Alice Munro: “Amundsen”

12/25/2012 § Leave a comment

Originally published in The New Yorker, August 27, 2012.

The story I would like to have read deals with the experiences of a naive and inexperienced young would-be teacher named Vivien (or Miss Hyde) as she attempts to work at a sanitarium’s “improvised classroom,” teaching the tuberculosis-riddled students of Amundsen. The idea of a “pretend school” and the escape it provides from the constant and almost casually treated death about them is interested, especially set against the chilly climate and the fact that a world away, the Allies and Russians are closing in on Berlin. I would have settled, as well, for the story being about the excitable young student, Mary — not one of the sick ones — and her odd relationship/fixation with the economical and overly rational head surgeon, Dr. Fox: inappropriate at times, overly formal at others, and sometimes just wonderful (the way he’s described as joking around on a sleigh ride), it brings out all the interesting and unusual sides to characters that I feel I’ve otherwise read about, particularly in Munro’s steady, occasionally laborious prose. She’s an excellent writer to be clear, but what I’m saying is that I couldn’t make it through a collection of her short stories: They’d all feel the same to me.

Hence my ultimate disappointment with “Amundsen,” a rather surface-level story about the nature of love (as opposed to, say, “Axis,” which had all sorts of allusions and parallels working for it). Munro writes plenty of descriptions of the frozen lakes and atmosphere of the woods and small towns that Vivien has left Toronto for: “Everything austere and northerly, black-and-white under the high dome of clouds. So still, so immense an enchantment. But the birch bark not white after all, as you got closer. Grayish yellow, grayish blue, gray.” And she spends a large chunk of the tale dwelling on the wide-eyed wonder at which this relative youth approaches her new job, new habitat, and new life. And yet the story spends all of this credit — wastes it, in my opinion — in detailing Vivien’s eventual hook-up with steady old unromantic Alister, that is, Dr. Fox. He’s blunt and occasionally brutal to those who stand in his way (as when he throws the intruding and all too familiar Mary out of his house), he doesn’t act like a gentleman and says the oddest things (after bedding her, “‘I do intend to marry you,’ he said”), and Munro’s greatest feat may be in helping us to understand how a woman like Vivien could fall for him at all.

There’s also an inexplicable tense shift (from past to present . . . and then back to the past again, after a jump forward of a decade or so) that details what actually happens when Vivien is “going to Huntsville” with Dr. Fox, this being their “code for getting married.” That is, I understand that Munro chooses this so as to better work the fluttery thoughts going through Vivien, nerves and excitements and disappointments and confusions, as Alister out-of-the-blue confesses that “he can’t go through with it” and “he can’t explain this.” It’s a big moment, and it certainly deserves the attention it gets, the voice working well, but it sort of throws the rest of the story out of the window — not just the story I’d imagined Munro writing at first, but the tone itself, which feels like a cheat now. (There’s also a narrative question: if she’s looking back on all of these events, you’d expect a different skew.) Furthermore, while this climactic event is important, it changes the slant of the story to be about one thing and one thing only (which is why I called it surface-level): the conclusion. “Nothing changes, apparently, about love.” That is, you can’t change the feelings you have. Which makes sense, I suppose, in explaining why even after reading Munro, even after respecting her, even after writing about her and processing my thoughts on this story, I still find my original feelings unchanged. We can’t always get what we want, right?

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