness for explicitly announcing the collection’s themes, one of which is the power of writing itself, and in the end seems oddly perfect, as does the story’s focus on the doings of young girls, for it is the first story in a book whose final one completes the picture with a stark, wicked, and moving tale of old age.
In this last story, “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” Fiona, the beloved but mentally ailing wife of a retired literature professor named Grant, is condemned to the hell of a nursing home—“its dribblers, head wagglers, mad chatterers”—and like Rilke’s Eurydice, she there grows indifferent to her earthly husband, a little forgetful of him even, falling in love with a fellow resident instead. She is vague but courteous when her husband comes to visit, always turning her attention back to her new companion, Aubrey. This new love involves a retrieval of a lost thread from her past—a predilection of Munro’s stories; the past rises up and breathes out ghost after ghost—since Fiona knew Aubrey when she was young, had even gone out with him once, before some arbitrariness on the part of her father interrupted their courtship. Now she has him again, at last, albeit in a wheelchair, and they have in a sweetly demented and embarrassing way become smitten. That Grant, during their marriage, had routinely been unfaithful to Fiona is both ironic and fortunate. “Nowhere was there any acknowledgment that the life of a philanderer (if that was what Grant had to call himself…) involved acts of kindness and generosity and even sacrifice,” Munro writes both hilariously and seriously. For when Fiona’s well-being is threatened by Aubrey’s removal from Meadowlake by his buxom wife Marian, Grant has the largeness of heart, and the convenient old sexual habits, to ensure something better for his wife, whom he does, in fact, deeply love, and so proves.
The past resurfaces challengingly in other stories here, such as “Nettles,” where the newly divorced narrator, while visiting her friend Sunny, encounters her old girlhood sweetheart, the son of the local well-driller, sitting in Sunny’s kitchen (making his characteristic ketchup sandwich, one of Munro’s many clues of childhood deprivation survived). He is a fellow guest there, as the narrator observes, and the coincidence which their hosts “might think remarkable was to us a comically dazzling flare-up of good fortune.” Their attraction knows its bounds, however, and nothing romantic comes of it. The story concludes that it was
Love that was not usable, that knew its place. (Some would say not real, because it would never risk getting its neck wrung, or turning into a bad joke, or sadly wearing out.) Not risking a thing yet staying alive as a sweet trickle, an underground resource. With the weight of this new stillness on it, this seal.
I never asked Sunny for news of him, or got any, during all the years of our dwindling friendship.
The swift and economical use of the word “dwindling,” thriftily closing two stories at once, is Munro at her stunning best.
Arguably the finest story in Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, and surely one of several here that are among the most powerful stories she has written, “Family Furnishings” is less about love as fate and more an ambivalent, even bitter exploration of the spiritual escape and emotional cost of becoming a writer. (Writing is often construed more generally in Munro, too, and the plots that turn on notes and letters abound in her work, this collection containing three such stories.) About this subject there is not a more moving piece by anyone that I can think of. “Family Furnishings” is written in the first person and in it the narrator focuses her recollections on Alfrida, one of the “career girl”-slash-aunt figures that have made their appearance from the beginning of Munro’s work (from Fern in Lives of Girls and Women, 1971, to Polly in “Post and Beam” or, also in this new book, Queenie in the story of the same name). They are women who lose their significance to the heroine as they get older and clearer in their sadnesses, but who hold a glamour for her when she is young and in need of emissaries from the world outside her immediate family.
Alfrida is only in the most general sense a writer; she is a small-town journalist, “one of the people who wrote under the name of Flora Simpson, on the Flora Simpson Housewives’ Page”:
Women from all over the countryside believed that they were writing their letters to the plump woman with the crimped gray hair and the forgiving smile who was pictured at the top of the page. But the truth—which I was not to tell—was that the notes that appeared at the bottom of each of their letters were produced by Alfrida and a man she called Horse Henry, who otherwise did the obituaries.
She also writes under her own name “Round and About the Town with Alfrida.” She is the narrator’s father’s cousin, and more like a close sister to him, since her own mother was killed in a kerosene lamp accident.
This accident, and its effect on Alfrida, which Munro describes briefly, as if in passing, is in some ways the emotional heart of the story. “You’re just better off not to see her. You would not want to see her, if you knew what she looked like now,” a grandmother tells the young, wailing Alfrida, while her mother is dying in the next room. And Alfrida cries, “But she would want to see me.” Alfrida herself does not understand her own story and says, “I must’ve thought I was a pretty big cheese, mustn’t I? She would want to see me.” But the narrator does understand—and a writer is born: she says, “And the minute that I heard it, something happened. It was as if a trap had snapped shut to hold these words in my head,…She would want to see me. The story I wrote, with this in it, would not be written till years later, not until it had become quite unimportant to think about who had put the idea into my head in the first place.”
When the narrator goes off to college in the city where Alfrida lives, she only visits her once, mostly not returning her phone calls. The narrator’s new fiancé shows little interest in her cousin Alfrida: “He admired opera and Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet, but he had no time for tragedy—for the squalor of tragedy—in ordinary life. …His resolute approval of me did not extend to my ramshackle background.” And so Alfrida drifts away, her affair with a married man amounting to little; at the time of the narrator’s father’s death, she sits half-cracked in a nursing home. It is years earlier, from her father and then later from Alfrida’s daughter (put up for adoption at birth), that the narrator learns of Alfrida’s distress at seeing her life used in her young cousin’s published writing. The narrator gives the writer’s standard defense:
“It wasn’t Alfrida at all…. I changed it, I wasn’t even thinking about her. It was a character. Anybody could see that.”
But as a matter of fact there was still the exploding lamp, the mother in her charnel wrappings, the staunch, bereft child.
To escape the claustrophobic anti-intellectualism of Alfrida and her world, who see real literature as pretentious “hot-shot reading,” the narrator cuts short her one lone visit with her cousin and, walking back to her student apartment, stops to spend an hour in a drugstore drinking coffee instead. It is an act both of betrayal and survival, and it expresses at its core the literary impulse. Here, Munro’s writing ascends like Isolde:
The coffee was reheated, black and bitter—its taste was medicinal, exactly what I needed. I was already feeling relieved, and now I began to feel happy. Such happiness, to be alone. To see the hot late-afternoon light on the sidewalk outside, the branches of a tree just out in leaf, throwing their skimpy shadows. To hear from the back of the shop the sounds of the ball game that the man who had served me was listening to on the radio. I did not think of the story I would make about Alfrida—not of that in particular—but of the work I wanted to do, which 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 was what I wanted, this was what I thought I had to pay attention to, this was how I wanted my life to be.
This gorgeous Liebestod should not be mistaken for a resounding affirmation of the literary life, but understood, instead, as an acknowledgment of its emotional distances and thefts and its willing trade of the human for art. It is a song of relief alloyed with shame. Munro has beautifully registered the ambivalent conscience of the writer—not judgmentally but helplessly, as before love and the life story love brings before dying.