Books

Alice’s looking glass

In the midst of terror, Munro’s stories offer timely reflections on good and evil

John Bemrose October 8 2001
Books

Alice’s looking glass

In the midst of terror, Munro’s stories offer timely reflections on good and evil

John Bemrose October 8 2001

Alice’s looking glass

In the midst of terror, Munro’s stories offer timely reflections on good and evil

John Bemrose

Books

At times like this, literature can seem awfully irrelevant. Why bother to write about or read the adventures of fictional characters when thousands of real people have been murdered and the world hurtles, perhaps, towards worse? What good can novels and short stories do? Such questions were nagging as I picked up Alice Munro's latest book of short stories, the cumbersomely titled Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage (McClelland & Stewart, 322 pages, $34.99). Having enjoyed it a month earlier at the cottage, I was intending to refresh my memory before writing this review. As I browsed Munros pages, what struck me immediately was the effortless, almost mundane calm of her tone. Her stories play an entirely different music from the discordant symphonies of anguish and alarm the media have brought to the terrorist attacks and their aftermath. I felt like someone who’s broken away from a noisy mob to find himself in the welcome peace of a courtyard garden.

And yet, it wasn’t exactly an escape. The characters in Munro’s nine stories are struggling with difficulties ranging from the cancer that afflicts the heroine of “Floating Bridge” to the Alzheimer’s that steals away the wife of the aging philanderer in “The Bear Came Over the Mountain.” I was reminded of something else too: Munro’s preternatural awareness of our moral dilemmas, the way right and wrong, good and evil, are entangled in skeins that defy snap judgments and easy solutions. What a timely reminder of our complexity and fallibility. Perhaps I was being overly optimistic, but it seemed to me that anyone reading these stories must feel his or her moral and emotional imagination sharpened, at least a little.

This is tricky ground. It’s become a truism to say that art makes no one better. The usual example that’s trotted out is Hider and his love of Wagner’s operas. Yet it’s hard to imagine anything but good arising from these stories’ ability to break through our isolation with their reminders of the suffering and reality of others. Not a bad antidote at a time when we’re tempted to demonize entire groups because of the actions of a few.

Of course, Munro’s stories won’t make an immoral person into a moral one.

But, like all accomplished art, they nurture a complex response to life—not the world-levelling simplicities of ideology and hatred in which evil belongs solely to the enemy. Time and again in Hateship, Munro explores the ordinary person’s capacity for mischief and betrayal, from the extramarital kiss that powers no less than three stories, to the playful malice of the two southern Ontario girls in the compelling title tale. For idle fun, these girls interfere in a correspondence between a man and a woman. By forging letters, they make the woman, Johanna, think that her correspondent in Saskatchewan wants to marry her. So off Johanna goes, furniture and all, to join her beloved.

The cruelty of the trick is painful to behold and yet these are nice, proper girls. Munro ends her tale with a picture of one of them a few years later, trying to distance herself from her earlier behaviour. The young woman can’t quite recognize her own capacity for evil, a common enough human failing of the same sort that, in more extreme instances, can connect respectable people to crimes as terrible as genocide.

Munro is a reflective rather than a dramatic writer—her stories tend to strain their action through the calming filter of memory, and rarely rise to the vivid physical immediacy and poetry of Lawrence or Chekhov. (In fact, her understated manner can sometimes lead to dullness). But at her best, she can take the smallest, most mundane detail and make it shimmer. In the compelling “Nettles,” the female narrator recalls how as a girl she used to clamber up the side of the ramp that led into her father’s barn. “On one side there was a big smooth whitish stone that bulged out and dominated all the others, and so that side had to me an expansive and public air, and I would always choose to climb that way rather than on the other side, where the stones were darker and clung together in a more mean-spirited way.”

How wonderfully this passage captures the secret currents of a child’s mind—the web of subde judgments and influences by

which we make our way through the world. And so Munro’s stories remind us of the small miracles that sustain ordinary life, creating through their quiet artistry the opposite of violence and terror.

Other high-profde authors are also launching fiction this fall. Ronald Wright, arguably Canada’s best travel writer and the author of the historical studies Time Among the Maya and Stolen Continents, weighs in with his riveting second novel, Hendersons Spear (Knopf Canada, 408 pages, $34.95). It’s partly the story of a British-born Canadian woman, Olivia, who’s serving time in a Polynesian jail for having trespassed in a French nuclear test area. Much of the novel consists of a long, life-exploring letter Olivia writes to her daughter, whom she gave up for adoption at birth. A parallel tale is told by several diaries in Olivia’s possession. They were composed

by a distant relative, Frank Henderson, who as a British naval officer helped escort the young Prince George (later George V) and his brother, Prince Eddy (later rumoured to be Jack the Ripper) on a 19th-century circumnavigation of the world in the ship Bacchante.

Wright has fashioned a truly global novel, fired by anger at the exploitation of the earth by colonialism and the economic forces that have succeeded it, and by a love for the creatures and civilizations that have vanished in the name of so-called progress. Unlike Munro, Wright is a romantic—he can’t resist giving Henderson an idyllic tryst with a Polynesian beauty in the veiling mists of a waterfall. And his revelation of a grotesque crime committed by Prince Eddy—it stands as a symbol of the evils wrought by colonial oppressors—has all the lurid coloration of a penny dreadful. But this is a taut, eye-opening yarn, enhanced by the subde dance ofWright’s historical intelligence and a talent for poetic phrasing that lodges images in the mind with the deadly stealth of a blowgun.

Spadework (HarperFlamingoCanada, 408 pages, $35), Timothy Findley’s new novel, must rank as the weakest book ever from this celebrated author. Set in the theatre community of Ontario’s Stratford Festival, it spins several tales, including one about a marriage-threatening affair that an actor, Griff, conducts with his male director. Findley writes some fine passages about the craft of acting, and his exploration of the benefits homosexual experience may carry for heterosexuals is fascinating. But the book is sabotaged by unconvincing subplots and lacks the tough, painful specificity of writing that knows how to keep its quarry in its sights. Anyone looking for entertainment—let alone some intellectual refreshment after the clamour of recent events—had better look to earlier Findley novels such as Not Wanted on the Voyage or Headhunter. There, he takes evil’s pulse, and comes back with news worth having.