Dear Life By Alice Munro, Chatto & Windus, Rs 799
Alice Munro has been writing for more than four decades now. In all these years, she has been working at paring down emotions to the thinnest slivers so that they glisten in the white light of knowledge like the thing itself — simple, austere, merciless. Only in Munro can a child whine “to celebrate a hurt” (Lives of Girls and Women, 1971), pain can be tender, a homemaker and a writer can feel shackled by her home and free because of it, and a man can tell his wife, “I wanted to be married to you and I want to be married to you and I couldn’t stand being married to you and I can’t stand being married to you” (Who Do You Think You Are? 1978). It is as if Munro lifts the flap of skin to peer into the pattern of nerves inside and the act of describing it becomes a concomitant process of chipping away at language so that a few shards of words remain. Her pointed words delight because they hurt, and in that hurt lies the story about life’s refusal to throw up stories which Munro seems to have been trying to narrate all through her writing career.
The 14 short stories in Dear Life deal with all the excitements that life can possibly afford — falling in love, separation, marriage, infidelity and death. These events take shape in contexts that would be familiar to Munro’s readers — railway stations, trains, the countryside and small towns of Canada, with the city of Toronto always flickering in the distance as the coveted and rejected place where life goes on in the big bow-wow strain. Putting paid to all attempts to make her Nobel-worthy, Munro doggedly sticks to the ordinary and the banal in Dear Life, as in all her fiction. But true to the warning issued by a character in one her earlier short stories, this banality can make one weep. So in “Amundsen”, the narrator sits on the benches outside the station — “Across the tracks was the electric train, empty, waiting.” In “To reach Japan”, as Peter waves his wife and child a temporary goodbye at the station, the “smile for his wife seemed hopeful and trusting, with some sort of determination about it. Something that could not easily be put into words and indeed might never be.” And from “Corrie”: “This coat [with silver-fox collar] bothered his wife, and she often felt obliged to tell people that she had inherited, not bought it. That was the truth. Still, she liked to wear it on certain occasions, like that dinner party, to hold her own, it seemed, even with people whom she had no use for.” Banality can also provoke a smile, especially when one thinks of the several futile motivations that go into its making.
If anything connects these disparate stories, it is certain fears, certain habits and certain uncertain judgment, which keep surfacing like persistent dreams. The central women in stories like “Corrie”, “Pride”, “Train” are alike in their refusal, or inability, to grow up that gives them a tremulous vulnerability in rapidly changing times. It also gives them a useless goodness — a talisman passed on to them by their parents that has long lost its power, if it ever had any, to protect. The possession of such a dubious gift only exposes them to exploitation, which they endure with a bright levity because they have come to expect no better. On the other side of these women are the men who are very much like the prudish, timorous heroes of Eliot’s poems. They fear the warmth that these women offer because they would rather shiver in their smooth coldness than risk potholed togetherness. In “Amundsen”, the doctor opts out of marriage at the very last moment by offering the most disgustingly self-righteous of explanations to the betrayed girl: “Maybe someday you’ll count this one of the luckiest days of your life.” Yet, as is usual in Munro’s neutral universe, these men are hardly villains in their refusal to commit. If they meet with anything like punishment following their defection, it is just waste, sad time, stretching before and after.
And the women who manage to choose a different life get no prize either. In “Gravel”, the narrator’s mother sheds her husband and home to play house with a bohemian idler, reminding one of the Beatles’ song, “She’s leaving home”, with its “She goes downstairs to the kitchen/ Clutching her handkerchief/ Quietly turning the backdoor key/ Stepping outside she is free.” But the freedom she carves for herself indelibly damages the two daughters from the first marriage (the elder one drowns herself), thus raising questions about the justification of her rebellion. Yet, in the end, none offends. As the ageing stepfather later tells the surviving daughter-narrator, “Accept everything and then tragedy disappears.” Age and time straighten out the deepest of creases and what remains are the “lighted rooms/ Inside you head, and people in them, acting/ People you know, yet can’t quite name” (Larkin, “Old Fools”). “In sight of the lake” would be one of the most chilling pictures of old age and desolation in modern fiction. The relentless sanitary brilliance of a home for the aged — interchangeable with the “off kilter” —with its “fakey” comforts hiding the dehumanization of the captive patients is brought out in a few sharpened sentences that unfurl like a spool in the mind of an elderly woman slowly losing her mind. Her present merges with her future, which is the luminous waiting room for death.
This brings one to the final pieces in the book that, Munro says, are “not quite stories... I believe they are the first and last — and the closest — things I have to say about my own life.” The dissatisfied mother makes a come-back here, as does the father with his failing fox and mink farm. But the sense of an ending is there as an impression only; the brief sketches do not end, because they merge with life. And for all the disaffections in them, they contain no bitterness. Like the preceding stories, they are just uncompromisingly true to life, which, while stubbornly refusing to offer grand revelations, still gathers meaning in spots of time. Amidst the clutter of a house and a life soon to be left behind, skunks gambol with silent, amazing grace in the fading evening light in the backyard (“Pride”), the father absolves the daughter by matter-of-factly accepting her darkness (“Night”) and the bereaved child goes back home sheltered in the knowledge that her dead friend has communicated to her from inside the coffin (“The Eye”). This indeed is dear life — dull and startling, overwhelming and unremarkable — the “facts are not to be reconciled” (Dance of the Happy Shades, 1968). To look at it through Munro’s unflinchingly honest eyes is to discover its preciousness anew, and to be grateful for living it.