Could be that “Carried Away” is my favourite Alice Munro story.
Not only because Louisa is a librarian. (But that certainly helps.)
“The Librarian’s desk was in the archway between the front and back rooms. The books were on shelves set in rows in the back room. Green-shaded lamps, with long pull cords, dangled down in the aisles between.”
This librarian is a quintessential Munro heroine.
“Arthur remembered years ago some matter brought up at the Council Meeting about buying sixty-watt bulbs instead of forty. This Librarian was the one who had requested that, and they had done it.”
Arthur recognizes her practical nature, the pursuit of light bulbs which are better for reading, but he comes to see another side of Louisa as well.
Independent. Romantic. Professional. Passionate.
But she was not always a librarian.
Once upon a time, she was in love.
And, then, once upon another time, she recalled that first time with something-like-regret-and-fondness.
“Carried Away” slips across time, from one love affair and romantic (and not-so-romantic) encounter to another, from one disappointment and loss to the next.
The story begins with letters, between Louisa and a man from Carstairs, who is overseas in the war.
But she has written other letters, to another man. And her memories of these past letters overlap.
Readers meet Louisa when she sits in the dining room of the Commercial Hotel to read his letters and she sits in the Ladies Parlor to write her replies.
Paradoxically, Louisa is stationery (but in a transitional place, a hotel) when she recalls the motion those other letters provoked.
“Her last letter had been firm and stoical, and some consciousness of herself as a heroine of love’s tragedy went with her around the country as she hauled her display cases up and down the stairs of small hotels and talked about Paris styles and said that her sample hats were bewitching , and drank her solitary glass of wine.”
Louisa took to the road to escape those other letters (more accurately to escape the reality that there were to be no more letters), only to find herself the recipient of — and sender of — letters once more.
The soldier does not know her name when he first writes; the librarian does not recall what he looks like when she receives his first letter.
“Now she felt what everybody else did – a constant fear and misgiving and at the same time this addictive excitement. You could look up from your life of the moment and feel the world crackling beyond the walls.”
This she felt because of the war.
This she felt because of the letters.
They got carried away.
She tells the story of the soldier’s letters to another salesman who stays at the Commercial Hotel, after those letters, too, have slipped into the past.
“One of these was Jim Frarey, who sold typewriters and office equipment and books and all sorts of stationery supplies. He was a fair-haired, rather round-shouldered but strongly built man in his middle forties. You would think by the look of him that he sold something heavier and more important in the masculine world, like farm implements.”
Readers have a clear picture of Jim Frarey, which distracts from the fact that there is no clear picture of either the man who first set Louisa on the road or the soldier who wrote her letters overseas.
She describes — for Jim Frarey and for readers — how, when the war ended, she expected the soldier to visit the library.
“When she entered the Town Hall she always felt he might be there before her, leaning up against the wall awaiting her arrival. Sometimes she felt it so strongly she saw a shadow that she mistook for a man.”
She describes how that never happened.
“She picked up each book separately, and shook it as if she expected something to fall out. She ran her fingers in between the pages. The bottom part of her face was working in an unsightly way, as if she was chewing at the inside of her cheeks.”
She describes what happened instead.
“She had made fresh starts before and things had not tuned out as she had hoped, but she believed in the swift decision, the unforeseen intervention, the uniqueness of her fate.”
She describes what came before, and then readers learn what would come next.
(Alice Munro’s stories sometimes demand unusual verb tenses; “Carried Away” has a timeline readers can establish with a single reading, but Louisa-at-the-end-of-the-story appears to inhabit all of these pasts at once in a muddled-but-painfully-clear present that is still, somehow, conditional.)
Louisa’s story slips across love stories and near-love stories.
Arthur slips into the story and offers another perspective on Louisa, on the almost accidental way that one can stumble onto another book and another love affair.
“He was pleasantly mystified by the thought of grown people coming and going here, steadily reading books. Week after week, one book after another, a whole life long. He himself read a book once in a while, when somebody recommended it, and usually he enjoyed it, and then he read magazines, to keep up with things, and never thought about reading a book until another one came along, in this almost accidental way.”
Letters. Spanish Flu. Accidents. Tolpuddle Martyrs. “‘I knew you right away,’ he said. ‘In spite of — well, many years.'”
But Louisa doesn’t recognize him. They have met by accident. It might never have happened.
Have you been reading any Alice Munro stories?
NOTE: Spoilers in the comments below.
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 first 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.