LIKE HAM­LET’S SPEECHES, HER BEST STO­RIES FEEL IN­EVITABLE

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Te­gan Ben­nett Day­light Fiona Wright

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.

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