Originally published in Italian on Bookavenue
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Once upon a time there was a child who listened to a story. The story was The Little Mermaid and it was so sad that the child decided to rewrite it. She began going to school and the school was far away. Since she had a long walk every day, she started inventing stories to fill the time. Until 2013 – she was 82 years old at this point – when she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature with this motivation: “Master of the contemporary short story”.
In place of the traditional lecture in the presence of the Swedish Academy, Alice Munro gave an interview titled In Her Own Words. Wearing a grey cardigan in front of a white window, she introduced herself as one of her stories: pretending that she had nothing to show apart from an anonymous Canadian road. About those early days she says: “Generally, [it was] a very satisfying story from my point of view, with the general idea of the little mermaid’s bravery, that she was clever…”, because “she deserved more than death on the water”. “In those early days the important thing was the happy ending, I did not tolerate unhappy endings. […] And later on I began to read things like Wuthering Highs, and very unhappy endings would take place, so I changed my ideas completely and went for the tragic, which I enjoyed”. The interviewer also asks her how her writing has changed growing older: “Oh, well, in a very predictable way. You start out writing about young princesses and then you write about housewives and children and later on about old women, and this just goes on, without your necessarily trying to do anything to change that. Your vision changes”.
The occasion to write about Friend of My Youth is that it has just been published in Italian. Thus, it is a collection of stories new in its Italian translation even if it dates back to 1990, in the middle of Munro’s literary production. Surely, in 1990 the “Happy Endings Period” was definitely closed, Wuthering Highs had sown its obscure seeds, and the little mermaid was throwing herself into a disquieting maturity. Bookavenue – the Italian literary portal where I write about the books I love – had already dedicated several articles to Alice Munro, so I decided to deal with a particular aspect of her writing. Please, keep The Little Mermaid and Wuthering Highs in mind…
I read Friend of My Youth before Christmas and I immediately highlighted the passages for my review. However, something was unsettling: everything was so enormous and though so elusive. The stories were “great”, but why? So I reread it from the first page to the last, calmly. I thus noticed words (in particular, I noticed those that were absent), until they began to arrange themselves in a familiar constellation. Possible? Meanwhile, I sent the first story to a friend and received her comment. She was anguished by the plot and she hadn’t slept. Our interpretations of the story diverged completely, both filtered by our own subjectivity. At that point I had no doubts: Alice Munro was playing a cat-and-mouse game with us (or was she playing a Turn-of-the-Screw game? I have already told you about this… ). Now it was clear: the lady in her grey cardigan was definitely gothic.
My impressions weren’t original at all. The definition of Southern Ontario Gothic dates back to the Seventies. It was the name of a group of Canadian writers who had embraced the inheritance of gothic literature. To say it with different words, it was a quotation of that literature which had its roots in the English Romanticism at the end of the Eighteenth century and whose evolutions would lead to the American masterpieces by Edgar Allan Poe. Gothic literature was a way of expressing the most anti-illuminist idea: to put what is real into question. It anticipated the methods of modern psychoanalysis and put fear at the heart of its exploration. Above all, it analyzed the extreme consequences of fear: the thinning of the boundary between reality and imagination, conscience and unconscious, objective and subjective. In 1919, Freud’s essay titled The Uncanny added a fundamental definition to these literary works: “Uncanny effect is produced by effacing the distinction between imagination and reality. The uncanny is that class of the terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar”.
The group of writers known as Southern Ontario Gothic – Alice Munro and Margaret Atwood are the diamond points – seemed to have found the perfect language to express both the perspective of their territory and a universal investigation. In their eyes, the South of Canada was gothic, thus their literature on the human experience has to be gothic. However, in Friend of My Youth you won’t find dark manors hunted by ghosts but common people living common lives in some lost non-places of the Canadian province. At the same time, gothic stylistic conventions are the structure of every story. Narrators are unreliable and murky with self-deception, it’s impossible to isolate truth from the whispers of the village, and the boundary between reality and imagination is dangerously thin. That is to say, the old tools of the gothic dismiss their ghost blanket costume but their aim is always the same: to redefine what is real. And every story is uncanny as well, which means that it renegotiates what should be familiar. Here lays the ineffable greatness which takes the breath away at first reading: the infinite complexity of human experience nestles in the most banal corner of everyday life and all of this is contained… in ten pages, in a story by Alice Munro. But let’s see some aspects in detail.
Almost every story is set in South Canada, in a territory in tension between past and modernity, old and new. “There must be something in the air” in these small towns where the houses become black. It’s so difficult to shake off that mark of old puritanism, judging and stale. The outdated and decaying social order doesn’t manage to reinvent itself in front of the wave of progress, and characters – like their background – are unsatisfied with their lives but do not know how to change them.
First of all, there is the necessity to redefine the role of women. In a patriarchal and religious society, it is inevitable that the independence of women takes a touch of uncanny. Writes The New York Times in March 1990 about Friend of My Youth: “Most of Ms. Munro’s women share […] conflicting desires for domesticity and freedom”. But in her Nobel Lecture, it is Alice Munro in person who describes the paradox of her childhood’s society: “I never knew about the word <<feminism>>, but of course I was a feminist, because I actually grew up in a part of Canada where women could write more easily than men. […] The men were outside doing important things, they didn’t go for stories”. Thus, it really is a gothic society, where the surface of things are as linear and tidy as the depths are many-sided and complex.
But it’s human relationships to be at the heart. Most of all they are betrayals, triangles, mothers, daughters, and an everyday life tinged with past: these are le plots. However, each and every story also has another obscure and elusive plot. Alice Munro makes us reread reality a number of times and wants us to think about how the narrators describe the facts. What has really happened? Who really is this person and why does she do this and that? We don’t realize it, but the lady in the grey cardigan fascinates us with a façade of realism then drags us into the White Rabbit’s den. We think we understand what’s going on but she changes her cards again and catapults us into Wonderland. In the end, she brings us back to the white space at the end of every story and leaves us there. We are now alone, on the threshold of the dark den, trying to draw a conclusion in front of the not-answers of life. And in this huge loneliness we find the truth: the inhabitants of gothic Wonderland… it is ourselves.
Then, the dedication of Friend of My Youth speaks clearly. There is a gothic mother behind the scenes. Perhaps it is a mother who once read The Little Mermaid to her child. A mother who fell ill too soon, throwing Alice into Wonderland. Alice Munro seems to keep this creative and obscure force always into account without saying it openly: perhaps the little mermaid was no longer preoccupied of dying on the water but rather interested in the infinite gazes which hide between a beginning and an end. The exploration of deep and elusive feelings is always veiled with contradiction and under this point of view, Alice Munro makes us different and better people. The interviewer asks her: “What impact do you think that you have on someone reading your stories?” And Alice (Munro) in Wonderland says: “I want my stories to be something about life that causes people to say, not, oh, isn’t that the truth, but to feel some kind of reward from the writing, and that doesn’t mean that it has to be a happy ending or anything, but just that everything the story tells moves the reader in such a way that you feel you are a different person when you finish”.
- Alice Munro, Nobel Lecture in absentia, December 7th 2013.
- Michiko Kakutani, Books of The Times; Alice Munro’s Stories Of Changes of the Heart, “The New York Times”, March 9th 1990.
- Andy Belyea, Redefining the Real: Gothic Realism in Alice Munro’s Friend of my Youth, Queens University, Ontario, 1998.
- Lynn Blin, Alice Munro’s Naughty Coordinators in “Friend of My Youth”, Journal of the Short Story in English, Autumn 2010.