The Love of a Good Woman : 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”

Living Together, Being Apart

1.
I grew up in a house with a framed picture of Che Guevara on the wall and occasional talk of Marx at the dinner table, so it took me longer than most to realize that I had spent all but two years of my life in a world where, for the most part, those names had lost their credibility if not significance. I spent my high school years, the time when romantic ideals flourish unencumbered, thinking I was a Marxist, a fact which certainly lends credence to the idea that mine is a generation with a good sense of all that is wrong with the world but few to no new ideas of what to do about it. The late Tony Judt certainly believed such a problem was widespread, not only in my generation but the world in general, and his Ill Fares the Land is a reflective account of how we got to our present state from a time when the problem was not how the world was going to change, but when.

Judt’s book focuses on where we went wrong as much as what to do about it because the answers to the two reflect each other: when we forgot the benefits of social democracy, we turned toward a politics that emphasizes our worst traits as individuals precisely by accentuating our individuality; to get back on track, we must remember everything we gained from social democracy (an effective social safety net; remarkable drops in inequality) and return to its ideals. Judt outlines how many of the social policies that we take for granted today come from the early and mid 20th century’s great era of social democracy, and furthermore the ways that, once these policies became ingrained, the next generation began to focus on the costs rather than the benefits and so allowed them to be dismantled.

Yet the public policy aspect of Judt’s book is wrapped around a broader theme: the exploration of how our individual desires can dominate and undermine our politics. One of Judt’s sharpest insights is how the increased privatization of industry that started occurring in the 1980’s coincided with people’s privatization: their retreat away from the public sphere into sequestered individuality. Our preoccupation with material well-being and financial growth and the flock of youth eschewing careers in public service in favor of business school are both indicative of an unrestrained individualism that Judt equates more than once with Hobbes’ nasty and brutish state of nature.

Judt’s main concern, then, is with how we can establish community again, how we can bind together under a common concern, how we can learn to trust each other again. A final vestige of the greatness of community, a case study of what we can achieve collectively but not individually, is represented for Judt by railroads. Providing effective railroad service, or public transportation in general, requires that one serve the unprofitable small markets along with the profitable major commuter routes. Railroads, it seems, are the final test for modern society:

If we cannot see the case for expending our collective resources on trains, it will not just be because we have all joined gated communities and no longer need anything but private cars to move around between them. It will be because we have become gated individuals who do not know how to share public space to common advantage. The implications of such a loss would far transcend the decline or demise of one system of transport among others. It would mean we had done with modern life itself.

2.
Alain de Botton, though, sees our society better reflected in our other prominent form of mass transportation. In fact, many of the societal ills that Judt comments on in his book come out explicitly in De Botton’s A Week at the Airport, written during the latter’s one week stint as writer in residence at Heathrow International Airport. The fear instilled in us every time we go through the metal detector, eyed suspiciously by airport security, puts into practice the fear-based politics that Judt derides; the luxurious lounges for first-class passengers imitate the gated communities into which the affluent retreat to ignore the morally dubious side effects of their status; the immense mall that greets passengers on the other side of security gratifies our excessive material desires; finally, all the machinery in the airport are magnificent examples of our technological prowess, if not our hubristic over-aspiration.

So while Judt wants to see our society reflected in romantic train stations, de Botton actually finds it in the airport. He also is interested in individuality, or perhaps it is best to say that he is interested in individuals and all their prickly details (it is eerie to think that Alain de Botton may be looking through your discarded room service bin in the hotel hallway, or intently watching you bid farewell to your significant other at the airport). The individual stories that de Botton recounts, though, display deep human problems for which the airport is too often idealized as a means of escape. In one of the many somewhat discomforting portraits that de Botton provides, he tells us of traveler David’s carefully planned vacation to Greece:

As David lifted a suitcase on to the conveyor belt, he came to an unexpected and troubling realization: that he was bringing himself with him on his holiday. Whatever the qualities of the Dimitra Residence, they were going to be critically undermined by the fact that he would be there in the villa as well. He had booked the trip in expectation of being able to enjoy his children, his wife, the Mediterranean, some spanakopita and the Attic skies, but it was evident that he would be forced to apprehend all of these through the distorting filter of his own being, with its debilitating levels of fear, anxiety and wayward desire.

David, estranged from his wife and kids due to his job, plans a vacation to reconnect with them. But of course the problem is too personal to be solved merely by a change in location. Later in the book, de Botton writes about the drivers hired to pick up passengers from the airport. For both, their interaction “would be counted a success if the other party proved not to be a murderer or a thief.” These basic human problems that de Botton highlights – the difficulty but necessity of living with or trusting in other humans – are again akin to those that Judt diagnoses in his book. But in de Botton’s portrayal, these are not problems with apparent solutions. Politics might be just another escape like the vacations we spend months planning.

Community taken broadly – companionship – is certainly fundamental to human life. Perhaps, however, we use it not only as a way to complete ourselves but as form of respite. We escape into community when we are not satisfied with ourselves, a common enough state for which we maintain a close circle of family and loved ones (or try to at least). It is not as self-serving as it sounds, since we all benefit from it eventually. No one likes to lie in a hospital bed alone (even if it is for a small problem), or to arrive at an airport with no one there to welcome them, as de Botton writes about so eloquently, or even to spend a night at home alone. But all the same we cannot escape from ourselves, no matter how perfect the community. Certainly the common good can often be hijacked by “the fragmented individualism of our concerns,” as Judt writes, but the latter are just as much a part of our human nature as the need for community is. For better or worse, they won’t be eliminated easily.

3.
Our self-actualization cannot necessarily be equated to our interaction with others, even if the two are certainly related. Few authors achieve greater insight into this gap between what we wish for our world and what we have, between our personal ideals and shared reality, than Alice Munro. In the title story of The Love of a Good Woman, Enid, a live-in nurse, is faced with the discovery that Rupert, the husband of the woman she is caring for, committed a brutal murder years earlier for which he was never caught. The knowledge eats at her. “If a person does something very bad, do they have to be punished,” she asks Rupert’s children. And if no one knows about it? “Should they tell that they did and be punished?”

When we come together as a community there are rules with punishments suited to their transgression. For some thinkers, Hobbes for example, this is simply necessary as a deterrent, to keep us safe from ourselves. But for others it is actually an extension of our individual morality: “If you do something very bad and you are not punished you feel worse, and feel far worse, than if you are,” Enid explains to the children. She comes up with a plan to either force Rupert to confess and repent or to commit another crime in order to keep the secret. “You cannot live in the world with such a burden,” she tells herself. “You will not be able to stand your life.”

But as she goes to set the plan in motion she wonders about the repercussions of forcing this man to face up to his crime, about the lives she would be altering, and the potential that lies in letting things slide:

It was still before. Mr. Willens had still driven himself into Jutland Pond, on purpose or by accident. Everybody still believed that, and as far as Rupert was concerned Enid believed it, too. And as long as that was so, this room and this house and her life held a different possibility, an entirely different possibility from the one she had been living with (or glorying in – however you wanted to put it) for the last few days. The different possibility was coming closer to her, and all she needed to do was to keep quiet and let it come. Through her silence, what benefits could bloom. For others, and for herself.

This was what most people knew. A simple thing that it had taken her so long to understand. This was how to keep the world habitable.

Perhaps the gap between our individuality and our need for community is not a problem to be solved but a dilemma to be faced. It is not necessarily a simple matter of finding the proper form of public space to make us flourish. Inserting ourselves into a community always involves sacrifice, letting things slide in order to maintain that community at the expense perhaps of some of our personal desires or ideals.

Like these communities, vacations rarely meet the fantasies of idyllic tranquility that we burden them with. But, as de Botton notes at the end of his book, we always forget the places we visited, the feelings we had there, and the books we read. We begin to long for escape again, to identify “happiness with elsewhere.” We inevitably go back and “learn the lessons of the airport all over again.” Although Judt emphasizes the need for dissent and self-criticism, and warns against fantasies of achieving the perfect state, his description of social democracy can still sometimes read like an idyllic answer to our present downturn. Perhaps, were we to act on Judt’s words, as he ends his book asking us to, we would only learn lessons all over again as well. But considering our lopsided position today in the seesaw between individual desires and collective responsibilities, it would certainly be better to at least start learning again.

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