Open a book this minute and start reading. Don’t move until you’ve reached page fifty. Until you’ve buried your thoughts in print. Cover yourself with words. Wash yourself away. Dissolve. Carol Shields Republic of Love

“The Albanian Virgin” Alice Munro

“I heard this story in the old St. Joseph’s Hospital in Victoria from Charlotte, who was the sort of friend I had in my early days there.”

1994; Penguin, 2007

1994; Penguin, 2007

Claire tells the story, in turn, to readers.

“In the mountains, in Maltsia e madhe, she must have tried to tell them her name, and ‘Lottar’ was what they made of it.”

It is Charlotte’s story which Claire tells. The story of ‘Lottar’.

But Claire needs time to learn Charlotte’s story.

She first meets Charlotte as a customer in her bookstore, but she does not learn her story until Charlotte is hospitalized.

One of her nurses calls Charlotte a ‘character’, and the bookstore clerk has already warned Claire that there’s something she should know about Charlotte.

There are clearly things to discuss. But Claire tells the story of Lottar, as Charlotte tells it to Claire (or, perhaps, more accurately, as Claire hears it).

In an Alice Munro story, these distinctions matter. There are layers to unfold, reassemble, reexamine.

Charlotte, before she is admitted to the hospital, clanks (the noise of all her bracelets). Gjurdhi pulls a wagon filled with old books wrapped in a blanket. They have an undeniable presence, individually and together.

Lottar’s adventure plays out in the mountains on Lake Skodra, where she is ceremoniously declared a virgin, in order to avoid being married off like a possession. She had been on a holiday along the Dalmatian Coast, set to admire the ruins among the olive trees, but her guide was killed, and she was nursed back to health by the Ghegs.

(You can see how dramatically the situation has veered from the original expectations.)

Claire had been living in London with Donald, working on a thesis about Mary Shelley’s later works, those written after “she learned her sad lessons” about broken-heartedness. She embarks on a journey as well, but only after embarking on an affair, with the upstairs neighbour, Nelson.

(This situation, too, veers substantially from the participants’ original intentions.)

There are peculiar conjunctions: intimacy and uncertainty. “My friendships then seemed both intimate and uncertain.” Readers expect intimacy in an Alice Munro story, but also experience uncertainty.

(This is, quite likely, the first you have heard of an Albanian virgin; you might not be certain what to expect either.)

“I felt that insults had been offered, humiliations suffered, on both sides.”

Some relationships, however, are less complicated. For instance, those between the sections of Claire’s bookstore, where “…compatible poets could nestle together, the arrangement of the shelves of books – I believed – reflecting a more or less natural ambling of the mind, in which treasures new and forgotten might be continually surfacing.”

(You can’t help but respond to this, if you are bookish. Especially if you have ever dreamed of having such a bookstore yourself.)

“I read stray sentences from the books that I had always meant to read. Often these sentences seemed so satisfying to me, or so elusive and lovely, that I could not help abandoning all the surrounding words and giving myself up to a peculiar state.”

Claire experiences the kind of intimacy that she craves with the books and sentences with which she chooses to surround herself. And, yet, she does not buy the old, mysterious travel books that Charlotte’s husband brings to the store. She suggests that he take them to the second-hand shop; she marvels at their pages, but she does not choose to immerse herself in those paged worlds.

(Charlotte, on the other hand, chooses books at random. “She picked up a copy of The Dud Avocado and said, ‘There! I have to buy this, for the title.’” If you are a Virago Modern Classics fan, you will approve of her choice.)

Eventually, Charlotte and Gjurdhi invite Claire to dinner. But there, too, Claire’s expectations are not met.

“This was all very well, very enjoyable, but I had hoped we would get to explanations – personal revelations, if not exactly confidences.”

(And it is not the first time that Claire’s disappointments have eclipsed her expectations: “What nonsense it is to suppose one man so different from another when all that life really boils down to is getting a decent cup of coffee and room to stretch out in?”)

But in “The Albanian Virgin”, it is Claire’s relationship with Charlotte that appears to preoccupy her wish for intimacy and certainty. (You can’t help but think of Millicent’s musings upon a “real” life, with the idea that Dorrie already had a “life”, as drawn in the last story.)

“I was not certain what I felt about her. It was not simple liking or respect. It was more like a wish to move in her element, unsurprised. To be buoyant, self-mocking, gently malicious, unquenchable.”

Unquenchable. (You might, like me, adopt this as your new favourite word.)

Have you met an unquenchable character on the pages of your reading recently?

Note: This is part of a series of posts on Alice Munro’s stories, as I read through her work-to-date. She is one of my MRE authors and this is the third story in Open Secrets. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story; I would love the company.

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