Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Alice Munro: Sex and Storytelling in Selected Stories in Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage

Magdalene Redekop, author of the very fine book, Mothers and Other Clowns: The Stories of Alice Munro (1992), was one of the presenters at the Alice Munro Symposium I attended in Ottawa in May of this year; she talked about "Lichen," from The Progress of Love (1986). The title of the story refers to a close-up polaroid photograph of a woman's genitals, which the central female characters thinks looks like lichen, or moss on a rock: "The legs are spread wide--smooth, golden, monumental: fallen columns. Between them is the dark blot she called moss, or lichen.  But it's really more like the dark pelt of an animal, with the head and tail and feet chopped off.  Dark silky pelt of some unlucky rodent."

Redekop spoke about how densely allusive the story is, how each time you read it, different chords "resonate." But the allusion Redekop cited that struck me most profoundly was to the primal collection of stories 1001 Nights, in which the archetypal storyteller Scheherazade tells different stories each night for three years to save her life. 

Redekop said what echoed for her in the story. Because she just happened to be reading a review of Marina Warner's book on the Arabian Nights, Stranger Magic at the time, she was most taken with the phrase the central male character David in the Munro story uses to describe the way he dumps women—"the big chop." The sentence from Warner's book that makes the connection for Redekop  is this: "The power of stories to forge destinies has never been so memorably and sharply put as it is in this cycle, in which the blade of the executioner's sword lies on the storyteller's neck."  Thus, the "big chop."

Redekop makes a number of valuable suggestions about the implications of seeing Munro as a kind of Scheherazade, who, unlike other magical storytellers influenced by 1001 Nights, such as Rushdie, Calvino, and Marquez, Munro stays with the realism of the frame story, using its stability to "take liberties in the stories within stories—where, as in the Arabian Nights, 'heads are lopped off' and 'no shape stays constant for a second'."

Having recently read a new translation of Thousand and One Nights, I was quite taken by Redekop's image of Munro as Scheherazade, but  during the question and answer period following her presentation, when I tried to explain why it had such an impact of me, I ended up blathering on about how I loved Alice Munro—which sounded banal since everyone at the conference loved Alice Munro.  However, I did not mean simply that I loved her writing or the image of her as a grande dame of the short story, but that when I read her stories, I fell in love with her.  Redekop's citation of the Scheherazade connection somehow justified that confession of love, which I have since been trying to articulate for myself.

As it happens, Bob Thacker, author of the highly respected  authoritative biography, Alice Munro: Writing Her Lives, who was my fellow keynoter at the Ottawa Munro Symposium, asked if I would be interested in contributing an essay to a new collection of studies of Munro to be published by Bloomsbury Academic publishers for their series, "Bloomsbury Studies in Contemporary North American Fiction."  The series usually includes three essays each on three of the chosen author's most recent books; it used to be called Continuum Studies in North American Fiction and has featured such authors as Cormac McCarthy, Philip Roth, Toni Morrison, Margaret Atwood, and Louise Erdrich.

I always get most energized on a subject that obsesses me when I am aiming toward a final, finished essay or book, so Bob Thacker's invitation was the ideal excuse to once again immerse myself in the stories of Alice Munro.  The three Munro collections to be featured in the book Thacker is editing are: Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Loveship, Marriage (2001), Runaway (2004), and Dear Life (2012).  I chose to write about the Hateship volume and sent the following proposal to Bob for his consideration:

                         "The Key to the Treasure": 
          Sex and Storytelling in Alice Munro's Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage
In her review of Alice Munro's collection Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, American writer Lorrie Moore praises Munro's genius as a storyteller, arguing that the "birth and death of erotic love" is her timeless subject. In his review of the same collection, Irish writer John McGahern, also applauds Munro's mastery of the story form, insisting that no one writes as well as Munro about "the hardhearted energy of sex." This essay focuses on the relationship between erotic love and storytelling in five stories from the Hateship collection—"Floating Bridge," "Nettles," "Post and Beam," "What is Remembered," and the title story. The Thousand and One Nights and John Barth's exploration of the relationship between storytelling and Eros in his novella Dunyazadiad, provide a context for this essay's examination of the significance of "what is remembered," and thus narrated, about erotic love, as well as the magical means by which Munro's seemingly realistic stories communicate their complex and ambiguous meaning.
I wrote Bob and told him that I would be using my blog to post my "work in progress" on the essay.  I also sent a copy of the proposal to Maggie Redekop and told her the same. I will not be posting the final essay on the blog, for that might possibly infringe on Bloomsbury's first serial rights, in the event they publish the essay. What I will be posting are citations from stories, criticism, theories, reviews, and other literary works, as well as exploratory ruminations. If at any time Bob Thacker thinks I am coming too close to preempting the publication of the essay in the book he is editing, I will cease and desist.

I just thought it might be interesting for readers to follow my progress. (I always come up with about ten times the amount of primary and secondary material than I actually use in the final essay; my blog readers might appreciate the overflow). It might also generate some additional interest in the book, which would be good for Bloomsbury and for Alice Munro.  Let me know if you think this is a good idea or a bad idea. Barring any serious objections, I will begin posting my progress on the project next week.


Ann Graham said...

Great idea, of course.

Anonymous said...


Would you amend your blog to show that Progress of Love was published in 1986 and not 1966?

Charles E. May said...

Thanks for catching that typo. I fixed it.

Lisa said...

Excellent idea -- I look forward to reading your posts in the upcoming weeks!

Dorothy Johnston said...

I'll be very interested to follow the progress of your essay. I'm particularly interested in the relationship between the 'realist' framework and the insert stories, which is something I think about a lot.