From Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage.
Like many writers, Alice Munro has consistent themes and obsessions to which she has returned over the course of her literary career. Specifically, Munro spends much of her time focusing on the erotic undercurrents that dog her female characters. The tension in her stories often arises out of a conflict between the propriety and decorum dictated by the social roles in which Munro’s women find themselves and the primal desires that threaten to undo this decorum. A Munro heroine is frequently precocious and headstrong, reckless enough to pursue her own self-satisfaction at the expense of her life’s stability. Marriages in Munro’s fiction – especially first marriages – rarely last.
Which makes “What Is Remembered” something of an oddity in the Munro canon, since the marriage between Meriel and Pierre endures right through the latter’s death, although in many ways the reader can be forgiven for expecting it to unravel at the seams long before this.
Set in Vancouver, the story involves a chance meeting between Meriel and a doctor at the funeral of Pierre’s best friend. The doctor conspires to get Meriel alone for the afternoon, which the two spend having passionate sex. They then part company, never to see each other again. Meriel returns to her marriage and lives out the rest of her time with Pierre recalling details of that torrid afternoon.
As with all of Munro’s best stories, the relationships between and among the characters are subject to subtle shifts and movements, most of which take place beneath the surface of the story’s action. Asher, the doctor, offers to drive Meriel to her rendezvous with her namesake, a mentor of her dead mother – “[f]irst an inspiration, then an ally, then a friend” – now confined to a nursing home in Lynn Valley. Suffering from cataracts, Aunt Muriel nevertheless recognizes the contours of the situation when Meriel shows up with Asher:
“What’s your husband’s name?”
“And you have two children, don’t you? Jane and David?”
“That’s right. But the man who’s with me –”
“Ah, no,” the old Muriel said. “That’s not your husband.”
When Aunt Muriel hustles the two away with a quick brush-off – “I’m sorry, it’s rude of me, I have to tell you, I get tired” – she becomes complicit in Meriel’s infidelity. Aunt Muriel is quite aware of what she is doing; despite her faulty vision, she is more than able to see the dynamic that exists between the two visitors. “You are here with her,” Aunt Muriel says to Asher:
And he said to Aunt Muriel, “How could you tell that? By my breathing?”
“I could tell,” she said with some impatience. “I used to be a devil myself.”
After Meriel and Asher’s tryst, she rides the ferry across Horseshoe Bay to reunite with Pierre. “She ached in expected and unexpected places,” we are told. She decides that she must remember the experience with Asher, she must “store it away forever.” Which she does for the next 30 years, living with her husband while continually undergoing “wave after wave of intense recollection.”
Implicit in Meriel’s recollection is the notion that it is only her memory of this encounter, the one moment in which she permitted herself to slough off the socially sanctioned role of wife and mother and give into her suppressed desires, that allows her to continue in her marriage to Pierre. But her “intense recollection” of the afternoon glosses over a salient detail, a humiliating slight that she retains almost subliminally, refusing conscious acknowledgement until after her husband’s death. It is this detail, she believes, unconsciously forgotten for more than 30 years, that could have tipped the scales and made her abandon the safety of her marriage for “another sort of life she could have had.” Coming to a full recollection only after her husband’s death, “she could think of that other sort of life simply as a kind of research which had its own pitfalls and achievements.”
In “What Is Remembered,” unlike many other Munro stories, the protagonist is allowed to indulge her carnal desires without sacrificing the stability of her marriage; she is granted “a kind of research” into her adulterous erotic impulses, but only because she refuses to fully confront the totality of her experience. By repressing one aspect of her “intense recollection,” Meriel ensures for herself a return to the safe shores of domesticity, and, consequently, to a kind of happiness.
In honour of the 142nd anniversary of Canada’s national inferiority complex Canada Day, The New York Times‘ op-ed page today features a clutch of transplanted Canadians, such as Seán Cullen, Bruce McCall, and Kim Cattrall, lamenting the things they miss about their home and native land. (Yr. humble correspondent’s favourite: creative director Lisa Naftolin misses the “u” in colour.) Among those represented is Sarah McNally, the proprietor of the Manhattan branch of Winnipeg-based McNally Robinson Bookstores. McNally cops to missing Winnipeg’s winters (?!?), but she also misses something she refers to as “CanLit”:
I miss the pride and simplicity of a national literature, which probably wouldn’t exist without government support. We even have a name, CanLit, that people use without fearing they’ll sound like nerds. In America we tend toward novels published specifically for one narrowly interpreted demographic. CanLit is an unassuming place, very welcome to immigrant writers, and since it doesn’t dice up readership according to profile there is a national conversation about literature, like a big book club.
It’s true that much American writing is ghettoized – rightly or wrongly – into what McNally refers to as “narrowly interpreted demographic[s]“: think chick lit, think technothrillers, think whatever it is Jodi Picoult writes. In large part, this is a result of the size of America’s population. With 300 million people, there is an authentic mass market in the U.S., unlike here in Canada, with a population one-tenth the size. If we have a more monolithic literary culture, this is largely a matter of necessity, not choice.
But McNally elides the downside of CanLit’s stranglehold on our national literary output: the stultifying sameness of the majority of books that are pumped out of the CanLit mill. We use the term CanLit, not in a nerdy way, but rather as code for a particular kind of book: muted, historical, domestic, naturalistic. CanLit calls to mind sepia tones and boxes of faded photographs, woodsmoke from the back yard and the sound of music held at a distance. CanLit is pretty and precious, eschewing dirt and jagged edges. It is never profane, bawdy, or raunchy.
CanLit is welcoming to immigrant writers, but in a melting-pot fashion that seems more appropriate to an American mythos than that of our vaunted Canadian mosaic. Rohinton Mistry may set his sprawling sagas in Bombay; M.G. Vassanji may set his in Pirbaag. But in their adherence to an historical focus and a naturalistic approach, Mistry and Vassanji might as well have been born in Toronto or Halifax. The metafictional gamesmanship of Shahriar Mandanipour, author of the well-received novel Censoring an Iranian Love Story, would not find a comfortable home in the echelons of CanLit. It’s no accident that Mandanipour, an Iranian, has taken up refuge in Cambridge, Massachusetts, not Montreal or Vancouver. (True, Montreal has Rawi Hage, but back off: I’m trying to make a point here.)
Similarly, America can boast a literary culture in which Jonathan Franzen, Bret Easton Ellis, Ann Patchett, Toni Morrison, and Cormac McCarthy all sell in good numbers; that diversity of authors and approaches does not exist in our “big book club” north of the 49th parallel. Or rather, it does, but it doesn’t fall under the umbrella of what is usually understood by the term “CanLit.” When most people in this country talk about CanLit, they are referring to Michael Ondaatje, Margaret Atwood, and Alice Munro, not Mark Anthony Jarman, Lisa Foad, and Matt Shaw. (“Who?” I hear you ask. “Exactly,” I respond.)
McNally is correct to isolate CanLit as a national, monolithic catch-all for our literature, the “big book club” that dominates our literary discourse, and more often than not ignores the diversity of output that goes on below the surface of our cultural consciousness. McNally and I differ only as to whether or not this is a good thing.
Happy Canada Day, y’all.
There’s a bit of a contretemps going on over at Quillblog (which seems these days to be where I’m getting all my material) about an interview that Nigel Beale did with John Metcalf, in which Metcalf defends the utility of negative reviews, even those that resort to invective and insult to make their points. I’ll let that debate simmer away over at Quill; what most interests me in the Beale/Metcalf interview comes later on, when Metcalf turns his attention to the Canadian canon and asks whether Canada can be said to have produced a world-class writer. In Metcalf’s view, this country has produced only one work worthy of being set alongside the best writing from England and the United States: Mordecai Richler’s St. Urbain’s Horseman. Beyond that single novel, Metcalf claims, anyone looking for important literary writing must look outside our home and native land:
Anybody with any literary sense whatsoever knows that a really important book of literary fiction comes maybe once every ten years, out of England or the United States and not here, because we don’t have an audience hard enough to exact one.
[ ... ]
The Canadian critic’s duty is to be vitally aware of what is happening in England and what is happening in the United States and to compare Canadian output with the best from those two countries. Of course, when you do that, the result is painful. I mean, we’re not even on the same planet.
Metcalf’s detractors will put this down to simply more colonial bitterness from an inveterate curmudgeon and complainer, but this knee-jerk response gives his argument short shrift. One presumes that Metcalf is confining his attention to literature written in English, which is why he singles out Britain and the United States (and not, say, Latin America) as the twin hubs of significant literary output. Were Metcalf to look past Canadian literature written in English, he might be surprised at the wealth of talent coming out of Quebec, even that small percentage that has appeared in translation. (It wouldn’t be hard, for example, to make a case for Marie-Claire Blais’s stature as a world-class author.) And there is a sense that Metcalf is engaging in a bit of hyperbole to make his point: even he admits that Alice Munro and Mavis Gallant are important Canadian writers.
Still, his basic contention is worth considering: if one were to build a literary canon of significant books from the past 50 years or so, how many works of Canadian literature would fit comfortably on it? I would suggest, for example, that Cat’s Eye and The Robber Bride – arguably Margaret Atwood’s two best novels – are important works in the annals of Canadian writing, but would their lustre not be the least bit diminished were they to be placed alongside the best of Philip Roth (Sabbath’s Theater, American Pastoral)? Or Don DeLillo (White Noise, Underworld)? Or Jeanette Winterson (The Passion, Written on the Body)? In such august company, would Atwood’s novels not come off looking just the slightest bit parochial and twee?
It’s been pointed out that in the chronology of world literatures, Canada’s is a relatively young one. We may indeed now be entering the period of literary development that the States found itself in at the mid-20th century. Still, by that point American literature had produced Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway, not to mention Flannery O’Connor, Willa Cather, Nathanael West, James Baldwin, Katherine Anne Porter, Eudora Welty, Saul Bellow, and Carson McCullers. Where are the Canadian writers to compare with these canonical names? Where in Canada are we to find such technically audacious, philosophically inquisitive, or cosmopolitan writers as José Saramago, Julio Cortàzar, Vladimir Nabokov, A.S. Byatt, Iris Murdoch, Roberto Bolaño, Michel Houellebecq, Alasdair Gray?
In his essay “Confessions of a Book Columnist,” Philip Marchand wrote, “Not even the most fervent partisans of Canadian literature will say that Canadians have done fundamentally new things with the novel form, or changed the way we read in the manner, say, of a Joyce, a Kafka, a Nabokov, or a Garcia Marquez.” Perhaps this partially explains the experience of a colleague of mine on a trip to France. Speaking about her work in the field of CanLit, she was questioned about important Canadian writers. Atwood’s name drew blank stares. The people she was speaking to had some vague notion of who Michael Ondaatje is, but that was about it. If being world class means being recognized abroad, this anecdotal experience suggests that we’re not doing terribly well.
Metcalf thinks this is because we don’t have a culture of tough criticism, and I for one would be hard pressed to disagree. The culture of boosterism and cheerleading to which we have consigned ourselves precludes us developing “an audience hard enough to exact” a literature that is able to compete with the best of what’s being produced internationally. Even Canadian writers feel this: ask anyone working in the trenches of CanLit about what’s exciting them in literature these days, and they’re more likely to name Joseph O’Neill than Anne Michaels. This is a shame. Where are Canada’s answers to Bolaño and Saramago, to Ali Smith and Haruki Murakami? They don’t exist – yet. But it is only by holding ourselves to the highest literary standards that we may hope to rectify this situation. We need to develop the “hard” audience that Metcalf advocates. We should not hesitate to judge Canadian writing against the best of what is being produced internationally, nor should we hesitate to point out those instances in which our writing comes up wanting.
Alice Munro, whose new collection of stories, Too Much Happiness, is out this fall, has won the 2009 Man Booker International Prize. Munro becomes only the third writer to win the award, which is given out every two years. She follows Ismail Kadaré, who won the inaugural award in 2005, and Chinua Achebe, who won in 2007. Fourteen authors from 12 countries were in contention for this year’s award. Munro beat out a strong field of contenders, which also included such literary luminaries as Peter Carey, V.S. Naipaul, and Joyce Carol Oates.
The jury for this year’s prize was made up of novelist Jane Smiley, writer and musician Amit Chaudhuri, and screenwriter and essayist Andrey Kurkov. The jury citation reads:
Alice Munro is mostly known as a short story writer and yet she brings as much depth, wisdom and precision to every story as most novelists bring to a lifetime of novels. To read Alice Munro is to learn something every time that you never thought of before.
The prize comes with a £60,000 purse.