Open Secrets: Stories

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A Year in Reading: Elliott Holt

I read a lot of great books this year, including George Saunders’s Tenth of December, Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, Renata Adler’s Speedboat, and Shirley Jackson’s Hangsaman. And I reread three of my favorite Alice Munro collections: The Beggar Maid, Open Secrets, and The Love of a Good Woman. (She’s my favorite living writer, so I was thrilled when she won the Nobel Prize). But it was Karl Ove Knausgaard’s autobiographical My Struggle (translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett) that most consoled me.

My father used to say that my mother had “no sense of mortality.” When my mother regaled us with stories of jumping onto moving trains in Kenya, say, or being shot at in Sudan, he just shook his head. “No sense of mortality.” The irony is that it was my mother, who’d spent her life oblivious of death, who died of cancer at the age of 60. My father, now 78, continues to ruminate about mortality. And I am clearly his child: I’ve always spent a lot of time thinking about death. My paternal grandfather died in our house when I was 10. My grandmother died there nine years later, and then, when I was 31, my mother died there. I actually felt the warmth go out of my mother’s body while she turned into a corpse.

I bring up this morbid history only because it may explain why Knausgaard’s My Struggle — a book defined by its sense of mortality — resonates so much with me.[1] Book 1 is narrated by the 39-year-old Knausgaard, and I am 39 now. (Generation X will recognize themselves here: Knausgaard may be Norwegian, but he grew up on the same pop culture as a lot of his contemporaries in the States.) As a writer facing her mortality, how could I resist a novel about a writer facing his mortality?

Reading Book 1 of My Struggle proved to be one of those serendipitous experiences: the right book at exactly the right time in my life. A few months ago, my father sold the house in which my sisters and I grew up. And this fall, we had to clear out the place, deciding what to keep, what to donate, what to sell. The process was daunting because the house was crammed with stuff, collected by my mother, father, and both sets of grandparents. We were burdened by history, and eager to get rid of things, but it was emotionally draining to watch our childhood get priced for an estate sale. I felt like we were saying good-bye to our mother all over again. And while my siblings and I were clearing out our father’s house, I was reading a book about adult siblings cleaning their father’s house.

In the first book, Karl Ove and his brother, Yngve, go home to Kristiansand to the house where their father recently drank himself to death. The house is in a terrible state when they arrive: it reeks of urine, there is excrement smeared on the sofa, and the floors are littered with empty bottles. While describing the downstairs bathroom, a place that scared him as a child because it seemed haunted, Knausgaard writes:
This particular evening, however, my unease with it rose again because my grandfather had collapsed here and because Dad had died upstairs in the living room yesterday, so the deadness of these non-beings combined with the deadness of the two of them, of my father and his father.

So how could I keep this feeling at arm’s length?

Oh, all I had to do was clean. Scour and scrub and rub and wipe. See how each tile became clean and shiny. Imagine that all that had been destroyed here would be restored.
The Knausgaard brothers get to work cleaning the whole house. They are not daunted by smeared excrement or rotting food. It’s easier to confront shit, with its stench of life, than the abstractly terrifying “deadness.” And as a writer, Knausgaard hopes to leave more than shit behind when he dies: he wants to write something great before his time runs out. And so the thorough cleaning — so vividly rendered, in every mundane detail — is not just an attempt to grapple with grief. Knausgaard is trying to restore not only his grandmother’s house, but his own legacy. As James Wood put it in The New Yorker, “By the time [the book] is over, we have cleaned that house with these brothers; the experience is extraordinarily vivid and visceral and moving.”

The efficient way that Knausgaard and his brother tackle the cleaning struck me as very Norwegian. My family has enough Norwegian friends for me to conclude that when you have a tough job, you need a Norwegian man to do it. In fact, a Norwegian friend helped us with all the heavy lifting as we packed up our family house. My sisters and I couldn’t have finished the monumental task without him. But Knausgaard’s sense of mortality — and his exhaustive cataloguing of it — is universal, and the book is compulsively readable. Knausgaard’s consciousness is so lucid on the page that his book feels fully inhabited and alive (no “deadness”). Yet we never forget that this is a text, aware of itself not just as a novel, but as a bid for its author’s literary immortality.

[1] I also recommend Zadie Smith’s recent essay, “Man vs. Corpse,” in The New York Review of Books.

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Canadian Short Story Master Alice Munro Wins the Nobel Prize for Literature

Alice Munro, called by the Nobel committee “Master of the contemporary short story,” has won the 2013 Nobel Prize for literature. Munro, 82, is the first Canadian to take the prize. She told a National Post reporter earlier this year that she’s retiring from writing.

Those looking for an in depth introduction to Munro’s work should read Ben Dolnick’s “A Beginner’s Guide to Alice Munro,” which he introduces thus:

Considering which of Alice Munro’s stories to read can feel something like considering what to eat from an enormous box of chocolates. There are an overwhelming number of choices, many of which have disconcertingly similar appearances — and, while you’re very likely to choose something delicious, there is the slight but real possibility of finding yourself stuck with, say, raspberry ganache.

Munro is perhaps best represented by the various short story compilations collecting her best works:
Selected Stories (1996)
Vintage Munro (2004)
Carried Away: A Selection of Stories (2006)

Munro has published a number of books over her long career:
Dance of the Happy Shades (1968)
Lives of Girls and Women (1971)
Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You (1974)
The Beggar Maid (1978) (As close as Munro has ever come to writing a novel)
The Moons of Jupiter (1982)
The Progress of Love (1986)
Friend of My Youth (1990)
Open Secrets (1994)
The Love of a Good Woman (1998)
Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage (2001) (#9 on our Best Books of the Millennium List)
Runaway (2004)
The View from Castle Rock (2006)
Too Much Happiness (2009)
Dear Life (2012) (Our review)

A Beginner’s Guide to Alice Munro

This November, Knopf recently announced, Alice Munro will publish Dear Life: Stories, her 13th book of shorts and second since her announced “retirement” in 2006. For Alice Munro fanatics — a group in which I proudly include myself — this is, of course, wonderful news. It’s also an excuse, as if we needed one, to revisit her previous work, and to push her books on the world’s non-Munroviacs.

Considering which of Alice Munro’s stories to read can feel something like considering what to eat from an enormous box of chocolates. There are an overwhelming number of choices, many of which have disconcertingly similar appearances — and, while you’re very likely to choose something delicious, there is the slight but real possibility of finding yourself stuck with, say, raspberry ganache.

Herewith, a partial guide:

The Munro book to read if you’re only willing to read one: Selected Stories

The Munro book to read if you’re only willing to read one but don’t like the idea of reading a literary greatest hits album: The Beggar Maid. Published in 1977, The Beggar Maid is as close as Munro has ever come to writing a novel, but it actually does a better job than just about any novel I know of getting an entire, living human being onto the page. The book follows a woman named Rose all the way from her early childhood to her middle age, and never feels stretched. It’s an extraordinarily high-grade steak that just happens to be served in slices.

Best story, in the category of autobiographical-seeming stories about love: “Bardon Bus,” which contains some of the most convincingly rendered emotional agony I’ve ever read.

Best story, in the category of historical drama: “A Wilderness Station,” which should, with its many voices and bizarre, dramatic happenings, put to rest any notion of Munro as a predictable dispenser of affair/epiphany-type fiction.

Best story, all categories: “The Beggar Maid,” which showcases, among other things, her remarkable deftness in telling stories that leap around in time.

Story featuring most implausible twist: “Tricks.” A woman falls in love with a man, meets him again and is puzzled by his coldness. Turns out, the cold one was an identical twin. She acknowledges the silliness within the story, but still.

Stories featuring drownings or near-drownings: “Miles City, Montana,” “Changes and Ceremonies,” “Gravel,” “Walking on Water,” “Love of a Good Woman,” “Pictures of the Ice,” “Child’s Play.”

Stories featuring murders or near-murders: “Open Secrets,” “Fits,” “Dimension,” “Free Radicals.”

Story whose plot, after three or four readings, I’m still not sure I understand: “Open Secrets.”

Most depressing story that will somehow leave you uplifted: “Dulse,” in which a woman spends a few days thinking gloomy thoughts in New Brunswick in the wake of a devastating breakup. The brilliant little breakfast scene with the Willa-Cather-obsessed man is a joy.

Most uplifting story that will somehow leave you depressed: “The Turkey Season,” in which the narrator cheerfully remembers the winter she spent working in a turkey barn. A sense of never-quite-resolved unease hovers over this story like a snowstorm.

Authors to read once you’ve finally gotten your fill of Munro: William Maxwell (who’s Munro’s favorite writer), Eudora Welty (whose story, “A Worn Path,” Munro has called the most perfect story ever written), and George Saunders (whose stories, despite very much not being set in rural Canada, are as moving and smart and humane as Munro’s).

Appendix:

Lives of Girls and Women: “Changes and Ceremonies”

Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You: “Walking on Water”

The Progress of Love: “Miles City, Montana,” “Fits”

Friend of My Youth: “Pictures of the Ice”

Open Secrets: “A Wilderness Station,” “Open Secrets”

Love of a Good Woman: “Love of a Good Woman”

The Moons of Jupiter: “Turkey Season,” “Bardon Bus”

Runaway: “Tricks”

Too Much Happiness: “Free Radicals,” “Dimension,” “Child’s Play”

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