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Dear Life, By Alice Munro
Canada's doyenne of the short story still knows how to condense a rich life into a brief span
Saturday 24 November 2012
W hen a woman called Gwen comes to her door selling cosmetics, the writer-narrator of Alice Munro's story "Dolly" finds herself discussing her book about Marta Ostenso, "who wrote a book called Wild Geese and a host of others all now forgotten". It's a sly gesture: literary detectives will discover that Munro was on the Advisory Board of the New Canadian Library when it reprinted Wild Geese in 1989. "Her husband is supposed to have written parts of the novel," the narrator (a 71-year-old biographer of neglected Canadian writers) tells her new friend. In fact, Wild Geese was the only one of Ostenso's novels that wasn't a collaboration with her husband.
In this story about a writing husband and wife, Munro's purpose is elsewhere. The 81-year- old Franklin is a poet; his wife thinks poetry is "more of an end in itself". Franklin once wrote a celebrated and "pretty raw" poem that chronicles a youthful love affair; and the discovery that Gwen (then nicknamed Dolly) was its subject nearly unhinges the narrator. The effect of the poem's memory of passion, we imagine, has as much to do with her distress as the chance reunion of the ex-lovers. For all its assiduous chronicling of day-long tumult, "Dolly" is one of the quietest stories in a collection in which quiet surfaces conceal internal chaos and depths of unfinished mourning. Many of these fictions are about mildly transgressive loves.
In "To Reach Japan", a poet wanders off with her children to mind a house, has a fling on a train, and meets a fantasy lover at her destination; in "Amundsen", a young teacher is seduced and then abandoned on the way to her wedding as, in the background, triumphal music plays ("the Allies are getting closer and closer to Berlin"). Many years later, now married, she sees her lover across the street. "Nothing," she muses, "really changes about love."
The stories are set in different periods of the last century. "All this happens in the seventies," one begins, while another starts in the interim between the world wars. The passing of time comes as a shock. "Pride", one of the few stories with a male narrator, begins before the Thirties, and skips through the middle of the 20th century. At the end, when a platonic relationship disintegrates, we are startled to realise at the mention of e-mail that the protagonists must be – at least – in their seventies.
In "Corrie", a story with as many twists as a 19th-century tale, the rich heroine is lame in one leg. Blackmailed by a former servant about her relationship with a married man, she realises, when her antagonist dies, that she has been subjected to a deception as long as her affair.
Munro's stories have long spans; they have also tended, over the last decade, to be genre-defyingly long. But there is a rediscovered economy of expression at work in this outstanding collection, with the most satisfying stories filling about 25 pages. Her technique with time is remarkable: she continues her fictions where others would conclude, sliding from near-closure to epilogues in which the haunting truth of an unresolved mystery is uncovered.
In "Gravel", for example, the protagonist is absolved, in adulthood, of her guilt about a death for which she wasn't responsible. "Accept everything," she's told, "and then tragedy disappears. Or tragedy lightens, anyway, and you're just there, going along easy in the world." If only, these stories suggest, things could be so simple; nothing really changes about loss.
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