“I can’t believe I’m on this road again”
Two works of fiction have had a strong and lasting effect on me: Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing, and Alice Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women. While many other books have given me pleasure, intrigued me, provoked my admiration, these two resonated in me in a way that is personal, but at the place where the personal takes you outside yourself and connects you to the world.
I’m not sure I would so readily have admitted to favoring these titles a few years ago, since, from a certain perspective, they may seem too obvious: contemporary Canadian authors for a Canadian living outside Canada, perhaps nurturing a nostalgia for ‘home’. On top of that, there is now the international recognition that has definitively ‘canonized’ them – how predictable! I might have preferred my inclinations to be more exotic. But it is not a question of choice, or if it is, these books chose me, answered something I was asking of life and of writing.
This is not to deny the importance of the Canadian dimension. Reading these books somewhere between the ages of eighteen and twenty (I was still living in Canada then) felt like reading about my own life, only differently: a version enriched with voices that could speak of all the undercurrents of feeling that I was only dimly aware of. Simply put, I identified with these stories; not so much with the characters in the stories per se, but with the whole questioning of the universe in which they were caught up. And as I dreamed at that time of being a writer of fiction, my admiration and identification extended to and embraced the authors: female Canadian writers, just a generation older than me, curly haired and photographed in the outdoors (Munro on the train tracks – didn’t I have curly hair and train tracks behind my house?) and Atwood sitting on a rock at the shore of a lake (hadn’t I too gone north to Round Lake or Deep River every summer of my young years and sat pensively on the rocks of Pine Point Beach?).
Atwood’s text, if my memory is right, came first. When I read the opening words of that long sentence that inaugurates Surfacing, “I can’t believe I’m on this road again,” I was the “I” and all my conflicting feelings about city and “up north,” about being alienated in the jovial group, about questioning the meaning of one’s parents’ lives, and about the structural misunderstandings between men and women, found expression in a language that addressed me, it seemed, quite directly. Even the deadened landscape, “where the white birches are dying,” gave voice to an inner lament of my own.
I have read Surfacing over and over again, have written about it, and taught it several times… And yet there is always a new dimension of its complexity and intuitive knowledge that I discover. I could pick it up again tomorrow with pleasure and with the assurance that it will come up fresh. Part of what I love, in Surfacing, is its coherent contradictions. The narrator is in a state of emotional deadness throughout most of the novel, but the awakening of her desire to recover her emotional self produces a vibrant text, full of the imagery of the uncanny, of the unconscious, and of a past trying to reclaim its place in memory: the good/bad father play-hiding behind the trees; the cupid-fountain with the missing face that marks the place of a false memory; the sacrificial/regenerative fish that “hangs in the air suspended,” and the logical/illogical-poetic return to the state of nature. These images woven with such poetic intelligence into a narrative that questions personal responsibility now belong to my imaginative landscape and are gifts for which I am grateful.
Yet, that was initially a form of identification (and therefore connection) in the alienated and in some ways, lonely mode. With Lives of Girls and Women, it was the joy I identified with, the reveling in the contradictions of the high and the low in life. With Munro’s text, the unconscious is not veiled or buried in a character’s past: it is close at hand, as part of the disarray of what is happening here and now. It is written into the “most delicate, at first invisible cuts on our legs,” in “The Flats Road,” where it also takes shape as the mound of “deep, deep, layered clutter and dirt” of Uncle Benny’s place; it makes itself felt in the act of aggression in “Heirs of the Living Body” when Del confesses, “I bit and bit and broke the skin and in pure freedom thinking I had done the worst thing that I would ever do, I tasted Mary Agnes Oliphant’s blood.” It seemed and still seems a mark of incredible independence of the spirit to be able to write like that, to attribute not only frank aggression to a girl child, but to capture the paradoxical release and fall from grace in the same movement, delaying the dramatic-ironic main clause until the end.
I could say that it was the coverage of the different issues of growing up, the relation to the mother, the questioning of faith, of sexuality and love that impressed me, and there was the enjoyment of the familiarity of those concerns, but the main impact was not really thematic. It is the writing that thrills me: Munro’s capturing of the inflections of spoken language, and the images she produces of degradation revealed as sites of beauty, like here, where the black flies on the hide of a dead cow are seen “sparkling where the sun caught them like beaded embroidery” (“Heirs of the Living Body”). It remains a source of wonder, at Munro, but also at language itself that the simple sentence – “Now then.” – marking a satisfied, pregnant pause in the courtship of hands in “Baptizing” should be able to convey so much hope and anticipation, so much present and future.
And so on. When attachment born of identification runs deep, there is no end to it. They were the right texts for me at the right time, and they remain texts that are part of my life. My admiration for Atwood’s work is unfailing. For Munro’s it is boundless.
Jennifer Murray is associate professor of North American literature at the University of Franche-Comté and the author of Reading Alice Munro, published by McGill-Queen’s University Press (2016)
The image featured at the beginning of this blog post is of the sand at Pine Point Beach, Deep River, Ontario by Diana McElroy