The great bicycles, the really expensive ones, says my friend the bike dealer, are the ones made of special stuff, some species of metal that's tougher than diamonds, yet light as a dream. The really great bikes, the ones that cost a fortune, are barely there.
There's no accounting for taste, but here's my version of the truth: I can read one Alice Munro story a night, not because I'd otherwise overdose, but because what's beneath the story is so sturdily built on what all of us know, yet so effortlessly accomplished that the afterglow is almost all-pervasive.
I wish I were a better reader, but I'm not. I'm married to someone who can get so completely and fully lost in a book that she loses her grip on time itself. Not me. One of the hazards of a career in teaching is that every last thing you read has to be analyzed, left-brained. There's joy in that too, but I reach nothing close to the willing suspension of disbelief that being a really good reader requires.
Post-retirement, I told myself I had three major projects. First, all of Emily Dickinson, slowly, thoughtfully, plus another biography, maybe two. Second, Carol Sklenicka's bio of Raymond Carver, who I once knew and most of whose canon I've read. Third, all--every last story--of Alice Munro. I have a dozen of her collections marked in a special box upstairs in the attic right now; but once we live somewhere permanently (strange expression, the kind a Munro story would unpack lovingly), she'll get favored-author status in our grand old barrister bookcase. But, unlike my wife, I'm not a great reader.
"That Alice Munro, now 81, is one of the great short story writers not just of our time but of anytime ought to go without saying by now"--so begins the NY Times review of her latest collection, Dear Life, a line I read a few weeks ago. Three minutes later, Dear Life was in my Kindle.
Last night I read "Amundson," which you can read here as it was published in the New Yorker, a simple story about a Toronto-ite named Vivi, a young woman who, in 1945, takes a teaching job at a sanitarium where the students she entertains in her class either, literally, live or die. The place feels like and is a castle of death. It seems to operate as if largely quarantined, which makes the world she's entered even more isolated. As Vivi comes to understand the nature of her very unusual teaching position--what happens in the classroom isn't much more than recreation--she falls in love (in Munro, "falling in love" is a condition that demands diagnosis) with the strangely charismatic medical doctor who runs the place. They have a fling, you might say in the language of the day, and he promises her they will be married, then doesn't show up at the appointed time. It's a plain old jilting, really--nothing more. But nothing is ever plain or old in Alice Munro.
Years later--Munro writes short stories as if they were novels--Vivi, long married (emphasis on long) to someone else, serendipitously spots this ex-lover on the street, and feels something that surprises her. . .somewhat: the tender, joyful reach of a love she knows was somehow real.
And that's the end. "Nothing really changes about love."
Good night, you could write a book about that line. People have. Many.
Munro makes profundity out of what in someone else's hands would seem banal. Honestly, there's marvelous setting here, but a plot line that's old as the hills: decades later, a once-jilted woman remembers the love she held to so sturdily in an odd place and never really forgot, even if it's been out of her mind for years and years. Seeing him reminds her and us, finally, of the incredible strength, yet feathery lightness of love.
Sounds like a cliche, but in the hands of a master it never is.
Alice Munro is a blessing, and for her entrancing glimpses into the complex lives each of us live every single day I'm mightily thankful this morning after.