Amundsen was an Arctic explorer. A gulf is named after him in Canada’s Northwest. It’s also the name of the second story in Alice Munro’s “Dear Life” collection, available from Knopf. The story is also online in a summer issue of The New Yorker. Amundsen is also the name of the small town where the story takes place
That’s quite a pedigree for one short story. But the historical references are apt. They are used to illuminate character and to tell us something about what love is like. What the story tells us is not precisely clear. You are left with a literary puzzle to solve, a very choice one.
When you start reading a story you don’t know what you are getting into. It’s excellent if you have a character who doesn’t know what they’re getting into either. You are both all attention, trying to figure things out.
A woman is sitting on a bench outside a railroad station. How do I know it’s a woman? “Another woman” sat at the end of the bench. That’s a fine economical way to identify the gender of your character. It’s a small station somewhere remote. How do I know that? The station was open when the train arrived but now it is locked. Small stations are locked up pretty fast. Large stations stay open. Anyone, like myself, who rides trains a lot knows this.
You know the woman got off the train, is at her destination, because the train left. I liked the minor touch that the other woman is sitting at the end of the bench. Not a very sociable place it seems…or it’s a very isolated place. No one is talking. There are no background conversations to overhear.
The other woman at the end of the bench is holding between her knees a string bag full of parcels of waxed paper. Raw meat. Our main character can smell the meat. Between her knees? You feel the unstable bulk of the parcels of raw meat, balanced awkwardly between her knees. You feel like you’re in the sticks. (You are.) Like the meat lady is a peasant, or a member of the working class, and that you are nowhere with her on this godforsaken bench.
I hope you don’t mind that I’m plodding through sentence by sentence. But I’m absolutely fascinated by how fine stories get constructed, how they work. One thing that happens is that functional details, like the ones I’ve been outlining, pile up so fast as you read that you don’t register them as atoms of significance. The story is absorbing but you can’t figure out why. What I’m saying is that one feature of a successful tale is that every segment of it has a valence, points you somewhere that’s part of a coherent narrative. I doubt Munro plots this out line by line. Can you understand moment by moment how a tennis master wins a match? But maybe I’m wrong and she does graph it out like you’re doing a geometry construction. I’m reminded that Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk writes on graph paper.
Our character is heading for an austere and “northerly” black and white building near a stand of birch trees by a frozen lake. I presume that Canadians understand what the word “northerly” means as a description of a building more than the citizens south of their border. Vivien Hyde admires the chill beauty of the site. She is from Toronto. All I’m thinking is: “Get me out of here.”
Vivien is a teacher who has been hired to instruct the children in this institution, which, in a direct reference to Mann’s “Magic Mountain”, is a sanitarium. It’s an unusual teaching job. Sometimes the kids are too sick to learn anything. Munro says that the children can sense when this is a “pretend” education. The idea of pretending to teach, of going through the motions like in a pantomime, is a fascinating one. It comes up later when the subject turns to the pedagogy of intimacy.
Why is Vivien here? No connections in Toronto that count for anything? Why would she take this job? While you’re puzzling over that, you meet the doctor who’s running things. An awkward remote, imperious guy. Vivien will end up having a relationship with him. Maybe she finds the doctor because she needs to find someone. Maybe for him it’s the same.
One small incident struck me. Finally, the off-putting doctor invites Vivien to dinner at his home in town. There are lots of books in the front parlor. The doctor offers Vivien a key to this house so she can access his library when she wants.
This is jarring behavior. It’s a dead cert talisman of the doctor’s character and it’s not a flattering slant on him. But it’s a brilliant story move on Munro’s part, like a move in chess that puts your opponent into check.
This intimate offer is out of sync with the stolid temperament of the character. Have you ever known socially awkward or isolated people who make sudden gestures of closeness? In balanced personalities, being sociable exists on a gradient. You don’t move from dinner at my home to “here are my house keys”. Even if it’s just so you can read my books. The doctor’s personality lacks due proportion. This is troubling. Although I admit it didn’t trouble me as much as it should have.
I don’t think that Alice Munro writes stories that are actually short. There’s a wealth of detail about the hospital and town and the people in it. A short story writer of Alice Munro’s platinum standard is always going to enumerate the facts. Reading one of her stories is like laying out an extensive dossier in front of you. A full security report on the nature of human character replete with incidents, details about appearance, what was said and done.
And then there’s this, the last sentence: “Nothing changes really about love.”
Recoil. Read the story back. And try to figure out what that means.