Friday 8 August 2008

Alice Munro: Away from Her

The short story is a modern genre that emerged only in the second half of the Nineteenth Century, in the writings of Ivan Turgenev and Guy de Maupassant. So says Frank O'Connor (1963) in his brilliant book The lonely voice (see our list of books with micro-reviews by clicking here). I am convinced by his argument. The modern short story is distinct from older short forms such as the yarn or the fable. And it is not defined by being merely short. It is usually about one person, who often is on the edge of society, who undergoes a change of some kind. Perhaps some small event prompts an epiphany. The short story is characterized by a form in which, as O'Connor says, “a whole lifetime must be crowded into a few minutes.”

Prompted by O'Connor's account, I think of the short story as a prose equivalent of a sonnet, in which the first part depicts an issue and the later part brings a transformation, or a new perspective.

Among the great writers of short stories, after Turgenev and Maupassant were, of course, Anton Chekhov who is generally thought of as the greatest of all, O'Connor himself and, more recently, Raymond Carver and Alice Munro.

Cynthia Ozick has said of Alice Munro: "She is our Chekhov." It was two years ago when I went to see and hear Munro when she made one of her rare public appearances at a PEN Canada event in Toronto, a fundraiser in a packed hall. I was eight rows back, and I felt privileged to be in the same room with her. She said, then, that she was retiring from writing, but I notice that her stories have continued to appear in the New Yorker.

"The bear came over the mountain" is a story that was published by McClelland and Stewart in Munro's (2001) collection Hateship, friendship, courtship, loveship, marriage. The story was renamed and republished in 2007 by Penguin, as the title piece of the same collection of stories, now called Away from her, which is also the title of the film of the story, directed by Sarah Polley. The film, in which appears the ever graceful Julie Christie as Fiona, is excellent, but the short story is even better. It is about a man, Grant, who has been a professor, one of those who had affairs with his students. But a scandal threatened, and Grant took early retirement. As Munro says in her story: “without making the error of a confession—he promised Fiona a new life.” They moved to a house near a lake, in the country. Now, 20 years later, Fiona starts to show signs of Alzheimer's disease. After a period of deteriorating abiliites, she decides she should be in a facility with nursing care. Grant remains in the house in which they lived together, and Fiona moves into the facility. In the first 30 days, a new resident is not allowed visitors, and when Grant does visit he sees that Fiona has become attached to Aubrey, a man in a wheelchair who, as a result of an accident, can scarcely speak and can do little for himself. Fiona, a helpful person, has become devoted to Aubrey. She is polite to Grant, but seems not to recognize him as her husband. Now comes the delicacy of Munro's story. The facility into which Fiona has moved is an enclosed world, with its own customs and its own relationships. Outsiders can only observe. It's a bit like the university: an enclosed world, with its own customs and its own relationships. Grant visits the facility frequently, and with Fiona's absence, he feels more and more attached to her. Fiona was always fond of irony, not easy to pin down: in Grant's epiphany, he starts to wonder whether her intimacy with Aubrey might be an ironical commentary on his previous life at the university. Knowing this in advance will not spoil the story or the film; there is still much more to happen. And what is the place of voluntariness in all this?

As in Chekhov's stories, there is no moralizing, but there is something of the same wry humour about our human condition. The film rates as a four on our five-point scale; you can access a review of it by clicking here. But for me the short story gets five stars.


Stratoz said...

I agree that the story was better, but I read it first. Both are woth one's time.

I was watching a preview for the movie and said to myself... I know this story but how????

Keith Oatley said...

Thanks very much for this comment. I like Alice Munro's stories, but have not read them all. I had not read this one when I first saw the film, and so I read the story second. Despite this, in my view, the short story is still better. But the film is very good too. I agree with you that both are well worth one's time. The film's director Sarah Polley says she read Munro's story as a love story, and made her film with this in mind. I think Munro includes the love-story theme, but her short story has more subtleties of juxtapositon, and the lights and shadows fall in different places.

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