[The following contains spoilers.]
Dear Life (2012) is Alice Munro’s latest and possibly last collection of short stories. If, like me, you had never clocked Munro until she became a Nobel laureate, here are the basics: she has published fourteen collections of short stories since 1968; she is both a product and an observer of small-town Canada; her writing possesses enough solemnity to add another vertebra to the short story’s Chekhovian spine; she has won the Booker and the Nobel; and, oh, she is eighty two.
In reviews of Dear Life, it is always mentioned but never commented upon. She is eighty two!
Feminine wiles can take off the years, and Munro at times ventures out with her age superbly disguised. In stories such as “Gravel” she writes about being a small child with such unnerving clarity that it may make you conscious of the inferiority of your own childhood memories (and there are over fifty years between Munro’s and mine). In “Gravel,” we seem to be looking through the eyes of a child, at a world which has the authentic pace and scale of a child’s world, but it is all an impossible illusion.
Munro allows herself a self-congratulatory joke at the end of the story “In Sight of the Lake.” The whole tale is revealed to be the dream of a dementia patient, with a nurse at the bedside exclaiming, “See? You’re as sharp as a tack.” Munro is still one of us and not one of them. Many people in their eighties really are languishing in homes, but Munro does not so much give a sense of raging against the dying of the light as of still sunbathing at midday.
Let us think about this: has anybody so old ever written anything as magnificent as Dear Life? I have always assumed that Hemingway was an antique by the time that he wrote The Old Man and the Sea, but he was only fifty-two. Doris Lessing was writing at eighty-eight and Toni Morrison is still plodding along at eighty-two. I have not read a line by the American author Herman Wouk, but he completed a satirical novel in 2012 at the age of ninety-seven. The New York Times describes it as weaving “a comedic yarn using letters, text messages, memos, Variety articles, e-mails and Skype transcripts,” so Wouk is evidently still pretty sprightly. Perhaps he was kept alive by his determination to complete the novel, and he must be apprehensive now that it is finished.
Few authors would accept that their productivity is finite, but it is highly rare for any literary career to end well. One is naturally suspicious of octogenarian authors because they should be surely spent at that age. The idea of an octogenarian magnum opus also runs counter to one’s assumption that writing is an act of struggle or will to power. One expects the great writer to be radical and urgent, to energetically overturn traditions and strive for recognition. To encounter such revolutionary initiative in an elderly author may seem amazing or even unnatural. Should Munro be disqualified as a great writer simply on grounds of age?
Whenever reviewers pay tribute to Munro’s unfussy or “unadorned” style, they may not have come across a deliberate tactic. We may assume that Munro’s failure to adopt the self-conscious literary trickery of her peers counts as a strength. After all, life is itself “unadorned,” and what is ultimately exceptional about Munro’s fiction is its realism. Writer after writer may have flunked it, but Munro has actually succeeded. She has attuned her prose to life’s own authentic cadence. It is disconcerting, therefore, to reflect upon the possibility that Munro’s art may not be very literary or even much of an art. To paraphrase an argument which I wouldn’t personally dare to make, maybe she is just an accomplished raconteur. Instead of Chekhov, perhaps we should make do with the prolific storyteller Somerset Maugham as our most valid reference point. The same Maugham who would, alas, famously describe himself as belonging “in the very first row of the second-raters.”
To rank a particular literature as simplistic is not necessarily to demote it. Writing of great power may be raw or even formulaic. There is nonetheless a tremendous sense of calm and weightlessness and gravity spreading throughout Dear Life. It may seem a peculiar, spectacular leap from Maugham’s side, but Munro’s laconic detachment from her own circumstances and her dedication to exploring them remind me most of the poetry of Sylvia Plath. The alchemy is the same, the transformation of autobiographical materials into some wondrous new element. The destination is the same, but each writer’s journey is wildly different: Plath shot briefly into exhilarating confessional poetry; Munro patiently told story after story, year upon year, making a lifelong home for herself within the short story. Yet far from being simplistic, these stories are, as we shall see, structurally intricate and rich in symbolism.
Munro and Plath were born a year apart and both are essentially stalwarts of the Sixties, although their careers had respectively begun and ended in this decade. During the Sixties Canada, like other Western nations, had witnessed an explosion of anti-establishment protests, strikes, student radicalism, and feminism. In 2003 Munro recalled that, “Having been born in 1931, I was a little old, but not too old, and women like me after a couple of years were wearing miniskirts and prancing around.” In a later interview, she described how she had been “brought up to believe that the worst thing you could do was ‘call attention to yourself,’ or ‘think you were smart’.” Her mother, a schoolteacher, “was an exception to this rule and was punished [i.e. in the eyes of their community] by the early onset of Parkinson’s disease.”
Harking back to the characteristic gentleness of Canadian literature, the backwater calm of Mariposa and Green Gables, Dear Life does not represent the Sixties directly. In fact, Munro only mentions the decade twice and never in relation to the social phenomena which its name invariably designates. If Munro had fled from a conservative periphery and its intolerance of ambitious women, this would not automatically reconcile her with the centre. Margaret Atwood has recounted how, “Back in the 1950s and 60s… Munro found herself referred to as “some housewife”, and was told that her subject matter, being too “domestic”, was boring.” Munro’s youthful radicalism was, in other words, too humdrum for the baby boomers.
A slight distance from “the permissive society” is evident within Dear Life’s opening story “To Reach Japan.” The heroine, Greta, resembles a parodic, immature version of Plath and she sportingly regales us with a line of cod Plath verse. This is a topsy-turvy Plath, however, a betrayer rather than one betrayed. She seems to choose the young actor Greg as a lover after observing how masterfully he entertains her infant daughter Katy. “It was a miracle,” Greta notes, “how much ease with wildness was managed in such a small space.” Earlier, drunk and alone at a literary party, Greta had herself degenerated into something resembling infancy. The description of her rescuer Harris sounds like that of any father, with his “face of a creased and rather tired-looking, satirical, indoor sort of a man.”
On the train which is carrying Katy away from her own father and towards a substitute father for Greta, both girls abandon their carriage. Greta makes love to the man she has stolen from her own daughter, whilst the daughter is left sitting “amazed and alone,” in an apparent reflection of her mother’s loneliness at the party. We may sense that we are being shepherded into condemning Greta, for being more than a mother and for chasing frivolous freedoms. Katy may not be as fragile as we or Greta assume, and her loss of innocence may entail a more authentic liberation from the past than her mother’s adolescent antics. We leave Katy “waiting for whatever had to come next.”
In many of the subsequent stories, Munro proves readier to fight the Sixties all over again and stock conservatives are duly exhumed to make another final stand. For us, relieved to be spared the history that Munro has lived, their patriarchy may seem like Jackson’s half-creepy, half-comical vision in “Train”: “a box on wheels, being pulled by two small horses… And in the box sat a half dozen or so little men. All dressed in black, with proper black hats on their heads.”
“Amundsen” resembles a sardonic retelling of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, with the glamorous, irascible Dr Fox as a straightforward reincarnation of Mr Rochester and the brilliant Mary as a show-stealing madwoman in the attic. Unlike Rochester, however, Dr Fox will not be blinded and undergo a symbolic castration in order to be reconciled with the drippy romantic heroine. He wisely fades into history, along with the tuberculosis which he had derived all of his power from treating. It is perhaps significant that his hometown is named after a heroic explorer whose seaplane and remains had disappeared into the Arctic fog. Mary, meanwhile, has plunged into the present to forget her friend Anabel’s death and she seems to bring more life to the world than the doctor.
Uncle Jasper, the subject of “Haven,” is the second doctor from Dear Life and he and his wife Dawn possibly represent a future which the narrator of “Amundsen” has escaped. As with Dr Fox, Jasper’s Byronic glamour today signifies only a sheer, steadfast conservatism. In the spirit of the Sixties, the narrator demands our tolerance, explaining that, “A lot of people thought that way. Especially men.” When Jasper arrives home to find a bunch of artists in his house, his reaction is as spectacular as we have been anticipating. His disgrace is just as inevitable and his artistic sister’s funeral will be also, in some sense, his own. Yet we may be wary of sacrificing Jasper’s old-world virtues along with his bigotry: “He was relied on never to give up, to tackle cases of blood poisoning and pneumonia and to bring patients out alive in the days when the new drugs had not been heard of.”
In wartime the narrator of “Pride” takes on work that it “wasn’t quite accepted yet” that women could do. He is just as ruthless and inflexible as the two doctors, but perhaps more so in having magnified the negligible physical imperfection of a harelip into a rationale for being “exempted” from society. The title “Pride” is ironic: despite showing stoicism and resilience, the narrator’s pride is in fact a miserablist self-hatred. Everything is forgotten at the end of the story when the narrator and his sad, would-be lover, Oneida, watch five baby skunks playing in their garden. The symbolism does not quite stand in the “proud” narrator’s favour: Oneida could not reduce this perfidious, malodourous beast to a prancing toy.
Patriarchy is more subtly undermined in “Leaving Maverley,” a farce of eyesight whose hero, tellingly named Ray, will illuminate rather than understand. He never sees any of the events in the story even as others rely upon his eyes. He describes movies to the cinema ticket-attendant, Leah, who is not allowed to see them. His invalid wife sees the outside world, rather than the movies, through his eyes. Accompanying Leah home from the cinema, Ray has no inkling that she is about to elope. He is on the spot when Leah makes “an appointment” with the minister who she will later take as a lover, but he sees nothing. When witnessing a meeting between Ray and Leah at the end of the story, however, we may be surprised to realise that we have no means of telling whether they can or will save each other from loneliness. The joke is on us in the end. Ray may have seen nothing during his earlier encounters with Leah, but neither did we. If some in Maverley are disposed to condemn Leah’s moral laxity, the story teases us about the logistical difficulties of prying.
Neal, the cartoon hippy from “Gravel,” voices the mantra of the permissive Sixties, and whether wise or amoral, it seems ultimately irrefutable:
“The thing is to be happy… It’s nothing to do with circumstances… Accept everything and then tragedy disappears. Or tragedy lightens, anyway, and you’re just there, going along easily in the world.”
The “wolf” in this story was never really menacing and a second conceivably fake wolf pops up in “Corrie.” This story is set in a small town where the patriarch and his factory are gone and the next generation are redistributing the spoils. Howard may have transformed Lillian Wolfe into a blackmailer to get at Corrie’s money, but Corrie would have given him the money anyway if he had asked for it. Any deception is devised only to rescue Howard’s pride from his failure as a patriarch. We may feel that we are obliged to condemn the middle-class Howard for stealing in the name of the poor, virtuous Wolfe, or that we should condemn Corrie for doubting her lover. As in “Leaving Maverley,” however, we are prevented from prying and judging by our distance from the story’s facts.
Jackson, the hero of “Train,” represents a refusal to embrace a better future. Returning from war, he jumps the train which is carrying him to his old sweetheart, and he soon settles down with Belle, a cranky old farmer who is sheltering in the ruins of her father’s house. Belle’s father had once contemplated turning to her for a substitute wife; Jackson becomes a substitute for the now dead father; and Belle becomes a passive substitute for the more insistent women from Jackson’s past. This refuge from both past and future is eventually disrupted, but Jackson will not submit to be borne, as if on a train, into the future. His old flame Ileane crosses his path, as incredibly as if by an act of divine intervention, and he is given a second chance. The happy ending of romantic fiction is set up, and then unceremoniously dumped.
Whereas previous stories had depicted powerful doctors, “In Sight of the Lake” involves a search for one. Nancy mistakes the suggestively masculine name of Highman village for that of “Hymen,” a symbol of unspoiled femininity. The doctor in Highman is not high in the sense that he is easy to spot, and the village turns out to be a venue for anarchy and indiscipline. An unruly child, who is apparently riding a bike backwards, is not reprimanded by his parents. Disrespectful teenagers slouch in the street and the ostensibly courteous gardener who assists Nancy seems to collude with them. The town’s factory is now a garden and a place of idleness. Yet this decline of paternalistic authority is, in fact, an illusion, and Nancy’s search will lead her to the nursing home in which she awakens as a prisoner.
“Dolly” describes another collapse of masculine authority. At first Franklin seems to have waltzed straight out of the Sixties, with his confessional poetry and “aw-shucks persona.” Franklin turns out to be so “aw-shucks” that his ancient marriage disintegrates within a day, but his wife, unlike Jackson from “Train,” cannot simply abandon her life. Returning to her husband, she oscillates within minutes from a profound faith in his infidelity to a helpless awe at his devotion. We are compromised, of course, in having been her intimate throughout this journey. Once again, a woman’s freedom has been a destabilising force, undermining certainty and producing a faintly nightmarish narrative.
If the four stories from the “Finale” were not accompanied by the disclaimer that they constitute “life,” then we would have undoubtedly assumed that they were fictional. We have, in fact, no means of corroborating their reality other than Munro’s word. We do not even have her word, however, as the explanation that these stories are “autobiographical in feeling, though not, sometimes, entirely so in fact” could apply just as readily to “Dolly” or to any of the stories which feature protagonists who seem a bit like Munro.
All of these stories are concerned with wayward women. In “The Eye,” the fatally headstrong Sadie seems to wink in solidarity at Munro from her coffin, but this is probably a hallucination; a coupling of female empowerment with sensory derangement which extends the themes of “In Sight of the Lake” and “Dolly.” In “Night,” Munro walks abroad in the small hours because she is worried that she might strangle the little sister who shares her bedroom. She eventually disturbs her father and, in surprise, blurts out her secret. The father reacts calmly: “He did not say, specifically, that I was in no danger of doing any such thing. He seemed more to be taking it for granted that such a thing could not happen.” What Poe had termed “the perverse,” or the temptation to commit senseless destruction, actually represents an awe at your own freedom. Munro gratefully trades this freedom for her father’s reinstatement of authority and conformity. The same screw is turned again in “Voices” when Munro’s mother is affronted that a prostitute has attended the community dance with some young pilots. The imperial airmen who bring death to the world are, it seems, more welcome than the professional lovers who enliven it.
The Finale confirms that, for Munro, fiction is merely a technique of interpreting life. The Finale’s stories are like the myths upon which Munro’s literary civilisation has been founded, except that they have been left until last. The story “Dear Life” actually involves reclaiming a maligned woman from a fiction which had seemingly polluted Munro’s own life. Munro was a baby when the apparent maniac Mrs Netterfield had attacked her home and so she has no actual memory of this event. Mrs Netterfield, of course, was equally unconscious of the insulting interpretation of her behaviour. She will be rescued from slander once the adult Munro has read her poetry.
Dear Life thus releases its bedraggled parade of freed women: wandering wives, “snivelling” prostitutes, badly behaved little girls, senile old ladies and the odd nutcase. It is hardly a spectacular advert for the Sixties and its permissive agenda. The foundries and factories have departed small-town Canada along with its grand, glamorous doctors. The final words of Dear Life offer an apparent lament that we forgive ourselves “all the time,” but these lines are actually descriptive and amoral rather than tragic. Munro might as well have called her book, That’s Life.