Oh, dear life. Have reunited with Alice Munro—after months and months and months of pointedly avoiding this beautiful [and expensive] hardcover, telling myself over and over that I could wait, I could, I could. But here I am, alone once again in the Fortress, and reading Madame Munro’s short stories. (And I admit that I am finding comfort in the heft of this book, it’s very tactility: The crude brush of the deckle-edge against my fingers, the rasp of the paper, its slightly sick-sweet smell; the weight.)
I’ve only read five of the stories thus far, but it was easy to slip into Munro’s telling. More than the generosity of her stories, more than the scope—nothing short of meandering at times, the reader would be justified in suspecting—it’s this uncanny carriage among Munro’s people. There’s always this grace with her stories, borne (I’m whimsical enough to think) of how her characters will themselves to remain still under duress. So: The illusion of grace, then—but the illusion is more than enough. In the face of some keen shame, an unforeseen mortification, a half-expected disappointment.
See how in, the first story, “To Reach Japan,” we first find a housewife bidding her husband goodbye—“The smile for his wife seemed hopeful and trusting, with some sort of determination about it.”—and then we find her (as she was months ago) all but lost in a party she should not have come to, all those people unknown to her. And then, drunk with criminal liquor, she is brought home by a complete stranger. And here’s when that blend of sadness and illicit hope comes to the fore—oddly enough, with a perceived setdown. I could feel myself blush with her shame:
On Lions Gate Bridge he said, “Excuse me for sounding how I did. I was thinking whether I would or wouldn’t kiss you and I decided I wouldn’t.”
She thought he was saying that there was something about her that didn’t quite measure up to being kissed. The mortification was like being slapped clean back into sobriety.
And then, much later, we find Greta willing it all back to normal:
During the coming fall and winter and spring there was hardly a day when she didn’t think of him. It was like having the very same dream the minute you fell asleep. She would lean her head against the back pillow of the sofa, thinking that she lay in his arms. You would not think that she’d remember his face but it would spring up in detail, the face of a creased and rather tired-looking, satirical, indoor sort of man. Nor was his body lacking, it was presented as reasonably worn but competent, and uniquely desirable.
She nearly wept with longing. Yet all this fantasy disappeared, went into hibernation when Peter came home. Daily affections sprang to the fore then, reliable as ever.
The dream was in fact a lot like the Vancouver weather—a dismal sort of longing, a rainy dreamy sadness, a weight that shifted round the heart.
So what about the rejection of kissing, that might seem an ungallant blow?
She simply cancelled it out. Forgot about it entirely.
In “Amundsen,” we have a schoolteacher caught in the bewildering attention given by the town doctor; in “Leaving Maverley,” we have an upstanding man trying to navigate life, as it comes with his wife’s sickness and the occasional appearances of a girl named Leah; in “Gravel,” we have a child lost in the confusions of the love of the adults around her; in “Haven,” we try to understand worship and devotion in the midst of secret dinner parties and badly orchestrated funerals. Missed connections everywhere, yes, some loneliness, a touch of grief—and that clarion call of hope.
But Munro, damned Munro: Her stories (like myself, good grief) believe in the weight of single—singular!—moments. Or, at the very least, are hyperaware of their power. (All signs point to: You Should Not Be Reading This Book At This Time; but consider me consoled. Allow me to think myself comfortable with the all-too-familiar in-text epiphanies that come, that I must witness.)