How’s this for a scenario; an artistic projectory: shy student marries as soon as she graduates, scared that she is old-maid material; wants to write novels but has children instead; still wants to write novels but time is limited so writes short stories while the babies are napping; when they reach school age has more time to write but has to stop writing mid-afternoon to do housewife and mother duties before family gets home; keeps writing short stories until she’s 82; wins Nobel Prize for Literature.
When told of her win, “It just seems impossible,” she said.
She is the 13th woman to win the Literature Prize and the second Canadian (after Saul Bellow), and therefore the first Canadian woman.
She writes about the internal drama of relationships usually from the female point of view; about simple country people, but also academics. She is often called ‘the modern Chekhov’ which is not entirely true: Chekhov is more interested in behaviour, Munro in the thoughts behind behaviour.
This collection, The Moons of Jupiter, came out in 1982. It contains eleven stories. One of them, Barton Bus, written in the first person describes a brief love affair in Australia but all the other scenes, like scenes from a bus window that pass you by, describe what it might be like if she, the narrator, bumps into the once brief lover. What will she say? What will she do? She doesn’t use his name only a letter;
“I call him X, as if he were a character in an old fashioned novel, that pretends to be true. X is a letter in his name, but I chose it also because it seems to suit him. The letter X seems to me expansive and secretive.”
In the brief final scene a female friend, Kay, describes to the narrator a man who is a friend of her husband’s and after dinner he sighed and laid his head in Kay’s lap. She thought it was a ‘nice simple’ thing to do. She mentions his name. I gasped! It was him! and the narrator does not say a word.
I’ve probably spoiled this story for you but when you read it, it will undoubtedly mean something different to you as meaning is always in the mind of the reader.
In Visitors a couple welcome the husband’s brother, his wife, and her sister to stay in their house which is so small that no room can accommodate them all at once. If the fifth person enters someone has to stand in the doorway. Sleeping arrangements are a bit like camping. They go for a drive – they can all fit in the car … just. They talk, they drive, they look for the site of the birth-house of one of them. It’s no longer there, but they imagine it. The talk is simple, personal, clichéd like small-talk. The three visitors finally go back home, a very long way away. The couple are back in their own small bed and Mildred realises Wilfred is crying: he will never see his brother again. They could visit. Will they? Probably not but she says ‘maybe’ and he says ‘not next week’.
I was left with a feeling of regret, mixed with helplessness wound around with sorrow leaving these two people in their cramped space forced to cling to each other as some sort of protection from the miseries of the world.
“When I write about something happening in this setting, I don’t think that I’m choosing to be confined. Quite the opposite. I don’t think I’m writing just about this life. I hope to be writing about and through it.”
All her stories are set in the country to the east of Lake Huron, Canada because she loves it; she understands the people, she likes its climate, its falling down barns, its “occasional farms that have swimming pools and airplanes.” She speaks the language.
Alice Munro, who doesn’t write any more (there are many published collections), reads and sometimes she doesn’t start to read a story from the beginning. She starts anywhere and reads forward a bit and sometimes goes back a bit. To her a story
“is not like a road to follow, it’s more like a house. You go inside and stay there for a while, wandering back and forth and settling where you like and discovering how the rooms and corridors relate to each other, how the world outside is altered by being viewed from these windows … and you can go back again and again, and the house, the story, always contains more than you saw last time.”
Having a volume of Alice Munro short stories by your bed is comforting as well as enlightening and entertaining no matter how many times you read one.
Happy New Year and welcome to 2015: another year of reading and writing; but first the reading. As you can see from the picture my reading for 2015 begins with rather an eclectic batch. This was not planned, well, not all of it was planned. Here’s a little run-down on the list – to be read in no particular order – gleaned from the covers, a little Google search and information I’ve acquired through osmosis.
The Dinner by Herman Koch
I have a dear friend, an Irishman living in Brussels, who visits the island where I live twice a year and being a book-worm himself he brings me novels I wouldn’t otherwise have heard about. My to-read list contains several of his gifts, and The Dinner is one of them. I like to think of him as my Book Fairy. Herman Koch is a Dutch writer and actor and his sixth novel, The Dinner (2009), is his most successful, having been translated into 21 languages; it came out in English in 2012. Two couples meet at a stylish restaurant in Amsterdam for dinner. Each has a teenage son who, together, have committed a horrific act, caught on camera and beamed into living rooms all over the country. The New York Times reviewer called it “a clever, dark confection, like some elegant dessert fashioned out of entrails.” Australia’s Christos Tsiolkas, who, by the way, is doing very well in Europe since the great success of The Slap, is quoted on the jacket, “A riveting, compelling and deliciously uncomfortable read… This novel is both a punch in the guts and also a tonic. It clears the air. A wonderful book.” Can’t wait!
Home by Frank Ronan
Another from the Book Fairy, but this time from an Irish author, Frank Ronan who also writes a monthly column for the magazine Gardens Illustrated; Home is his 7th book and came out in 2002. “Born into a cabbage-growing, peace-loving 1960s commune, Coorg is declared, courtesy of a favourable reading of the I Ching, to be the new Messiah… startling and often hilarious,” says the blurb on the back courtesy of the Irish Times.
The Long Prospect by Elizabeth Harrower
I was shocked when a recent New Yorker edition arrived, and as usual, I checked out the “Books” section first, and I saw my favourite literary critic, James Woods, devoting a whole article to the re-release of the five novels of an Australian writer called Elizabeth Harrower, who, according to Woods, was alive and well and living in Sydney. She’s 84. I had never heard of her! The very next day I found The Long Prospect in my local second-hand book shop and in the new re-released edition by Text Publishing. Apparently she thinks of her fiction as something abandoned long ago and now can’t be bothered with writing. She wrote 5 novels between 1957 and 1971 but withdrew the last, In Certain Circles, some months before publication, lodged the manuscript with the National Library of Australia and washed her hands of the whole writing thing; until, Michael Heyward, of Text, came along and persuaded her to let him re-publish the lot in 2012. All five are about female characters trapped in tempestuous relationships with a charismatic bully; all male except for this one where the bully is female, the hateful Lillian Hulm.
The Cast Iron Shore by Linda Grant
Linda Grant is a British novelist and journalist and her first novel. The Cast Iron Shore (another from the Book Fairy) was her first, published in 1995. She has won numerous prizes (The Orange Prize for Fiction in 2000 for When I lived in Modern Times) and was on the long-list for the Man-Booker Prize in 2002 for her third novel Still Here and short listed for the same prize for her fourth The Clothes on Their Backs in 2008. Again, I’m ashamed to say, her name was new to me when the book landed in my hands only recently. It looks historical with a female protagonist who is raised ‘as an empty-headed fashion plate’ but a secret revealed during the Liverpool blitz of the Second World War changes her life and leads her to ‘a seedy hotel room in Hanoi’ and ‘a potato-chip factory in the prairies’, among many other locations, and ultimately to ‘a final choice’.
After Dark by Haruki Murikami
I’ve always been a little afraid of Murikami. I don’t read fantasy or science fiction – I’m a literary realist, I think – but I’ve always been drawn to him, curious, as well – he’s on everyone’s lips – but his books are so big. This one isn’t: I’m putting my toe in the water. It’s his 11th and came out in 2004. “A sleek, gripping novel of encounters set in Tokyo during the spooky hours between midnight and dawn.
My Dream of You by Nuala O’Faolain
I’ve just read Nuala O’Faolain’s (Noo la O fway lorn) famous memoir Are You Somebody? and fell in love with her way with words. This is a novel which came out in 2001 after her memoir and is about an Irish travel writer who leaves all that she has behind and returns to Ireland to write a book based on an old scandal of the mid-nineteenth century: an affair between the wife of an English landlord and her Irish servant, but what she really wants to understand is passion itself. I’m curious to read her fiction having only experienced her memoir.
The Moon of Jupiter by Alice Munro
Although I write short stories occasionally I don’t read them very often but when Alice Munro, a Canadian, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2013 I thought it’s time: she is a prolific short story writer, mainly because, as she explains in her introduction to the Vintage edition of her Selected Stories, “When you are responsible for running a house and taking care of small children … it’s hard to arrange for large chunks of time … so I got into the habit of writing short stories.” I’ve read several since BF brought me this collection of her work, and she is not so much interested in the interior life of her female characters but more in the heady and extravagant thoughts around that interior life. One of her characters, Lydia, in a story called Dulse is forever judging, pitting, herself against pleasing the men in her life. Every man she meets she thinks in terms of what would it be like to be with that man; and then she meets a man who is nothing like any other, who is so self-contained ‘alone’ is all he can be. She envies him. “What a lovely durable shelter he has made for himself.” And yet another man, one she has fantasised about, gives her a parting gift “Yet look how this present slyly warmed her, from a distance.” The gift? Eatable seaweed: dulse.
The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles
When my partner and I left Australia in 2010 we shipped 25 boxes of books, this one included, and not much else, but lost the lot so it’s good to get another copy to take its place. Thank you BF. I came to Paul Bowles via his extraordinary wife, Jane Bowles, whom Tennessee Williams called the ‘greatest writer of the English language’. Paul started out as a serious composer – studying with Aaron Copland – in New York in the 1940s (I’m playing his music as I write this) and this, his first novel, and most successful, came out in 1949. He died in Tangiers in 1999 aged 88. A story about three American travellers in the deserts and cities of North Africa after World War II, but it is really about how the American incomprehension of alien cultures ultimately destroys such cultures. It was filmed by Bernardo Bertolucci in 1990 starring Debra Winger and John Malkovich, and in which Bowles appears. Looking forward to revisiting this one.
Zeitoun by Dave Eggars
Every since Dave Eggars, an American writer, began his career with his memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius in 2000, I believed the title. He’s a writer, publisher, screenwriter, editor, designer, philanthropist, journalist … Smarty Pants! He looms large. His books are so dense, heavy – in weight I mean, important, significant, worthy. Anyway, this one is non-fiction about a Syrian-American, a Muslim, who rides out Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005. The theme is similar, I’m led to believe as Bowles’, The Sheltering Sky: the inability of white Americans to mentally process ‘the other’.
The Speckled People by Hugo Hamilton
Hugo Hamilton is another Irish writer and this is a memoir that came out in 2003 but apparently free of the Catholic victim-hood, poverty and misery of the Irish memoir popularised by the likes of Frank McCourt of Angela’s Ashes fame, and as Hermione Lee says in The Guardian, “it’s shaped like a fiction, told, as if naively, in the language of a child.” “To read The Speckled People is to remember why great writing matters,” adds Joseph O’Connor in the Daily Mail.
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
I’ve always wanted to read this book but have never got around to it. I would always pick it up in book shops, hold it, flick through it. An American, she began publishing in 1988 and this one came out in 1998, her eighth work and, I think, her most famous. I mentioned to a friend that I had seen it in the local bookshop. “Get it,” she said. “It’s great.” So I did. That’s all it took. I was primed. Another book about a white American NOT dealing with ‘the foreign’ but as told through the eyes of the women in the family of a stubborn missionary in West Africa in the 1950s.