Saturday, February 7, 2009

Some Women, by Alice Munro, Notes Toward a Critical Realism.

This is Part II of a review of Some Women, by Alice Munro
Naming the Real in Realist Fiction. Here is Part I .

Three posts on Critical Narrative analysis

No artist tolerates reality." says Nietzsche. That is true, but no artist can get along without reality. Artistic creation is a demand for unity and rejection of the world. But it rejects the world in the name of what it lacks and in the name of what it sometimes is.
Camus, The Rebel

When I first read this, I noticed an ambiguity in the English translation which I assumed would not exist in the French. As the likely pronominal antecedents (une exigence, and le monde) are of different genders, it would be clear in French that the first refers to 'artistic creation,' or rather, its 'demand,' and the next two, to 'the world.' But {this demand) rejects the world in the name of what ( the world) lacks and in the name of what (the world) sometimes is. However, I find that there is something to be said for the ambiguity and for the creative misreading it allows. If we understand 'world' and 'reality' as synonymous (as Camus apparently does here), make 'artistic creation' the subject and turn 'demand' into a verb with 'writer' as its object, we will have pregnant formulation of the problematic of realism and representation. .

Artistic creation demands of the writer
that he/she reject reality
for what it lacks
and for what it sometimes is.

To this I would add, that artistic mimesis, what we think of as 'representation,' the very possibility of artistic realism, arises out of an encounter with what reality 'lacks.' What constitutes realism--what any work of art represents ( pictorial, dramatic, literary, musical) is not 'reality,'' but its 'lack,' the artist's endeavor to complete reality, to make real what was give to Airy Nothing a Local Habitation and a Name. Which means the distinction between 'realism' and whatever name you would give to its antithesis, is false. There can be no distinction, and any criticism over-determined by the assumption that there is, will fail in its encounter with the work. With this in mind, let me turn--or return to, the story I've set out to review.
In an EARLIER POST, I wrote that writing:
is a process of negotiation with the material at hand and every act, each engagement with that material translates both material and intention. ... because the author's intentions have been in a continuous process of translation along with the writing as it evolves, what existed in the beginning, and at every point to the completion of the work, is a continuum of difference that moves both forward and back.
We can't recover the process or recreate the stages as they evolved in the continuing encounter, but I believe we can identify imprints of that encounter, evidence of the reality which shaped the elements of the writing as it emerges in its final form.

"I am amazed sometimes to think how old I am."


"I grew up, and old.

These are the first and last sentences in the story. Everything between is memory.
Is memory, the real subject, the real, of this piece of realist fiction? In between--an assemblage of what the narrator purports to remember, memory: not it's 'theme,' not its 'controlling idea,' but its real subject--that which the characters and incidents serve to--not illustrate--but to embody--the elements without which the idea would be nothing more, would remain an abstraction, an absence--sense without sensibility, substance, sensuality. There's a great deal more I'd like to say on this--on literature as concrete thought. That all literature is a literature of ideas, imaginative configurations of the world, but this will have to wait for another post.
"I can remember," the narrator continues. The second sentence--first statement of the subject and introduction to the narrative proper. What does she remember? Streets sprinkled with water in summer to hold down the dust. Girls wearing waist cinchers and crinolines, "and when there was nothing much to be done about things like polio and leukemia." How "people with leukemia went to bed, and after some weeks' or months' decline in a tragic atmosphere, they died.' A strand of memories. A series without any apparent necessary link, one to the next, until the last: leukemia and the long decline in a tragic atmosphere: this will be the setting and occasion of the narrative that follows.
She was thirteen. A summer job, her first, helping to take care of a man safely returned from the war, but now bedridden, waiting for death. This would be Young Mr. Crozier, "as he was usually called," who occupies an upstairs bedroom in a house owned by his stepmother, Old Mrs Crozier. The narrator's help is needed because YMC's wife, Sylvia teaches summer school at a college some forty miles distant. OMC is at first presented as a dour, unsympathetic and humorless woman interested in nothing but her flower garden. This impression is challenged when Roxanne Hoy enters the picture, a working class, garoulous and flirtatious woman who comes to give OMC twice weekly massages. Roxanne's invites herself to help with the care of the invalid Her airy, flirtatious self-regard seems to amuse OMC and is apparently appreciated by YMC. There are insinuations that Sylvia, by absenting herself from his bedside for her job, is less caring than a wife should be. There is also a feeling that both Roxanne and OMC are, consciously or not, insinuating themselves into the affections of YMC to the disadvantage of his wife. The denouement comes when YMC trusts the narrator with a key to his room, pledges her to silence, then locks himself in and refuses to open the door until his wife comes home. This coincides with a falling out between OMC and Roxanne, a calendar-page-turning roll out of concluding events (Sylvia takes her husband to rented cabin on a lake for his last days, OMC recovers from a stroke with yet another change in personality, and the narrator returns to where she began. She grew up, and old. By the end of the story, we recognize OMC as the germinal node of memory that initiates everything that follows. She is the tuft of snow on the pine bough whose present reality is that of the narrator, grown old, her own distorted reflection in the mirror of recollection.

All this is nicely told, the characters are admirably complex, elude being pinned down by simple explanations. There's no question that the development of incident and character in the story will return pleasure and garner the interest of the readers. Alice Munro's mastery of her chosen genre is indisputable. There's little I could add to that. Far from challenging its merit, it is the near perfection of this story (with none of the implications of the 'too perfect'), that make me feel the conventional sort of review (Plot-Character-Theme etc) is beside the point. We get it. We get all that. But it doesn't answer the question, why? Not, why--as in, how does it work? But what is the real source of our feeling of verisimilitude? This is a question that would not likely occur to someone who, in effect, lived the artifice of the story--for whom, the nature of consciousness, self-identity, or causal narrative sequence in the real world were givens, or at least, not given over to question, subject to doubt, assumptions in need of analysis and verification.

Here is where I would distinguish between mindful and somnolent habits of reading, reading to put the reader to sleep, and reading to wake the reader up. I like that Heraclitus has a good word for both. "One should not act or speak as if he were asleep." and yet, "Even sleepers are workers and collaborators in what goes on in the universe." But for now, let me defend those who would not go through the world as sleepwalkers. I can read this--that is, what someone looking for verisimilitude would look for in the story--in my sleep. This is not a fault, but it is a limitation. A limitation, not because I care less for verisimilitude, for 'reality' in fiction, but because I need it more, need to press beyond its lack. Munro gives everything and more of what a realist critic would want, and yet falls short of waking her reader from the dream, letting them be satisfied, by failing to acknowledge, failing to draw into her work and foreground--not the artifice, but the actual shaping reality-- letting her readers get away with believing the answer (when posed by one seeking correspondence to reality), is to be found in plot, character, theme...

The amazement of 'how old I am, ' amazement which occurs through the creation of, and as an invitation to--a lifetime of memories, memories which themselves become real only as they become specific: water on a dusty summer road: a young man dying in an upper room Read this story and note how rare the direct reports of event or experience compared to the indirect (When my mother heard about this... or of a general past, unfixed in specific place and time: "Usually what he wanted was... " (what in Proust might be expressed, in the first instance by passé simple, in the second, by the imperfet) and how dependent the specific memories are on their surrounding explanations, narrativazations, contexualizations--which signal that even what is reported in direct past, such as the the quoted conversations, are themselves, not direct memories, but recreations needed to weave the fragmented, nodal memories into a causally connected sequence. How like, I thought... those tufts of snow on the pine bough-- summoning me out of the past and into the present moment.

The present moment...
"I have grown up, and old."

... and so it ends. First sentence and last. In between, an assemblage of what the narrator purports to remember, let me repeat: memory, being the real subject of the story. Not it's 'theme,' not its 'controlling idea,' but its real subject--that which the characters and incidents serve to--not illustrate--but to embody--the elements without which the idea would be nothing more, would remain an abstraction, an absence--sense without sensibility, substance, sensuality.

What Munro does, she does well. It's pointless to fault one kind of writing because it's not something else, but still--I'm troubled by this story, by how it submerges and hides the real source of its strength--as though ashamed of it: I mean the generative tension and movement of memory at work--memory playing with its figurations, leading us on, it's quick shadow changes--instead,  pretending that what matters, that the part that resembles life is the little domestic drama and the characters putting on the show, holding this out to the reader as the 'real.' But is it Munro who is at fault here? Or is it her readers--or those critics who encourage them to dream along with the music, following the words across the page like karaoke singers who already know the tune--content in their belief that in this play acting, in the "story" part of the story, they recognize themselves, are reasured (or disturbed) by noticing yet again what they already know? I don't know. But there is a kind of resignation in that last sentence, the merging of Old Mrs. Crozier into the narrator, the Old Mrs. Crozier of the story--before the stroke. In the end, Old Mrs. Crozier recovers, but the narrator is stricken. Old Mrs. Crozier has escaped story and memory, is out there now giving candy to the children whose parents she once chased out of her garden. A nice gesture. But the image here is not of life--but death in life. Old Mrs. Crozier, who resisted submission to the wishes of others, killed off in the end, only to live on as servent to everything she dispised. Is it uncharitable of me to wish there were more of Old Mrs Crozier before the stroke in the voice of the narrator, to want her to refuse her readers the sweets they crave, to want her to take up her stick and chase us out of the garden of narratized memory, to wake us to the tuft of snow hanging from the pine bough--here and now? 

1 comment:

  1. What I didn't get is why exactly he wanted to force the issue, lock the door etc. ... What man ever consciously chooses to resist a ribald hottie anyhow? ... To me this had the classic Agatha Christie type problem -- that when you get to the end it didn't really justify the emotions you'd just put yourself through with all the red herrings or seemingly crucial details ... & frankly I felt just about the same way about the Antrim story about the mental guy who had the freakout which preceded it in the Yorker ...