Tag Archives: Alice Munro

I fear … the giving up of this excitement … that makes you write

Of course it wouldn’t matter if you did give up writing. It’s not the giving up of the writing that I fear. It’s the giving up of this excitement or whatever it is that you feel that makes you write. This is what I wonder: what do most people do once the necessity of working all the time is removed? Even the retired people who take courses and have hobbies are looking for something to fill this void, and I feel such horror of being like that and having that kind of life. The only thing that I’ve ever had to fill my life has been writing.

Alice Munro



26: Friend of My Youth

Friend of My YouthFriend of My Youth by Alice Munro

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

From the Book Shop in Penticton.

Read in October 2013.

View all my reviews

I picked this as my next read after Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize. I had several Munros on my to-read shelf so it seemed like the right time to take one off the pile.

Most of the stories are about women of Munro’s generation, women who, like her, married young and (often) later divorced. I wonder if somewhere in her oeuvre there’s a story about a woman who gets stuck using her first husband’s name for the rest of her life because that’s the name she first published under? We could have known her as Alice Laidlaw.

In Munro’s bio, it’s stated that she left university after two years because her scholarship only covered two years. But I’ve often wondered about that, the official reason, and reading the stories in this collection makes me wonder more. Canadian tuition is nothing like American tuition, even now. Back in the day anyone working full-time in the summer/part-time during the school year would have made enough to cover expenses for the year, assuming they lived frugally. In Munro’s writing, there’s always the official story, the one we tell—to others, to ourselves—and then there’s what lies beneath. Like many of her characters, Munro married immediately after leaving university. Unlike some of her characters, she didn’t return to school later. Which she could have—UVic opened in 1963, when her older daughters were school-age and her youngest daughter hadn’t yet been born. But I’m guessing by that point she didn’t think she needed any more school. She was already a writer.

Speaking of UVic, it’s always a surprise when one of her stories is set in Victoria or Vancouver. In this collection, there are two. “Five Points” (in part) and “Differently.” People always talk about her being from Southern Ontario and her stories being set there, but she actually lived for twenty years in BC (from the early 1950s to early 1970s; her 20s and 30s) and all her children were born here. Presumably, the older ones at least consider BC home, not Ontario.

Anyway, onto the collection.

In “Friend of My Youth” a woman recalls the stories her mother told her about the two years she spent as a teacher before being married when she lived with a family of “Cameronians.” The narrator is a writer so she imagines the ending, the part of the story she doesn’t know.

I had my own ideas about Flora’s story. I didn’t think that I could have written a novel but that I would write one. I would take a different tack. I saw through my mother’s story and put in what she left out. My Flora would be as black as hers was white. Rejoicing in the bad turns done to her and in her own forgiveness, spying on the shambles of her sister’s life. A Presbyterian witch, reading out of her poisonous book. (20-21)

In “Five Points” Brenda is a having an affair with Neil. Brenda is only a few years older but feels like the age gap is more because she married and never left town and Neil is from Victoria and has moved around. There’s a story-within-a-story of a convenience store (Five Points) from Neil’s childhood and the daughter of the family who owned it. Brenda and Neil’s relationship has lost its initial sheen, is starting to sour.

What Brenda has seen of Victoria, in pictures, is flowers and horses. Flowers spilling out of baskets hanging from old-fashioned lampposts, filling grottoes and decorating parks; horses carrying wagonloads of people to look at the sights.

“That’s all just tourist shit,” Neil says. “About half the place is nothing but tourist shit. That’s not what I’m talking about.” (27)

(That made me lol. Encapsulates the whole people-who-have-actually-lived-in-Victoria vs. people-who-haven’t dichotomy.)

In “Meneseteung,” a first-person narrator tells the story of the “poetess” Almeda Joynt Roth. I’ve read this one before, in the English course I took a few years ago. Meda is a spinster, but for a time the town thinks she may marry widower Jarvis Poulter. Then one summer morning she thinks she’s found a dead woman at her back gate and runs to Jarvis for help.

She puts a wrapper over her nightdress and goes downstairs. The front rooms are still shadowy, the blinds down in the kitchen. Something goes plop, plup, in a leisurely, censorious way, reminding her of the conversation of the crow. It’s just the grape juice, straining overnight. She pulls the bolt and goes out the back door. Spiders have draped their webs over the doorway in the night, and the hollyhocks are drooping, heavy with dew. By the fence, she parts the sticky hollyhocks and looks down and she can see.

A woman’s body heaped up there, turned on her side with her face squashed down into the earth. (65)

In “Hold Me Fast, Don’t Let Me Pass” middle-aged biology teacher Hazel goes to Scotland after her husband, Jack, dies to see the places where he spent time during the war. They had planned to go together, of course. Hazel expects the people he always talked about will have left or died, but it turns out they’re all still there. No one remembers her husband, though. Or at least they say they don’t.

She doesn’t mind letting people know that when she was in her thirties she had what used to be called a nervous breakdown. For nearly two months she was unable to leave the house. She stayed in bed much of the time. She crayoned the pictures in children’s coloring books. That was all she could do to control her fear and unfocussed grief. Then she took hold. She sent for college catalogues. What got her going again? She doesn’t know. She has to say she doesn’t know. Maybe she just got bored, she has to say. Maybe she just got bored, having her breakdown.

She knew that when she had got out of bed (this is what she doesn’t say), she was leaving some part of herself behind. She suspected this was a part that had to do with Jack. (83)

In “Oranges and Apples” Murray marries Barbara, a clerk in his father’s store. After his father dies, he runs the family business into the ground. Now Murray and Barbara run a small camping resort. The story shifts between past and present, filling in their backstory. Barbara is a bit of an enigma.

And it turns out that she doesn’t want to be a teacher, or a scholar, or a librarian, or an editor, or to make television documentaries, or review books, or write articles. The list of things that Barbara doesn’t want to do is as long as your arm. Apparently she wants to do what she does—read, and go for walks, eat and drink with pleasure, tolerate some company. And unless people can value this about her—her withdrawals, her severe indolence (she has an air of indolence even when she’s cooking an excellent dinner for thirty people)—they don’t remain among the company she tolerates. (111)

Books from The Book ShopIn “Pictures of the Ice” retired minister and recent widower Austin tells everyone he’s moving to Hawaii to marry a widow, but it turns out he’s really going to middle-of-nowhere Ontario to work himself to death.

She thinks now that he knew. Right at the last he knew that she’d caught on to him, she understood what he was up to. No matter how alone you are, and how tricky and determined, don’t you need one person to know? She could be the one for him. Each of them knew what the other was up to, and didn’t let on, and that was a link beyond the usual. Every time she thinks of it, she feels approved of—a most unexpected thing. (155)

In “Goodness and Mercy” Averill and her mother Bugs (aka June) are on a passenger-carrying freighter, crossing the Atlantic. Bugs is dying but they have kept this a secret from the other passengers. Averill is coming to terms with her mother’s impending death.

The captain did not seem to her a needy man. He did not need to disturb you, or flatter, or provoke, or waylay you. None of that look at me, listen to me, admire me, give me. None of that. He had other things on his mind. The ship, the sea, the weather, the cargo, his crew, his commitments. The passengers must be an old story to him. Cargo of another sort, requiring another sort of attention. Idle or ailing, lustful or grieving, curious, impatient, mischievous, remote—he would have seen them all before. He would know things about them right away, but never more than he needed to know. (167)

In “Oh, What Avails” Joan and Morris grow up with their widowed mother in small-town Ontario. Joan leaves town; Morris doesn’t. Joan marries, lives with her family in Ottawa. Later she divorces, moves to Toronto, manages a bookstore.

She doesn’t understand yet that she doesn’t want to take anything back to Ottawa because she herself won’t be staying in the house there for much longer. The time of accumulation, of acquiring and arranging, of padding up the corners of her life, has come to an end. (It will return years later, and she will wish she had saved at least the wineglasses.) In Ottawa, in September, her husband will ask her if she still wants to buy wicker furniture for the sunroom, and if she would like to go the wicker store, where they’re having a sale on summer stock. A thrill of distaste will go through her then—at the very thought of looking for chairs and tables, paying for them, arranging them in the room—and she will finally know what is the matter. (202)

In “Differently” Georgia visits her dead ex-friend Maya’s widower in Victoria and remembers how everything—their friendship, her marriage—fell apart.

The people who came into the store liked the look of a girl—a woman—like Georgia. They liked to talk to her. Most of them came in alone. They were not exactly lonely people, but they were lonely for someone to talk to about books. Georgia plugged in the kettle behind the desk and made mugs of raspberry tea. Some favored customers brought in their own mugs. (229)

In “Wigtime” Anita runs into her childhood bff Margot while she is caring for her dying mother. Margot married the school bus driver (presumably after he divorced his wife) and had five kids.  Anita became a nurse (Margot’s pre-hooking up with the bus driver ambition), moved to the Yukon, married a doctor, divorced, got a PhD in anthropology.

People who approved of the course Anita had taken in life usually told her so. Often an older woman would say, “Good for you!” or, “I wish I’d had the nerve to do that, when I was still young enough for it to make any difference.” Approval came sometimes from unlikely quarters. It was not to be found everywhere, of course. Anita’s mother did not feel it, and that was why, for many years, Anita had not come home. Even in her present sunken, hallucinatory state, her mother had recognized her, and gathered her strength to mutter, “Down the drain.” (255-256)

I think that’s a good place to end 😉

Searing, disquieting honesty

Given how sympathetic [Jean] Thompson’s characters are, and how tenderly she cares for them, I found it puzzling that after a while, I was anticipating the epiphanic, redemptive plot turns with something closer to apprehension than to the relief and satisfaction I assumed I was meant to feel. … I kept putting down the book to ponder how the greatest writers, the Chekhovs and the Alice Munros, can make the quotidian seem transcendent, while others (not that Thompson is necessarily among these) merely remind us of the claustrophobia-inducing banality of the everyday.

Part of the trouble with “Do Not Deny Me” may be that the structure of these stories can seem more formulaic than organic. … Too often, she seems more interested in finding something with which the reader can safely identify … than in risking the searing, disquieting honesty that makes us (as we do, reading Munro) see and admit something secret and previously hidden about ourselves, our behavior and the world in which we live. It’s the reader, not the character, whose epiphany can make a story memorable.

Francine Prose

8 & 9: Jack & Reading In

Jack: A Life with Writers by James King

Jack: A Life with Writers

Jack is a biography of Jack McClelland, who ran McClelland & Stewart (Canadian publisher that his father founded) for many years (1950s – 80s). McClelland championed Canadian literature and started the New Canadian Library series. As biographies go, this is a pretty entertaining one. You learn (if you didn’t already know!) how close to bankruptcy publishing firms have always operated as well as all sorts of gossip about famous Canadian writers. Be prepared for the usual sexism of the era.

Reading In: Alice Munro’s Archives by JoAnn McCaig

Reading In: Alice Munro's Archives

Reading In is an exploration of Alice Munro’s archives, that is, the papers (primarily business letters) she has donated to the University of Calgary. It’s based on McCaig’s PhD dissertation. Here’s the fascinating part: Prior to publishing the book, McCaig published an article based on her research. Munro (& others) gave their permission for letters to be quoted in the article, however Munro was displeased with the article and subsequently denied McCaig permission to further quote or paraphrase her letters. This means that the book is a truncated version of what McCaig originally intended it to be.

Bizarre, right? Why would a university pay an author for her papers but not make her sign a standard agreement giving researchers permission to quote from the materials as necessary? Don’t universities do this? If they don’t, what’s the purpose of buying this stuff then? In any case, copyright issues with quoting aside, I really don’t see how legally Munro could deny McCaig permission to paraphrase the letters she donated to a university library. It’s like how there is no expectation of privacy with respect to stuff you put in the garbage. She can’t have an expectation of privacy with respect to stuff the public can access.

Reading In had an interesting premise, but I had difficulty with some of the conclusions that McCaig came to. As noted above, Munro only donated her business correspondence. Because the collection is an incomplete record, I think it’s difficult to draw any overarching conclusions about a correspondence or the relationship it documents. Munro obviously kept her personal correspondence (which may include some letters from people she also exchanged business letters with) and there’s also evidence that she likely retained letters that contained editorial suggestions. And of course there’s no record of conversations that took place on the phone or in person (which would seem pertinent when you’re talking about the nature of a relationship). So, ultimately, I’m thinking that perhaps the more valuable discoveries to be made in such an archive will be smaller—more contained—findings that rely less on assumptions.