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Who Do You Think You Are?’

Of writers who have made the short story their métier, and whose accumulated work constitutes entire fictional worlds—William Trevor, Edna O’Brien, Peter Taylor, Eudora Welty, and Flannery O’Connor come most notably to mind—Alice Munro is the most consistent in style, manner, content, vision. From the first, in such aptly titled collections as Dance of the Happy Shades (1968) and Lives of Girls and Women (1971), Munro exhibited a remarkable gift for transforming the seemingly artless—“anecdotal”—into art; like the short-story writers I have mentioned, Munro concentrated upon provincial, even backcountry lives, in tales of domestic tragicomedy that seemed to open up, as if by magic, into wider, deeper, vaster dimensions:

So my father drives and my brother watches the road for rabbits and I feel my father’s life flowing back from our car in the last of the afternoon, darkening and turning strange, like a landscape that has an enchantment on it, making it kindly, ordinary and familiar while you are looking at it, but changing it, once your back is turned, into something you will never know, with all kinds of weathers, and distances you cannot imagine.

(“Walker Brothers Cowboy,” Dance of the Happy Shades)

Though Munro has set stories elsewhere—Toronto, Vancouver, Edinburgh, and the Ettrick Valley of Scotland; even, in this new volume, Russia and Scandinavia—her favored setting is rural, small-town southwestern Ontario. This region of Canada, settled by Scotch Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Methodists from the north of England, has been characterized by frugality, rigidly “moral” principles, and Christian piety of the most severe, judgmental sort; a dour Protestantism that has inspired what has been called Southern Ontario Gothic—a heterogeneous category of writers that includes Robertson Davies, Marian Engel, Jane Urquhart, Margaret Atwood, and Barbara Gowdy, in addition to Alice Munro.

Like the American rural South, where Protestantism has flourished out of very different roots, the straitlaced xenophobic Anglo-Canadian culture nonetheless throws up all sorts of “queer streaks” and “fits”—lesions in the carapace of uniformity that provide the writer with the most extraordinary material. Munro’s “A Queer Streak” describes the consequences of a fourteen-year-old’s bizarre threatening letters written to her own family; “Fits” recounts what happened after a murder and suicide within the family of the wife and mother who discovered the corpses. How to explain such a domestic tragedy, in the house next door?

What this is like…it’s like an earthquake or a volcano. It’s that kind of happening. It’s a kind of fit. People can take a fit like the earth takes a fit. But it only happens once in a long while. It’s a freak occurrence.

(“Fits,” The Progress of Love)

Possibly not, Munro suggests. Possibly not a “freak” occurrence at all.

In her new, thirteenth collection of short fiction, Too Much Happiness—a title both cuttingly ironic and passionately sincere, as the reader will discover—Munro explores themes, settings, and situations that have come to seem familiar in her work, seen now from a startling perspective of time. Her use of language has scarcely changed over the decades, as her concept of the short story remains unchanged; Munro is a descendant of the lyric realism of Chekhov and Joyce for whom the taut, stark, dialogue-driven fiction of Hemingway holds little interest and the ostentatious writerly hauteur of Nabokov is altogether foreign, like “experimentation” of any sort. (One is inclined to suspect that Munro would agree with Flannery O’Connor’s dismissal of experimental literature—“If it looks funny on the page, I don’t read it.”)

Munro’s voice can seem deceptively direct, even unadorned, but it expresses an elliptical and poetic sort of vernacular realism in which the ceaselessly ruminative, analytic, and assessing voice appears to be utterly natural, as if it were the reader’s own voice:

The thing [Rose] was ashamed of… was that she might have been paying attention to the wrong things, reporting antics, when there was always something further, a tone, a depth, a light, that she couldn’t get and wouldn’t get…. Everything she had done could sometimes be seen as a mistake…. She was enough of a child of her time to wonder if what she felt…was simply sexual warmth, sexual curiosity; she did not think it was. There seemed to be feelings which could only be spoken of in translation; perhaps they could only be acted on in translation; not speaking of them and not acting on them is the right course to take because translation is dubious. Dangerous, as well.

(“Who Do You Think You Are?,” The Beggar Maid)

The stories in The Beggar Maid (1979) have the intimate, confiding tone of memoirist fiction, leading the reader to assume that Rose’s voice is not distinct from Munro’s. In “Child’s Play,” from Too Much Happiness, this voice recurs scarcely altered though the narrator is much older than Rose, and her recollection of the past isn’t tempered by the sort of ironic, wistful yearning for what she has lost that has brought Rose—a “career” woman now living in a large city—back to her grim little hometown of Hanratty, Ontario. In “Child’s Play” the narrator undertakes an entirely different sort of self-exploration, or self-incrimination:

What I was trying to explore [in an anthropological study titled Idiots and Idols] was the attitude of people in various cultures—one does not dare say the word “primitive” to describe such cultures—the attitude towards people who are mentally or physically unique. The words “deficient,” “handicapped,” “retarded” being of course consigned to the dustbin and probably for good reason—not simply because such words may indicate a superior attitude and habitual unkindness but because they are not truly descriptive. Those words push aside a good deal that is remarkable, even awesome—or at any rate peculiarly powerful—in such people. And what was interesting was to discover a certain amount of veneration as well as persecution, and the ascribing—not entirely inaccurately—of quite a range of abilities, seen as sacred, magical, dangerous, or valuable.

The fear of—the revulsion for—what is “awesome” in a retarded neighborhood girl whom the narrator knew, when they were children, is the subject of the ironically titled “Child’s Play.” At the outset of the story the reader is primed to expect a nostalgic look back at the narrator’s United Church of Canada background in and near Guelph, Ontario, and her intensely close friendship with a girl named Charlene, but this expectation is revealed as naive:

Charlene and I kept our eyes on each other, rather than looking down at what our hands were doing. Her eyes were wide and gleeful, as I suppose mine were too. I don’t think we felt wicked, triumphing in our wickedness. More as if we were doing just what was—amazingly—demanded of us, as if this was the absolute high point, the culmination, in our lives, of our being ourselves.

In this case “ourselves” is the very expression of the girls’ cultural heritage—a deep suspicion of people who seem to deviate from the norm, who threaten the protocol of narrow domesticity. The “wicked” girls grow into—not “wicked” adults—but, simply, their elders. One will seek—belatedly—absolution; the other, the self-condemning yet self-sparing narrator, one of Munro’s intelligent witnesses, quite decisively eludes it:

Was I not tempted, during all this palaver? Not once? You’d think that I might break open, be wise to break open, glimpsing that vast though tricky forgiveness. But no. It’s not for me. What’s done is done. Flocks of angels, tears of blood, notwithstanding.

Like Flannery O’Connor, whose fiction, for all its surface dissimilarity, has been a powerful influence on Munro’s, Munro tracks her characters in their search for “forgiveness”—or grace. Where O’Connor’s vision is other-worldly, and “grace” is a gift of God, Munro’s vision is steadfastly secular: her characters lack any impulse toward transcendence, however desperate their situations; their lives are not susceptible to sharp, defined moments of redemption but to more mundane acts of human love, magnanimity, charity.

In “Wood,” for instance, in the new collection, Roy, a somewhat eccentric, crankily independent furniture refinisher, is drawn to the forest to cut wood, an interest, or obsession, “which is private but not secret.” Suffering a fall in the woods, Roy can barely drag himself back to his truck: “He can’t believe the pain. He can’t believe that it would continue so, could continue to defeat him.” His plight is so extreme, he’s being tracked by a buzzard—when, unexpectedly, his wife, who has been near-paralyzed with chronic depression, comes to his rescue: “She came in the car, she says—she speaks just as if she’d never given up driving at all—she came in the car but she left it back at the road.” In a moment, Roy’s terrible predicament is eased; he has not been lost in a “Deserted Forest,” as he’d believed, but has been saved—redeemed—by his wife. His wife, too, in being obliged to rescue her husband, has been awakened from her spell of depression: “To his knowledge, she has never driven the truck before. It’s remarkable the way she manages it.” “Wood” comes to a plausibly happy ending, where the reader has been primed to expect something very different, as in one of Jack London’s gleefully grim little allegories of men succumbing to the wild.

So too, the first story in the volume, “Dimensions,” charts the progress of Doree, a woman who has remained married, unwisely, to a mentally unstable, abusive husband: “It was no use contradicting [Lloyd]. Perhaps men just had to have enemies, the way they had to have their jokes.” Even after their children are murdered by Lloyd, and he has been declared criminally insane and hospitalized, Doree can’t quite bring herself to separate from him; like Lloyd, she wants to think that the children are in some sort of “heaven”:

It was the idea that the children were in what [Lloyd] had called their Dimension that came sneaking up on her…and for the first time brought a light feeling to her, not pain.

In another unexpected conclusion, Doree is abruptly freed of her morbid dependence upon her ex-husband by way of a spontaneous act of her own when she saves the life of a boy who’d crashed his truck, by giving him artificial respiration:

Then she felt it for sure. A breath out of the boy’s mouth. She spread her hand on the skin of his chest and at first she could not tell if it was rising and falling because of her own trembling.

Yes. Yes.

It was a true breath. The airway was open. He was breathing on his own. He was breathing.

In the similarly poignant “Deep-Holes,” in the new volume, a woman must acknowledge the painful fact that her adult son is lost to her, for all her effort to reclaim him; he has vanished from her life only to resurface as a guru of sorts to homeless and disfigured individuals in a Toronto slum, and “normal” relations with his family are repugnant to him. Bluntly he tells her:

I’m not saying I love you, I don’t use stupid language…. I don’t usually try to get anywhere talking to people. I usually try to avoid personal relationships. I mean I do. I do avoid them.

For Sally’s son there is no spiritual dimension—“There isn’t any inside stuff…. There is only outside, what you do, every moment of your life. Since I realized this I’ve been happy.” Rebuffed, dismissed, the guru’s mother comes finally to feel a kinship with others like herself. Her victories will be small ones, but attainable:

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.

The story in Too Much Happiness most clearly derived from Flannery O’Connor is the oddly titled “Free Radicals,” in which a boy with a “long and rubbery” face—“a jokey look”—inveigles his way into the home of Nita, an elderly widow who lives alone, under the pretense of being from the electric company. Then he claims to be a diabetic, who needs quick nourishment; at last, in a psychotic monologue he reveals that he’s a murderer—he has killed his family—“I take out my nice little gun and bin-bang-bam I shoot the works of them.” The terrified woman whose house he has entered in the hope of stealing her car—herself in remission from cancer—contrives to save her life by humoring the boy, and by telling him a story of how years before she’d poisoned a girl to whom her husband was attracted. The story isn’t true, and doesn’t seem to make much difference to the psychotic boy, but seems to be revelatory of Nita’s own guilt for having stolen another woman’s husband when she was young. After the boy has fled with her car, Nita comes to the belated realization that she hasn’t really grieved for her husband until now: “Rich. Rich. Now she knows what it is to really miss him. Like the air sucked out of the sky.” It’s a curious story, an ungainly amalgam of O’Connor and Munro, intriguing rather than satisfying, ending with Nita being informed by a police officer that the murderous boy died crashing her car: “Killed. Instantly. Serves him right.”

It’s often said that Munro’s short stories, richly detailed and dense with psychological observation, read like compact novels, but “Free Radicals,” like one or two others in this collection, rather more suggest the thinness of anecdote.

The jewel of Too Much Happiness is the title story, an ambitiously imagined and exquisitely structured novella-length work in the mode of Munro’s longer, intricately shaped stories “The Love of a Good Woman,” “Carried Away,” and “The Albanian Virgin,” as well as the linked stories of The View from Castle Rock (2006). In the Russian mathematician/novelist Sophia Kovalevsky (1850–1891)—the first woman to be appointed to a university teaching position in northern Europe—Munro has discovered one of her most compelling and sympathetic young-woman protagonists, in temperament closely akin to such earlier Munro heroines as Rose of The Beggar Maid, of whom it’s said, “[her] nature was growing like a prickly pineapple, but slowly, and secretly, hard pride and skepticism overlapping, to make something surprising even to herself.”

As Sophia Kovalevsky is eventually doomed by her very independence, physically exhausted and made ill by having to undertake an arduous winter train journey alone, so Rose is made to feel miserably out of place in her provincial Ontario small town of Hanratty. Though Rose is never in any physical danger, the threat to her sense of her self-worth is ceaseless through childhood and adolescence, a continual questioning by her elders of the integrity of her very nature.

The final story of The Beggar Maid is titled “Who Do You Think You Are?”—the terrible, taunting, and corrosive question put to independent-minded young women, often by older women who should be their mentors and supporters, like Miss Hattie, Rose’s high school English teacher, who maddeningly persists in demanding that Rose follow every insipid rule of her classroom. With the authority of the repressive Protestant community behind her, Miss Hattie persecutes Rose as if Rose were a young disobedient child instead of an intellectually gifted high school girl: “You can’t go thinking you are better than other people just because you can learn poems. Who do you think you are?” Though inwardly raging, Rose reacts in the way that, the reader guesses, Alice Munro herself reacted, as a bright high school girl in the small Ontario town of Wingham, in the 1940s:

This was not the first time in her life Rose had been asked who she thought she was; in fact the question had often struck her like a monotonous gong and she paid no attention to it. But she understood, afterward, that Miss Hattie was not a sadistic teacher…. And she was not vindictive; she was not taking revenge because she had not believed Rose had been proved wrong. The lesson she was trying to teach here was more important to her than any poem, and one she truly believed Rose needed. It seemed that many other people believed she needed it, too.

Of course Sophia Kovalevsky lives in a yet more provincial and restrictive world than rural southwestern Ontario, at least when she resides in her native Russia where unmarried women are not allowed to travel outside the country without permission from their families. In the cause of female emancipation, Sophia marries a young radical-minded man without loving him in order to leave the country to study abroad; after his death, by suicide, she is left with their young daughter and the challenge of establishing a career. In 1888, Sophia wins first prize in an international mathematics competition in which entries are blind and genderless. At the swanky reception for the Bordin Prize in Paris,

[Sophia] herself was taken in by it at first, dazzled by all the chandeliers and champagne. The compliments quite dizzying, the marvelling and the hand kissing spread thick on top of certain inconvenient but immutable facts. The fact that they would never grant her a job worthy of her gift, that she would be lucky indeed to find herself teaching in a provincial girls’ high school.

No more would the gentlemen mathematicians who so honor Sophia give her a university position than they would employ a “learned chimpanzee.” Like the smug, self-righteous women of provincial Ontario, the wives of the great scientists “preferred not to meet her, or invite her into their homes.” Most painful of all, Sophia loses—at least provisionally—the man who is the great love of her life, a professor of sociology and law, a liberal forbidden to hold an academic post in Russia, named Maksim Maksimovich Kovalevsky. (It’s a coincidence that their last names are identical—Sophia’s first husband was a distant cousin of Maksim.)

Sophia’s adoration of Maksim both illuminates her life as a woman and endangers it. The reader senses, beyond the young woman’s fantasies of domestic life with this most unusual man—“He weighs 285 pounds, distributed over a large frame, and being Russian, he is often referred to as a bear, also as a Cossack”—that he isn’t nearly so infatuated with Sophia as she is with him. Both are forty years old, but Sophia is the more mature of the two, as she is the more vulnerable emotionally. Maksim can’t seem to forgive Sophia for being at least as brilliant as he is, perhaps even with her “freaky glittery fame,” more of a prodigy. Where Sophia writes of Maksim with girlish adoration—

He is very joyful, and at the same time very gloomy—
Disagreeable neighbor, excellent comrade—
Extremely light-minded, and yet very affected—
Indignantly naïve, nevertheless very blasé—
Terribly sincere, and at the same time very sly

—Maksim includes in his love letters “terrible” sentences:

If I loved you I would have written differently.

It would seem that Sophia’s fortunes take a turn for the better when she’s offered a position to teach in Sweden—“the only people in Europe willing to hire a female mathematician for their new university.” But to travel by herself from Berlin to Stockholm in the winter, at a time when Copenhagen is under quarantine with an outbreak of smallpox, is a dangerous, if not foolhardy, undertaking: “Would Maksim ever in his life board such a train as this?” By the time Sophia finally arrives in Stockholm she is ravaged by pneumonia and never regains consciousness. Speaking at her funeral, Maksim refers to her “rather as if she had been a professor of his acquaintance” and not his lover. It’s a melancholy end to this vibrant and accomplished “emancipated” woman who lived before her time, bravely and without the protection of men.

Too Much Happiness” gathers considerable narrative momentum in its final pages, which chart poor Sophia’s fatal voyage to the only country in Europe—if not the world—that will hire her as a university professor. Like those long, elaborately researched and documented stories of Andrea Barrett that chronicle the lives of nineteenth-century scientists—see Ship Fever (1996) and Servants of the Map (2002)—“Too Much Happiness” contains enough densely packed material for several novels and is burdened at times by expository material presented in undramatic and somewhat improbable passages, as if the author were eager to establish her subject as real, historical, and not merely imagined:

Suppose this girl had been awake and Sophia had said to her, “Forgive me, I was dreaming of 1871. I was there, in Paris, my sister was in love with a Communard. He was captured and he might have been shot or sent to New Caledonia but we were able to get him away. My husband did it. My husband Vladimir who was not a Communard at all but only wanted to look at the fossils in the Jardin des Plantes.”

In her acknowledgments Munro notes that parts of “Too Much Happiness” are derived from translated Russian texts, including excerpts from Sophia’s diaries, letters, and other writings, and that her primary source is Nina and Don H. Kennedy’s biography Little Sparrow: A Portrait of Sophia Kovalevsky (1983), a work that “enthralled” her. Sophia Kovalevsky is indeed an enthralling figure, the single most interesting person Munro has written about to date. It’s appropriate that Munro prefaces “Too Much Happiness” with a remark by the historic Sophia Kovalevsky herself:

Many persons who have not studied mathematics confuse it with arithmetic and consider it a dry and arid science. Actually, however, this science requires great fantasy.

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