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Friday, July 25, 2014

Alice Munro: What Is Remembered

(The New Yorker, February 19, 2001)
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For a long time Alice Munro has been compared with Chekhov; John Updike would add Tolstoy, and A. S. Byatt would say Guy de Maupassant and Flaubert.

...what she does better than anyone is to capture the unexpectedness of life

...(she) has said everything there is to be said on the subject of female fantasy, and said it so well.

A married woman has a one afternoon affair with a virtually unknown man, the friend of a friend of her husband. She will never see him again and her marriage will last tens of years, till the husband will pass away. She will remain for all her life with the feeling of that single afternoon, the feeling of what is remembered.

Actually, trying to tell a story written by Alice Munro is a misnomer. Like in the stories of Chekhov, there is something behind, impossible to explain: French guys would say maybe that there is a je ne sais quoi. It's the atmosphere, it's how the story goes its way as governed by fatality, the role each hero plays exactly at the right moment to make things happen (take for instance the wonderful Aunt Muriel, this impossible mix of angelic and demonic, what a great personage!), and more than that, it's the feeling you get by reading the story that there is another meaning in it, that you have to think about.

It's about the unexpected elements that come in the story and suggest much more than they appear to be. For instance the white gloves from the very beginning of What Is Remembered, sending to a quote from Queen Sirikit, quoting in turn the fashion designer Balmain. Who is Balmain? asks the husband. Or take for instance the discussion with the husband by the end about Turgenev and his heroes, revealing a hidden tension over that episode long time ago, unknown to the husband, however somehow present in his subconscious. Or the way she prefers to think at the place of the tryst, just an atmosphere of long accommodation of private woes and sins... and an old-fashioned cage of the elevator, run by an old man—or perhaps an old woman, perhaps a cripple, a sly servant of vice.

All this... or maybe just how Edith Pearlman puts it: this is what Alice Munro does: on the first page of a story she introduces us to a character who by the third page has aroused our curiosity and by the last has become an intimate (Boston Globe)

What is Remembered was published in 2001, in the volume Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage. You can read the story in The New Yorker:

(Alice Munro)



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