Tuesday, January 13, 2009

More on Munro and Memoir

Charlene and Rolf have some very helpful things to say about memoir in general and Munro's "Some Women" in particular.

I especially like Charlene's suggestion about the contrast between the stillness of the house, its damping down of life, and Mr Crozier's desire for a breeze, brought to him by the fan. The story's conclusion with Sylvia's comment about feeling the breeze, which the girl dismisses as caused by the car's movement is also important. I agree that one thing that marks a difference between memoir and short story is that in this story the old woman nows knows something she did not know when she was thirteen. A memoir may only recall an event, but a story seeks to explore the meaning of the event.

Of course, what the girl knows is the ineffable mystery that Rolf talks about. As Rolf says, the fiction writer reaches some "greater truth or illumination out of design rather than happenstance." Rolf notes that the details of the story--the naked old woman, the coy moments in the sick room, the checkers game, the banishment of the old woman and Roxanne--all this is the intentional "shell game," to use Rolf's term, not the unintentional revelation of memoir.

Not being a fiction writer myself, I often wonder how much of a story is planned and how much is "discovered" by the writer as he or she writes. I am sure that Munro is up to something in "Some Women," but I am not sure she planned it that way. I wonder if she is as puzzled as we are about what is going on in the story. I don't know. This is a mystery of the creative process, perhaps.

To go back to my old whipping girl, Joyce Carol Oates--I think she plans her stories meticulously and thus whatever mystery is in the story is embedded there consciously. (See her story in the recent New Yorker). As a result, the mystery seems fairly easy (as some of my colleagues jargonize) to "unpack."

However, Munro is the better writer because the mystery in her story is, to use Rolf's term, somehow "ineffable."

So what is going on here? A young girl takes a summer job in a house of the dying--not the usual summer job at a camp or hotel. As the girl says, she is aware of an atmosphere of death in the house and that Mr. Crozier was at the center of it, like the Host kept in the tabernacle. He is the sacred heart of the house, the carrier of the ultimate reality of death. He just wants a breath of fresh air. And then Roxanne comes blowing in like a whirlwind. And she is, indeed a breath of fresh air for a time, suggesting body with her bawdy jokes. Old Mrs. Crozier, with her ominous cane, also welcomes her for the same reason.

But Mr. Crozier, the sacred center, the prize that all the women vie for, knows what the women, especially Roxanne, do not know. And he condescends to Roxanne; as the girl says, he likes her not knowing. "Her ignorance was a pleasure that melted on his tongue, like a lick of toffee." Her ignorance is what makes her inferior to him.

But Mr. Crozier can only tolerate this life and liveliness so long, since he is well aware of the inevitability of death. So he locks life out, allowing in nly the one he has promised "till death do us part" (This notion of "betrothed" is perhaps why Munro chooses the Italian novel I Promessi. Sposi).

The narrator emphasizes her age at the beginning and end of the story (a fact we forget for as long as the story lasts; indeed a fact we all strive to forget) because the summer reminds her of the inevitability of her own impending reality.

The carnal liveliness of Roxanne and the vain hope of Mrs. Crozier, lying naked on the massage table, are displaced ultimately, as the narrator says at the end: "The carnality at death's door--or the true love, for that matter--was something I wanted to shake off back then, just as I would shake catepillars off my sleeve."

I have no way of knowing if my "reading" of Munro's story is a "correct" reading. I don't really care about correctness. However, I do believe that good short stories demand this kind of attention.

So what is the point of paying this much attention to a short story. Few readers do.

Is it possible that many readers sense or feel these implications of the story without the need to articulate them as I have tried to do?

I agree with Rolf and Charlene--that the difference between fiction and memoir has to do with some notion of "intentionality." However, I think that term is a very complex one.

The ability to transform something that "happened" into something "meaningful," without showing one's hand is the mystery of Munro to me.

Perhaps it might be well to talk about the difference between craft and art, or, to use Coleridge's terms, "Fancy" and "Imagination."


Rolf said...

Lots to think about here. More later. RY

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