Monday, 26 January 2015

Alice Munro’s Magic

The stories selected in Family Furnishings, a fine and timely follow-up to Alice Munro’s winning of the 2013 Nobel Prize, date (it says on the cover) from 1995 to 2014, thus making a sequel to the Selected Stories of 1996, which drew on the previous thirty years of Munro’s writing. But there is one exception to this dating in the new selection, the magnificent story “Home.” “Home” was first published in a collection of Canadian stories in 1974, so it was written when Munro was in her early forties. She then went on working on it for thirty years, revising, correcting, and changing its shape, and it was republished in much-altered form in 2006: so it appears here as a “late” story. That process of revisiting is fundamental to Munro’s methods. She constantly revises her work; she reuses her subject matter with the utmost concentration and attention; and her characters, like her (and often they are like her), compulsively return to their pasts.
“Home” tells of a visit, in the first person, to the farmhouse she grew up in between the 1930s and the 1950s. All Munro readers know this place, and know that it is a farm in Morris Township, Huron County, Western Ontario, near the town of Wingham, though it often isn’t named in the stories, or is called something else. She is visiting her father and her stepmother, with whom she has an edgy relationship. She is remembering her mother; she is recalling her childhood; she is witnessing, though she doesn’t yet know it, her father’s final illness.
And she is deciding, as Munro’s characters often have to decide, what “home” means, and what to do with it when you have left it:
Time and place can close in on me, it can so easily seem as if I have never got away, that I have stayed here my whole life. As if my life as an adult was some kind of dream that never took hold of me.
Her long journey home begins with three bus rides, the first fast and air-conditioned, traveling along the highway, the second a town bus, the third an old school bus making stops out into the country: as if, stage by stage, she is traveling into a slower close-up of her past life. In the last bus, it is difficult to see out of the windows:
I find this irritating, because the countryside here is what I most want to see—the reddening fall woods and the dry fields of stubble and the cows crowding the barn porches. Such unremarkable scenes, in this part of the country, are what I have always thought would be the last thing I would care to see in my life.
Something very similar happens in a story called “The Beggar Maid,” in Who Do You Think You Are? (1978), anthologized in the earlier Selected Stories, where a scholarship girl at university from a poor rural family has to deal with her rich, clever boyfriend’s snobbery. His condescension to her uneducated family and “unremarkable” surroundings, which she herself at this point can’t wait to get away from, brings her confusion and misery:
Nevertheless her loyalty was starting. Now that she was sure of getting away, a layer of loyalty and protectiveness was hardening around every memory she had, around the store and the town, the flat, somewhat scrubby, unremarkable countryside.
“Loyalty” might seem an odd word to pick out as the key to a writer who famously betrays her home, her family, and her tribe in order to make stories out of them, and who exposes with ruthless energy and a cold eye the shameful secrets of the long-ago past. In the stories, she often reproaches herself for these betrayals—she knows that she has “escaped things by such use”—and is reproached for it by those she has left behind and then made use of.
“Use” is a loaded, uneasy word in Munro: when she goes back to her hometown she sometimes feels that she has “written about it and used it up.” She knows the shifty, blurring lines between “using,” “using up,” and “making use of.” But she is committed to the principle of using everything up, just like her Scottish Presbyterian Laidlaw ancestors, whose immigrant history she reconstructs in one of her most lavishly staged, large-scale, and well-known stories, “The View from Castle Rock.” That “rock” of Puritan principle appeared at once, when she first started drawing on her family life. In “The Peace of Utrecht” (1960), a young woman returning to her family home after her mother’s death visits her aunts, who, to her horror, have saved her mother’s clothes for her, which she rejects:
They stared back at me with grave accusing Protestant faces, for I had run up against the simple unprepossessing materialism which was the rock of their lives. Things must be used; everything must be used up, saved and mended and made into something else and used again.
Wanting to shed the family stuff, yet needing to use it and make it “into something else”: the theme is echoed in the title phrase of this new selection. It’s spoken by a character called Alfrida, a cousin of the narrator’s father, once an object of fascination to the girl, now a burdensome reminder of the past. Alfrida’s house is stuffed full of furniture. “‘I know I’ve got far too much stuff in here,’ she said. ‘But it’s my parents’ stuff. It’s family furnishings, and I couldn’t let them go.’” The Munro-ish girl in the story, busily trying to shed her “family furnishings” as fast as she can, will also find, by the time she becomes the writer of this story, that she “couldn’t let them go.”
In spite of herself, the writer has remained loyal. She is loyal to place and the past, faithfully and perpetually reconstructing it, so that no one, having read her, would ever again say, “What’s so interesting about small-town rural Canada?” She is loyal to truth, getting the detail precisely right in every phrase and word, so that people, habits, objects, scenes, and places that are lost and gone in the real world remain alive on her pages. (“It was more than concern she felt, it was horror, to think of the way things could be lost….”) She is loyal, also, to her chosen form, masterfully working and reworking it all her life, so that no one in the world now would say, “Why didn’t Alice Munro ever write a novel?” or “Why would a short-story writer win the Nobel Prize for Literature?”
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