“In the lane, I had already lost a boot and fallen on my knees so that now my trousers were soaked and one of my socks was sodden and the bottoms of both my sleeves were freezing against my wrists.”
Harper Collins, 1990
This is Timothy Findley, writing in his journal in November 1976, describing his experience in the mud.
He was researching his WWI novel, The Wars, attempting to duplicate soldiers’ fighting conditions: an impossible task, but one undertaken with determination nonetheless.
He had planned to stay at the end of the lane in the mud for 24 hours, in weather and conditions which matched those Robert Ross experienced in the novel, as best as the author could replicate them.
But of course Findley was not being fired upon, and the mud “was only ankle deep and, at its worst, it rose to halfway up my shin — which is to say — I sank down halfway up to my knees”.
He lists all the tasks that he carried out there and what he learned, including that it was “impossible to sleep”, “being out of doors in a freezing, driving rain, when you cannot hide from it, reminds you very quickly how vulnerable your face is”, “peeing is a mix of comedy and pain”, and there is “nothing for the mind to do but feed on present circumstances”.
[By the time I read this, in Inside Memory (1990), I had already read The Wars for the first time, but when I learned that the author had spent time in the mud to write it, I felt as if I had always known it; The Wars made for visceral and memorable reading, and that remained true for it on re-reading this month too.]
But although the author has accepted an unusual degree of responsibility for re-creating such visceral experiences for the reader, there is a great deal of responsibility left for the reader of this work as well.
In fact, the reader plays an essential role in The Wars, often being directly addressed in the narrative.
‘You’ make an appearance on the third page of the novel, and its final sentence is for ‘you’ as well. In between? More of that.
“As the past moves under your fingertips, part of it crumbles. Other parts, you know you’ll never find. This is what you have.”
What you have is an assembly of parts, fragments presented for you to observe, inhabit fleetingly, set aside, muse upon, revisit, and reconsider.
You are standing apart from the past, however. You are turning the pages of this novel, looking for a way into what has happened. Sometimes you need explanations, actual facts that aren’t readily understood so many years later.
1977; Penguin, 1978
“Lest Robert’s having to ask for his own side arms make no sense to those of you who weren’t around or haven’t read this part of history, it should be pointed out that this was a ‘people’s army’ – not an army of professionals.”
This is certainly helpful. But most often you need to understand what it might have felt like. You need to imagine the facts into something with emotional heft.
“There is no good picture of this except the one you can make in your mind.”
Outright, the kinds of gases employed in warfare during the Great War are listed. And that’s useful, for you, of course.
But what remains, most fervently? Passages like this: ”The gas drifted down in Robert’s direction – but this was a distance of five miles, south-west – so all they got was the taste of it on snowflakes.”
How can we trust anything other than the taste of it?
We are immediately informed that the way in which the past is recorded is often contradictory; the truth isn’t something whole and certain, but something shifting which must be assembled from fragments.
Even Robert Ross’ own accounts don’t necessarily reveal the truth of his wartime experiences.
For instance, readers familiar with the scenes on the ship, in which he has suffered in the underworld (below deck) and been unflinchingly exposed to the horrors of war, are startled to learn that he summarizes them in a letter to his parents as follows:
“here we are at last! It was an evil trip. I caught a cold and the doctor thought it might become bronchitis. There were storms. Someone put me in charge of the horses….”
(It’s clear early in The Wars that neither the four-legged, winged nor two-legged will be spared suffering in this story.)
Assembling something-akin-to-truth requires a kaleidoscopic perspective on events.
And some of the most colourful bits in the pattern are provided by the memories of Lady Juliet d’Orsey, “the most vivid and personal we have”, presented in the form of transcripts, though the tone of her voice cannot be captured in print.
Juliet was twelve years old at the time, so her commentary comes complete with its own commentary; she does share her memories ofher younger self’s perspective on Robert Ross, but she observes from her 70-year-old self’s perspective as well, in terms of how reliable these recollections might be.
She, like the reader, now inhabits the present and observes the past from a distance.
(Though the reader is one-step removed yet again, observing the observer in this case. And, technically, the reader is observing the observer who observes, but that’s perhaps best left unexplained, for some aspects of this novel’s framework are not fully understood until its final pages.)
Others’ observations are also alluded to (like the war poets Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, Rupert Brooke, and Robert Graves) in the text and the author’s bookish research (out of the mud) included reading not only letters written during this war by his uncle but the works of these published wartime writers as well.
The Wars is structured in five parts, reflecting the author’s dramatic experience, with content alternating between the domestic (which set the scene, also with tragic elements) and the military conflict and struggle.
Not only does this alternation afford the reader a degree of respite (luxurious moments out of the mud), but it reminds reader that suffering comes in all shapes and sizes, on the homefront, in No Man’s Land, and behind-the-lines.
(Most often, technically speaking, the most horrendous scenes are written in the most elementary form: short sentences built of brutal words, one after the next. The clipped prose belies the weight of its content.)
The scene which some argue is the novel’s most haunting is the one for which this book still makes an appearance on lists of challenged/banned books in Canada: the rape scene.
Even before publication, the author was challenged for this aspect of his work. He agreed with those (like Margaret Laurence) who felt that the point that this generation of men had been violated was made consistently and clearly throughout the work elsewhere.
“But I cannot remove it. As a scene, it is intrinsic — deeply meshed in the fabric of the book as I first conceived it. I cannot cut away its arms and legs — no matter how convinced other people are that the book will stand and function without them.”
1977; Penguin, 1986
He speaks of the diplomatic suggestions made in hopes that he would choose to cut the scene: “a campaign of quiet but urgent persuasion”. But, ultimately, “It was rape. The scene stays.”
But surely anybody coming to this story does not expect it to be filled with pretty images and promises.
This passage concludes the novel’s fourth part:
“So far, you have read of the deaths of 557, 017 people — one of whom was killed by a streetcar, one of whom died from bronchitis and one of whom died in a barn with her rabbits.”
The deaths considered in isolation are not, one might argue, key to the story told in The Wars (Robert’s uncle, Robert’s peer, Robert’s sister). This might seem ironic, but underscores the idea that the wars considered in this novel are not only the political conflicts which play out on the main stage.
And each one of those losses — those unfathomable losses, only quantifiable in numeric form — each might well be accompanied by a work like Timothy Findley’s in attempt to put a single life, a single loss, into some sort of context.
For, at the end of The Wars, you will have read of 557, 018 deaths, and there is still so much which has not been understood about that single story.
And the reader is left breathless: choking on the mud, the rain, the gas, the flames.
The elements pull the life out of characters like Robert Ross who inhabit the printed page.
But Timothy Findley invites readers to breathe life back into them by turning those pages.
The pages of memory, the pages of history, the pages of fiction.
(Note: Originally I was re-reading this with Danielle (who has also posted about it at A Work in Progress), and then learned that she was reading it for Caroline’s readalong, so I was inspired to post about it sooner rather than later. Isn’t that often how it goes: one person’s reading plan slips a book into another’s stack, and so on, and so on…)
House of Anansi, 2013 Astoria Imprint
The clear skies and no wind?
That’s not often true, actually, in Théodora Armstrong’s debut collection.
The characters herein are faced with stormy conditions and life is in flux.
But 100% visibility?
That’s true: her vision is impeccable, her scope expansive but her perspective incisive.
Readers know what to expect from the first sentence of “Rabbits”:
“I wrap myself in our scratchy curtains and watch Mom from our front window.”
Eight-year-old Dawn’s story is told in the first person: it is uncomfortable (‘scratchy’), and she is unobserved but watching from behind the glass, her perspective uncluttered and clear.
Readers recognize a limitation in her view (she has only eight years of life experience to inform her), but Dawn is old enough to recognize both vulnerability and ferocity.
Rabbits can be hunted and, even at eight years old, Dawn has the potential to be a predator, or, at least, to step outside the role of easy prey.
Predators and prey also play overt roles in the last and longest work in the collection, “Mosquito Coast”, which is over 80 pages long.
“He raised his two hands, palms cupped inches from each other as though I were a small bird he was trying to trap.”
(And here, too, the perception of strength and weakness, power wielded and a sense of helplessness are complicated, but that’s all I will say, to avoid spoilers. The photographs on the author’s website illustrate aspects of this story, also without spoilers.)
The other six stories in between are filled with obvious tension as well.
Frequently the characters are openly stressed. One finds the “dull clutch of a headache is tightening the base of his skull”. Another has ”the sound of frantic water pouring through [his] weed-wrecked brain”.
They inhabit small spaces, like Dawn behind the curtains: an abandoned shed, or a hole dug into the sand for an entire day, or a dark room with flickering screens and a struggling air conditioner.
They observe from within an inner tube, or a cave with a “perfect circle of smooth rock walls with a dusty, pit-marked floor”, or a car packed so tightly on a ferry that the doors cannot be opened, or an isolated cabin on a west-coast island.
Sometimes the story contains overt imagery of being trapped and characters feeling overwhelmed:
“The backyard looked trapped in the aggressive hands of a five-year-old girl: pink napkins spread out on knees, rose petal plates, miniature food, and heart-shaped balloons. It all left me feeling nauseous.”
Sometimes the confinement is palpable and clear, but viewed from without:
“The highway is congested, cars packed to capacity, little faces pressed to back-seat windows, slack-faced boredom and wild eyes. In every car that passes I can see fights brewing like storm clouds sliding into a valley.” (See? Storms again.)
But often the sense of being trapped more subtly pervades the stories, with references to a family caught in a vehicle sinking beneath the surface of the water, lumber chained on a logging truck, congested highway traffic with a string of tail lights, or workers battling a forest fire.
(You might think these details would be overlooked, but even if you’re not noting patterns in word choice and imagery, I bet your shoulders will be hunched a little as you read on in this collection, the tension seeping into your reader’s consciousness all the same.)
The threats are overtly identified in some stories: ”all the cold running in”, or “a short-circuit that has eaten a smouldering hole through his grey matter”, or a boy’s “mouth still rabid with foamy toothpaste”.
Sometimes they are unnamed but hovering around the edges of the story:
“People don’t think about what’s hiding in the cracks of the linoleum. They don’t think about the stinking mop that wipes the floors every night and smells like death.”
There is actual damage, however: a “bruise yellowing like an overripe pear”, the “falls where jumpers have died”, and arms “cut up, short, bloody slashes running diagonally from his wrists to his elbows”.
And this damage is occasionally self-inflicted, as is the case for Charlie, in “The Art of Eating”, who also carries a callus from his years of cooking experience:
“But no one considers the mess – the anger, the sweat, the bedlam, the burns and cuts and stings it takes to achieve the perfection of those delicate slices of rose-shaped cucumber balanced on the edge of their plate.”
Even more disturbingly, this damage can even be pursued, sought after, even when the risk is understood, as it is for the water plane bombers who work to put out the forest fires: “It’s not that they wanted the forest to burn, but there was an itch there they couldn’t ignore.”
(There is one story that I will wait for a long time to forget, in which damage is deliberately inflicted in a more immediate way, but I will not spoil that with discussion of the details; if you have read the collection, you will instantly catch the reference.)
It is not always about obvious damage, sometime the focus is on the creep of decay, like the story of a decomposing whale carcass designed to keep a curious sibling at bay, or the dead tooth in a counsellor’s mouth, or a rank puddle in a parking lot.
One character’s fatigue is like “old deep-fryer oil pumping through his arteries”, there are dreams of dreams of “his teeth chipping, crumbling, falling out”, and there is a “foul taste he suspects may be his life rotting away from the inside out”.
Sometimes this sense is contained in a handful of words like these, carefully chosen; other times a longer passage allows the sensation to bloom, even in an everyday domestic scene:
“An overflowing shoe rack in his front hall, underwear hanging from his towel racks in the bathroom, a pile of half-read baby books stacked on his bedside table – she is spreading over all of his stuff, over him, like spores on a week-old loaf of bread.”
And then there is the damage caused by absence, like when a transport truck passes there is a “phantom feeling of impact”.
For even when there is “no wind” in these stories, stillness is no consolation: there are “branches of the towering evergreens fossilized”, a man’s hair is a “tornado above his head”, and the light cast by orange floodlights is “thick with winged insects”.
Even emptiness contains motion, sometimes even a menace:
“His fists are clenched under the table and even with concentration he can’t seem to loosen them. He’s suddenly aware of the nothingness they’re strangling in their grip. Open or closed, they’re still empty.”
And there is an excess of emptiness, of loneliness in these stories. Characters struggle to connect, but still stories end with people missing one another, with only voices and memories where they long for a loved one: “She is my childhood. She’s the part of me that has passed and I miss her.”
Scratchy stories of predators and prey.
Tension and traps. Stress and small spaces.
Threats and decay. Injuries and scars.
So, why read these stories?
Because the “night is warm and star-speckled”.
Because there “are remedies for a dull heart”.
Because maybe Dawn is too smart for her own good, but she is also a young girl who plays with her dolphin keychain in the snow.
Because the ”mountains look like they’re covered in snow, but the breeze smells like grass, green and sweet”.
And because the berries taste like exhaust but “there’s a sweetness in them too”.
“The neighborhood is buzzing in the late-afternoon heat, tinder-dry, vulnerable to any kind of spark. There’s been a water ban all summer and the lawns are brown and thirsty. There are thunderstorms in the forecast.”
Stillness can erupt into chaos in an instant, and there are horrors that we cover up because they are unbearable; the stories in Théodora Armstrong’s Clear Skies, No Wind, 100% Visibility simultaneously illuminate and offer shelter from the storms we inhabit.
“Food and hot tea lift my spirits.” So says Nora Porteous, who has returned to her family home in Australia, a “wretched and slothful old woman”.
1978; Penguin Books, 1984
Well, some might think her so. Wretched. Slothful. Old. At least, she muses that it’s possible. But Nora works against that impression.
She aims to “talk and smile too much” to reassure others. And she dabbles in “utter passivity”. She is aware of “sudden severances of attention” and tries to compensate for them.
She practices her “relinquishment of the will to fate”. And she is troubled by guilt for being angry with those who are kind to her in her “old age” (she resists the word ‘elderly’).
But, at times, Nora barely recognizes herself, this older Nora, in need of acceptance and forgiveness.
“In the bathroom mirror I look with equanimity at an old woman with a dew-lapped face and hands like bunches of knotted sticks.”
Nora is not only reinhabiting the family home; she is reinhabiting her own self, coming to terms with the choices that she made when her flesh was supple and dew-kissed, her hands graceful and industrious, accepting (and forgiving) this older Nora.
“Somewhere in this house, I say to myself, I shall make my domain. In whatever circumstances I have found myself, I have always managed to devise a little area, camp or covert, that was not too ugly.”
Nora is creating a Room of her Own. But this space is filled as much with memories as with reality. While the Custs wander in and out of the narrative to care for Nora, who becomes ill and ordered to stay abed shortly after she arrives back home, Nora wanders in her recollections.
Much of her time is spent grappling with her memories of marriage: “I know this anger well. It concerns Colin Porteous, but is directed less against him than against vile wastage, vile wastage.”
She has “an edited version” of Colin that she “kept on the light side to present to chosen audiences”, but in fact her marriage was not only disappointing but disastrous.
“Thus passed many months of meaningless harmony, slick as a ribbon but studded with carbuncles of silent misery.”
(Nora’s voice is matter-of-fact, brusque even. But occasionally phrases like this, unexpectedly poetic, appear in the narrative and demand admiration.)
This younger Nora was “Nora Porteous, nee Roche, thirty-five, domestic worker, amateur dressmaker, detested concubine, and student of the French subjunctive tense”.
Looking back, she views herself as still waiting then.
“Much of my long life can be apportioned into periods of waiting, but during that first long period perhaps I was able to play and create because for most of the time I waited without panic, whereas in the second long period, in the iron-grey and terracotta suburb, all my little talents were blighted by panic and despair, so that there were only the ill-cut dresses for the women, and the cakes for the tennis club.”
And, even once she was done with waiting, she was still unacceptable.
“Reckless.Cynical.Frivolous. Those were the words they used about me. And rebuttal seemed so hopeless, and the thicket of misunderstanding between us so old and dense and dusty, that it was less exhausting simply to be as reckless, cynical, and frivolous as they said I was.”
Image links to challenge site
And, then, she became invisible.
“Overnight, it seemed to me, the homage of glances was withdrawn, and I became an invisible woman. The comeliness of my face had depended on moulding rather than sculpture, and the deterioration of the outer casing quickly revealed the weakness of the frame.”
Tirra Lirra by the River is a slim volume (about 150 pages long) but readers feel completely immersed in Nora’s consciousness by the end of the book.
Sometimes her memories are shared with a director’s eye, with specific details of setting (most often Australian, but some English) and character drawn.
Often the memories are dribbled into the text like grains of sugar into a cup of tea, a few words of recollection and then continuing with the narrative in the present.
Jessica Anderson’s award-winning novel assembles Nora on the page with delicacy and determination: a woman done with waiting.
Note: I was inspired to read this by Kimbofo’s Australian Literature Month. I thought that I had read it once before, but when I checked my reading log, I found that was not the case; I might have been thinking of Elizabeth Jolley’s Miss Peabody’s Inheritance, both being skinny blue books about women aging and working to reconcile their memories with realities.
Gaspereau Press, 2008
When I was in high school, it mattered a great deal : what radio station you listened to. There were more than two, but there only two that mattered: CJBK or CKSL.
Knowing which station someone’s radio was tuned to revealed a cornerstone to their identity, but although I fervently and loyally listened to CJBK, I couldn’t tell you now what truly set it apart.
In That Tune Clutches My Heart, it’s 1948 in Vancouver, and the great debate at Magee High is about Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby.
The Frankians and Bingites probably can’t describe their reasons for choosing alliances any more clearly than I could define key aspects of my own identity as a teenager, but their loyalties are fierce and immovable.
Iris is not musical, but she knows how she looks in a pleated skirt and bobby socks, so she is a Frankian, and she and Sylvia will no longer sit by each other. Miss Hanratty seems not to have noticed this change in the seating plan. I am Switzerland for now, and I walked home alone.
May’s experience in senior high is recorded in a diary which her mother gave her to encourage “the habit of observation and reflection and so develop my gift…which is literary”.
Perhaps taking her cue from the seriousness with which her parents approach life in general, May’s tone is measured and deliberate. Her diary entries are often only one paragraph long, though sometimes as long as five, and her voice is controlled, almost awkward at times, in an effort to structure her thoughts properly.
This is a tumultuous time of life (even without the stressful debate surrounding her status as a “neutral” in this musical war), but her efforts to represent her experiences clearly and accurately on the page keep the content even.
The sort of reader who requires a more immediate view of the plot in a novel might find May’s voice distancing (even more so than is usually the case with novels told in diary entries).
But for the reader who is predisposed to enjoy this format, the reader who appreciates subtle shifts in style more than dramatic plot twists, there is something peculiarly satisfying about recognizing the swell of emotion that results in May ending a sentence with a preposition (and commenting on such “transgressions”, overtly refusing to correct the dangling bits).
“The prospect of my first date is not tremendously exciting, though certainly I am looking forward to it. Elizabeth says that the sharing of milkshakes at The Sunflower already constitutes the first date, which she says is an important fact because it may portend developments tomorrow that would not take place otherwise — that would not otherwise take place.” (Friday January 28, 1949)
The overarching tension in the novel surrounds the conflict (sometimes open, often quietly simmering) between the Frankians and the Bingites. May takes her concern to her father, who seems able to predict immediately and accurately which of her friends have chosen which alliance.
This insight puzzles May, but her father explains that “it had to do with whom he thought Sinatra and Crosby were singing to, and what they believed about the song” and then he tries to dismiss it as one of his philosophical theories, but May continues to puzzle it out.
The paper cover that hides beneath that buttercup yellow paper jacket
He buys her two records, one Sinatra and one Crosby, and May listens to the two versions of “Begin the Beguine” repeatedly, trying to understand the differences and similarities between them. She begins to notice other patterns as well, for instance the Poster Club is a Bingite stronghold whereas the rugby team is filled with Frankians.
On the principle of fairness I gave my free time today to Mr. Sinatra, but I cannot say that I know anything more about his particular insincerity. I do think that I like his version better than Bing Crosby’s, most of the time, but sometimes I hear it and dislike it very intensely, and it is strange that my opinion should change in this way. (Sunday October 17, 1948)
May’s relationship with her father is comfortable and easy, but her father suggests that she take her problems with her chemistry teacher to her mother instead. It’s not all about the Bingite and Frankian tension; May’s understanding of the world is unfolding in other ways as well.
Another source of frustration for her is that Mr. Cooper persists in grading her lab reports with lower marks than her lab partner’s, even when he has actual errors in his reports (but, yes, he is a boy, and this is chemistry class, and it is 1948).
Her mother suggests three possibilities: the first two ensure that the rest of the year in Chemisty is “bound to be unpleasant”, and third is likely to raise May’s grade and not cause unpleasantness.
Mother paused again before explaining this solution. She picked up a pencil from her desk and tapped it on a piece of paper. The other possibility, she said, is that I could conduct myself in such a way as to convey to Mr. Cooper my deep admiration for his intelligence, his mastery of his field, and his person, along with my recognition of my own limitations.
You can imagine what the first two suggestions were. May is not only learning that her mother has a certain expertise in managing social situations that her father has not personally experienced, but she is discovering events in her mother’s past that May had no idea about previously and developing an appreciation of her on different grounds.
Mother is always so formal and proper. I don’t remember ever before having been glad of that.(Thursday January 6, 1949)
May’s life is relatively uncomplicated and staid. She has a functioning relationship with both parents; her father and mother love their daughter and treat her well, although they do have problems and preoccupations of their own (May’s mother is working to have Home Economics recognized as part of a degree program, whereas her father is writing a book of philosophy).
One would not turn to That Tune Clutches My Heart for plot. The events detailed therein are commonplace. (“This year Daddy and Mother will each receive a shirt sewn in Home Ec. I worked quite hard on them, because I knew that they would both wear them, successful or no,” she writes on Friday, December 24, 1948.)
But May’s voice resonates authentically throughout the novel, as she assembles herself there, on the page of Paul Headrick’s That Tune Clutches My Heart, note by note, becoming.
Gaspereau Press makes the most beautiful books; if you click to enlarge this, you can almost feel the paper on your screen
When Tamara Levine was diagnosed with breast cancer, she began sending e-mail letters to about fifty family members, friends and colleagues, to keep everybody in the loop.
Second Story Press, 2012
Almost immediately, these letters took on a great significance in her Healing Journey, offering a kind of ‘therapy’ (Greek for healing), “helping to quell my terrors and make sense of the changes happening in my body and in my life”.
And what rapid and dramatic change But Hope is Longer chronicles:
“This was different: my cancer was precipitous, unexpected, and unplanned. When I searched for language to describe how I was feeling, catapulted came to mind. It was as if had been suddenly catapulted into an altered state of being by a calamitous force of nature.”
The letters are reprinted, along with narrative commentary that fits with that stage of her journey (some material is repeated, but some more intimate details are added), with some text boxes of quotations from her doctors and life coach, and the occasional point-form list of recommendations and suggestions.
At times, the question of audience seems unclear.
(For instance, her reflections regarding the diagnosis include the observation that such news should be given/received in person and, indeed, it seems unfortunate that the news was delivered to her via voice message, but the suggestion that it unfold differently would be best received by the doctors responsible for delivering the diagnosis. Alternatively, the list could have been presented as an appendix directed, instead, to health-care providers, or included in the text proper but as a list of preventative instructions so that one might be encouraged to outline for the doctors their communication preferences before test results are received and redirected.)
But for the most part, the narrative is clearly directed to the other people who have been catapulted into this new country, either as residents or visitors of those who now reside there, with content that is varied.
The book contains practical advice that you might expect to find on the pages of magazines like Chatelaine and Woman’s Day:
“Exercise supports and fuels the body in its fight against cancer. It puts you in the best possible position to receive treatment well, while resisting its toxicity. It provides fortification for what lies ahead. It is one of the most generous gifts of self-care you can give yourself.”
But it also contains elements of personal experience:
“It’s hard to describe what it was like to receive chemo and sing at the same time. It felt right: strong, defiant, and life affirming.”
Ultimately the book reads like a-little-of-everything-all-at-once. There are letters, observations, lists, comments, text-boxes and straight narrative passages that loosely follow the arc of diagnosis through recovery.
At first, I found this a little overwhelming. Which seems suitable, given how dramatic and traumatic this experience is for Tamara Levine. (Design elements might have streamlined the reading experience to a degree but, technically, the prose is clean, uncluttered.)
Nonetheless, as I read on, I felt that this was wholly appropriate: this is one woman’s perspective on the entire experience, and it is not all neat and tidy.
The health care system has traditionally treated breast cancer with a one-size-fits-all treatment plan, but this is not necessarily effective; truly successful treatment requires a tailored response.
Alongside the memoir of one woman’s experience there is solid information presented to the reader, as with the commentary offered in text boxes (which also includes Dr Joanne Meng, her radiation oncologist, Dr Leesa Kirchner, her naturopathic oncologist, and Dr Angel Arnaout, her surgeon, and Joyce Hardman, her life coach), which feels both relevant and impassioned.
Dr Shailendra Verma (the author’s medical oncologist) states:
It was only a few years ago when we started to notice that women were responding differently to treatment based on the biology of their cancers, the markers which define them as estrogen, progesterone, or HR2 positive or negative, etc. We’ve taken one disease and made it into six or nine or twelve. These markers can help predict how the cancer will behave in the future and how it will respond to treatment. We’ve entered the era of trying to target the particular breast cancer to help women survive the disease.
Just as not all women should receive the same treatment plan for their breast cancer (there are so many types of cancer, so many different situations that can arise before and after diagnosis), just as there is no predictable set of steps through which a woman will travel on this arc, just as the outcome remains mysterious…the text of But Hope is Longer is uniquely presented as Tamara Levine’s experience.
When I was nearing the end of this reading, I felt as though the narrative itself was mirroring the author’s need to combat this disease from many different directions; But Hope is Longer offers a holistic perspective on one woman’s experience of complementary treatment — with elements as diverse as Vitamin C and chemotherapy, radiation and letter-writing — and endurance.
Note: This would also make an excellent choice for those who are reading for Melwyk’s Postal Reading Challenge; I am alternating between fiction and non-fiction for this challenge, so I’ll be plucking an epistolary novel from my shelves next.
Image links to challenge site
It’s the summer of 1974, twenty-five kilometres north of Quebec City, and eighteen-year-old Gerry Fostaty is on a cadet training assignment.
Goose Lane Editions, 2011
A cadet training assignment on a Canadian Forces base?
I know nothing of this world, beyond what I’ve gleaned from “Private Benjamin”, “An Officer and a Gentleman” and a high-school boyfriend who was in the reserves.
Mess hall, canteen, attaché, platoon, ammunition, barracks, puttees, inspection-ready, cadence, orienteering, drill, ordnance?
Even the basic vocabulary reminds me that I am in unfamiliar territory.
And despite the striking design — the black-and-white photographs, the reference to tragedy, the uniforms and the guns, the newspaper format complete with headline and article — I feel distanced from As You Were: The Tragedy at Valcartier even before I have begun to read.
Gerry Fostaty’s preface begins simply and powerfully, however, and I am immediately intrigued:
“Altogether, my life has been no more interesting than anyone else’s, but one extraordinary and horrible day has stayed with me for more than thirty years.”
This extraordinary day unfolded on Canadian Forces Base (CFB) Valcartier, and the details of the story are salient indeed, but the underlying idea — a trauma that has been endured but continues to haunt the survivor years later — this is a human story, and familiar territory in that sense.
(I was unexpectedly engaged and genuinely moved by the story; I have had trouble concentrating of late, but this narrative took hold and I read it in two sittings, in less than 24 hours, unwilling to put it aside.)
Stylistically, As You Were is clean and as carefully tended as the lines of bunks for the morning inspections that summer.
(The detailed descriptions of orderliness — the perfectly denuded bunks with their uniformly folded and stacked sheets and pillow case, the careful return of a combination lock so that the 0 rests at the top stand in contrast to the chaotic events in the middle of the book: “Mayhem” and “Aftermath”.)
Even though memory itself is inherently messy, the author’s prose is straightforward and uncluttered.
“Memory is fluid that way. One thing can link quickly to another, creating a string of memories just as in a treasure hunt where one clue leads to another.”
Much of what is recounted in As You Were has the quality of having been unearthed as well.
Six teenage cadets were killed and fifty-four were injured when a live grenade was included in a box of inert weapons used in a class on explosives safety that summer, but the media coverage was slim and much of it inaccurate, and the incident has been — at best — overlooked and neglected, and — at worst — misrepresented and concealed.
(The work is a perfect fit with my 2013 resolution to not only follow the news more closely, but to look beyond the headlines – and the pages of history books — to piece together a kaleidoscopic view of something-like-truth.)
Matching bookmark — nice touch!
“What held us together was the horror of the explosion, but it was both a bond and a barrier.”
Even the survivors were silent for many years, but in 2006, the Department of National Defence made their records public, accessible through the Access to Information Act, and the author obtained copies and began the process of assembling a narrative, working towards something-like-acceptance, something-like-understanding.
I gained a new understanding of more general matters as well. For instance, this I knew: ”Standing at attention is an exercise in self-control and self-discipline, as well as a gesture of respect.”
But this, I did not understand: “Standing perfectly straight and perfectly still in front of a superior shows not only submission but also an acknowledgement of trust.”
Previously, from an outsider’s perspective, I had only seen the submission; I had not grasped the sense that “a superior is responsible for your general welfare, just as my cadets knew they were my responsibility”.
(Sure, I know the captain goes down with his ship, and I have seen plenty of movies — though not as often as the favourites that I mentioned above — which have portrayed personnel of higher rank defending the lives of lower ranked individuals, but I had not felt the personal significance of this routine act, registered its symbolic importance, before reading As You Were.)
And this is important because this sense of responsibility for “his” cadets added another layer of horror to his experience of the events of that summer day in 1974, and it was accompanied by a wider sense of betrayal when that burden was not-only-unrecognized, but denied, with fresh helpings of guilt and anger to boot.
“As you were!” is a way of saying that you can disregard the last thing that happened. So if a senior officer walks into a room and the occupants stand at attention, the officer might say “As you were” so that they could relax once more. It was as “much as to say, ‘Pretend I am not here; pretend it never happened.’”
After the incident at Valcartier, the survivors were directed — openly and indirectly — to be as they were before, to pretend that the explosives safety class had gone as intended, “to show what grenades, rockets, and certain types of ammunition looked like, and to discuss what these weapons were capable of and how to avoid them”.
You do not need to know what a grenade looks like — although I’m sure you’ve seen as many of them in the movies as I have — for although the M-61 is described in detail, the significant detail in this story is that one which was thought to be a dummy was a live grenade and the ring was pulled. That which was expected to be ordinary was extraordinary, extraordinary and horrible.
It is, for most readers, unthinkable, too, but Gerry Fostaty’s style affords space for the reader.
His description of the interrogation in the wake of the incident might not echo any experience that we have had, but we can imagine being an eighteen-year-old, on the other side of something extraordinary, coming back in the car “the window down again so that the noise of the wind would discourage anyone from speaking to me”.
The decision to include such sensory details (present too in the discussion of boot polishing, the mess hall routine, the discovery of the old tear-gas rocket canister) adds an emotional dimension to the narrative which another writer must have filled with an excessive use of descriptors but here the depth of emotion is readily apparent in the unadorned prose.
“As I got someone to safety or dressed a wound or moved a stretcher, I felt both powerless and anxious that I was missing something else more important or someone more in need. The mayhem seemed to go on for the longest time, but I was told later that it was only a matter of around fifty minutes.”
And although As You Were is a compelling personal exploration, it is relevant reading in a broader sense as well. Consider the preponderance of people coping with trauma in everyday life (be they domestic or military), the prevalence of PTSD diagnoses in both Canada and the US, and the growing awareness of the healing inherent in creating a narrative for survivors.
So perhaps in your world DND means Do Not Disturb (rather than the Department of National Defence) and you might not immediately recognize RSM, CSM, NCO or OR as familiar acronyms (Regimental Sergeant Major, Company Sergeant Major, Orderly Room, and Non-commissioned officer, respectively).
Maybe all you know of salutes, ranks, units and commands, marching, tuning, and wheeling in parades, and men and boys in uniforms, trench coats, ponchos and berets is confined to screens and novels, but As You Were takes this experience off the page for readers of all experiences. A deliberate and assured narrative, Gerry Fostaty’s work confronts, explores and reveals the extraordinary in the ordinary.
This the last of four stories published at the end of Dear Life under Finale, four works that are “not quite stories” but, rather, works “autobiographical in feeling, though 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”.
Random House, 2012
And it is the story for which the collection is named, even though the other twelve works are presented as quite-stories, rather than not-quite stories.
(Perhaps I am over-thinking, but it seems as though choosing to name a collection for a not-quite story suggests that there is more to this not-quite-story idea than one might think, more than can be confined to four stories alone.)
As with “The Eye”, “Night”, and “Voices”, “Dear Life” draws attention to the intersection between feeling and fact as well, perhaps even more overtly than in the other three works.
“Roly Grain, his name was, and he does not have any further part in what I’m writing now, in spite of his troll’s name, because this is not a story, only life.”
Only Life. As though it is inherently inferior. Whereas, in fact, Roly Grain would have made a delightful name for a character in a story, his existence allowed to swell beyond a single sentence.
But a novelist must make choices. She considers this in “Voices” as well, in discussing the different way in which she would have portrayed Mrs. Hutchison had she been a character, rather than not-quite-story Mrs. Hutchison.
“I think that if I was writing fiction instead of remembering something that happened, I would never have given her that dress. A kind of advertisement she didn’t need.”
But her elaborate dress is a vivid memory and it appears in “Voices”, even though it would not have been afforded an existence in the fictionalized version of those events.
(Perhaps it is only because I am obsessive, but I want to look through all the stories, now, for the fictionalized Mrs. Hutchison, to study her wardrobe, unexpectedly understated, because she didn’t need an advertisement in fiction.)
Are readers to think, then, that real life is the dear thing? That in fiction things cannot shine as they truly do?
Perhaps. In ”Royal Photographer”, in Lives of Girls and Women, real life isn’t shiny:
“People’s lives, in Jubilee as elsewhere, were dull, simple, amazing and unfathomable — deep caves paved with kitchen linoleum.”
And the stuff of stories is ordinary (if also, simultaneously, amazing). In “Dear Life”, the not-quite-story Alice Munro observes:
“I don’t know if the school toilets had improved by then or not, but they had been the worst thing. It was not as if we didn’t resort to an outhouse at home, but it was clean and even had a linoleum floor.”
This “Dear Life” linoleum-floored outhouse recalls the story “Royal Beatings” and its preoccupations with scandal and squalor, Rose’s step-mother’s obsession with the state of the school toilets. (This continues in the next story of that linked collection, Who Do You Think You Are? too, I believe, “Privilege”.)
“How can this go on in front of such daily witnesses – the linoleum, the calendar with the mill and creek and autumn trees, the old accommodating pots and pans?”
Another story, too, in Who Do You Think You Are? also echoes the not-quite-story in “Dear Life”, for here the mother’s illness is not understood to be as serious as it was.
“There wasn’t a particularly despairing mood around the house. Maybe it was not understood then that my mother wouldn’t get any better, only worse.”
In ”Half a Grapefruit” Rose’s father’s illness was not understood to be as serious as it was either.
That story begins with Rose’s preoccupation with the different food that the schoolchildren consume for breakfast (which reveal the tensions between ‘town’ and ‘country’ and the place between that are at the heart of “Voices” in Dear Life as well), and continues with the importance placed on various other stories told, including the one that Flo tells Billy Pope when he comes to take Rose’s father to the Veteran’s Hospital, about her having thought she’d been poisoned by a neighbourhood “witch” who had actually fed her a piece of mouldy cake some years ago. These are the stories told, among others, but the story that remains untold is the one about Rose’s father dying in the hospital.
In “Dear Life”, the not-quite-daughter states: “I did not go home for my mother’s last illness or for her funeral.”
Throughout the collections of stories, there are daughters who do not return, daughters who return for visits but were not present for deaths any more than Rose was for her father’s, and daughters who do return and resume care-taking duties.
I don’t believe that Rose returned home for her mother’s last illness or her funeral either. (I’m not sure if this is explicitly stated, or whether she simply returns home to move Flo into the nursing home in “Spelling” and then readers realize that Flo has died sometime before the next story, the title story of Who Do You Think You Are? begins. Perhaps someone else can comment on this.)
The not-quite-story daughter has her reasons for not returning, among them, this:
“‘Talking back’ it was called. I hurt her feelings, she said, and the outcome was that she would go to the barn to tell on me, to my father. Then he’d have to interrupt his work to give me a beating with his belt.”
(I’ve previously discussed the parallels between this experience of the not-quite-story Alice Munro and the experiences Rose recounts in “Royal Beatings” in regards to “Night” in this quartet of works.)
“Her fault was that she did not look like what she was. She did not look as if she had been brought up on a farm, or as if she intended to remain on one.”
This is said of the not-quite-story mother in “Dear Life” but it seems true, too, of the not-quite-story daughter as well.
And the overlap between the discussion of fact/fiction in the introduction to The Moons of Jupiter is not all that different from the introduction made to the final four works in Dear Life; this statement made about the fictional mother is about how she sounds, but the not-quite-story mother stands out in the same way, though it’s said to be because of how she looks.
“She sounded as if she had grown up in some strange family who always talked that way. And she hadn’t. They didn’t. Out on their farms, my aunts and uncles talked the way everybody else did. And they didn’t like my mother very much, either.”
(The way I’ve introduced these passages is a bit murky; you need to re-read to see which is actually the not-quite-story version and which is the quite-story. I could ‘tidy’ it up, make the antecedents clearer, but I think it’s appropriate to leave it blurry, as it is, in feeling and fact for the author.)
The boundary between town and country is as likely to shift as the boundary between feeling and fact, and in many ways it doesn’t matter whether a home is near the banks of the Saugeen River or the Wawanash River, or the Maitland River.
What one chooses to include in feeling and in fact varies and alters; a writer chooses her words, and Alice Munro has chosen hers deliberately.
“Fresh manure was always around, but I ignored it, as Anne must have done at Green Gables.”
And, in the end, what we say is as likely untrue as it is true.
“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.”
What can happen, what can never happen, what happens all the time: shifting states of reality, with permeable boundaries, on and off the page.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 though this work is the final in Dear Life. The other stories in the collection are considered here: To Reach Japan; Amundsen; Leaving Maverley; Gravel; Haven; Pride; Corrie; Train; In Sight of the Lake; Dolly; The Eye; Night; and Voices. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story, when discussion of Friend of My Youth begins May 1.
It began when I was a girl, with books like Jean Webster’s Daddy Long Legs and Norma Fox Mazer’s I, Trissy.
These stories invited me directly into characters’ private thoughts, via letters written to a trusted recipient and journal entries written for the writer’s own eyes.
Trans. Katharina Bielenberg and Jamie Bulloch, German 2011 (originally published 2006)
When I was in university, I thrilled to the letters in de Laclos’ Les Liasons Dangereuses.
(Not because I was seduced by French letters in translation, but because I had loved the 1988 film with John Malkovich, Glenn Close and Michelle Pfeiffer.)
And, a few years later, I was tickled by the e-mails in Bridget Jones’ Diary.
If I had discovered a book like Daniel Glattauer’s Love Virtually then, I would have gobbled it whole.
Not only as a book of letters, which is intimate enough, but a book of love letters: as intimate as it gets.
And, yet, Love Virtually is not immediately inviting.
That suits the story, as its main characters are not immediately drawn to one another.
In fact, their meeting is accidental, for Leo has received an email that Emmi sent in order to cancel a magazine subscription.
The first emails they exchange are short and uncomplicated but, almost immediately (about 10 pages into the novel), it’s clear that this correspondence has taken on an unexpected importance for Leo and Emmi.
Subject: Something’s missing
If you don’t write to me for three days 1) I begin to wonder why, 2) I feel like something’s missing. Neither is pleasant.
And some weeks later, some 20 pages later, the letters are that much more complicated.
I’m finding it had to resist your hot-and-cold emails. Who’s actually paying us for the time we’re whiling away here together (or not together)? And how can you fit it in with your career and your family?
Have a nice afternoon,
Some of the content and trajectory of the story is predictable; even from these brief excerpts, one might surmise that readers will brush against questions of fidelity, devotion, romance and marriage as they continue to read through Leo and Emmi’s correspondence.
Nonetheless, Daniel Glattauer’s novel manages to take a flat medium and make the story compelling, even pull marginal characters (like Emmi’s husband, for instance) off the novel’s page.
(These characters should be even flatter than paper, for unlike the love letters in Chordelos de Laclos’ Les Liasons Dangereuses there is no ink, no parchment, no shape at all to these characters which exist only in the ether.)
Image links to challenge site
Were I not fond of the epistolary form to begin with, I might have struggled to find the charm in this novel, but given that I love reading other people’s mail, I was quite content to read along (and more than a little curious about what will happen next in Leo’s and Emmi’s virtual world).
This is my first read for Melwyk’s Postal Reading Challenge.
I’m planning to alternate one book of fictional epistles with one book of “real” letters, and I’ve got four non-fiction choices tempting me right now for the next installment in the challenge.
Have you been reading (or writing?!) any letters recently?
Among the “first and last — and the closest — things I have to say about my own life”, “Voices” is one of four stories in Finale, published at the end of Dear Life as “not quite stories”, part of a “separate unit, one that is autobiographical in feeling, though not, sometimes, entirely so in fact”.
Random House, 2012
Many of the themes which recur in Alice Munro’s fiction appear in these works, and the question of class distinctions and the lines drawn between town and country (and the no-man’s land between) also makes an appearance in “Night” although it dominates “Voices”.
This isn’t the first time that matters of class have been examined in a way which blurs the line between feeling and fact, fiction and reality either.
In the introduction to The Moons of Jupiter, Alice Munro states that “The Stone in the Field” comes from her personal experience, and one is left to deduce that the second half of the story, “Connection”, which features the same characters, does as well.
“Some of these stories are closer to my own life than others are, but not one of them is as close as people seem to think,” she writes in the introduction to that collection.
The narrator in this pair of stories takes in both images of her mother, the presumed aristocratic connections and the trading and deal-making business woman, with a reputation for gathering up old furniture at estate sales, and she struggles to recognize her own connection with this woman, with the women on the Chaddeley and Fleming sides of the family.
These observations are pulled from “Voices”, but could have slipped into this earlier pair of stories too:
“She sounded as if she had grown up in some strange family who always talked that way. And she hadn’t. They didn’t. Out on their farms, my aunts and uncles talked the way everybody else did. And they didn’t like my mother very much, either.”
This also isn’t far removed from the awareness of the not-quite-story daughter in “The Eye” realizing that she has a distinct existence, apart from — though influenced heavily by — her mother.
And there are intersections between other fictions and these not-quite-stories as well.
The scene sketched in the first story, “Walker Brothers Cowboy” in Alice Munro’s first published collection of fiction Dance of the Happy Shades echoes some of the description of her home in “Night” as well. In her first collection, she considers the question of boundaries, between town and country, and describes the way that the town falls away as follows:
“Then the town falls away in a defeated jumble of sheds and small junkyards, the sidewalk gives up and we are walking on a sandy path with burdocks, plantains, humble nameless weeds all around.”
In “Night”, she describes the positioning of her home as follows:
The east side of our house and the west side looked on two different worlds, or so it seemed to me. The east side was the town side, even though you could not see any town. Not so much as two miles away, there were houses in rows, with streetlights and running water. And though I have said you could not see any of that, I am really not sure that you couldn’t get a certain glow if you stared long enough
To the west, the long curve of the river and the fields and the trees and the sunsets had nothing to interrupt them. Nothing to do with people in my mind, or to do with ordinary life, ever.
The distinction between town and country matters, and the fact that she inhabits a place in-between matters greatly.
In “Moon in the Orange Street Skating Rink” in The Moons of Jupiter, ”a girl would sit there to take off her rubber boots and put on her town shoes – hiding the boots in the ditch until she put them on again on her way home.”
This kind of camouflage afforded a kind of “passing” but the boundaries were ultimately more difficult to negotiate than a change of clothing suggested.
In “Winter Wind”, in Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You, they “were pleased and rather excited to be in town, to be able to go out like this into some kind of evening life, not just the dark and cold and rushing storms that wrapped our houses in the country. Here were the streets leading into one another, the lights evenly spaced, a human design that had taken root and was working.
It is only “going out”, visiting, not crossing into another identity, and in the absence of this human design, unpleasantness resides.
“Disgrace was the easiest thing to come by,” in “Half a Grapefruit”, in Who Do You Think You Are? and this idea permeates both this collection of linked stories and The Lives of Girls and Women.
Class matters: “What Jocelyn called bitterness seemed to Rose something more complex and more ordinary; just the weariness, suppleness, deviousness, meanness, common to a class.” (This is from “Mischief” in Who Do You Think You Are? but that sense underlies many other stories as well.)
Straddling the borders, between classes, between town and country, is awkward.
She states: “Our family was out of town but not really in the country.”
That is where the not-quite-story Alice Munro lives, where the town falls away, but in ”Voices” she is looking back.
And memory might not be reliable (“If I was really ten, and I think I was…”) but she has another degree of awareness which might compensate for that lack: “Some questions come to mind now that didn’t then.”
More questions than answers, and it has long been that way, as it was, too, in “Postcard” in Dance of the Happy Shades, it ”seemed to me that in every one of those houses lived people who knew something I didn’t. Who understood what had happened and perhaps had known it was going to happen and I was the only one who didn’t know”.
Differences between classes. Tensions between men and women. Boys and girls. In “Changes and Ceremonies”, in Lives of Girls and Women, the judgements fly, and their sharp edges are observed to be hurtful and long-lived.
Boys’ hate was dangerous, it was keen and bright, a miraculous birthright, like Arthur’s sword snatched out of the stone, in the Grade Seven Reader. Girls’ hate, in comparison, seemed muddled and tearful, sourly defensive. Boys would bear down on you on their bicycles and cleave the air where you had been, magnificently, with no remorse, as if they wished there were knives on the wheels. And they would say anything.
They would say softly, ‘Hello hooers.’
When she sees Mrs. Hutchison — known to be a hooer — at the dance in “Voices”, however, the not-quite-story daughter perceives the cut as coming from another source, from a female not a male.
“It must have been that orange-dressed woman who had been mean, I thought, for no particular reason. It had to have been a woman. Because if it had been a man, one of her Air Force comforters would have punished them.”
It seems likely that it was her mother who was shamed to have had Mrs. Hutchison and one of her girls in attendance at the dance, inherently disgraceful all the other women there, but although the not-quite-story daughter recognizes that the danger and judgement can reside in both sexes, she does not overtly suggest her mother as the source of the hurt directed at Peggy, one of Mrs. Hutchison’s girls.
When she sees Peggy there — one of Mrs. Hutchison’s girls — she seems to look right past her, through her, as much because she recognizes her vulnerability as because she has accepted her mother’s perspective.
“It seemed as though some people were naturally brave and others weren’t. Somebody must have said something to Peggy, and there she was snuffling, because like me she was not thick-skinned.”
There is an echo there which redirects her eye from Peggy to the ever-admiring men, the internalized view of what matters, of the ways in which women are expected to behave. And just as there is a gap between the way that the not-quite-story daughter views this situation (compared to the way that she imagines her not-quite-story mother would want her to view it), there is a gap between the way she interprets the roles inhabited by Peggy and the young men seated beside her on the stairway.
The question of agency, shifting positions of power and powerlessness, are considered elsewhere in Alice Munro’s fiction as well.
Consider Rose’s experience on the train in ”Wild Swans” (in Who Do You Think You Are?) in which Rose is about Peggy’s age and taking the train on her own for the first time and a man puts his hand up her skirt, moving it up her thigh, and she does not protest.
Perhaps Rose, too, was thin-skinned. In “Voices” the hands of the young men “blessed my own skinny thighs and their voices assured me that I, too, was worthy of love” and the not-quite-story ends with the same conflict and uncertainty that “Wild Swans” did, the not-quite-story daughter snuffling and unprotesting but dreaming of feeling worthy.
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 work is the thirteenth in Dear Life, with next Sunday reserved for the final, title work. Wednesdays and Sundays for Alice Munro, for March and April 2013
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
“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