31 Days of Stories 2014, Day 30: “The Albanian Virgin” by Alice Munro

May 30, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

From Open Secrets

Open_Secrets_Alice_Munro“What is fakery, what is authenticity? Which emotions and modes of behaviour and speech are honest and true, which pretended or pretentious? Or can they be separated?” These are questions Margaret Atwood has suggested recur throughout the work of Alice Munro, and they are questions that seem particularly applicable to “The Albanian Virgin,” one of the Nobel Prize winner’s most surprising stories.

The first thing one notices about “The Albanian Virgin” is its length. Clocking in at close to fifty pages, it is not a brief story – its length is typical of Munro’s later work. The stories following Friend of My Youth got longer and more complex; Munro began fracturing chronology more insistently and adopted techniques that almost resemble expressionism, particularly in the books from Runaway onward. Open Secrets, from 1994, is one of Munro’s most iconoclastic collections, and “The Albanian Virgin” is rare even among the stories in that book, in that much of it takes place outside of B.C. or the patch of land in southwestern Ontario that has come to be known as “Munro Country.”

Yet for all that is atypical about it, “The Albanian Virgin” nevertheless addresses Atwood’s questions in an insistent, almost defiant manner: whatever idiosyncrasies the story might possess, it is recognizably the work of Canada’s foremost practitioner of short fiction.

The story is narrated by a woman named Claire, who owns a not-too-successful bookshop in Victoria, B.C. One of Claire’s regular customers at the store is an imperious woman named Charlotte, whom another customer, a Notary Public, refers to as “the Duchess,” and who is described as “heavy, shapeless, but quick-moving,” with “a lot of glistening white hair, worn like a girl’s” and bracelets, “any number of them, heavy or slender, tarnished or bright.” The bracelets clank together “as if she wore hidden armor,” and some have “large, square stones, the color of toffee or blood.”

The details here are highly specific, and highly significant. The fact that Charlotte, who is obviously of a certain age, wears her hair “like a girl’s” indicates a desire to pass for someone younger; the bracelets are worn like “armor” and the stones have the appearance of “blood”: there is artifice here, and exoticism, but also a kind of defensiveness and more than a hint of violence.

This description of Charlotte occurs more than halfway through the narrative, and by this point we have been allowed to form an opinion of the woman based on her own story of travelling along the Dalmation Coast from Trieste in a steamer, whereupon she is taken captive by a local tribe who threaten to sell her into marriage. She is rescued by a kindly Franciscan priest who tells her that if she adopts the mantle of a Virgin she will be immune from being sold into sexual slavery: “If you become a Virgin, it will be all right,” the priest tells her. “But you must swear you will never go with a man. You must swear in front of witnesses.”

The method of narration Munro employs here is highly complex. Claire narrates the story in the first person, but Charlotte’s experience is related to her by the older woman from a hospital bed in Victoria. This does not become clear to the reader, however, until a good five pages into the story. Following a series of scenes related in the third person, detailing Charlotte’s experience as a captive in Maltsia e madhe (where the tribal members refer to her as “Lottar”), Claire reveals herself as the story’s narrator in an almost offhand aside: “I heard this story in the old St. Joseph’s Hospital in Victoria from Charlotte, who was the sort of friend I had in my early days there.” Coming after a series of pages that drop us as readers into an unfamiliar setting, beginning in medias res and following the harrowing experiences of a kidnapped woman, this sudden shift seems startling, and it is entirely possible to miss the freighted implications in the description of Charlotte as “the sort of friend [Claire] had in [her] early days” in Victoria.

Claire originally moved to Victoria from London, Ontario, because it was the farthest place she could get to “without going out of the country.” In London, she lived with her husband Donald, a dermatologist. The description of Claire’s relationship with Donald is a classic example of why Cynthia Ozick famously referred to Munro as “our Chekhov”:

Donald was a dermatologist, and I was doing a thesis on Mary Shelley – not very quickly. I had met Donald when I went to see him about a rash on my neck. He was eight years older than I was – a tall, freckled, blushing man, cleverer than he looked. A dermatologist sees grief and despair, though the problems that bring people to him may not be in the same class as tumors and blocked arteries. He sees sabotage from within, and truly unlucky fate. He sees how matters like love and happiness can be governed by a patch of riled-up cells. Experience of this sort has made Donald kind, in a cautious, impersonal way. He said that my rash was probably due to stress, and that he could see that I was going to be a wonderful woman, once I got a few problems under control.

Munro’s style is so straightforward, so deceptively simple, it is easy to miss how densely packed her writing is, and how much character information she is capable of getting into a very small space. The description of Donald as kind “in a cautious, impersonal way” is inspired, and the notion of Claire suffering “sabotage from within” resonates through the balance of the story.

Similarly, the narrative’s temporal shifts are so smoothly handled that they are almost unnoticeable: the story moves from Lottar in captivity to Claire in the narrative present (which is still, one notes, the past, i.e. Claire’s “early days” in Victoria), listening to Charlotte’s story in hospital, then to Claire in the narrative past, in London. These transitions are effected without any apparent effort, and the story never skips a beat.

A reader is liable to wonder how these disparate pieces fit together, but the structure Munro has devised in “The Albanian Virgin” is so tightly calibrated that every line, every word, every gesture and action has a place in the grand schema. The repeated image of a wooden crucifix, presented to two different characters in two radically different contexts, has enormous significance, and offers the key to unlock the story’s elliptical final scenes. And a simple declarative sentence, featuring six, monosyllabic words – “He was not shy in love” – has the effect of turning the story on a dime, altering the reader’s entire perspective in a way that is as staggering as it seems inevitable.

The connective tissue in “The Albanian Virgin” is the notion of women’s roles in the world, which may be Munro’s classic theme. Lottar in captivity, being prepared to be sold off as a wife against her will, is not all that far removed, we come to understand, from Claire in her relationship with Donald, who considers her “a wonderful woman, once [she] got a few problems under control.” Both Claire and Charlotte strive to find the authenticity of character Atwood alluded to, and both flee from what they perceive to be the fakery of artificially imposed strictures on their independence and freedom.

How much of what Charlotte tells Claire in the hospital is actually true, and how much is made up? In the end, this is unimportant. What is important is the symbolic connection these two women share in a story that is so carefully constructed, so utterly astounding in the apparent effortlessness of its execution that, as The Times commented of Munro’s work in general, it makes it “difficult to remember why the novel was ever invented.”

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