April 25th, 2011

Rose-coloured Reviews *Away from Her* by Alice Munro

The movie tie-in paperback of *Away from Her* is cagey about what it actually is. It took me to the very fine print on the copyright page to determine that it’s a recovered, retitled copy of Hateship Friendship Courtship Loveship Marriage from 2004. Which I always thought was a bit much as a title, so perhaps the editors were always dying to make the switch, and the film coming out gave them a shot.

The other difference about the film tie-in copy is that Sarah Polley, who adapted and directed the film, wrote the intro. Now, I like Polley’s acting a great deal, and though I’ve not seen her work as a director, I’ve heard that’s very good too. But whenever I’ve heard/read her speaking in her own voice, in interviews or essays, I’ve thought she sounded like a nitwit, and this foreword is no exception. I’m not sure how her revealing that her love-life in her twenties was a dreary cliche helps us to understand or appreciate the stories. Especially when she has censored almost all that would be specific or emotional or interesting about her anecdotes, to protect her privacy, I guess. The impersonal-personal is my least favourite form of writing.

I understand that we all read fiction through the prism of our personal experiences, and that good fiction can offer a measure of self-help. But it seems so limited to read through that prism *only*; couldn’t Polley have said *something* about art?

I don’t know the order of the original book, but this version leads with the title story, and it is as good–in fact much better than–Polley says. (The story too, has been retitled, from “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” which is good because I don’t understand in the least what that title would mean.) Polley calls it “the greatest love story I’d ever read,” and the story in part is about the endurance of love. But it’s also about the weird turns and uncomfortable moral machinations love can have us take, the comprimises that seem necessary yet we never fully forgive ourselves for.

The story, in case you haven’t read it or seen the movie (I honestly feel like I’m the last one) is about a bright, vivacious, elderly woman named Fiona who seems to be slipping in to Alzheimer’s disease (the disease isn’t, I believe, named in the story), and has to be institutionalized by her devoted husband, Grant. The story of this sad arrangement is realistic and touching, but what’s far more interesting is Grant’s reflections on his treatment of Fiona earlier in their marriage–his dalliances and indiscretions–and his negotiation with her once in the institution, where she appears to forget who he is.

Munro’s stories are really impossible to summarize–they’re long, but they wouldn’t make sense one word shorter, so I’ll leave it at that for “Away from Her.” It’s as moving as Polley tells us, but it’s also morally squirmy and terribly complicated–you’ll think about it for days, or weeks.

The original title story, “Hateship, etc.” is my favourite in the collection, despite the odd title and some other issues. It’s about housekeeper in her midthirties leaving her post and moving out west to pursue a chance at love. I couldn’t quite guess the period–I suspect this was obtuse of me–1950s, maybe? Anyway, a lot of class consciousness plays into the story, and the narration roams freely from one perspective to another, so we see all the levels and angles. Munro is so widely, wildly good–I can’t imagine being about to just drift from one POV to another without seeming awkward or jarring, but she does it at least 4 times in this story, and it seems the most natural thing in the world.

The story, about 2/3 of the way through, becomes excruciating–I almost had to put it down, my terror for the main character was so intense. I’m glad I didn’t; Munro always has a strange twist to share, and I was really delighted with how things came together at the end. However, and one almost never says this about this author, it was not terrible realistic, the ending anyway. I don’t care, I loved it, but I was surprised.

And then, after these two wildly different stories come the other 7, which I thought were very much like each other and very different from either of the other two. In “Floating Bridge,” Jinny is weak from chemotherapy but forced to drive around town in a hot car while her husband Neal indulges his infatuation with a young offender he’s been teaching, and whom he has now hired to work in their home. “Family Furnishing” has a narrator who violently disapproves of her aunts and uncles marriages, full of gender roles and grim silences. In “Comfort,” Nina’s husband is so obsessed with a political battle that he has nothing left to say to his wife.

And so on. Over and over, in this book and really throughout Munro’s ouevre, hetrosexual relationships betray and humiliate: men are stodgy, judgmental, and selfish (“Post and Beam”) and women are pathetic and desperate for approval (“Nettles,” another favourite from this collection, though it did make me squirm at the protagonist’s utter pathos). Munro is unsparing in her grim portrait of the way men and women–especially women–sacrifice bits of their lives adding up to the whole, just to get and keep a mate.

It’s been a while since I read a Munro collection, and since the last one I’ve read several by Mavis Gallant. If Munro and Gallant are the twin stars in the Canadian short-story firmament, I’m starting to think that my horoscope is more Gallantian. There is, I’m convinced, no disparity of talent between the two of them, nor can I really call it a disparitity of kindness–both seem to extend a measure of patience and generosity towards the characters while never sparing them a glaring exposure if that’s what the story demands. And yet…Gallant’s humour can soften some of her hardest truths, while the reverse seems true for Munro–she uses humour to mock:

“I had known this man before I left my marriage and he was the immediate reason I had left it, though I pretended to him–and to everyone else–that this was not so. When I met him I tried to be carefree and to show an independent spirit. We exchanged news–I made sure I had news–and we laughed and went for walks in the ravine, but 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.”

Ouch! The fact that the mockery comes in the first person–many of these stories are written from a point of view of long retrospect–seems to make the vitriol less poisonous, but to me doesn’t really. And yet there is an elegance to Munro’s savaging of dimwitted youth–the mysteries of what is autobiographical and what isn’t, as well her perfect and surprising ways of situating the stories in time. This is a favourite: “In a hotel room in Vanvouver, Meriel as a young woman is putting on her short white summer gloves.” How lovely, and how efficient an opening.

But I still don’t much like Meriel, and I can’t necessarily decipher her motivations, which is true of so many of Munro’s young women. The retrospecitive narration often implies that the women can’t understand their former selves, either, and the men don’t care to do so. A theme of this collection seems to be youth as a foreign country, and that’s a hard one for this reader to work with. I am close enough to being young to think I remember it well, and it wasn’t such a bingo cage as Munro makes it out to be. It’s hard to take seriously women who marry seemingly at random and then resent their husbands “…she admired his thick shoulders, his bull’s neck, his laughing and commanding golden-brown eyes. When she learned that he was a teacher of mathematics she feel in love with what was inside his head also. She was excited by whatever knowledge a man might have that was utterly strange to her. A knowledge of auto mechanics would have worked as well.”

The fault is mine, for I certainly know that in the 50s and even later, there were many women who married at 18 for sillier reasons. But I am me, now, and I can’t help but thinking Meriel is an idiot, and if she feels so badly done by in her marriage she should just get a divorce.

So. I guess what I’m saying is that Meriel’s story–“Post and Beam”–is a very good story about a character who is very realistically rendered as a person I would not want to talk to if I met her. Which is a good an accomplishment as any.

I’m just saying that reading so many such stories in a row can be a little hard on the soul. But maybe my soul needs the expansion and I’m certainly not sorry I read any of these fine, demanding short stories.

This is my 6th book in the Books to Be Read challenge. More to come!

One Response to “Rose-coloured Reviews *Away from Her* by Alice Munro”

  • Frederique says:

    The impersonal-personal is my least favourite form of writing.


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