by Karl Miller

Not bad for a housewife

October 28, 2009 | by Karl Miller

Both of them grew up with an ancestral propriety and severity (and, in Munro’s case, antisyszgy, or duality), and they responded in contrasting ways (MacLeod’s is the way of the austere male). Munro perceived, when she was young, a Scottish ‘faith’ in meritocracy, while learning to doubt the Scottish belief in justification by faith, in the efficacy of God’s grace, in election and predestination, as opposed to justification by merit, or good works. Nationality is for most people an elusive business of difference and of mixed blood, and the Scottish mind is a compound of mentalities, where Highland and Lowland and Irish elements conspire. Munro’s mother had Irish blood, and there is something of the Hiberno-Scot about her art and life, as there is of what might seem to be Viking and Gypsy strains.

Born Alice Laidlaw, she is ‘proud’ to be linked by descent with James Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd, who was pleased to claim descent from a Viking raider. Another Ettrick shepherd, William Laidlaw, Hogg’s cousin and her great-great-grandfather, left for North America; another cousin, James Laidlaw, who also went there, was a man who believed in original sin and in the preordained good fortune of the elect – and an enemy of the lies told by novelists. She was reared in the farmlands of Ontario, one of a community of Scottish Protestants. The old rural Ontario can be portrayed in her earlier stories as a place from which inhabitants might want, and might find it a struggle, to move away, where there are bunkered-down blamers, with a streak of timidity and reserve. Never brag, they said, and they also seemed to think what the football manager Gordon Strachan came out with the other day: “There’s nothing wrong with suffering.” Munro’s new book, Runaway, explains, of one of her disaffected girls: “Her sort of intelligence was often put in the same category as a limp or an extra thumb.” It was important for women to be able to work a sewing-machine, tie a parcel and keep your slip from showing. Those who grew up in Midlothian at this time will remember these skills.

Two of her stories, in particular, allude to a past and present Scotland. ‘Hold Me Fast, Don’t Let Me Pass’ is set in the Borders, where a Canadian widow witnesses the triangular loves of a sardonic solicitor, and where she sits in a library reading up on “the old monasteries that were here in Selkirk County once, and the Kings with their Royal Forest, and all the fighting with the English. Flodden Field.” Verses from the ballad of Tamlane, about an abduction by the Queen of the Fairies, are woven through the tale. Tamlane was snatched at nearby Carterhaugh, and the arrangements for his rescue give the tale its title. Alice Munro had been attuned early on to the erotic and magical enchantments of that celebrated countryside, and she used to regale her family with a version of Hogg’s tale of a call made by a deputation of fairies on his grandfather, Munro’s ancestor Will o’ Phaup, an athlete, fighter and drinker of ballad or legend stature, a “man of probity” and the last man thereabouts to converse with the spirits. At the mention of the holy name of God these creatures disappear.

‘Friend Of My Youth’, one of the most satisfying of her stories, has a Robert who comes from Scotland to Canada, where he takes up with two sisters, one of whom, Flora, is a Cameronian: what she has is “not piety exactly – you could not call it that. Religious strictness.” Flora’s kind believe that the wicked flourish, but it is all right – “the elect are veiled in patience and humility and lighted by a certainty that events cannot disturb.” They also believe, less patiently, that “God dealt out punishment for hurry-up marriages – not just Presbyterians but almost everybody else believed that. God rewarded lust with dead babies, idiots, hare-lips and withered limbs and club-feet.” Or an extra thumb.

James Hogg, himself the father of illegitimate children, one or more, was willing to state that such children were at risk of being born deformed in mind or body. The story’s female narrator blames her mother, and her friend Flora, for not liking sex. She herself likes it, and thinks there’s a history to these conflicting attitudes:

My mother had grown up in a time and in a place where sex was a dark undertaking for women. She knew that you could die of it. So she honoured the decency, the prudery, the frigidity, that might protect you. And I grew up in horror of that very protection, the daily tyranny that seemed to me to extend to all areas of life, to enforce tea parties and white gloves and all other sorts of tinkling inanities. I favoured bad words and a breakthrough; I teased myself with the thought of a man’s recklessness and domination. The odd thing is that my mother’s ideas were in line with some progressive notions of her times, and mine echoed the notions that were favoured in my time.

Alice Munro came of age at a time, the sequel to the Second World War, when liberation was there to be accepted or refused, and when lust and its interdiction were bound to play a part in the fiction she went on to write. She can’t be said to side with the hippy challenge of the time to conventional life, but there are stories by her which make a challenge of their own, while also exposing ways in which liberation can go wrong or do harm. In her daughter Sheila’s account of Munro, and of herself, Lives Of Mothers And Daughters, there’s word of an inscription in a book, taken from Charles Kinglsey:

Be good sweet maid
And let who will be clever.

Alice Munro appears to have said: “I thought I’d do the opposite.” She never wanted to be ‘nice’. Niceness, she thought, looking back as a parent, was “such a terrible abnegation of self”; but she also came to wonder whether the counter-culture of the Sixties may have “made me self-centred.” Meanwhile she was dedicated to writing her stories, a miracle of commitment. Endure and adapt, writes her daughter, was “the classic Laidlaw pose.” Alice Munro endured. Not every Laidlaw adapted.

Two of her greatest stories show her interest in freedom and impediment. ‘Walker Brothers Cowboy’ tells how the narrator, a young girl, goes with her father, a sprightly commercial traveller, to a lonely house where a robust woman is living with her sick mother. At home, the girl’s own mother ails and complains. She conveys without stating, that the woman they’re visiting had once been her father’s lover. In all this lies a heartbreaking loss and frustration.

‘Thanks For The Ride’ is a story daring for its time, which some magazine prude turned down as “a bit ‘dubious’” (the inverted commas are the perfect touch for such a rejection). But her first husband rightly admired it greatly, as have many others. Two young men, the narrator and his cousin, sit about in a lakeside town’s flyblown café, and then drive off into the countryside with two girls, after a call at the naff house of the narrator’s date Lois: “cold and narrow and pale. There was a derision, and also great gravity, about her mouth.” She leads the narrator to a barn. Afterwards the four return to Mission Creek, where there’s to be no display of parting sentiment.

Nevertheless, Lois proves quite unlike any cardboard cut-out from their sad café. She is like St Teresa. “There are some people who can only go a little way with the act of love, and some others who can go very far, who can make a greater surrender, like the mystics.” The gravity of Lois’ one-night passion is a shock. When I first read the story, the reference to a mystical surrender seemed a bit throwy. Reading it again, I feel I can bear it – as a shock tactic, perhaps. Elsewhere, the story has nothing in the way of unction or grandiloquence. If there’s a wish, on the writer’s part, to exalt, it’s a wish which its readers must often have been brought to respect. It does what is a rarely done. It speaks up for ‘lust’.

“Housewife finds time to write short stories”, ran a heading, at the start of her career, in a Vancouver newspaper: this was a time of her life when interviewers would treat her as if she was not ‘normal’. Good writers get the detractors they don’t deserve, and one objection to her activities has invoked the time-finding housewife, or some provincial female. Two other objections, the first familiar, the second easy to imagine, are just as philistine: that she writes stories rather than novels, and that she writes out of the circumstances of her life. The first objection is revealed for what it is by the argument that her complete stories are the one long story of her life, the one work of art, and by the fact that three of the eight stories in Runaway could readily be sequenced as a novella, if not a novel.

The Juliet of the new stories gains a partner, a prawn fisherman, and has a daughter with whom she pays a painful visit from the West Coast to her parents in hometown Ontario, and who later vanishes, as if stolen by fairies. Her father Sam is a retired teacher, and his wife has become terminally ill. A woman Juliet finds difficult has been hired to help. Such features can be measured against the facts of Alice Munro’s life, but then, for art’s sake, these facts are changed, made over, made up, re-imagined, in what she writes, as a small disparity illustrates. Munro’s daughter recalls her mother’s keen early taste for the actress Elizabeth Taylor, whose performance in Father Of The Bride is nevertheless looked down on in Runaway by an Alice-like waitress; the Taylor of the movie is a mere spoiled rich kid, insists the girl. What Munro writes is art, certainly. But it’s also worth taking seriously her daughter’s inability to “unravel the truth of my mother’s fiction from the reality of what actually happened.” Alice Munro is not among the writers who choose to write, as she puts it, about “something quite different” from what happened to them.

There’s a temptation to deny that her fiction has themes, or opinions, to think it as bare of all that as Symbolist poems were expected to be. It’s true that themes and opinions are never obtruded, never, if you like, bragged about – that story, tone, her shrewd and shapely sentences, her wonderful, individual persons and places, animals and weathers, are paramount. In the collection Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Love-ship, Marriage, a human detachment is memorably caught, in the plainest of words: “She wore a sophisticated black hat and did not speak to anybody unless they spoke to her first. Even then, she did not seem to remember them.” In the story that follows, a wife on chemotherapy, Jinny, and a hippy husband, in his “shaggy outlaw clothes”, are joined by another of the writer’s awkward home helps, Helen, who had a tender pink skin. Jinny had noticed as well her nearly white lashes and eye brows, her blond baby-wool hair, and her mouth, which had an oddly naked look, not just the normal look of a mouth without lipstick. A fresh-out-of-the-egg look was what she had, as if there was one layer of skin still missing, and one final growth of coarser grown-up hair. She must be susceptible to rashes and infections, quick to show scrapes and bruises, to get sores around the mouth and sties between her white lashes. Yet she didn’t look frail. Her shoulders were broad, she was lean but large-framed. She didn’t look stupid, either, though she had a head-on expression like a calf’s or a deer’s.

In Helen, Jinny scents an innocent and disagreeable power. But Helen is not hated in the story.

As she has herself acknowledged, Alice Munro does have themes, though they are better called concerns, and Helen is one. In the Runaway novella she is re-done as Irene, though each is her own awkward home help, a different person, less representative, and less thematic, than “odd.” Irene intimidates Juliet and excites her father. Invalids are formidable in Munro, a source of guilt. This is another of her concerns. She does not flinch, nor does her daughter, from blemishes, decrepitude and other failures of the flesh. Juliet’s mother, in the bath, “did not look like an old woman as much as an old girl – a girl, say, who had suffered some exotic, wasting, desiccating disease.” Not cruelty exactly, this description; more “the reality of what actually happened.” But it’s the sort of thing that causes a young girl in another of her stories to be blamed by her mother for her “cruel tongue.”

Her new book has one or two plots which spring surprises, play tricks, of a sort that occurs in Shakespeare’s plays, including those in which a comedy of errors is staged, a resemblance she enjoys. She feels that this is a book in which “happy things happen.” Other things happen too. Established concerns are repeated and extended and amended. Juliet’s life pursues a course which leads her to think of her home as back there in Ontario, where it began and from which she has wished to escape, rather than in British Columbia, where she had gone to live with her man. There, in Whale Bay, having taken him from Christa, she is drastically upset when he sleeps with Christa during her trip to Ontario. Christa becomes her friend, and later an invalid. Her daughter goes off, into the arms of a mystical commune: Juliet, having flown from Ontario, is now disappeared against, rather than disappeared.

Her father Sam must owe something to Munro’s father, Robert Laidlaw, who, after a lifetime of hard physical work, took to writing and finished a novel on his death-bed. One of its male characters makes the bold statement that “we Scots people” may “lack something,” that there are fathers and sons who don’t love each other. This book, The McGregors, is about Canada’s pioneer Scots who also appear in a book planned by his daughter Alice on her ancestry.

During Juliet’s trip to Ontario, Sam is found to have fallen out with the local education authority over the rumour that Juliet is not married to her partner. The presence in this late work of such intrusions and constraints testifies to an abiding resentment on the writer’s part. Juliet then discovers that Sam has been conceding too much to the kind of people he had struggled against in the past. “Here is where we live,” he says of his wife and himself, in response to Juliet’s reference to this “disgusting place.”

The scene with Sam stands at the centre of Munro’s world, with its subtle distribution of sympathies. The tendency of the three stories, of their concern with disappearance and return, is by no means to depict an unqualified submission to Ontario, let alone to the values of the old Ontario, which several of her girls are seen to leave. Nor is it the renewal of a youthful rejection of the place. It seems appropriate that she should now live in Clinton, Ontario, for half the year.

The first story, ‘Runaway’, has a Helen-like help, and an epiphanic goat, who goes missing and then shows up one night in a nimbus of car headlights. This contributes darkly to the girl’s dealings with a boorish husband – they run a riding stable. The woman she works for encourages her to abscond, but will she? The story has complex cross-currents. We can’t be meant to think that authenticity lies in wifely submission. No opinion is expressed about this, or that.

The waitress story in the book is called ‘Passion’, a title that might seem to link it with ‘Thanks For The Ride’. The girl in question, courted by a decent engineering student to whom she isn’t really drawn, takes off, during a family party of his, on a car ride with his attractive-depressive alcoholic half-brother. This story too might once have been thought a bit ‘dubious’ by editors, and there may still be readers who might consider it more problematical than the earlier one. Both stories, in speaking up for sexual love, commemorate what was once an exiled people, seeking refuge in a religious grimness and denial.

Her stories were too short, apparently, to have been judged suitable in the past for the Booker Prize (the novella provides a chance to overturn that rule, this time round). But they have been widely read in this country, and suitably discussed by a succession of literary journalists – notably by A.S. Byatt. One day the universities will catch up – with Alice Munro and with Canadian talent generally. Let’s hope that, when they do, they won’t feel they have to say again what has been said before: that her stories are good because they are more post-modernist than you might think. Her books are built to resist the siege of categories. But it’s all right to call her Canadian, and to call her Scottish.

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