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”.
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.