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

“Night” Alice Munro

As the second of four stories in Finale, published at the end of Dear Life as “not quite stories”, “Night” is part of a “separate unit, one that is autobiographical in feeling, though not, sometimes, entirely so in fact”.

Random House, 2012

Random House, 2012

“I believe they are the first and last — and the closest — things I have to say about my own life,” the author states.

But whereas “The Eye” seems rooted in the perspective of a child who has not yet grown to be a parent, “Night” offers a child’s perspective on her father but with an overt comment on parenting.

Perhaps because, with her father, the narrator does not perceive the same sense of inherent disappointment via her mother’s judgement of her, it is easier for her to adopt the perspective of an observer when it comes to considering the choices that her father made.

The adult writing “Night” states that considering your actions as a parent you are “sometimes humbled at heart, sometimes disgusted with yourself” but she also has this to say: “I don’t think my father felt anything like this.”

Relationships between parents and children are central to many of Alice Munro’s stories (like “Miles City, Montana” in The Progress of Love, “Providence” in Who Do You Think You Are?, “The Peace of Utrecht” in Dance of the Happy Shades, and “The Ottawa Valley” in Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You).

In the title story of The Moons of Jupiter, the narrator observes: “How thoroughly we dealt with our fathers and mothers, deplored their marriages, their mistaken ambitions or fear of ambition, how competently we filed them away, defined them beyond any possibility of change.”

And how haunting is the past, the viewing of it from afar, after one has become someone else (or seemingly so).

In “White Dump”, the narrator also revisits the past and considers the meandering power of memory. “Sometimes she thought of her childhood with a longing that seemed almost as perverse, and had to be kept almost as secret. A sagging awning in front of a corner store might remind her, the smell of heavy dinners cooking at noon, the litter and bare earth around the roots of a big urban shade tree.”

And, as with so many of Alice Munro’s stories, the author of “Night” is aware of the shifting importance of time and place in understanding the past.

She is aware that much of what was acceptable in the past — in terms of ‘parenting philosophy’, a term not even conceived of then — is no longer considered so now, and vice versa.

When the child in “Night” confesses that she cannot sleep at night because she fears that she will strangle her younger sister in the bulk bed below, her father does not ask probing questions or rush her to a child psychiatrist as might happen nowadays.

“The fact is, what he did worked as well. It set me down, but without either mockery or alarm, in the world we were living in.”

Being set in reality, in the world they were living in: it worked out for her in that instance, and her father did offer her useful advice.

“People have thoughts they’d sooner not have. It happens in life.”

It feels apocryphal. An epiphany on the page.

But it is not that simple. The piece does not end there.

“Those strappings, then, would have stayed in his mind, if they stayed at all, as no more than the necessary and adequate curbing of a mouthy child’s imagining that she could rule the roost.”

There are other ways in which her father set her down in reality which have had lingering effects that were not examined overtly in “Night”. Or, at least, the reader wasn’t aware, until the end of the piece, that these events were contributing to the not-quite-story girl’s perspective on the not-quite-story father’s actions.

But these “necessary” and “adequate” acts are also at the core of “Royal Beatings” in Who Do You Think You Are? cloaked in fiction.

Royal Beating. That was Flo’s promise. You are going to get one Royal Beating.”

And then Rose turns Flo’s words into something “savage and splendid”; she takes “Royal Beating” and imagines a scene in which a beating victim gets the royal treatment, with blood “leaping out like banners” on a tree-lined avenue with formal spectators. She makes Flo’s statement sound slightly foolish, if only in her mind, but even though Rose’s inner thoughts are defiant, she and her father are firmly set in reality.

“In real life they didn’t approach such dignity, and it was only Flo who tried to supply the event with some high air of necessity and regret. Rose and her father soon got beyond anything presentable.”

Flo goes to fetch Rose’s father just as Alice Munro’s mother goes to fetch the not-quite-story father in the barn, pleading the need for punishment.

“Night” takes a series of darknesses rooted in restlessness, but the emotional translation plays out on the pages of fiction and reaches forward to the final work in this quartet:

“We say of some things that they can’t be forgiven, or that we will never forgive ourselves. But we do – we do it all the time.”

For all that these works in “Finale” appear fragmented and almost incomplete in some ways, in other ways they feel like the most complex works in Dear Life.

What do you think?

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, until now, this has been a chronological reading project, but I was unable to resist inserting her most recent collection. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story. This story is the twelfth in Dear Life, with next Wednesday reserved for “Voices” and the following Sunday for “Dear Life”. Wednesdays and Sundays for Alice Munro, for March and April 2013

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