In 1988 I read War and Peace and 22 other books, but rather than go back over Tolstoy’s masterpiece (which I really must revisit some day) for December I opted for a re-read of one of several collections of Alice Munro stories I have on my shelves. Because, let’s face it, she’s a great writer.
The collection I read in 1988, and have just re-read, was The Progress of Love, published just the year before. How had I discovered Munro? I think I must have first read her in the New Yorker, copies of which seemed to appear fairly regularly in the old Radio Times office and which I would occasionally borrow to read on my commute. Anyway, I see that in 1987 I read a library copy of her earlier collection The Moons of Jupiter, and from then on saw her as a writer worth seeking out. I’ve always liked reading short stories, and Munro’s I liked more than most. The only problem with reading a collection like this one is that you (or rather I) can’t rush straight through, as it were: I have to leave space between each story to get the full impact and not let one blur into another. Reading most of The Progress of Love on a long flight– which is what I did – may not have been a good idea. I had to leave breaks (for meals or naps) between stories.
Now that Munro is super-famous and has won the Nobel Prize for literature (in 2013), perhaps there is not a lot of point in adding to the literary world’s praise. But I’ll still make a few remarks after my re-reading:
1 Was it a good idea to call the collection The Progress of Love? True, that’s the title of the first story in the collection (though I’m still not sure why) but it does suggest the whole book is full of romantic clichés, which it isn’t. The titles of some of her other collections, such as Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You or Too Much Happiness seem to have more of a Munro-esque flavour
2 That title story is a good illustration of her stories’ “tendency to move forward and backward in time” (to borrow a phrase quoted in her Wikipedia entry). “I got a call at work, and it was my father” is the opening sentence. The narrator’s mother Marietta has died, and within a couple of pages we go back to 1947 when she (the narrator) was twelve and about to meet her mother’s stepsister Beryl; then we go back further, to an incident in Marietta’s childhood about which it turns out Beryl has a different version; after that we go forward to 1965 when the narrator’s childhood farmhouse home is sold and eventually lived in by “hippies”. In the final pages or so we are (I think) in a later time frame than the opening, and the narrator is revisiting the house which is now up for sale and recalling – perhaps not accurately – how her mother burned the money she had inherited from her father, some time before 1947. This is more complicated time-wise than most of Munro’s stories.
3 Despite such complications, Munro’s prose is generally uncomplicated, and her sentences straightforward and not too long. Take the opening of ‘The Moon in the Orange Street Skating Rink’)
Sam got a surprise, walking into Callie’s variety and confectionery store. He expected a clutter of groceries, cheap bits and pieces, a stale smell, maybe faded tinsel ropes, old overlooked Christmas decorations. Instead he found a place mostly taken up with video games. Hand-lettered signs in red and blue crayon warned against alcohol, fighting, loitering and swearing.
One thing I noticed in this re-reading, though: the frequent occurrence of questions in the course of a story. It certainly makes sense in a first-person narrative that’s unsure of the truth (three out of the 11 stories here have first-person narrators), but everywhere it seems there are unresolved puzzles about people’s behaviour:
Why did Violet do this? Why did she send those ugly letters to Trevor, and put such a note with them? (‘A Queer Streak’)
Why does Trudy remember this moment? … What are those times that stand out, clear patches in your life – what do they have to do with it? They aren’t exactly promises. Breathing spaces. Is that all? (‘Circle of Prayer’)
Why is it that Rhea always knows the tricky question to ask, in spite of her predictable mockery, lectures, and propaganda? (‘Eskimo’)
4 Of course Munro is notable for being Canadian and making much of the Canadian setting of her stories – only ‘Miles City, Montana’ in this collection strays across the border, and its central characters are a Canadian husband and wife and daughters. More than one story highlights the difference between the inhabitants of small towns and the usually poorer farmers of their hinterland (Munro herself grew up on a farm outside Wingham, Ontario). But the attitudes that people express here – condescension, resentment, curiosity and the like – are easily recognisable in lots of other contexts. Similarly although Munro often writes from a woman’s point of view there are plenty of instances where we enter the minds of the men in these stories. One of my favourites, ‘Monsieur les Deux Chapeaux’, is told mostly from a man’s (Colin’s) point of view; yet one of the important points of the story is that a woman, Nancy, knows more about car engines than either Colin or his brother do.
Will what I’ve written here make anyone want to read Alice Munro who hasn’t already done so? I don’t know. But I’m certainly glad I re-read The Progress of Love and will continue to revisit, and think about, her stories as time – her continuing theme – goes by.
Also read in December: Ottessa Moshfegh’s Homesick for Another World (more short stories); Even the dogs by Jon McGregor (memorably good); and The Watch House by Northern Irish writer Bernie McGill …
So, to look back: I read some 50 books in 2017, about 30 per cent of which were by women writers (four out of 12 of my re-readings were by women). Top six? In no particular order, The Underground Railroad, Even the dogs, Notes from Overground, Go Went Gone, The Immigration Handbook, The Noise of Time. Most on rather serious subjects, I’m afraid.