Sunday, November 21, 2010

Lit: Alice Munro's "The Love of a Good Woman"

Illustration for The Love of a Good Woman, pen and graphite on paper
Julia V. Hendrickson, 2010

Feeling a decided lack of intellectual, literary discussion in my life of late, I've started a new feminist book club with some lady friends o' mine. We're reading a book a month, and are also in the planning stages of making a monthly (or perhaps quarterly) zine. For the first book, I selected a stunning collection of short stories by Canadian author Alice Munro (b. 1931), who in 2009 won the Booker Prize for a lifetime body of work.

The Love of a Good Woman, published in 1998, is a collection of eight stories set primarily in British Columbia and Ontario, Canada, and spanning many decades. Munro's mostly female protagonists are haunting; the stories are filled with silence and secrets that have as much to do with place as they has to do with the lives of "good women". The title story, the first in the collection, is slow to unfold, and Munro's measured process of revealing a small town makes the reader's entry into her work an uphill battle. Yet, as time progresses, and the macabre relationship is revealed between the "good woman", Enid, and Mrs. Quinn, the woman in her care, the steady pacing is rewarding, soothing, even, amidst the always lingering sense of threatened disaster, and minds going over the edge.

This miasma in the minds of Munro's characters, and her purposeful use of language and of place, reminded me very much of Virginia Woolf, whose presence echoes quietly throughout the lives of Munro's women. In the story, Cortes Island, the unnamed narrator is reading Woolf's To the Lighthouse. In Jakarta, two married women (Kath and Sonje) are in strange, unsatisfactory relationships that beg for release, socially trapped by their male partners in a very Woolfian way. Indeed, Woolf's Clarissa from Mrs. Dalloway is referenced in Jakarta: "'Oh, Sonje, are you going to be the tactful hostess?' the older woman said. 'Like somebody in Virginia Woolf?' So it seemed Virginia Woolf was at a discount, too. There was so much Kath didn't understand." (pp. 96)

The passage from Jakarta below (referring to a D.H. Lawrence story, The Fox) also reminded me very much of something from To the Lighthouse:

The soldier knows that they will not be truly happy until the woman gives her life over to him, in a way that she has not done so far. March is still struggling against him, to hold herself separate from him, she is making them both obscurely miserable by her efforts to hang on to her woman's soul, her woman's mind. She must stop this--she must stop thinking and stop wanting and let her consciousness go under, until it is submerged in his. Like the reeds that wave below the surface of the water. Look down, look down--see how the reeds wave in the water, they are alive but they never break the surface. And that is how her female nature must live within his male nature. Then she will be happy and he will be strong and content. Then they will have achieved a true marriage. Kath says that she thinks this is stupid. [...] She can't stand that part about the reeds and the water, she feels bloated and suffocated with incoherent protest. (pp. 84-85)

The imagery of the reeds/ woman, waving like an Ophelia below the water, is powerful, and has lingered in my mind over the past few weeks. It reminded me of one of my favorite Woolf passages: “Beneath it is all dark, it is all spreading, it is unfathomably deep; but now and again we rise to the surface and that is what you see us by.” (Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse). The water is self, and gender, and narrative, and memory; its presence is imperative for understanding, and inescapable.

Memory, which plays such an important role in Woolf's writing, is important to Munro's sense of narrative as well; Munro discusses this in a recent interview:

Memory is the way we keep telling ourselves our stories—and telling other people a somewhat different version of our stories. We can hardly manage our lives without a powerful ongoing narrative. And underneath all these edited, inspired, self-serving or entertaining stories there is, we suppose, some big bulging awful mysterious entity called THE TRUTH, which our fictional stories are supposed to be poking at and grabbing pieces of. What could be more interesting as a life’s occupation? One of the ways we do this, I think, is by trying to look at what memory does (different tricks at different stages of our lives) and at the way people’s different memories deal with the same (shared) experience. The more disconcerting the differences are, the more the writer in me feels an odd exhilaration. (January 8th, 2010 interview).

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