Alice Munro
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‘I do think it’s plenty hard to be a man.’

– Alice Munro, interview in The New Yorker, 20 November 2012

Alice Munro has it in for men. Her male characters are self-preening inadequates, seducers, betrayers, asses, brutalisers. Losers, basically. An early story, ‘Postcard’, describes its protagonist’s lengthy affair with a man who suddenly, unexpectedly, marries another woman without warning, leaving her forever confused as to what she did wrong. Typical. Shabby treatment by treacherous bastards is par for the course in Munro-land.

While wrangling with Dear Life, her latest collection, I slowly realised that her vision of men was credible, from a certain perspective. Perhaps the men she has known really were unreliable creeps, prone to acts of random betrayal. It would account for several of these new stories: in ‘Amundsen’, a woman is seduced by a doctor who proposes marriage to her only to abandon her shortly before the ceremony; ‘Leaving Maverley’ documents the rapidity with which men replace the women who, for whatever reason, pass out of their lives; Uncle Jasper in the ironically-titled ‘Haven’ is simply a monster.

Which is not how one thinks of one’s own sex. Or oneself. It’s alienating and leaves the male reader one of two choices: either to continue feeling alienated or to subjugate his feelings, agree to differ, and accept Munro’s assumptions about the essential venality of the male. Her glancing comment in The New Yorker, quoted as epigraph to this essay, made me laugh out loud: its condescension struck me as hilarious. But even then, it became obvious Munro’s focus is only incidentally on men. These are stories about how the sexes interact. So much is clear. Less clear is that, for all her impatience with men, she reserves her harshest comment for women.

By the time her female characters encounter the truth about the men to whom they have entrusted themselves, they are complicit in their own fates, more than they realise – assuming they realise at all. In one of the best of the stories from Dear Life, a woman becomes the willing victim in a blackmail attempt. She is having an affair with a married man. She allows herself to be deceived. Her lover tells her he has been contacted by a blackmailer. He says he has destroyed the initial note threatening exposure. She goes along with the demand that he place monthly payments from her in a post office box. Why? For the most human of reasons. She wants to keep him. And, crucially, she has been lamed by childhood polio. ‘I could not stand for there to be an end of you and me’, he assures her, the awkward, trite phrasing hinting at insincerity. Only in the final moments of the story does she realise, belatedly, what has been staring her in the face for years:

the money goes straight into an account or maybe just into a wallet. General expenses. Or a modest nest egg. A trip to Spain. Who cares? People with families, summer cottages, children to educate, bills to pay – they don’t have to think about how to spend such an amount of money. It can’t even be called a windfall. No need to explain it.

Munro’s point is that women have a compulsion to play along with men, even when it is not in their interests. Thus in ‘Haven’, Aunt Dawn is shackled to the frightful Uncle Jasper around whom her entire life is said to revolve, her life’s work encapsulated in a single sentence.

‘A woman’s most important job is making a haven for her man.’

Did Aunt Dawn actually say that? I don’t think so. She shied away from statements. I probably read it in one of the housekeeping magazines I found in the house. Such as would have made my mother puke.

Aunt Dawn’s housekeeping magazines are an articulate witness to her folly. So are other details Munro drip-feeds us about Dawn’s life of misery with Jasper. For example, his ‘need to make a statement of pure and mighty disapproval’ when treated to a dinner he did not enjoy. But Munro is more interested in his enabler than in Jasper. She asks how much a woman will tolerate for the sake of marriage to a shit, breathing as much life as she can into her female characters, relegating males to performance of basic narrative functions.

It is symptomatic that when Munro admits us to the inner world of men, she falls short of the standard she sets with her female characters. In ‘Train’, we are to believe the itinerant Jackson is capable of having relationships with women so long as sex is not involved. Damaged by some terrible encounter in the distant past, he runs from women when they wish to become physically close. ‘Train’ attempts a fresh angle on the Munro formula where a woman at her most vulnerable (in this case a cancer victim) is abandoned by the man who purports to care for her. It takes as its subject not the woman – Munro’s usual ploy – but the man. Yet Jackson is no different from what he would have been in her other narratives: an enigma. His inner workings are less comprehensible than, for instance, those of Belle, the cancer patient, whose dependency is spelt out: ‘Belle, so far as he could see, was stopped at some point in life where she remained a grown-up child.’ There is no equivalent reading of Jackson, other than that he is a serial fugitive.

Ultimately, his life is unexamined and inexplicable. He lacks motivation and what all fictional characters must possess: the uniquely human ability to surprise. Instead of an enigma, Munro might have ventured an explanation. Joyce takes us into the bathroom with Bloom to show him masturbating – not a place Munro would go. It is as if, for her, the sexual personalities of her male characters are occluded. We might say, for example, that the fantasy world inhabited by men as they masturbate can provide such characters as Jackson with the most intense and rewarding sexual experience they will ever have.

Munro doesn’t ‘see’ her male characters in the same way she does women, whose motivations and impulses she comprehends more fully. In fact, it is only because they are incompletely understood that her men can be presented as liars, schemers and tricksters. One has only to compare Munro’s Jackson with Conrad’s Falk to see why this matters. Falk’s experiences make him as damaged a personality as Jackson, encompassing depravities of an almost unspeakable nature. But he is capable also of heroism. Munro’s men are not. They are incapable of saying, with the narrator of ‘The Secret Sharer’, ‘I wondered how far I should turn out faithful to that ideal conception of one’s own personality every man sets up for himself secretly’, because such concepts do not exist for them. Males in her fiction are never there to transcend themselves. They are there to bear out, time and again, the belief that men are selfish and women foolishly trusting. They are, in other words, not human, other than in their weaknesses, which are all too evident. Their inevitable weakness is a weakness in her fiction – their shallowness its shallowness.

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Munro grew up in rural Canada, on the shores of Lake Huron, in the 1930s, where her conception of male-female relationships was formed. From the title-memoir, the final piece in Dear Life, it is clear she was beaten repeatedly by her father. Those beatings took place in the big main room, ‘with me wanting to die for the misery and shame of it all’. The recollection is crucial to Munro’s first writings.

I had once made up some poems myself, of a very similar nature, though they were lost now, and maybe had never been written down. Verses that commended Nature, then were a bit hard to wind up. I would have composed them right around the time that I was being so intolerant of my mother, and my father was whaling the unkindness out of me. Or beating the tar out of me, as people would cheerfully say back then.

This must be one of the most potent passages in the volume. But what is one to make of its tone? Ironic, certainly, in the separation of bitter, brutal reality and the conventionally literary commendation of Nature. Cool. Drily understated.  Perhaps the worst of it lies in what Munro does not say rather than what she does. The subject is less indirectly approached in an early story, ‘Royal Beatings’, which describes in detail the beating of Rose by her father, who is egged on by Flo, her stepmother. It is a lengthy passage, but deserves quotation in full.

At the first, or maybe the second, crack of pain, she draws back. She will not accept it. She runs around the room, she tries to get to the doors. Her father blocks her off. Not an ounce of courage or of stoicism in her, it would seem. She runs, she screams, she implores. Her father is after her, cracking the belt at her when he can, then abandoning it and using his hands. Bang over the ear, then bang over the other ear. Back and forth, her head ringing. Bang in the face. Up against the wall and bang in the face again. He shakes her and hits her against the wall, he kicks her legs. She is incoherent, insane, shrieking. Forgive me! Oh please, forgive me!

Flo is shrieking too. Stop, stop!

Not yet. He throws Rose down. Or perhaps she throws herself down. He kicks her legs again. She has given up on words but is letting out a noise, the sort of noise that makes Flo cry, Oh, what if people can hear her? The very last-ditch willing sound of humiliation and defeat it is, for it seems Rose must play her part in this with the same grossness, the same exaggeration, that her father displays, playing his. She plays his victim with a self-indulgence that arouses, and maybe hopes to arouse, his final, sickened contempt.

They will give anything that is necessary, it seems, they will go to any lengths.

Not quite. He has never managed really to injure her, though there are times, of course, when she prays that he will. He hits her with an open hand, there is some restraint in his kicks.

Perhaps the worst thing one could say about Dear Life is that it lacks comparable power – though ‘Royal Beatings’ could hardly be claimed as typical Munro, for whom violence is usually internalised, contained, mediated. Violence of a Lawrentian kind is rare in her work. But it is important to be clear that ‘Royal Beatings’ is not a memoir, and should not be treated as such. It is fiction – fiction that echoes the trauma its author’s childhood beatings may have left behind, a suggestion to some extent ratified by ‘Dear Life’. It is difficult to ignore the implied admission that, non-consensual though they were, the beatings called forth a particular role from father and daughter which they were capable of playing – which, indeed, they embraced. And in that act of complicity both are found guilty – a guilt that infuses Munro’s vision of male-female relations, intensified by the ready collusion of her mother. ‘Dear Life’ provides corroboration:

Later on, I had to stay in the house to help my mother, and I was full of resentment and quarrelsome remarks. ‘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. (This was not an uncommon punishment at the time.) Afterwards, I’d lie weeping in bed and make plans to run away. But that phase also passed, and in my teens I became unmanageable, even jolly, noted for my funny recountings of things that I had heard about in town or that had happened in school.

These details demand scrutiny: the implication that the beating was made worse because it interrupted her father’s labours; that her mother was aware of this, and found it convenient to interrupt him for that reason; the slightness of her mother’s complaint – that her feelings were ‘hurt’, so that only the infliction of intense pain could appease her. ‘Dear Life’ covers ground other than domestic violence, but again and again Munro returns to the beatings. Fully implicated in what happens, Munro’s mother stands at the nexus of intense emotion, much of which is hinted at but not explicated. Why else would Munro bother mentioning she declined to return home to say a last goodbye?

I did not go home for my mother’s last illness or for her funeral. I had two small children and nobody in Vancouver to leave them with. We could barely have afforded the trip, and my husband had a contempt for formal behavior, but why blame it on him? I felt the same. 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.

Munro’s self-forgiveness is mentioned, but the real question is whether she can forgive her mother. There is nothing to suggest she can. The whole question of forgiveness – of who should be forgiven or why – seems a deflection. The larger question, the more important one, is what would lead a child to absent herself from the funeral of a parent. The admission is loaded with minor details, noted only in passing: we are told Munro had reached the point ‘of hating a good many things [my mother] said’. Just a hint, almost a throwaway, but hate is too powerful an emotion to slip by without notice, and one has to ask: what does it mean to hate ‘a good many things’ said by one’s mother? Elsewhere, Munro reveals her mother ‘had become a schoolteacher, who spoke in such a way that her own relatives were not easy around her. She might have got the idea that after such striving she would be welcomed anywhere’. Munro clearly hated that too.

‘Dear Life’ is a memoir not of love but hatred. The hatred isn’t directed at Munro’s father (who – as usual with her male characters – does little more than perform a function, his thrashings dealt with briskly as if minor squalls in an otherwise calm passage.) It is directed at her mother, laden (like other females in Munro-land) with pieties and pretensions. In a recent interview with the New Yorker, Munro confessed her mother ‘is still a main figure in my life because her life was so sad and unfair and she so brave, but also because she was determined to make me into the Sunday-school-recitation girl I was, from the age of seven or so, fighting not to be’. Praise and some self-blame, but even here, she cannot describe the relationship without mention of conflict. So exemplary is ‘Dear Life’ of her oeuvre, it is difficult to resist the conceit that it is the archetypal Munro fiction, were it not actually memoir – and Munro once sued an academic who had written about one of her stories, dealing with parents, as if it were autobiography rather than fiction. All the same, ‘Dear Life’ provides the male-female relationship on which others in her work are modeled. And it glosses Munro’s grim determination to pin the blame on female protagonists.

Munro herself makes the connection between her earliest writings and her father ‘beating the tar out of me, as people would cheerfully say back then’. That seminal relationship provides the answer to the larger question of where creativity comes from: compare Larkin’s ‘Something to do with violence / A long way back’. (It is worth noting, as Munro has taken pains to emphasise, father and daughter enjoyed a close and friendly relationship in later years, and he became a keen admirer of her writing.)

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It is hard fully to engage with narratives in which only the female characters have meaningful inner lives – a distraction compounded by their distance in time and space. For Munro is that peculiar thing, a contemporary writer who does not write about the present. Indeed, so far as I know, she has written nothing set in the present century. Her theatre is the pre-War, World War Two and immediate postwar periods; a small number of stories are set in the 1970s. (Munro has said she doesn’t write about her daughter’s generation because she wants them to come and visit her in the old people’s home.) Bound by the mores of an era hard to evoke for anyone born afterwards, her characters are prisoners of their moment. Does that matter? Only in that it helps explain my exasperation with those unlovable men, innocent as they are of everything that has happened in sexual politics in recent decades. Not only are they from an all but vanished world, they tend to be inhabitants of the wilds of south-western Ontario, where (one senses) change comes dropping slow. All of which explains why they could hardly be more alien from those described by (for instance) Ian McEwan, and why, when reading her work, one has to accept its limitations as, in part, the product of their setting.

These are substantial concessions to make, and they had better be worth it. The reward is the honesty with which Munro describes the impulses and motivations of women. She has been labeled feminist probably because her subject is assumed to be the plight of women in a man’s world. She has been quoted as saying, ‘I think I’m a feminist as far as thinking that the experience of women is important. That is really the basis of feminism.’ Yet it is strange to describe as feminist someone whose recurrent theme is the weakness, gullibility, and innocence of women. And stranger still to take as feminist someone whose view of the female mind is so unforgiving. ‘Night’, another memoir in Dear Life, recounts Munro’s childhood desire to ‘strangle my little sister’. It was nothing to do with vengeance or hatred, more like ‘an utterly cold deep thought that was hardly an urging, more of a contemplation’.

I might do it not for any jealousy, viciousness, or anger, but because of madness, which could be lying right beside me there in the night. Not a savage madness either, but something that could be almost teasing. A lazy, teasing, half-sluggish suggestion that seemed to have been waiting a long time.

In the memoir, Munro finds her father and confesses her feelings, to which he responds that it was a side-effect of ether administered in hospital when she had a serious operation years before: ‘No more sense than a dream.’ It isn’t merely that such straightforward honesty has nothing to do with feminism. It’s that clear-sightedness of this order turns the writing into something more powerful than ideology. Especially when read alongside a story such as ‘Gravel’, also in Munro’s new volume, in which a nameless narrator, now grown up, recounts her childhood growing up in a trailer with her mother and her mother’s boyfriend, Neal. The central episode concerns a snowy day on which she went out with her older sister Caro and dog Blitzee, both of whom fell into the snow-filled gravel pit.

When I dream of this, I am always running. And in my dreams I am running not towards the trailer but back towards the gravel pit. I can see Blitzee floundering around and Caro swimming towards her, swimming strongly, on the way to rescue her. I see her light-brown checked coat and her plaid scarf and her proud successful face and reddish hair darkened at the end of its curls by the water. All I have to do is watch and be happy – nothing required of me, after all.

What I really did was make my way up the little incline towards the trailer. And when I got there I sat down. Just as if there had been a porch or a bench, though in fact the trailer had neither of these things. I sat down and waited for the next thing to happen.

I know this because it’s a fact. I don’t know, however, what my plan was or what I was thinking. I was waiting, maybe, for the next act in Caro’s drama. Or in the dog’s.

I don’t know if I sat there for five minutes. More? Less? It wasn’t too cold.

The crux of the story is the contrast between what one knows to be taking place offstage and the narrator’s concentration on herself: where she sat; whether there was a porch or bench; whether she had a plan; her attentiveness to the ‘next act’; how cold it was. Trivia. And such copious attention to the needs of the self turns out to be a kind of pattern, for the story goes on to tell how a series of adults – beginning with Josie (her brother’s wife), then a psychiatrist, and ending with Neal, encountered years later – attempt to persuade her of her blamelessness.

‘The thing is to be happy,’ he said. ‘No matter what. Just try that. You can. It gets to be easier and easier. It’s nothing to do with circumstances. You wouldn’t believe how good it is. Accept everything and then tragedy disappears. Or tragedy lightens, anyway, and you’re just there, going along easy in the world.’

Munro is too wise a storyteller to commend lotos-eating, and the emptiness of Neal’s prescription needs no commentary. The truth is that the narrator effectively murdered her sister: she was the only person who could have raised the alarm, instead of which she ambled away from the gravel pit, sat by the trailer and twiddled her thumbs. The point of the story is that though she may not know why she did it, the consequences remain with her in after-years, slowly but inexorably permeating her life; it is implied they have turned her into a childless academic, a lesbian, unable to relate to her parents. This is, in short, a story about guilt, and how it lacerates us, forcing us to adapt to the demands it makes on us, until we are so contorted we can hardly understand what has crippled us so. If the narrator of ‘Gravel’ has been conditioned by her experiences, the memory continues to provide a source of power and even celebration – and thus becomes the fertile ground to which she compulsively returns. The cannibalistic tendency of our minds to use ourselves and those closest to us as fuel for our own continually evolving myth of self is the true subject of ‘Gravel’ – and, as a matter of fact, of the memoir ‘Night’. Once again, it is a harsh truth, less to do with feminism than with the origins of the creative impulse. (Munro’s writing is, in that respect, highly Wordsworthian.)

Dear Life lacks the consistency and intensity of earlier collections, the best of which are assembled in Selected Stories (1996). ‘Gravel’ may be the most convincing narrative in the new volume, in part because it suffers least from the haziness of its male characters. It has no qualms about presenting the reader with an unpredictable protagonist and a plot so outlandish as to be plausible; perhaps, as Munro says of events described in the last of her memoirs, ‘It wouldn’t do in fiction’ – and is thus perfectly pitched.

Alice Munro, Dear Life. Chatto and Windus, 2012, 18.99, ISBN 9780701187842.

Alice Munro, Selected Stories. Vintage, 1997, 6.99, ISBN 9780099732419.


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