Thursday, September 18, 2014

Reading Alice Munro's "What is Remembered"

Like other Munro stories, this story opens with an introit about an incident that does not seem plot related to the story, but might be thematically related. It takes place at some time in the past when the central character Meriel was a young woman and is putting on white summer gloves; she smiles because she remembers something that Queen Sirikit of Thailand was quoted as saying in a magazine—a quote within a quote from the Parisian fashion designer Balmain who told her "Always wear white gloves. It's best."
Meriel is smiling because the advice "It's best" seems a "soft whisper" of advice, a bit of "absurd and final wisdom." When Pierre asks her why she is smiling, she tells him, and he says, "Who is Balmain?" Since the story is entitled "What is Remembered," this introit is about a memory within a memory, just as the quote is within a quote. It prepares us for a story about the nature of memory.
We then shift to some time after the introit incident, when Meriel and her husband Pierre are getting ready to go to a funeral of Pierre's best friend Jonas, who is 29, Pierre's age. They have been friends since childhood; Pierre was a Classics student, got married, got a job, had children, while Jonas was in engineering, but never married or settled down with a steady job. When he comes to visit he likes to talk about the past and becomes irritated when the  conversation turns to the present. This prepares us for a story that is about the past dominating the present.
When Meriel tells Pierre about Jonas' death, he automatically thinks it was suicide, but is evasive when she wants to know why he thinks this. "She felt his evasion to be some sort of warning or even a rebuke. As if he suspected her of deriving from this death—or from their proximity to this death—a feeling that was discreditable and self-centered.  A morbid, preening excitement." (It is not clear what significance this reference to death has, except for the fact that it suggests that one can make use of the death of another for his or her own personal reasons.  The uses of death might be related to the uses of the past.
We now have a long paragraph about husbands in those days who had changed to suitors "desperate in their sexual agonies" and then once married changed to resolute and disapproving men, off to work every morning, days spent in unknown labors.  While the men had a lot to learn, the women could slip back into a kind of "second adolescence" in a "throwback to high school." (This suggests that the story may be about a woman's use of the past in particular)
At the funeral service, the minister compares Jonas's life to a baby in the womb. "If the baby could somehow be informed of what would happen to it in the near future, would it not be incredulous, as well as afraid?  And so are we, most of the time, but we should not be, for we have been given assurance….The baby is lapped in its ignorance." (The funeral sermon echoes the theme the story seems to be emphasizing—being caught in time in which we cannot know the future and seem dissociated from the past, thus lapped in ignorance.)
She watches Pierre at the reception after the funeral and pretends she is seeing him for the first time. She remembers a teacher's party a year or so earlier when she came up to him and talked to him as if he was a stranger and she were discreetly flirting with him. (This notion of pretending to be strangers suggests the sexual charge that climaxes (pun intentional) the story, for Meriel and the man she has sex with pretend to be husband and wife, which gives their encounter an additional sexual charge)
Meriel wants to go and visit an old woman her mother had admired, named Muriel, called Aunt Muriel, although not blood related. Mariel is named for her.  (This is an example of a common Munro technique of doubling; it is a folktale motif).  The bush doctor, Doctor Asher, who had been looking after Jonas, has flown down to the funeral and offers to drive Meriel to visit her mother's old friend. Although their conversation is polite and formal on the drive, when they arrive he offers to come in and wait for her, and his offering of his time and presence seems to have little to do with courtesy and something to do with her.
When they go in, Meriel seems changed by her knowledge of the doctor's interest. "Something had happened to her.  She had a sudden mysterious sense of power and delight, as if with every step she took, a bright message was travelling from her heels to the top of her skull." When she asks him later why he wanted to come in with her, he says, "Because I didn't want to lose sight of you."
Aunt Muriel is of Meriel's grandmother's generation; she was her mother's art teacher. She knows Meriel and the doctor are not married—can tell the difference. When the old woman says she knows he is there with Meriel, he asks how she could tell that.  She answers, "I used to be a devil myself."  
Mariel feels there is some betrayal of the past stirring in the old woman. "Some degradation was in the offing.  Meriel was upset by this, remotely excited." The old woman tells of her youth when she was a devil, and she and her friends had adventures, but all according to a script, engaging in rituals. She tells stories that hint of sexual encounters; once she was blindfolded, but says she knew who it was, for she knew all of them there.  Meriel is "Distracted, play-acting, and with a vague sense of shame." The doctor and Meriel give each other a stealthy, almost married glance, "its masquerade and its bland intimacy arousing to those who were after all not married."
When they leave, in a gesture of intimacy, he reaches over and picks at the cloth of her dress which has tuck to her damp skin while setting. (There are a number of references in this section of the story to playacting, following a script, engaging in a ritual, pretending—and all of it has to do with sex and storytelling.  The idea of masquerade and playing a role is a common one in folktale and fairytale. When it is in regard to sex, as it often is, it seems to suggest the magic of Carnival, or stepping outside of one's everyday world and engaging in a fantasy world, a kind of alternate reality.  The old woman's recollection of the past sexual encounters adds to Meriel's sense of sexual excitement.
In the car, "She was holding in a wail of disappointment, a clamor of desire."  They speak like "caricatures."  Until, "unable to put up with this any more," she says, "take me somewhere else."
We now shift to the present as Meriel recalls this moment.  She believes that the phrase "Take me somewhere else" rather than "Let's go somewhere else" is important.  "The risk, the transfer of power.  Complete risk and transfer. Let's go—that would have the risk, but not the abdication, which is the start for her—in all her reliving of this moment—of the erotic slide."  (This is a key phrase—the "erotic slide" exists in the story, in "what is remembered," not necessarily in the moment.  But of course the moment is now always in the past, is always what is remembered, and thus in the control of the one remembering, being used by the one remembering for her own purposes, and always being amended and altered and added to.)
When Meriel thinks back on their going to an apartment where the doctor has been staying, she thinks she would have preferred another scene, and she substitutes one she prefers in her memory—a hotel in West Vancouver. "There she would have to cross the little lobby with head bowed and arms clinging to her sides, her whole body permeated with exquisite shame.  And he would speak to the desk clerk in a low voice that did not advertise, but did not conceal or apologize for their purpose." She creates a new scene using the "she would, he would" tense-- what might happen but did not except in what is remembered.
"Why did she conjure up , why did she add that scene?  It was for the moment of exposure, the piercing sense of shame and pride that took over her body as she walked through the pretend lobby, and for the sound of his voice, its discretion and authority speaking to the clerk the words that she should not quite make out." (This  combination of shame and pride that the invented scene in the hotel would have created in her seems important.)
"The job she had to do, as she saw it, was to remember everything—and by remember, she meant experience it in her mind, one more time—then store it away forever.  This day's experience set in order, none of it left ragged or lying about, all of it gathered in like treasure and finished with, set aside."  (This is the most explicit reference to "The key to the Treasure is the Treasure." For her, the experience takes on significance if she can set it all in order, making use of all the details and creating details when necessary, making a treasure in the mind of the experience.  The key to this treasure is the process of making it in the mind and making use of it.)
The final part of the story projects Meriel more than thirty years later, after Pierre has died.  She recalls reading to him during his illness.  One book was Turgenev's Fathers and Sons, and they have a discussion about the scene when Bazarov declares his love for Anna Sergeyevna.  Meriel wanted the scene to do differently  She thinks Anna would not have reacted as she did, that it is just Turgenev yanking them apart for reasons of his own. She thinks they should have had the sexual encounter that Bazarov wants and Anna demurs from. Pierre says that Meriel's view is romantic. "You're wrenching things around to make a happy ending."
When Pierre argues that if Anna gave in, it would be because she loved him and when the sex was over she would still love him, for that is what women are like when they are in love, but Bazarov would leave in the morning because it is his nature; he hates loving her. When Pierre asks how would that be better, Meriel repels, "They'd have something.  Their experience." (This, of course, is a reference to her experience with the doctor—that although nothing "actually" ever came of it, "what is remembered" is the treasure that remains.
Now we shift back to the past when Meriel goes home on the ferry. "What she had to go through was wave after wave of intense recollection.  And this was what she would continue to go through—at gradually lengthening intervals—for years to come.  She would keep picking up things she'd missed, and these would still jolt her." (And thus, the power of the encounter lies in the mind of the one remembering, and the reality of it is in the memory).
"She remembered his hazel-gray eyes, the close-up view of his coarse skin, a circle like an old scar beside his nose, the slick breadth of his chest as he reared up from her." "Sudden recollection of even their early, unsure, and tentative moments could still make her fold in on herself, as if to protect the raw surprise of her own body, the racketing of desire. My love—my love, she would mutter in a harsh, mechanical way, the words a secret poultice." (This suggests the use of the memory—what Eliot calls the fragments one shores up against one's ruin).
She sees the doctor's picture in the paper after his death in an air crash. "The fact that he was dead did not seem to have much effect on her daydreams—if that was what you could call them.  The ones in which she imagined chance meetings or even desperately arranged reunions, had never had a foothold on reality, in any case, and were not revised because he was dead.  They had to wear themselves out in a way she did not control and never understood." (Meriel "works" with the memory, creating possibilities that exist only in the mind—what makes the memory so powerful and important is precisely that it is a memory—that it is something one can work with creatively.)
When she was on the ferry that night, she watched the wake of the boat and the thought occurs to her "that in a certain kind of story—not the kind that anyone wrote anymore—the thing for her to do would be to throw herself into the water.  Just as she was, packed full of happiness, rewarded as she would surely never be again, every cell in her body pumped up with a swe4et self-esteem. A romantic act that could be seen—from a forbidden angle—as supremely rational." (This is the central romantic notion—one that Heathcliff would understand, that Anna Karenina would understand, that Gatsby would understand.)
After Pierre's death, she recalls one further detail—that when he takes her to the ferry, she starts to kiss him and he says, "No, I never do."  She understands this to be a kind of cautioning. "Information that could not make her happy, though it might be intended to keep her from making a serious mistake. To save her from false hopes and humiliation of a certain kind of mistake." She doesn't doubt this recollection is true. "She did not see how she could have suppressed it so successfully for all this time.  She had an idea that if she had not been able to do that, her life might have bene different."  (This act of refusing to consummate the encounter with a goodbye kiss is important, for it forces her to give up any idea of sustaining the relationship except as an idea, a dream, a fantasy, a manipulation of the past into a story.)
Meriel thinks she might not have stayed with Pierre. She thinks that trying to match what had been said at the ferry with what had been done earlier would "have made her more alert and more curious.  Pride or contrariness might have played a part—a need to have some man eat those words, as refusal to learn her lesson—but that wouldn't have been all.  There was another sort of life she could have had—which was not to say she would have preferred it.  It was probably because of her age and because of the thin cool air she breathed since Pierre's death, that she could think of that other sort of life simply as a kind of research which had its own pitfalls and achievements." She thinks that prudence, some economical sort of emotional management had been her guiding light all along.
She thinks of the "self-preserving moment" the doctor made, the kind and deadly caution, the attitude of inflexibility that had grown a bit stale with him, like an outmoded swagger. She could view him now with an everyday mystification, as if he had been a husband.  She wondered if he'd stay that way, or if she had some new role waiting for him, some use still to put him to in her mind, during the time ahead."
What is the purpose of people and the past?  For the writer, the past is for transformation into story. And for the writer, people exist to transform into characters in stories.  I have one more Munro story from the volume Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage to "read" in preparation for my essay--"Family Furnishings"-- the central story in the collection about using people and the past to create stories. I hope by this time next week to have enough material to write that essay.


Unknown said...

Dear Charles May -- Thank you for your wonderful posts. Alice Munro is my favorite female short story writer. William Trevor is my favorite male short story writer. My husband put me on to the WSJ book club covering Alice Munro's work. Yours was the best post and it led me to your blog. What a lot of effort! I've read Hateship, Friendship...several times and I've listened to it on cd, but you have given me new things to think about. I write fiction and have had several stories published. While my vision is much different than Ms. Munro's, I admire her details immensely. What an incredible talent! I hope she hasn't really retired.
Sincerely, Kathleen Glassburn

Charles E. May said...

Thank you, Kathleen, for your kind comments about my blog. I too hope Ms. Munro has not retired completely from writing, but I suspect she has. I just finished rereading "Family Furnishings" and better understand her recent remark that she wanted to quite writing so she could lead a "normal" life.

Unknown said...

Thanks for your response. I have many Alice Munro stories that I have not read yet, so they should keep me busy for a good long while. And, I will continue to read your blog. I read Steve Almond's article and appreciated his viewpoint. I got an MFA in December of 2001 -- an interesting/horrific time to be completing this degree. I love Best American Short Stories and have been reading them, analyzying them, since 1993. My new copy is on order. His remarks about a "curious arrogance toward published authors" hit home. I remember that few of the other students in my program seemed as enamored with this collection as I happened to be. Maybe a "kind of quiet panic" accounted for some of the attitudes I witnessed. And, how true -- Almond's remark about "thousands of doubt-choked hours working to improve and absorb tons of rejection..." I've written all my life and have been sending work out for about the last ten years -- never satisfied with any of my efforts, but feeling like I've failed myself if I don't try. I hope Dorothy, in another comment, will continue to send her work out. Most of my hundreds of rejections have been form letters, an occasional kind, encouraging remark, only one really upsetting comment comes to mind. As managing editor of an on-line publication, I read and reject so many submissions. At first, this was really hard. Now, I consider this to be part of the process -- we all have to go through it.