LIKE HAMLET’S SPEECHES, HER BEST STORIES FEEL INEVITABLE
Look at that word, ‘‘ continually’’, which does so much work and yet which is so unobtrusive. It does, or says what it means: the metal goes on moving, continually. But there is more: its syllables are like the metal plates, shifting against each other. And so the meaning of this phrase deepens, in a way we may not understand but will certainly feel.
If this story was a movie, this moment would be a turning point, and indeed Greta resolves to live differently from now on. She sees her sexual life beyond her marriage — and her poetry too — as a ‘‘ sin . . . crowd[ing] the child out’’, again, a common theme in Munro’s stories. But remember that Munro is a Chekhovian writer and her stories are not like the movies. Greta’s journey continues, with Katy beside her, and at its end her new lover is waiting. Katy, having pulled her hand away from her mother’s, stands on the platform with them. ‘‘ She didn’t try to escape. She just stood waiting for whatever had to come next.’’
Munro has said her own favourite among the 14 stories in this collection, as it ‘‘ gave me so much trouble’’, is the second, Amundsen, about an educated young woman who goes to a tuberculosis sanatorium deep in the country, to teach the children who are hospitalised there. She meets the sanatorium doctor, whose first words to her are a challenge: when our narrator, honestly, but also to introduce her own cleverness, says the frozen lake and the snow-thick woods remind her of a Russian novel he counters, ‘‘ Which Russian novel?’’ There is, although the words go on, a beautiful pause here. We know Dr Fox will be important to the narrator, but in Munro’s stories we are not to know why too early. We experience discovery at the same rate as her characters.
Other stories in the collection are about small towns, the private lives of people who have always lived without change. There is a love affair, blackmail — of a sort — a drowning, the advancement of old age. In Sight of the Lake follows a woman in search of a doctor who has said she needs to see him for her increasing memory loss. She walks through the small town where his rooms are and, directed to the nursing home and finding no one around, lets herself in. If I were to say what comes after it would spoil the story. It is not a cataclysmic event, but its effect is cataclysmic.
The most remarkable story here is Train, which covers many years. It concerns a man, Jackson, returning from World War II. He jumps off his train as it slows, some distance before his home station. He knows that if he walks towards the station he will be there after dark, but will be able to say he fell asleep, got that science, and science fiction, have within the book — although Murray is quick to point out, in the opening lines of The Future, that ‘‘ Much science fiction is set there / but it is not about it.’’ Indeed, these poems focus on confused. ‘‘ But all the time he’s thinking this, he’s walking in the opposite direction.’’
There is something to be avoided at home, but we don’t know what it is. Jackson washes up at the farm of Belle, a woman living alone after her parents have died. They become companions, not lovers. They live together for years, putting the farm and house into order after long disrepair.
Belle gets cancer and Jackson takes her to hospital in the city. In a kind of post-operative lucidity, Belle tells him about an encounter with her father that has some notes of sex in it, though nothing too harmful, but which caused him to kill himself. She says remembering has made her feel ‘‘ released. It’s not that I don’t feel the tragedy, but that I have got outside the tragedy ... it is just the mistakes of humanity.’’
The next morning, walking the streets of the city, Jackson allows himself to be caught up in a small drama unfolding outside an apartment building. He offers help, it is accepted, he moves in. He never sees Belle again. Years later, he reads of her death. And then comes the arrival, at the apartment building, of a woman he once had sex with in the years before the war. This was the woman who was waiting for him at the last station, when he leaped off that train. She had taken him in when he was young, so that he could escape his stepmother, whose ‘‘ fooling or . . . teasing’’ he had ‘‘ locked up’’ inside himself. And now it is time for him to leave again.
In the hands of another writer we would have war trauma and staging of the possible abuse by the stepmother. But Munro trusts us to understand the passage of this man’s life, his need to escape when sex intrudes on life. The final effect, as in all the stories, is to make us look back over the narrative we have just followed and to see it differently. It’s like watching trees suddenly growing up over a path. How were we reading this story? How should we read it now?
The final four pieces in Dear Life, with the subtitle Finale, are introduced as ‘‘. . . not quite stories. They form a separate unit, one that is autobiographical in feeling, though machinery, on factories, on spectacle and artifice (‘‘How many metal-bra and trumpetflaring film extravaganzas’’? asks Machine Portraits with Pendant Spaceman). But science is present here only because of what it stands against. The delightful sense of satire only underscores how Murray’s images of the future portend the destruction of the past.
Indeed, this book seems almost constantly to be casting a glance over the shoulder, towards ancestors, family lore and foundational myths of country and country life. Poems such as The Mitchells and Rugby Wheels are populated by toughened, laconic bushmen, whose poetry is one of plain truths and simple statements. There are poems too such as the pointedly titled As Country Was Slow that centre on memories of a past generation, seeking almost to reanimate them: The uncle who farmed our place (. . .) growing fuel for the horses who hauled the roads then. (. . .) Will I see fuel crops come again? This romanticism and nostalgia is at the heart of most of Murray’s poems, and it is certainly what lends them much of their power. But it’s not, sometimes, entirely so in fact. I believe they are the first and last — and the closest — things I have to say about my own life’’.
What an extraordinary moment this is in fiction. These are not small, elegant essays of the kind we have come to associate with writers such as Joan Didion and Helen Garner, in which experience is satisfyingly wrought into narrative. These are recollections, nothing more, told by someone who is carefully trying to tease out memory. They are told haltingly and in a way that acknowledges gaps and contradictions. But let me qualify that ‘‘ nothing more’’; it’s important to say that for the dedicated reader of Munro these recollections are beyond price.
Each piece follows a little thread of narrative, the kind that can naturally occur in a life (instead of the kind that needs to be made up, in order to write a short story). The first, The Eye, takes us from the birth of Munro’s younger brother and sister to the engagement of a maid, Sadie. The narrative moves to the sudden death of Sadie and thus to the moment when Munro’s mother takes her to the house where Sadie is laid out and gently, firmly, insists that she view the body. ‘‘ ‘ Come now,’ she said to me. Her gentleness sounded hateful to me, triumphant.’’
A child being made to look at a body in the darkened parlour of a country house; this image appears again and again in Munro’s fiction. And here, on the page, is its source, the wound into which Munro keeps dipping her pen. It is as significant a wound as Tim Winton’s drownings, or Franzen’s mother’s obsessive love of her son; a part of the significance of Munro’s mother herself, trying to absorb her brilliant daughter into her life.
I do wonder what those who are not so familiar with Munro will make of these fragments. Winton has said of Munro that she has ‘‘ trained the reader — and the editors of most significant US magazines — to read her as Alice Munro. A bigger achievement than it first seems.’’ What if you have not been trained to read Munro’s quiet, thoughtful prose, but are about to begin? Are the small towns and cities of Canada going to be enough for you? And what will you think of these ‘‘ not quite stories’’? They may seem an indulgence, asking too much of the reader to be interested in the material and not just the fiction. But perhaps not. Perhaps they will serve as a starting point from which you can work your way back through the stories of Munro’s life. It’s hard to imagine any journey being more illuminating. problematic because Murray’s stories of settlement and honourable, stoical work never acknowledge indigenous dispossession.
More importantly, several poems draw on indigenous forms or adopt indigenous uses of language, while reinforcing his national picture. The famous Buladelah-Taree Holiday Song Cycle is an obvious example of this, as is Cattle Ancestor, which includes lines such as, ‘‘ He [Darrambawli] initiates his brothers, the Bulluktruk.’’
This is all the more important because Murray, elsewhere, refers to poetry as a ‘‘ small religion’’, as prayer, as a way of making sense of the world. It’s just this, possibly, that has helped make Murray into an icon: his poems are deeply concerned with the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, and about the landscapes we move through. Murray is sensitive to the rhythms of speech and to emotion, unironic and mostly unsentimental. Yet it’s difficult to read these poems without colliding with their politics, hard to look at Murray’s nostalgic, poignant past without being glad that is has passed, if indeed it ever did exist.