Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Reading Alice Munro's "Nettles"

The Wall Street Journal has a book club on Facebook. I signed on recently because the book of the month of August was Alice Munro's Love of a Good Woman. I thought it might be fun to join in a conversation about one of my favorite authors.

However, it surprised me that so many of the readers had no patience with Alice Munro's stories. Fairly typical was one who said that Munro would not be on her future reading list because she was too "depressing." Others said they just did not "get" her stories, or else they just did not like short stories. And even those who found the stories intriguing did not seem to know what to make of them. The writer Curtis Sittenfield, who is moderating this discussion of the Munro collection, is going to do a live video on Thursday, August 28 at 12 noon EST. You can tweet her with questions at hashtag #WSJbookclub or check her out on the Facebook WSJ Book Club.

The responses I read on the WSJ Book club reminded me of one of the problems of reading a short story that aims to be more than mere escapist entertainment. In order to appreciate a good short story, you just have to read it more than once. It usually does not exist as a simple temporal "one damn thing after another" plot line in which some interesting character gets involved in an entertaining dilemma and somehow manages to get out of it, or get something out of it, so that the reader gets something out of it. 

And let's, face it, not many folks want to read a story more than once, for they think of a short story as an account of a temporal action that, well, you know, tells a story--not a work of art that is always there for further observation or deliberation. We don't feel this way about a piece of music, which we might listen to over and over again, or a painting or sculpture that we might look at many times.. But for some reason, we do feel this way about a story. Novels usually provide a more immediate plot-based pleasure than short stories, which often leave us scratching our heads or shrugging our shoulders.

I suggest that novels are usually written with the understanding that they will be read one time and placed on the shelf or given to the used bookseller, never to be read again. And indeed, one reading may be all that is necessary to "get it"--that is, to understand it. But short stories, which are more like poems than novels, deserve to be read again and again, indeed, insist on being read again. For short stories are more dependent on artifice, pattern, structure, language, significance, etc.,. than novels, which are more dependent on "what happened"--just as paintings depend more on pattern, color, design, etc. rather than answering the question, "what the hell is that?"

 I know, I know, there are many exceptions to this. I have read Melville's Moby Dick at least a dozen times, and I have read Joyce's Ulysses at least half a dozen times. But by and large, the distinction holds true and goes a long way toward explaining why many people don't like short stories, even the short stories of a Nobel Prize winner, which they probably think they should like, that is, unless they can dismiss them as "pseudo intellectualism," which one reader on the WSJ Book club did with the stories of Alice Munro.

I doubt I will ever be able to nudge folks who read fiction for character and plot away from the novel to the short story.  At the Alice Munro Symposium in Ottawa last month, folks spent three days listening to the most avid Alice Munro critics praise her work with great enthusiasm.  And then, on the last day of the conference, one man raised his hand and said that for all that rhapsodic praise he still did not like short stories and had little or no desire to try to learn to  like them, even by the Nobel Prize winner, Alice Munro. By God, he liked novels, something you could get your teeth into, something that had heft and bulk and therefore significance. There was just something a little too "artsy" about short stories. And he sure as hell had no intention of reading one of those puny little things twice.

So as my elderly Irish mother-in-law is wont to say, "there you are and where are you?" Well, where I have always been, I reckon--trying to get folks to love short stories as much as I do and be willing to read them two or three times.  In what follows, I offer the results of my usual fourth reading of Alice Munro's story "Nettles" from the collection Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage—focusing on those passages I thought most important, trying to find the pattern of significance that Munro herself must have discovered as she wrote the story.

Curtis Sittenfeld, trying to get folks on the WSJ book club to engage seriously with the stories of Alice Munro in Love of a Good Woman, pointed out that a much-discussed aspect of Munro's work is her treatment of time, asking, "What do you think of Ms. Munro's treatment of time? Do you enjoy the jumps in narrative, or do you find them confusing?"

And indeed, on the first page of the story "Nettles," we are thrown into three different time periods: the summer of 1979, when the central character walks into the kitchen of her friend Sunny and sees a man standing at the counter making himself a ketchup sandwich; some time much later as she is driving northeast of Toronto with her second husband (not the one she had left that summer of 1979) idly looking for the house, but failing to find it; and then the past when the narrator was a child and she recalls drinking from their well and thinking of "black rocks where the water ran sparkling like diamonds." This image is more than just a description; it is a poetic image of a magical other world—a reference to the "in another country" theme common to the short story.

In this period of childhood, we meet the narrator at age 8 and her friend Mike McCallum at age 9. He is the well digger's son (also named Mike McCallum, suggesting  a doubling typical of folk tale.)

We have an image of the two children washing Ranger the dog in tomato soup because of being sprayed by a skunk; it suggests to her the rather ominous notion of washing him in blood, and she wonders how many people or horses or elephants would it take to supply that much blood. She is familiar with animal killing, for her father shot and butchered horses to feed the foxes  and mink on his farm. She recalls the wire shed with "the long, pale horses' carcasses hung from brutal hooks" and the "trodden blood-soaked ground where they had changed from live horses into those supplies of meat." The notion that the horses are transformed from one thing to another suggests a magical metamorphosis--the brutal change from life to death.

She describes the way she sees things, like the trees which had an attitude and presence—the elms serene, the oat threatening, the maples friendly and workaday, the hawthorn old and crabby. This is all romantic animism, in which sacred reality possesses things. She says her friend Mike saw them differently than she did: "My way was by its very nature incommunicable, so that it had to stay secret. His had to do with immediate advantage." This is a reference to the archetypal dichotomy between the sacred and the profane, the practical and the poetic. Hers is the world of the writer, a magic world of spirit and transformations and the ideal. His is the profane, secular world of everyday reality.

The childhood memory focuses on both the idyllic sense that life is an adventure that will never change and the anxiety that the future threatens unknown dangers. She and Mike wade in the river and walk to the bridge that separates the country from the town, which threatens with town boys who were loudmouthed and hostile, tramps who sleep under the bridge, a fisherman who swears at them for making noise. The bridge is, like the bridge in "Floating Bridge," a demarcation line, and when she goes into the shadow of the bridge where she has never been in her life, she is frightened of this movement into a strange other country.  They join the boys and girls in the town playing a game of war, using balls of clay as weapons. When a boy was hit, one of the girls had to attend to him. When Mike is injured, she presses leaves to his forehead and to his "pale, tender stomach, with its sweet and vulnerable belly button." (This is flesh, but idealized flesh).

 When the hired man sees them and says they look like they have been rolling in the mud, adding "First thing you know you gonna have to get married," her mother reproves him, saying they are more like brothers and sisters. However, this rolling around and coming away marked occurs again in the climactic scene when the doctor says they look like they have been rolling in nettles.

But the narrator says her mother is wrong and that the hired man was closer to the truth, adding they were more like "sturdy and accustomed sweethearts, whose bond needs not much outward expression."  She says she knows the hired man was talking about sex, and she hated him for it, for she knows he is wrong. "We did not go in for any showings and rubbings and guilty intimacies—there was none of that bothered search for hiding places, none of the twiddling pleasure and frustration and immediate, raw shame."

She makes a distinction between her feelings for Mike and those specific sexual "escapades," which she would only consider with those who disgusted her, "as those randy abhorrent itches disgusted me with myself."  With Mike she worships the "back of his neck and the shape of his head…his smell." With him the "localized demon was transformed into a diffuse excitement and tenderness spread everywhere under the skin."

Weeks after Mike moves away, she hears a woman call "Mike" and runs after the woman, but it is only a boy of five. "I stopped and stared at this child in disbelief, as if an outrageous, an unfair enchantment  had taken place before my eyes." She says her heart is beating in big thumps in her chest, "like howls happening in my chest." (This theme of enchantment will be taken up later in the central climactic scene in the nettles).  Much of this story is about the nature of enchantment, as in fairy tales.

The story now shifts to the time of the central event when she goes to visit her friend Sunny, a friend when she lived in Vancouver. She summarizes her marriage and children and divorce. When she takes her daughters to the airport to go to her husband, they play a game in which you pick out a number and then you count the men you saw out the window of the car; when the number came up, he would be the man you were to marry. (More childhood games predicting or setting up the future as in the title story.)

The early poetic images now are justified when we learn that after her divorce she lives alone, hoping to make her living as a writer: "The idea of being so far freed from domesticity enchanted me."  (And there's that word again)

She recalls the man for whom she left her husband. "all I really wanted was to entice him to have sex with me, because I thought the high enthusiasm of sex, fused people's best selves.  I was stupid about these matters, in a way that was very risky, particularly for a woman  of my age." (It is not clear why she thinks sex fuses people's "best selves," but this issue of sex as being physical, but also idealized is an important theme in the story.)

She thinks of the lies or half lies she would have told Sunny: "I am learning to leave a man free and to be free myself.  I am learning to take sex lightly, which is hard for me because that's not the way I started out and I'm not young but I am learning." (How to take sex, what sex means, the uses of sex—all are part of this story.)

And this is when she walks into Sunny's kitchen and sees Mike McCallum spreading ketchup on a piece of bread.

The feelings she has in the presence of Mike are idealizations, not physical encounters.  This are not about what actually happens, but what might happen. This is the nature of fictional reality. She wants to brush against him, to lay a finger against his bare neck. When she sleeps in the same sheets he has slept in, she says she does not have a peaceful night. (This is like sleeping with a phantom, a trace of the past).  "In my dreams, though not in reality, they smelled of water-weeds, river-mud, and reeds in the hot sun." (This is the central statement of the idealization from the past). "My sleep was shallow, my dreams monotonously lustful, with irritating and unpleasant subplots."  The subplots she dreams have to do with obstacles in the way of their physically getting together. She says she sometimes awakes "stranded on a dry patch. Unwelcome lucidity." For she knows nothing about this man.

When they go to play golf, she idealizes them as a couple, with her in the wife's seat, feeling a kind of adolescent girl's pleasure. The notion (not the actuality) of being a wife beguiles her. "Could I really have settle in, with a true love, and somehow just got rid of the parts of me that did not fit, and been happy?" (This is typical of idealization, getting rid of the parts that do not fit. It is the nature of narrative reality, storytelling, fiction.)

On the golf course, she feels all she has to do is just follow him around, give him an "amplified, an extended notion of himself. A more comfortable notion, you  might say, a reassuring sense of human padding around his solitude."  She says a pleasure comes over her on the links. "Lust that had given me shooting pains in the night was all chastened and trimmed back now into a tidy pilot flame, attentively, wifely." (But this is still idealization, not actuality). It has all the pleasures of life together, but none of the reality, all the pleasures of imagining physicality, but not the physical itself.

When the rain begins they go into the tall weeds that grew between the course and the river, as in a childhood retreat. The weeds include nettles. "It was almost as if we were looking through a window, and not quite believing that the window would shatter, until it did, and rain and wind hit us, all together, and my hair was lifted and fanned out above my head.  I felt as if my skin might do that next." (This creates the magical enchanted enclosure surrounded by the storm. She is transformed into an otherworldly creature in another country of  enchantment. He covers her with his body. "Then we kissed and pressed together briefly. This was more of a ritual, a recognition of survival rather than of our bodies' inclinations." It is as close to sex as they get, like the kiss on the bridge in "Floating Bridge."

After the rain when they walk in the open, he tells her about his three-year-old son who was killed last summer when he accidently ran over him backing out of the driveway. Although he does not say it was his fault and that he would never forgive himself, she knows this, knows that he was a person "who had hit rock bottom, a person who knew—as I did not know, did not come near knowing—exactly what rock bottom was like." When she says it is not fair, meaning both the "dealing out of idle punishments" and "what has this got to do with us?" he says "Fairness being neither here nor there."

When they get back to the car, he wonders what happened to the guy who was parked here before. "Mystery," he said and then "Well." This is a word she heard as a child. "A bridge between one thing and another, or a conclusion, or a way of saying something that couldn't be any more fully said, or thought."  And the joking answer was always "A well is a hole in the ground." This seems like a minor detail.  But it emphasizes mystery, the enchanted nature of their seclusion in the nettles, in which time ceases to exist and the stuff of the real world mysteriously vanishes. The reference to the word "well" as a bridge between one thing and another recalls the bridge in "Floating Bridge"—a well being like a gravel pit, a hole into which one can fall, a "deep subject" that poses a mystery.

They are covered with welts and blotches from the nettles. The doctor says they must have been rolling in them. "The fact that we had chosen to go off together and that we had this adventure—an adventure that left its evidence on our bodies—seemed to rouse in Sunny and Johnston a teasing excitement. Droll looks from him, a bright solicitousness from her. If we had brought back evidence of real misdoing—welts on the buttocks, red splashes on the thighs and belly—they would not of course have been so charmed and forgiving." (It is important that it is playful, not actual.)

She knows it would be the same old thing if they ever met again or didn't. "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 in a sweet trickle, an  underground resource. With the weight of this new stillness on it, this seal." (This is the key passage about love that is "not real," but it suggests the only way that love is real—an idealization.  The underground resource recalls that deep well mentioned at the beginning which she images are diamonds.

A final paragraph about the nettles, which it turns out were not nettles, but joe-pye weed. What they got into are more insignificant than nettles, with fine, skin-piercing and inflaming spines. "Those would be present too, unnoticed, in all the flourishing of the waste meadow." This final paragraph is a sort of coda that suggests the significant that is insignificant, the imagined that is real, the real that is imagined.

Next: Reading Alice Munro's story: "Post and Beam"

Friday, August 22, 2014

Reading Alice Munro's "Floating Bridge"

When I was teaching the short story, I prepared for each class thoroughly, taking more notes than necessary to help me remember the most important themes and tropes in the story.  However, I did not simply go over each section of my notes to establish my interpretation. Rather, I used my notes as the basis for asking my students questions. I seldom made a judgment about the meaning of a passage until I had given my students an opportunity to suggest their own interpretation or understanding of the passage. 

Sometimes they came up with better suggestions than the ones I had in mind, and sometimes they provided answers for questions that had me puzzled. And sometimes their suggestions would prompt me to come up with ideas I did not have in mind beforehand. In short, most of my class meetings were learning sessions for me. I can only hope they were learning sessions for my students  as well. All this give-and-take was what made teaching a real pleasure for me. My students and I did not always agree, but I only challenged their interpretation when it oversimplified, sentimentalized, or trivialized the story, or when their interpretation could not be supported by argument based on the rest of the story.

If I were teaching Alice Munro's "Floating Bridge," I would try to encourage my students to see the complexity, even universality, of Jinny's situation as a woman who has faced death, felt liberated by that knowledge, and then been brought back to life, with not a little resentment, to face the demands that life makes on her. I would urge them to identify with both Jinny and Neal, (especially to resist the temptation of dismiss Neal as a silly man) and  to see the importance of the young man Ricky at the end.  I would try to get them to appreciate the significance of the central metaphor that ends the story and gives it its name--a bridge that floats.

The story opens with Jinny sitting in a bus stop shelter where she has gone after her husband and a couple of the Young Offenders (from a correctional institute where he is a teacher) have "gobbled" up a gingerbread cake she had made for a meeting that evening. This is a childish irresponsibility typical of her husband.  The fact that it opens the story suggests that Jinny's relationship with her husband is an important part of the story's complexity.

Jinny is reading all the graffiti on the walls of the shelter, a "barrage of human messages," and indeed they do seem like a "barrage"—sexual attacks, verbal assaults. She wonders if people were alone when they wrote these, and she imagines sitting here waiting for a bus alone, wondering if she would be compelled to write things down. "She felt herself connected at present with the way people felt when they had to write certain things down—she was connected by her feelings of anger, or petty outrage…." She is considering leaving her husband Neal, but she changes her mind and goes home, and the experience becomes a joke she later told company. This juxtaposition of jokes and seriousness appears later in the story. The theme of feeling a need to write things down is common in Munro's stories. It is not just a need expressed by writers, but by many who feel that the way to deal with a problem is to express it in language. One is compelled to tell a story to control the experience, or at least to redeem it from meaninglessness, to give it significance.

We get some bits and pieces about Jinny's visit to an oncologist, but we don't know what the visit means yet, although obviously we suspect Jinny has cancer. When she goes out into the parking lot, the cars and pavement seem to "bombard" her (another reference to an attack like "barrage.") Ironically, as we soon find out, the oncologist has told her there are good signs that the cancer has shrunk.

The narrator, reflecting Jinny's mind, says she does not take change of scenery well these days and wants everything familiar and stable; she doesn't like changes of information either, although it seems she has received such a change. Neal's van has hippy type stickers on it. He wears costumes, as in a "masquerade," e.g. bandanna headband, rough grey ponytail, small gold earring and shaggy outlaw clothes. She does not tell him the news, for he has brought a young woman who they may hire to help care for Jinny, and when he is around another person than Jinny, his behavior becomes animated, enthusiastic, ingratiating.

Jinny (age 42) and Neal (age 58) have been together 21 years; she has become more reserved, slightly ironic, while he has become more animated, enthusiastic, ingratiating. This contrast in their approach to life is emphasized throughout the story.

Neal has been making preparations for Jinny's confinement, renting a hospital bed, for example. But the one item that the narrator singles out for Jinny's opinion are the heavy curtains Neal has hung up that have a pattern of tankards and horse brasses, which Jinny thinks is very ugly. (Horse brasses are bridle decorations). "But she knew now that there comes a time when ugly and beautiful serve pretty much the same purpose, when anything you look at is just a peg to hang the unruly sensations of your body on, and the bits and pieces of your mind." I'm not sure what the relevance to the story's theme this observation has, but it seems too well expressed to be mere "stuff." It may have something to do with how this story intersperses ugly things with beautiful things.  There is something beautiful and romantic about the final scene of the floating bridge under a starry sky, just as there is something ugly about the opening scene of the graffiti in the bus stop. Both have sexual connotations.

Jinny thinks about death, not her own, but Neal's, recalling holding his hand in bed just before sleep and thinking she would hold this hand at least once when he was dead. "And she would not be able to believe in that fact. The fact of his being dead and powerless. No matter how long this state had been foreseen, she would not be able to credit it. She would not be able to believe that, deep down, he had not some knowledge of this moment. Of  her. To think of him not having that brought on a kind of emotional vertigo, the sense of a horrid drop."  This is a curious kind of statement.  When Jinny refers to "this moment," what moment is she thinking about—the moment she is holding his hand or the moment of his death? What is the "horrid drop"? and the "emotional vertigo"?

We now learn for sure that she has cancer, but the disease gives her a feeling of an "unspeakable excitement, "for this "galloping disaster promises to release you from all responsibility for your own life.  Then for shame you must compose yourself and stay very quiet." If you learn you are going to die soon and this gives you a release from all responsibility for your life, why would this make you feel shame? Because facing death should not suggests freedom?

This seems to be the central theme of the story—dealing with death—knowing it is inevitable, the sense of freedom that knowledge gives one, the difficulty of accepting its reality. (Munro had a cancer scare and had to receive treatment in 1991; this story appeared in 2000.  She has published another, more personal story, "What Do You Want to Know For?" in View from Castle Rock about a woman with breast cancer). I am not sure whether this story reflects Munro's own feelings of possibly facing death, nor am I sure if this is important to a "reading" of the story, for a writer may begin with a personal experience, but when exploring that experience, the story, if it is any good, exceeds the merely personal to embody the meaningfully universal.

Helen, the young woman Neal has hired to help care for Jinny has, thinks Jinny, a "fresh-out-of-the-egg look," "as if there was one layer of skin still missing and one final growth of coarser grown-up hair."  Jinny thinks she has "an innocent and…a disagreeable power" because it seems that everything "must be right at the surface with her." A curious image—this fresh out of the egg look of a new born, which is picked up later by the image of the corn looking like a baby in a shroud.  Is there some submerged story going on here about Jinny's not having a child? Not sure. And is it Jinny's confronting death that makes her resent Helen's innocence, with everything on the surface—no hidden complexity.

The story now features a sort of comic episode in which Helen climbs up a fire escape to go into a hospital to get a pair of shoes her sister was supposed to bring her, and Helen goes through a lot of difficulty trying to find her sister, and the sister forgot the shoes, and it all makes Neal laugh and say, "What a tragedy." This ironic judgment—calling a comedy a tragedy—seems a common kind of juxtaposition in this story—like the pretty/ugly, joke/serious juxtaposition.

Neal is aggravating in his insistence on taking Helen to get her shoes at the trailer where her sister lives. Even though Helen protests, he just keeps laughing and insisting: "On his face there was an expression of conscious, but helpless, silliness. Signs of an invasion of bliss.  Neal's whole being was invaded, he was brimming with silly bliss." (Here is still another reference to a military battle—"invasion—like "bombard" and "barrage."  Not sure about these references.  It is all a bit of silliness, and he knows it but cannot seem to control it. "He was trying hard to get his voice under control, to get some ordinary sobriety into it.  And to banish the smile, which kept slipping back in place no matter how often he swallowed it." This also reminds me of the Katherine Ann Mansfield story "Bliss."

In the next section of the story, they get to the trailer of Matt and June Bergson near a gravel pit. (Munro uses this gravel pit in a later story entitled "Gravel." I have posted a blog entry on the story). The gravel pit suggests a dark hole or void into which there is always the danger of falling.

The man who comes out of the trailer  is fat enough to have breasts "and you could see his navel pushing out like a pregnant woman's. It rode on his belly like a giant pincushion." June, who is also fat, tries to get them to come in, "laughing at the idea of their not coming in was a scandalous joke." Jinny does not want to go in, but Neal says they will hurt their feelings if they do not. "It looks like you think you're too good for them." I like this gender bending image of a man who has breasts and looks pregnant. Not sure what it means or why it works yet. It is the kind of question I would ask my students and hope they come up with something or make me think of something. I don't mind questions for which I do not have an answer, when it is possible to come up with or invent an answer.

Jinny thinks she has seen Neal like this a few times before. "It would be over some boy at the school.  A mention of the name in an offhand, even belittling way.  A mushy look, an apologetic yet somehow defiant bit of giggling. But that was never anybody she had to have around the house, and it could never come to anything. The boy's time would be up, he'd go away. So would this time be up. It shouldn't matter.  She had to wonder if it would have mattered less yesterday than it did today." (This passage seems important, but not sure why. Jinny wants things not to matter. It is not clear what effect the young girl has on Neal). My students might have suggested that Neal has some sexual desire for Helen, but that would be the obvious, too easy, answer.  I think it is more complex, but I am not sure why yet.

Jinny thinks about death again, about all the detritus around the trailer and all the letters, photos, minutes of meetings, newspaper clippings she had been in charge of and that might end up being thrown out.  "As all this might, if Matt died." It is not unusual to think of all the "stuff" that sticks to you if you think you are going to die and leave it up to someone else to have to clean up. All stuff is "trash," when facing death, I guess.
While Neal is in the trailer eating chili and drinking beer to show that he is not "too good" for them, Jinny goes into the cornfield, thinking she will lie down in the shade of the large coarse leaves. A striking image here of each stalk having its cob "like a baby in a shroud." I can see this image, as the tip of the corn sticks out of the shucks slightly with the corn silk like fine baby hair, but I wonder why Jinny would see it this way—like the notion of a still birth.

If I were to bring this up to my students , they might think that perhaps Jinny has had a stillborn child, but nothing in the story suggests such a literal interpretation.  It is more apt to suggest something about Jinny's own unexpressed desires. Jinny  thinks she will not come out of the cornfield until Neal called her, perhaps not even then. "But the rows were too close together to permit that, and she was too busy thinking about something to take the trouble.  She was too angry."  This lost in the cornfield image is a spooky one, for cornfields suggest scarecrows and the rustling sound of something coming through the rows. Halloween stuff, echoing the reference to Neal's being dressed as in a masquerade earlier in the story.

Jinny remembers a party where they were playing one of those psychological games that is supposed to make you more honest and resilient, in which you say what comes into your mind when you look at someone. A woman friend of Neal's says to Jinny, "whenever I look at you all I can think of is—Nice Nellie."  Jinny resents people thinking they know her, for they were all wrong. "She was not timid or acquiescent or natural or pure." Again we have the ever-present death theme: Jinny thinks, "When you died, these wrong opinions were all there was left."  (This is common in Munro, for on the outside the woman appears bookish and timid, but in her imagination she is riotous and wild.  So which one is she?  The woman she appears to be or the one she feels to be?)

When Jinny gets out of the cornfield, the fat man with the female breasts and a bulging navel like that of a pregnant women tells her a dirty joke about a woman's genitals. As he tells the joke, she recalls the doctor telling her that there has been a favorable sign.  The joke has to do with a man going out and getting a horse with horseradish and a duck with duct tape.  When he goes out with pussy willows, his dad says, "hold on, I'm coming with you." The doctor's information about a significant shrinkage is interspersed in the telling of the dirty joke.

It is not clear why this man would tell such a dirty joke about trying to get pussy to Jinny, except that he is coarse and vulgar, and Munro wants to contrast this with Jinny's news from the oncologist. Jinny says, "It's too much," meaning that the news makes her have to go back and start the whole year over again. "It removed a certain low-grade freedom.  A dull, protecting membrane that she had not even known was there had been pulled away and left her raw."  What does she feel she needs protecting from?  Is it Neal? Or the mistaken image people have of he?  This is really all we know about her.

When Jinny has to urinate, she gets out and lifts her wide skirt and spreads her legs, which is easy for she has been wearing big skirts and no panties because she cannot control her bladder after the cancer treatments. "A dark stream trickled away from her through the gravel." This seems to be a gratuitous image, except that it suggests her vulnerability and simultaneous freedom because of the lack of underclothes.  And the dark stream of urine disappearing in the gravel suggests the dark tea-colored water at the end of the story.

When the eighteen-year old boy, June's son, arrives, Jinny does not know how long she has been waiting for Neal, for she does not wear a watch; nor does the young man. He recognizes Jinny is in kind of a muddle.  This establishes the timelessness of the encounter about to take place. He tells Jinny that his mother June is probably reading her husband's hands, for she can tell fortunes. (This reminds me of the problem of trying to determine the future, which is a central theme in the title story of this collection, and, of course, plays an important role in this story as well, for Jinny's future has been manipulated beyond her control.)

When the boy drives Jinny home, there is no one on the road, so the out-of-time feeling is sustained. The boy, whose name is Ricky, stops and she realizes she is on a narrow bridge without railings with still water underneath. Ricky tells her they are in Borneo Swamp. When she says there is an island called Borneo, halfway round the world, this suggests the "In Another Country" motif, a common theme in the short story, creating a dream reality or the reality of the unconscious. Freud once said that the unconscious was in "another country." When the young man says he is going to show her something like she has never seen before, she thinks if this were happening in her old normal life, she would be frightened. "If she was back in her old, normal life she would not be here at all." But, it is precisely the point of the story that Jinny is not in her normal life—that death and life and disarray have put her outside normality.

Ricky wants to show her the floating bridge, surrounded by swamp, looking like black tea. "Tannin, he said, sounding the word proudly as if he'd hauled it up out of the dark." She walks on the planks of the bridge which are like the deck of a boat, which rises and falls—not from waves, but from their footsteps.  I like the image of hauling a word up out of the dark; it suggests reaching down into the unconscious, down into the primeval swamp.  The central metaphor is her feeling that the trees and reed beds around her are on saucers of earth and the road is a floating ribbon, underneath which was all was water. This notion of being afloat—being on something that seems solid, but that the solidity is an illusion—that all is shifting and insecure.

She suddenly realizes she does not have her hat and her bald head is bare. And it is in this moment of vulnerability that Ricky slips his arm around her and kisses her on the mouth.  "It seemed to her that this was the first time ever that she had participated in a kiss that was an event in itself.  The whole story, all by itself. A tender prologue, an efficient pressure, a wholehearted probing and receiving, a lingering thanks, and a drawing away satisfied." A great description of a kiss, it seems to me—a kiss that does not have to lead to anywhere, that does not have to have a motivation, a cause, a purpose—a kiss that is a kiss solely.

When Ricky says it is the first time he has kissed a married woman and she says he will probably kiss more, he sighs, "Amazed and sobered by the thought of what lay ahead of time.  Yeah, I probably will." This brings up the theme of the future again.  She thinks of Neal back on dry land giddy and doubtful  having his fortune told, "Rocking on the edge of his future." She feels a "lighthearted sort of compassion, almost like laughter.  A swish of tender hilarity, getting the better of all her sores and hollows, for the time given." For, of course, she now has the possibility of a future.

This ending is a classic short story encounter, for it is for itself only, unmotivated and unexpected, promising that which will not occur, making one aware of the ultimate possibilities that exist only in the imagination. She has experienced the freedom of facing death and miraculously been given back her life, and this joy of not being anchored but pleasantly adrift, between one place and another, gently swaying on instability is a great example of how the short story often resolves the unresolvable by metaphor.

Next: Reading Alice Munro's story "Nettles"

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Reading Alice Munro's story "Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage"

I tried to teach students how to read fiction, especially short stories, at California State University, Long Beach for forty years. Every time I went into the classroom, I had read the assignment for the day at least four times—once straight through to orient myself to the characters, plot, and style; the second time highlighting those passages that seemed to me to be more than verisimilitude, e.g. motifs that were repeated, passages that seemed to emphasize theme, allusions to other works, passages that puzzled me, etc.; the third time making annotations in the margins about connections and emerging patterns.  Finally, I would go back through the story a fourth time, typing up my notes, e.g. quotations, annotations, connections, developments.

The following comments on "Hateship, Friendship" are an example of those notes—notes that would sometimes later lead to the development of my "reading" of the story into an essay. I have developed these notes in preparation for my essay on five stories in the Hateship volume.

Since, this "reading" represents a fourth  time through the story, what understanding I have of the early events are conditioned by my knowledge of the later events. I already have in mind the events as they occur in time; my task now is to determine what kind of meaningful pattern they make. The most basic patterning device in a story is, of course, repetition of motifs that create a "figure in the carpet." 

The story opens with a variation of the "once upon a time there was a woman" fable device : "Years ago, before the trains stopped running on so many of the branch lines, a woman with a high, freckled forehead and a frizz of reddish hair came into the railway station and inquired about shipping furniture."  There is a bit of the stylized grotesque about the woman's physical appearance. I am prepared for a fable.

The story establishes its central theme of "great expectations" (repeated throughout) at the beginning with the introduction of this unnamed woman planning for the future because she expects certain important things are going to happen, although the reader does not know what those expectations are. She seems so certain about the future, when the ticket agent asks if someone is coming to meet her, she does not hesitate, but says "Yes," although she has no knowledge that this is true. I know this is going to be an important theme in the story, for I know that the story ends with the young woman Edith translating the following Latin passage from Horace's ode "Carpe Diem": "You must not ask, it is forbidden for us to know what fate has in store for me, or for you."

In the second scene, when the woman, who is now given the name Johanna, goes to a dress shop to buy her wedding dress, she thinks that when she was younger, she could not have  contemplated such "expectations," could not have had the "preposterous hope of transformation, and bliss." Thus, the story begins with what was once traditionally the most important expectation a fair young maiden could have—marriage.  However, this woman is neither young (just under forty) nor fair--"No beauty queen, ever."  She reminds the agent of a "plain-clothes nun" he had once seen on television.  But there is nothing mild nor gentle nor pious about this woman  The first description we have of her is that her "teeth are crowded together in the front of her mouth, as if they were ready for an argument." (another grotesque image—kind of like Maria in Joyce's "Clay")

Johanna has come to the shop prepared, even having "rehearsed" her request for the green dress in the window; she has worn clean underwear and put fresh talcum powder under her arms. However, she has no illusions about herself, calling herself a "sow's ear" regardless of the "silk purse" dress she tries on.
The sales woman identifies with Johanna, creates a "bond" with her, and has her try on a different dress that does not make her look as she has been "stuck into the garment for a joke." Since we know that the crucial events of the story are created by a "joke" that two young woman play on Johanna, we have here the first intimation of the theme of a joke that has motivated Johanna's expectations; we learn that it is indeed a "great expectation" when she tells the woman, "It'll likely be what I get married in."

Although Johanna seems absolutely "sure" when she says she will only get married once, she recalls that marriage had not been mentioned, even in the "last letter." She regrets that she has revealed to this woman "what she was counting on."  (This is another intimation of the game that gives the story its title, a children's counting game about the inevitable movement toward marriage.  Another allusion to expectation.)
Another fable/fairy tale allusion occurs when the sales clerk refers to the Western Fair and "she could have been saying 'the Castle Ball.'"  Even the minor detail of the woman giving the package ribbon a "wicked snip" suggests a fairy tale motif.

The sales woman's lament, "Ah, well. Maybe the man in the moon will walk in here and fall in love with me and then I'll be all set!" could be a simple bit of verisimilitude, characterizing a minor character, but since this is a short story the repetition of this motif makes us expect that this is indeed a story about expectation, hopes for what might happen. It's the classic fairy tale love story motif of "someday my prince will come."
We now get the background of Mr. McCauley, for whom Johanna works as a housekeeper, an elderly man, who walks about with his hands behind his back like a "kind landlord inspecting his property or a preacher happy to observe his flock." (another fable/fairytale motif). We are also introduced to Sabitha, his granddaughter, for whom Johanna was the closest thing to a mother since her mother, Marcelle, died (the stepmother motif—not wicked, but certainly not likeable) We also meet Edith, the daughter of the shoe repair man, Sabetha's great friend.

Now we are introduced to the important motif of letters, as we read Johanna's letter saying she is sending a (yet unnamed) man his furniture, adding that she is also coming with it to "be of help" to him. This is the first letter she has sent directly to him, having sent earlier ones via Sabitha's letter to her father (now given the name Ken Boudreau). Gradually, we learn that Boudreau is Mr. McCauley's son-in-law and that McCauley has loaned Boudreau money in the past.  All this gradual revelation of information creates an illusion of plot mystery.  Alice Munro has noted that this story depends more on plot than many of her stories.  However, since this is a short story, in spite of its novella length, it is not what will happen that interests us, but rather what the pattern of those events actually mean about human experience.

We now get the background, via Mr. McCauley's recollection of the past, of Sabitha's dead mother, Marcelle, who was always sneaking out of the house to run around with carloads of boys. "The house was full of a feeling of callus desertion, of deceit."

The next section of the story focuses on Mr. McCauley, who goes about the town telling anyone who will listen about his being wronged by his son-in-law conniving with his housekeeper who has stolen furniture and gone west with it.  This introduces the "Ancient Mariner" motif of the man who stops the wedding guest and compels him to listen to his misfortune.

It also introduces Herman Schultz, the father of Edith, who creates the plot to "catch" Johanna. Herman's shoe shop is like a cave and McCauley who has not reflected on it before now sees Schultz's whole life in the cave. "He wished to express sympathy or admiration or something more that he didn't understand." (Any time I run across something that a character tries to understand but fails, it strikes me as something important, for short stories are often about mysteries.)

This also introduces Edith, a "childishly thin "girl who slides in and out of the house when she came to visit Sabitha. "You never got a good look at her face." (Edith is thus introduced as a mysterious figure who slides in with no definite identity) The introduction of Edith is important.  Now that Sabitha has gone, Edith has "reverted to being the person she had been before Sabitha came here. Old for her age, diligent, and critical." She is getting past what is called "silliness" with Sabitha (We do not know what this is yet).  But when she thinks about Johanna going out west, which she has heard from old Mr. McCauley, "she felt a chill from her past, an invasive alarm. She tried to bang a lid down on that, but it wouldn't stay."
It seems appropriate that she would be reading a Dickens' novel, David Copperfield, for Great Expectations would have been too obvious).  She identifies with David and dramatizes her own situation, feeling she might has well have been an orphan like him "because she would probably have to run away, go into hiding, fend for herself, when the truth became known and her past shut off her future."  (This is the expectation motif again—fear that the past will condition the future). She is now worrying that her past trick on Johanna will affect her future.)
The whole joke began when Sabitha tells her on the way to school that she has to send a letter to her father. The two girls create a sort of secret bond, talking in nonsense language or walking with their eyes closed—mostly ideas of Edith.  Sabitha's only idea is the child hood game of predicting the future by playing the Hateship, friendship game, in which you write down your name and a boy's name and then strike out all the letters that appear in both names.  Then you tick off the remaining letters on our fingers, saying "hateship, friendship, courtship, loveship, marriage until you get the verdict of what would happen to you and that boy, sort of like the "He loves me, he loves me not" game with daisy petals. (I did the game using my name and my wife's name.  The result was "marriage.")
The game or joke on Johanna begins when she writes to Boudreau to thank him for taking her to the Fair with the girls and giving him the background of her uneventful life.  The girls open it and read it and laugh about it, with Edith mocking it, as if it were from a sentimental Victorian novel. When Boudreau writes back to Sabitha and makes no mention of Johanna, Edith decides she and Sabitha will write for hi. While Sabitha is silly in her suggestions, Edith says she is going to be serious. Her letter to Johanna is indeed typical of melodrama and fairy tale, Boudreau supposedly lamenting that he has no friend, but that now Johanna is his friend. Thus begins a correspondence of letters between Johanna and Boudreau, both of which are written by Edith
The next section of the story is about Sabitha's return from visiting her cousins and the changes that have taken place in her.  She is plumper and now has breasts, which Edith notices and thinks they seem to indicate a "completely unearned and unfair advantage." Sabitha tells Edith about her visit with her cousins, about how they played games in which they pull down a girls' pajama bottoms to show if she had hair.  They told stories about girls at boarding school who did things with hairbrush handles, and how once a couple of cousins put on a show in which one girl gets on top of the other and pretends to be the boy, and they groan and carry on.
Sabitha tells how her Uncle Clark's sister and her husband game to visit on their honeymoon and he was seen to put his hand inside her swimsuit. Sabitha says they were at it day and night, saying "People can't help it when they're in love like that." She says one of her cousins had already done it with a boy and then she puts a pillow between her legs and says, "Feels so nice."
 Edith knows about these "Pleasurable agonies" but once when she went to sleep with a blanket between her legs, her mother tells her about a girl who did such things and had to be operated on for the problem. (Clitorectomies were sometimes performed in the nineteenth century because it was felt that girls should not have pleasurable sexual feelings—certainly none self-induced).
Later when they write another letter, Sabitha suggests her father should say he imagines Johanna reading his letters in bed with her nightgown on and that he would crush her in his arms and "suck on your titties." Edith does not write this, but does end the letter with Boudreau saying he imagines her reading his letter in bed with her nightgown on and crushing her in his arms. As a result of this letter, Johanna decides to send the furniture and go West with it.  All this girlhood initiation into the mysteries of sex seems to play a role in Edith's attitude, for her thoughts about her future are becoming increasingly important in the story.  However, the key effect of the sexual references is that Johanna makes a crucial decision to go to Boudreau after reading Edith's letter (supposedly from him) about wants to crush her in his arms.  Female romantic/sexual notions are an important part of the story.
The story now shifts to Johanna arriving at Boudreau's hotel, and appropriately it is painted blue, a reference to Stephen Crane's "The Blue Hotel" in which fantasy leads to a reality, albeit in a tragic way, when the Swede in that story imagines he is going to get killed and then acts in such a way as to make that happen.  It is a story of a game becoming a reality, when fantasy becomes fate.
It is an interesting shift that Johanna, who has come to Boudreau's home because of a romantic fantasy, as soon as she sees he is ill and that his life is in disarray and that he needs her, she shifts from romance to reality immediately--checking the color of his phlegm, wiping her hands on her new brown dress, changing into old clothes from her suitcase, seeing him as being like a "delicate, stricken boy." Checking her bankbook, Boudreau is impressed enough to let her take care of him. We now get his background financial problems and his realization that Johanna is a solution to his problems. She takes control, makes decisions, and begins using the plural first person pronoun, seeing them as a couple.  All this is based not on romantic illusions, but on pure practicality.
Because she decides never to mention the letters in which she thinks he had "laid himself open to her," neither one of them ever know how this has come about. She thinks there is nothing in him that she cannot handle and is taken up with all the commotion of this relationship, all this "busy love."
The story might well have ended with this phrase, but since the story has to do with expectation and making things happen, the future must be projected in some way that relates to Edith's concern for the future. This takes place when ;Mr. McCauley dies two years later and the death notice in the paper says that he is survived by his granddaughter Sabitha, his son-in-law Ken Boudreau, and Mr. Boudreau's wife, Johanna and their infant son Omar..
The story ends with Edith, who is no longer afraid of being found out, although she does not know why she has not been found out. Then there is this judgment by the narrator/storyteller:
  "And in a way, it seemed only proper that the antics of her former self should not be connected with her present self—let alone with the real self that she expected would take over once she got out of this town and away from all the people who thought they knew her.  It was the whole twist of consequence that dismayed her—it seemed fantastical, but dull. As if it was an inept joke or clumsy sort of warning, trying to get its hooks into her.  For where, on the list of things she planned to achieve in her lie, was there any mention of her being responsible for the existence on earth of a person named Omar?"
The last line of the story is Edith's translation of the first line of Horace's famous ode "Carpe Diem: "You must not ask, it is forbidden for us to know what fate has in store for me, or for you."

I am not going to try to pull these ideas together and write an analysis of this story until I have given the other four stories the same kind of fairly thorough reading.  Next week, I will "read" "Floating Bridge."

Monday, August 11, 2014

Alice Munro's Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage: A Review of Commentary

Whenever I plan to write an analysis of a certain literary subject, I always do a "review of the literature," checking to see what other critics and reviewers have said about the subject I am undertaking.  It is a result of old graduate school training that has stayed with me for fifty years (I started graduate school in 1963 at the age of 22).  I always encouraged my students—graduate and undergraduate--to do the same when they wrote papers for my classes, for I told them that there was absolutely no point in their writing an analysis or interpretation that just repeated what someone else had already discovered or devised. 

So, I offer in this week's blog post the results of my review of the literature on Alice Munro's collection Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage.  Most of it comes from reviews published in newspapers and magazines when the book was published in 2001, for it often takes at least ten to twelve years after a work appears for academic critics to get around to writing and publishing a full-length analytical paper of said work.

In what follows, I will cite those critical comments that I think might be helpful—those that support my argument, those that serve as straw men/women with whom I can argue, those that provide me with thought-provoking ideas I can further develop. After each citation, I will make a brief comment on how I might use the comment:

John McGahern, "Heroines of Their Lives." Times Literary Supplement. Nov. 9, 2001. PP. 23-24.
Any time an important fellow writer reviews a book, I pay particular attention, because it has been my experience that other writers are much more perceptive about good short stories than newspaper reviewers, who often underrate the form.

McGahern says, "I know of nobody who writes as well as Munro about 'the hardhearted energy of sex.'" He says in Hateship, desire has become "in part, memory and reflection." He says the "marvel of the volume" is "Floating Bridge."

Me: What is it about sex that Munro writes about?   Although the physical is important, sex is something more in her stories.  It seems to have some to do with the nature of desire, but more than orgasmic desire. Sex has something to do with freedom or control. Desire is not just something you do, but something you think about and something you recall. It always seems to be more important in the past and in the future than in the present.  Why does McGahern like "Floating Bridge" so much?  It has something to do with the importance of metaphor, I think, and the complexity of the story's theme and its stylistic restraint.

Mona Simpson. "A Quiet Genius." Review of HateshipThe Atlantic Monthly Dec. 2001: 126-35.
Mona Simpson, like most writers,  admires Munro's fiction. Although  she says it has the simplicity of the best naturalism "in that it seems not translated from life but, rather, like life itself," she says "at the heart of all great naturalism is mystery, an emotional sum greater than its technical parts."

Me: How is this possible? If a fiction focuses on the physical surface of things, how can it be mystery, greater than the sum of its parts. Only mystery if there is some sense that inherent in the physical there is meaning.  Marina Warner talks about the mystery of "things" in Arabian Nights.

Simpson quotes the writer Allan Gurganus who said "Munro is our greatest and most subtle surrealist. The plainest of surfaces ignite with the fugitive erotic undertow.  After sex, even a readymade supermarket lemon cake can feel like a miracle." Simpson adds: "The shock and credibility of the sexuality (alluded to more than rendered) derives –like Chekhov's—from its absurd, yet dead serious, collisions with the mundane, tactile elements of her characters' lives."
Me:  There is something quite paradoxical about sexuality in Chekhov and Munro, something incongruous about the triviality of its physicality and the excessive power it has over those possessed by it. What is a fugitive erotic undertow? What does sex do?

Simpson says the title story is a "love story, perhaps the hardest spell to cast in 2001." "It is as though Munro has set for herself the challenge of writing credible love stories for a culture that usually satisfies its romantic cravings at the movies and turns to fiction for the hard, ugly truth about marriage."

Me: I like this, for while I agree that the title story is a love story, it is  surely an unlikely love story, given its central characters—grotesque Romeo and Juliet and a devious teenage Iago—and then ending, ironically, not as melodrama or tragedy or pathos, but comedy.  Can there be such a thing as an accidental love story?
Simpson says there is something she has always hoped for in fiction that has no literary term but is best explained by an analogy.  She notes a painting by Degas of a woman drying herself after a bath with one foot on the rim of the tub, her body leaning over.  "Seeing that image, one might recognize a human position common in life but never before seen through the bending lens of representation… Munro gives us such recognitions."

Me:  This is very good, for it gets to the heart of the mystery of art.  It has something  to do with an ordinary gesture that is caught in such a way as to embody its essential form.  We see it, although we have never seen it before, we recognize it, for it is not its content or "stuff" that makes it alive, but its form, its gestalt in space—things coming together in an inevitable way that makes it feel that it had to be just that way and no other way.

Lorrie Moore," "Artship." The New York Review of Books. Jan. 7, 2002, pp. 41-42.
Moore says: "The birth and death of erotic love, and the strange places people are led to because of it…is Munro's timeless subject."  She says that Munro knows that the "arranging of love…and the seismic upheavals of its creation and dismantling…is both a kind of pornography of life as well as the very truth of it: it is often the most pervasive and defining force in the shape of individual existence and individual fate." She says one of her signature themes is "the random, permanent fate brought about by an illusion of love."  She says title story is an example of this theme.

Me: Lorie Moore is still another fine writer who greatly admires Munro's stories. I am glad that she singles out erotic love as the central Munro subject and that she recognizes that Munro is fascinated by the "illusion" of love. What is an illusion of love?  All romantic/erotic  love is an illusion, isn't it? It is most powerful at its beginning and at its end.  In between, there is often merely reality.

Gail Caldwell, Review of Hateship.  The Boston Globe. Nov. 4, 2001, p. C3.
"She is so thoroughly a master of both structure and plot that the crafting of the work is nearly invisible; he stories often feel like effortless, half-conscious slides into another universe."

Me:  The theme of the sometimes wrenching shift into Another Country is a common one in the short story. It is a common observation that Munro's stories are so well-crafted that they seem like no craft all—the essence of art being the concealment of the art.

Sebastian Smee, Review of Hateship. Prospect. Oct. 25, 2001.
Smee says Munro's "great theme is sex. No one alive writes as well on the vicissitudes—the pleasures and aches—of relationship between men and women, nor with such a balance of detachment and compassion."  "For Alice Munro, desire is never just unruly and destructive.  It is also expansive, creating room for experience."

Me: When you think about sex, sex loses its riotous passion, and becomes an object of contemplation—Wordsworth's recollections in tranquility. Love stories are usually told by one of the lovers when the story is over—death, desertion, etc. Or else it is told by a sympathetic or envious observer.  Seldom is it told by one of the lovers in the very midst of the passion, for there is really little one can say about the passion, except when one can recall it.

Michael Ravitch, "Fiction in Review." Oct. 2002, vol. 90, Issue 4. Pp. 16070.
Ravitch says, Munro's stories attain the strangeness and exhilaration of perfectly realized dreams." He says she "embraces all that her contemporaries repudiated: exposition and analysis, plot and character….Yet while her concerns may be old-fashioned and humanistic, Munro is also an acute aesthete.  Her narratives are as elusive as they are satisfying."

Me: The questions is:  how can the stories be so realistic and so fantastic at once?  Carver did it by paring down; Munro does it by amplifying.  How? How are the stories surreal and yet real at once?  This is only possible by transforming the real into an aesthetic object, a formal structure that means something.
Ravitch says the drama in her stories is not merely in what happened, but in how it is remembered and explained." 

Me: Yes, this is true; Munro says the same thing—"how" things are recalled and how the story is told.
Ravitch says: "Her cardinal principle is surprise. She plays with exposition as other writers might play with sentences, always coming up with new ways to perform the trick of concealment and discovery. Just when we  think we have understood the story line, the narrative emphasis shifts, logically and yet magically. The stories seem spacious at first, organically growing, digressing down haphazard paths.  And yet, by the end, all the disparate elements have been fused in rigorous and meaningful ways." "Her stories are like spokes on a wheel, stretching out in all directions at once, opening themselves up to an endless range of interpretation.  Their rich ambiguity converts them from mere fact into fable." 

Me: This is a key concept What is ambiguity in a Munro story?  Something that is not seen clearly, something that could be one thing and at the same time another thing.  When this happens, the thing becomes an object of contemplation and thus an element in an art work, part of a formal pattern, a gesture, a thematic suggestion. Munro's characters wish to remove themselves from the everyday.. Ultimately it does not matter if that "other country" they seek is true or false, real or fantasy. Randall Jarrell once said, we have to reckon with what is true and dreams are true also.

Ravitch says: "What most interests Munro about adultery is the drama of the self-divided." Says her women do not swallow arsenic or thrown themselves under trains but find new sources of happiness; "their imaginations sustain them." "One thing Alice Munro teaches is to interrogate stories, always to ask: What is the motive for speaking?  She presents storytelling as an act of power, an assertion of meaning, a way of taking control of ourselves or other people." 

Me:  Ravitch's review is the best review I have found of the collection Hateship.  I might go back and take another look at the psychologist R. D. Laing about the divided self theme, for I found it helpful in an essay I once did on Eudora Welty's "Why I Live at the P.O." He is right in noting that Munro's women are not like Anna Karenna or Emma Bovary; they are too smart for that, too imaginative.  And he is also right, I think, about how important the power of storytelling is for Alice Munro.

Ann Beattie,  "Alice Munro's Amazingly Ordinary World." The Globe and Mail [Toronto, Ont] 29 Sep 2001: D.2.
Beattie says, Munro's" selectivity and her ability to transform something mundane into metaphor are truly astonishing.  Beattie adds that Munro's accomplishment "is to make the ordinary magical: tree limbs, rocks and water almost alarm us by their viscerally tactile quality. Under her delicate touch, they are transformed; as we connect, we are drawn in to deeper meanings, as in a fairy tale."

Me: Beattie makes a valuable point here.  Too often we try to read Munro's stories as if they were realistic, as if "stuff" in them were merely stuff to stub your toe on.  But instead, like the stories in Arabian Nights, they are magical and metaphoric and meaningful. 

David Crouse, "Honest Tricks: Surrogate Authors in Alice Munro's Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage." In Critical Insights: Alice Munro, ed. Charles E. May. Salem Press, 2013. Pp. 228-41. 
Crouse says: "Munro deemphasizes physical action in favor of the mind in action. In her stories, the central action is almost always the act of perception itself; other actions, what we might normally consider to be the plot, are subsumed or transformed to this end." He argues that her techniques run counter to those used by other realistic writers.  In fact, he says, her stories are also indebted to those of John Barth and Robert Coover in the sixties who made the process of writing their subject. He argues that one of the central conflicts in Hateship is the "conflict between reality and meta-reality, the authentic and the manufactured." He says her narratives are often  in conflict with each other, "possessed of a designed messiness that asks the reader to assemble them, jigsaw-like." 

Me: I think Crouse is right to "correct" our usual assumption that Munro's stories are simple realism, rather than self-reflexive explorations of storytelling itself. He most convincingly argues that in the title story, Edith, the young girl who engineers the lying letters to Johanna, is actually a "surrogate" author of Johanna's story and that her plot succeeds only because she grows more empathetic with Johanna.  I agree.  Johanna's story is created by Edith, much as Othello's story is created by Iago. You don't have to love the neighbor as your self to "know" the neighbor as if he or she were yourself. Johanna's story is "created" by Edith's storytelling.

Next Week:

Time to talk about the five stories from Hateship I have chosen to write about.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Marina Warner's Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights

Marina Warner's generously big book Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights (540 pages with illustrations) is a thoroughly researched examination of the influence of The Arabian Nights on western thought, beginning with its introduction of magical imaginative stories on the so-called Age of Reason in the eighteenth century. I read it recently because I had just read the new translation of Thousand and One Nights by Hanan Al-Shaykh and heard Magdalene Redekop refer to Alice Munro as a Shahrazad in a presentation at the Munro Symposium in Ottawa.
In his review of the book in the New York Times, Harold Bloom says that Warner "persuasively redefines The Arabian Nights as an overgrown garden of the delights and hazards of desire."  Bloom says that one of the important things Warner does in the book is to remind us of our "sore need for another way of knowledge," a kind of knowledge, for want of a better term Bloom calls "literary knowledge."
I have talked about this before in blogs on Jerome Bruner, who in his influential 1962 book, On Knowing:  Essays for the Left Hand, argued that to understand human cognition, one needed an approach that went beyond that provided by the conceptual tools of the psychologist, an approach whose primary medium of exchange was the way of the poet, for poet’s hunches and intuitions create a grammar of their own.   I also talked a bit about this last week in my references to the philosopher Ernst Cassirer who talked about the difference between theoretical and mythical thinking. As Bloom says about Warner, she "shows some of the ways in which storytelling is essential to the kind of knowledge we associate with the so-called Counter-Enlightenment.
In what follows, I will simply cite some of the passages in Warner's book that seemed the most helpful to my own study of the relationship between sex and storytelling in the stories of Alice Munro, commenting briefly on their possible usefulness to me.

Warner: "The power of stories to forge destinies has never been more 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: the Arabian Nights present the supreme case for storytelling because Shahrazad wins her life through her art."
Me: Most everyone who has read Alice Munro knows that one of her primary themes is the importance of story—that is, recalling the past and creating narratives about it, using stories as a way to come to terms with mysteries of human behavior and thought.  She has talked about this in several interviews, which I will pull together later, as well as in many of her stories, which I will refer to in another blog.

Warner: "This is a literature that intends to produce open mouths, shaken heads and inward chuckles. Hyperbole, wild coincidence, arbitrary patterning and illogical chains of cause and effect, all contribute." 
Me: This reminded me of one of the great short story writers of the twentieth century, Raymond Carver. Here is a quote from an essay I did on Carver a few years ago: One of the most familiar images of Raymond Carver recalled by his friends and acquaintances is his participation in storytelling exchanges and his wonder at the mystery of story. Describing Carver’s love of telling and listening to stories; Stephen Dobyns says Carver would scratch his head and lean forward with his elbows on his knees and say, “You know, I remember a funny thing.”  And when someone else told a story, says Dobyns, Carver would “burst forth with oddly archaic interjections like ‘you don’t say’ and ‘think of that"’ Then he would shake his head and look around in amazement." Tobias Wolff describes Carver’s almost “predatory” curiosity when a story was being told, his vibrancy and breathlessness, “as if everything depended on what you might say next. He let his surprise show, and his enthusiasm, and his shock. “No!’ he’d cry, ‘No!’ and ‘Jesus!’ and "You don’t say!’"

Warner: Naguib Mahfouz says Shahrazad's stories are "white magic."  "They open up worlds that invite reflection."
Me: This notion of inviting reflection is important to the short story, for the form began as a means of illustrating moral lessons, which has evolved in a form that is concerned with exploring universal themes.  In both cases, the stories do not exist merely to engage readers in a narrative, but rather a narrative that "means" something that bears thinking about.

Warner: She reminds us that the fairytale does not explore individual psychology or interiority.
Me: The focus in Munro's stories are not a Jamesian exploration of interiority, of examining one's motives, but rather the creation of characters who do things for reasons they cannot themselves understand.  There is some mystery of motivation that denies psychological exploration.

Warner: "The arabesque intrinsically involves a pattern efflorescing on all sides….Endlessly generative and cyclical, arabesque embodies vitality, resourcefulness and the dream of plenitude (no surface left bare) towards which the frame story and the ransom tales themselves are moving…the stories themselves are shape-shifters."
Me: One of the primary innovators of the short story was, of course, Poe.  And  Poe was a great admirer of the "Arabesque."  He even once wrote a story about the 1002 Night.  At the Munro Symposium, Steen Heighton, a writer, notes that Munro's stories are seldom linear and seldom merely functional.  Says her stories are like a hologram—an image fractal like, not limited by the frame. This "dream of plenitude" in which no surface is left bare echoes Poe's fantasy of totality, explored most fully in his long prose poem Eureka, 'but underlying his theory of the short story in which everything is essential to the overall unity of effect.

Warner: "The experience of reading the stories and reflecting upon them is open-ended; surprise is an essential trait, but as we, the audience, quickly learn that surprises must be sprung, it becomes more difficult for the story to catch us off guard."
Me: This reminds me of the fact that the most important point in the short story is the ending.  In the O. Henry type story, the ending was a surprise.  In the  Chekhov type story, it was open-ended.

Warner: She says the narrative wheel of the book parades a variety of narrative forms: proverbial anecdotes, riddles, lyric songs, love poems, epigrams, jokes.  "There is really no rhyme or reason for the unfolding of plots.  When a motive drives the action, envy rules.  Besides envy, lust is the principal catalyst."
Me:  Well, no question that lust is a "principal catalyst" in many Munro stories.  But lust is not a simple matter of the physical, but rather is tangled up with the notion of adventure, freedom, assertion of self, etc.

Warner: "The stories do not obey internal rules about character, motive, verisimilitude or plot structure; they do not easily fit existing theories about fiction, history or psychology."
Me: This relates to the problem of motive in Munro's stories. It is also true that Munro's stories do not follow the traditional rules of the short story (whatever those are).  At least, many recent critics and reviewers has suggested that her stories are not typical short stories (whatever that is).  More about this later.

Warner: "Given the intricacy of the rules, as you lose yourself in the labyrinth, the prosody resembles something fiendishly patterned, more terza rime than heroic couplets."
Me: Losing yourself in the labyrinth is always possible in the Nights.  But, it is also always imminent in the stories of Alice Munro—readers often get lost in the intricacy of the structure of her stories.

Borges has said that all great literature becomes children's literature.  Warner says this paradox depends on the deep universal pleasure of storytelling for young and old: stories like those in the Arabian Nights place the audience in the position of a child, at the mercy of the future, of life and its plots, just as the protagonists of the Nights are subject to unknown fates, both terrible and marvelous."  Borges has said that the greatest literature displays "reasoned imagination."
Me: I need to examine more the implications of Borges' notion of "reasoned imagination."  For the short story often exhibits the paradox of being a fantastic story that is meticulously controlled. See Poe for the most important influence on this in the 19th century.

Warner: "The intricacy and system of a woven carpet imply a strong degree of predictability; the symmetry and recursive repetitions work like oracles: the patterns must come out in a certain sequence, so discerning them becomes paramount but not quite patent.  It needs finesse to read a carpet's complexities." She quotes Nabokov, who said in Speak, Memory: "I like to fold my magic carpet, after use, in such a way as to superimpose one part of the pattern upon another."(p. 125)
Me: I like this.  It not only reminds me of Henry James' story "The Figure in the Carpet," but, more generally, it reminds me of the intricacy of the short story form that requires a careful close reading, for the short story always works more as a language pattern than merely a temporal plot.

Warner: "The Nights inspires a way of thinking ab out writing and the making of literature as forms of exchange across time—dream journeys in which the maker fuses with what is being made, until the artefact exercises in return its own fashioning force.  Both of these principles draw away from the prevalent idea of art as mimesis, representing the world in a persuasive, true-to-life way, and emphasize instead the agency of literature.  Stories need not report on real life, but learn the way to changing the experience of living it." p. 29.
Me: This is a key passage in the book for me, especially the notion that the principles of the stories in Nights draw away from the idea of art as mimesis and move more toward the  idea of art as being self-reflexive.  If you take a look at the history of criticism of Munro's stories, you will notice that early critics focused on her stories as simple realism.  Later critics have tended to focus more on their structural artifice.

Warner: Talking about Giambattista Basile, Italo Calvino says: "A reading in which metaphors, rather than being considered an ornament that adorns the fundamental interweaving of plot, subplots and narrative functions, move them forward into the foreground, as the true substance of the text, bordered by the decorative arabesque threadwork of fabulous vicissitudes," the weaver conjugates structural motifs in infinite combinations within a basic structure of frame, ground and figure, and then inflects each one differently through variations of color, dimensions, quality of material.
Me: This is good, for it emphasizes that metaphor is the very heart of the story, that metaphor is constructive, constitutive not merely ornament.  William Gass talks about this as "model-building" and Walker Percy talks about the constructive process of metaphor as mistake. The notion of the story as being like a carpet woven of various motifs to create a meaningful pattern is crucial.

Warner:  "According to a fairytale principle, mystery rules human drives."
Me: This echoes my frequent observation that motivation in Munro stories is always ultimately mysterious, driven by the demands of the pattern and the story.

Warner: She says some of the marks of oral storytelling are: multiple reprises and repetitions, doublings of characters, generations and incidents."
Me: Yes, I see this in oral storytelling; it aids the memory process for the teller.  But it also carries on in the written story as well.  I wonder why.

Warner: "The dream quality of the Nights depends on a feature of the storytelling mode itself, more fundamental than its optical magic.  When the stories use language to institute impossible realities, images become reality and metaphors' status is dissolved so that any referent becomes fact.  This mental slippage, turning the figurative into the literal, is typical of the dreaming mind, which happily—and often amusingly—makes puns, especially on homonyms and proper names."
Me: This notion of images becoming reality and the figurative becoming the literal reverses our naïve assumption that story is mimetic.  Instead of the story imitating reality, reality imitates story.  Need to refer back to Oscar Wilde's famous discussion of this in "The Decay of Lying."  Why is it important to a study of Munro's stories? Because it reverses the naïve assumption that her stories are mimetic with realistic plots and real characters.

Warner: "The inner life of characters in the Nights flows into their outer circumstances without resistance, and it is not always clear what is dream and what is not.  What you dream looks ahead: perhaps the pattern of all things lying ahead has been set and can be descried in the right conditions." She says Proust aspired to the dream-like qualities of Nights.
Me: We like to think that we can easily distinguish between dream and reality; really, all it takes is a pinch, right to wake us up to reality—as if reality were as certain and secure as all that.  I think Munro's stories depend more on dream than many critics have believed.

Warner: She says Borges' Circular Ruins is an allegory of writing; it "demonstrates how imagination at work in literature forges the impossible through language and opens up meanings to depths beyond sense: the not-sense that magic unfolds." She talks about magic in Nights in which common artefacts are ages of wonders and riches—the marvelous in the banal. "Magic in the stories is by definition capable of imbuing lifeless things with vitality, which often endows single objects with power to affect the group and the whole society—the collective as well as the personal." Hugo van Hofmannsthal once asked, "Where is depth to be found? And answered, On the surface." She discusses the "slippage between object and metaphor, as occurs in the case of talismans and other magical devices in the Nights, where the literal materiality of a thing dissolves into the virtual reality of its powers."
Me: This reminds me of one of Raymond Carver's comments that I have quoted before: "It's possible, in a poem or a short story, to write about commonplace things and objects using commonplace but precise language, and to endow those things--a chair, a window curtain, a fork, a stone, a woman's earring--with immense, even startling power."

Warner: "Observation, imaginative projection and interpretation transform objects of attention and can stimulate them to move and utter—subjectively."  . She refers to Jonathan Lamb's book, The Evolution of Sympathy. Lamb uses the term realism to characterize the ability to be as if "I were you."  She says Hans Christian Andersen was the write most influential in adopting techniques of sympathy from the Nights. Warner: She says that Coleridge's "Suspension of disbelief" is related to the notion of sympathy through identification.
Me: This ability to take oneself out of the self and project into the other is related to "Theory of Mind" that I have discussed in an earlier blog. See also Cassier on mythic thinking, and Eliade on sacred transformation.

Warner: "Lyric combines words and music to create a tempo that readers and listeners experience physically, as in dancing; poetry here struggles to free itself from constraints of reference and meaning, to reach a wordless state of transport (even of self-annihilation."
Me: Since the short story is more closely aligned with poetry than with novel, there is something in the form of this need to break free of the constraints of reference—using  language to transcend language.

Warner: She talks about Freud's couch: "The relation between couch, confession, erotics, daydreaming and storytelling reverberates wonderfully in the figure of the most famous daybed in modern culture, and a prime site of modern fantasy, the couch which Sigmund Freud covered with oriental rugs and cushions."
Me: This is the oriental rug motif again--the figure in the carpet, the notion of the story consisting of interrelated patterns of language that create a form that in itself has meaning.

This has gone on so long, but Stranger Magic is, after all a long book, and, as it is, I have only modestly raided it for material that I think might be helpful.  There is much more in Warner's book than I have been able to suggest.  But I am in a hurry now to get to the stories.  As always, for me, it is the story that must dominate my discussion, not the historical or theoretical context that I might use to  ground that discussion.