Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Wonder of Alice

I am still in Canada - until tomorrow. And I am still reading the inimitable Canadian author Alice Munro who recently hung up her skates because she'd apparently said all she had to say. Here's a slice from her short story collection Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage which I bought the other day in an Ottawa bookstore:

'I did not think of the story I would make about Alfrida - not of that in particular - but of the work I wanted to do, which seemed more like grabbing something out of the air than constructing stories, The cries of the crowd came to me like heartbeats, full of sorrows. Lovely formal-sounding waves, with their distant, almost inhuman assent and lamentation.

This was what I wanted, this was what I thought I had to pay attention to, this was how I wanted my life to be.' Family Furnishings

In the story Family Furnishings, Munro has a character who comes to the point where she knows she wants to write. The description above is what she feels writing is, and being a writer is. It could be my thoughts on the matter.

This is the first time I've read Munro's work in Canada. Suddenly, stories which mention Ottawa or Quebec or the thawing of the snow or a field of corn resonate differently, feel different. Even the voices I'm reading sound different here.

One day they were out in the fields of stubble playing with my father's dog whose name was Mack. That day the sun shone, but did not melt the ice in the furrows. They stomped on the ice and enjoyed the crackle underfoot. Family Furnishings

There was no fence. The cornfield just petered out into the yard. She walked straight ahead into it, onto the narrow path her arms like streamers of oilcloth. She had to remove her hat so they would not knock it off. Each stalk had its cob, like a baby in a shroud. There was a strong, almost sickening smell of vegetable growth, of green starch and hot sap. Floating Bridge

What hasn't changed is the way Munro is able to write the fine filigrees of feeling, and the equally fine shifts in those feelings. The way she makes a feeling an event, an event a place, a place a person, a person a feeling, and on it goes.

It seemed to her this was the first time ever that she had participated in a kiss that was an event in itself. The whole story, all by itself. A tender prologue, an efficient pressure, a wholehearted probing and receiving , a lingering thanks, and a drawing away satisfied. Floating Bridge

Munro's good on kisses. She had a great kiss in her collection Runaway that helped me write a kiss in The Blue. She also knows just when to open something out, to let it breathe and gain weight, and be suddenly bigger than, weightier than the sum of its parts.

What she felt was a lighthearted sort of compassion, almost like laughter. A swish of tender hilarity, getting the better of all her sores and hollows, for the time given. Floating Bridge

And all this because Munro must listen to those distant sounds of 'inhuman assent and lamentation', really listen, and then suddenly - like a insect-eating bird - grab them from the air. Swallow that humming. Make it into words.

One guesses that for the character of the writer in Family Furnishings she listened to a sound already swallowed.

And the minute I heard it, something happened. It was as if a trap had snapped shut, to hold these words in my head. I did not exactly understand what use I would have for them. I only knew how they jolted me and released me, right away, to breathe a different kind of air, available only to myself...

To finish with, here are some photographs from the Rideau Canal today in Ottawa. Minus 34 degrees C with the wind chill and yet there were so many people skating on the ice, all ages and backgrounds (it's free), wrapped up tight, together.

There isn't much noise except the scratch of the skates, the odd snatch of conversation in English and French. But there is that wave of sound Munro talks about - the sound humanity makes at its best one cold Saturday out on a canal.


Anonymous said...

I love Alice too Mary - but it is so exciting to find a book in the country of origin, to be reading it in the environment in which it was created, to revel in it as you are doing.

And of course, 'The Bear Came Over The Mountain' which was made into a movie, but nothing could really touch the marvellous subtlety and nuance of her words in this story...'The walnut-stain tan.. he believed now that it was a tan- ..... That and the practical sensuality of her cat's tongue. Her gemstone eyes.' - the sacrifice the hubby is finally prepared to make for love, or for penance(?)...

Clever Alice to know when to 'hang up her skates' - but then after such an amazing body of work, why not sit back and admire the tentative footwork and stumblings and occasional glory on the ice-rink of the newcomers.

Mary McCallum said...

Ooh that's lovely, Maggie, thank you. And thanks for your comment on the other post too. We must talk more about the wonder of Alice when I get home.

Anonymous said...

The thing I find extraordinary about Alice is how she begins her stories (practically breaking the rules) - as mostly, you are drawn in by convulution rather than instant impact - they unfold with an aftertaste that isn't immediately obvious. Yup, we can chat Alice at Choc Dayz.

Rachael King said...

I have never read Alice Munro - one of those authors I will one dat make time for.

Great pics! I am envious of eth cold. It is stinkin' in Chch at the moment.

I have a favour to ask if it's not too late! A friend of mine Hannah Holborn has recently had her short story collection Fierce published, but only in Canada I think. If you're in a bookstore before you leave coudl you pick me up a copy and I'll pay you back? Wish I'd thought of it earlier! Thanks!

Mary McCallum said...

O Rachael, I've crossed the border! NYC is booming all around me as I answer emails in my little Pod Hotel. What a shame. I wonder if a US bookstore might have it? I could have a look. Otherwise I bet you could call Chapters in Ottawa and get them to send it to you...

Rachael King said...

Yes please if you could try the US stores. I'm sure I could order it online, I was just trying to avoid the postage! Have a great time in NYC!