Alice Munro's Dear Life, purportedly her last book, is the first of her work that I have read. The prose is as stark and spare as the Canadian landscapes that have shaped the stories she tells. The first 10 chapters are short stories, her preferred genre, and the last four are memoirs - in short story format. Entering each story is bewildering. It is not clear who the main characters are going to be and the stories themselves are told in a casual manner, as if being related to someone who already knows all the backstory necessary to understand the story. The back story is revealed, but seemingly almost by accident as the arc of a person's life, or a very significant portion of it, is sketched in but a few pages and by referencing relatively few key events that shape that story.
On the surface, there could be nothing less psychoanalytic than these stories. The richness, the detail, the nuance of the lives of the patients that I see in analysis is lost. And yet these people are not reduced - they are not boiled down versions of people, but rich complex individuals whose essence we can guess at through knowing certain key, pivotal moments and, indeed, there are key pivotal moments in the lives of our patients and their analyses. In her stories, the peripheral characters we know only peripherally - we wonder about what drives them to do the sometimes crazy things that they do. The central characters - or more frequently character - once we figure out who he or she is - we get to know in deep and penetrating ways. And we know them, as we do the characters about whom Elizabeth Strout writes, not from the outside in (even though the story is told from the point of view of the plot), but from the inside out - we don't laugh at their shortcomings, but accept them, as we would our own.
So the question that comes to mind, for this analyst, is where does this ability to read others and to portray them starkly, pimples and all, but sympathetically, come from? How does the ability to appreciate another person in all their complexity without forming dismissive judgments about them, something that we as analysts aspire to, come from in the life of a writer? This text, with its combinations of stories and autobiographical material becomes a rich mine to address the question - I only hope I do it some justice in the space I have allotted myself, though I fear that I will reduce Ms. Munro in the process.
To start with one of her stories - a man returns from the war - many of the stories revolve around the aftermath of World War II. He stays on the train beyond the stop where his ticket took him and jumps off the train when it slows down. He goes to a run down farm house and starts working for and with the woman who lives there. They bring the farm back to life. We learn that the woman's mother had a degenerative disease that made her unavailable - psychologically but also sexually - to the woman's father. The father took in his nude adolescent daughter's body when she stepped out of the bath. He then killed himself walking on the railroad tracks, apparently out of guilt. The woman tells the man this story for the first time when she is in the city with the man so that she can be diagnosed with breast cancer. He leaves her immediately after she tells him.
Now you might think, as I did, that this is a story about the woman. But it is not. It is the story of the man. It turns out that he had a beau in that city that he never returned to. But he was never able to be intimate with her. Similarly, he never attempted to be intimate with the woman that he met up with. The reason for this is explained in the part of the story that takes place after he leaves the woman he lived with. In this second part of the story, he runs into, quite by chance, someone from his former life in the town he never returned to. It is a tragic and sad story - somehow not surprising, but I don't want to ruin it for you. What happens next to the man? We don't know. After the chance encounter, he takes off for parts unknown - unable to shake the experiences of his early life.
As we read these stories, we begin to wonder about the woman who wrote them. We wonder about who she is and how she grew up and how she can be - in addition to empathic and truthful - detached from the people about whom she writes. How can they be so stark - so unswervingly themselves? It does not surprise us that she, from a small town, was somewhat precocious. Her abilities marked her as special. But it also doesn't surprise us that these abilities were swept up in her mother's sense of her self as someone special - someone who was different from the farmers and laborers that she and her husband came from and were. Her mother stood out, in Alice's mind, from her other family members and from her father as pretending - though I think there probably was some truth to her sense of being cut from a different cloth - to being different from the plain folks around her. This gave her a sense of "putting on airs", and alienated her from those around her. It also kept her from seeing Alice for who she was - Alice was her special child - not the person that Alice was, in fact, becoming.
Alice's father was very different. He was very comfortable in his own skin, and therefore was liked by those around him. He connected with people on a genuine human level and Alice admired this. He also connected with Alice. When she had fears that kept her awake night after night - fears of strangling her sister - her father, mostly through patient listening, heard her fears. His response, which Alice sees as being every bit as good as psychiatric treatment would have been, was to acknowledge, matter of factly, that those were reasonable fears - the kind of fears that people have. And they became the kind of fears that Alice would write about, with the kind of acknowledgement that her father had given her own fears.
When Alice's mother died, Alice lived on the other side of the continent. She did not have much money, and she did not travel home for the funeral. She feels deeply guilty about this, but also, I think, somewhat self righteous. She did not want to acknowledge the passing of someone who never really understood who it was that she was. So it is a kind of guilt for which there is no absolution - she just might do it again, even though today she would certainly have the means to get there. She loved her mother, yes, but she also hated her - hated her for never really getting her. And knowing both of these feelings - the feelings of empathy for who her mother was - where she came from - how she struggled to become what she could, the painful ways in which she tried to be better than others but was, in fact, an embarrassment, and her ultimate failure to be connected to her daughter - an unforgivable sin; this is a complicated and very human stew.
Alice Munro is a talented writer. She is also a good story teller. But more than that, I think she is a person who has looked deeply into her own life and has pulled no punches in telling it like it is - she has had to become her own mother (and has been helped in this by her father); to reflect on her life, on her desires and her failings and to come to accept them. And this has led her to be able to dispassionately observe the experiences of others. To realize that life happens to us, not as her mother would imagine because we are special and at the center of the universe, but quite the opposite, because we are cast into a particular place at a particular time and the meeting of that place with the stuff of ourselves is what makes us; good, bad and indifferent.
Alice quotes the poetry of a woman who lived in the house that she grew up in - a house that was on the margin between the town and the country - and a house that had a wonderful view of the world as if perched on the edge of something spectacular. This poetry is very much like the long lost poetry she herself wrote when she lived in that house as an adolescent. She never met the woman who wrote the poetry she quotes. The woman had lived in the house in the 1890s and 1900s while Alice lived there in the 1930s and 40s. But there is a sense that they both experienced similar things and expressed similar things about their experiences. She, like her father, humbly accepts that she is in a particular place at a particular time, observing it, and assumes that others, given similar circumstances, would do the same. This allows her, ironically, to achieve more notoriety that her mother would have dreamed possible to claim.
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