The thing that was your bright treasure

Dear Alice,

In each of the stories collected in your book Runaway (2004), the characters find themselves, in one way or another, confronted either with the desire to flee, or with the consequences of parting. Animals disappear, affections move on, opportunities are lost, feelings get out of control: all characters are in transit – in permanent displacement, parting from themselves only to finally come back to what they were all along, as if in concentric circles.

The collection comprises eight relatively long short-stories, which have women as central characters. Three of these short stories (Chance, Soon, and Silence) are intertwined, but can be read independently: they refer to the same character, Juliet Henderson, in different stages of her life.

Runaway, the story from which the collection borrows its name, follows a young woman who, trapped in an unsatisfactory marriage, suddenly has a chance to escape. The subtlety with which you managed to only suggest a scenario of domestic violence is what stands out for me. There is something looming in the background: the disappearance of the protagonist’s pet goat – an animal that ends up being a repository of violence, a kind of sacrificial element in the protagonist’s relationship with her husband.

Mythological elements of this type also pervade the other stories collected in this book: here and there, we read veiled references to oracles, Eros, Orion and Cassiopeia, the wheel of fortune, and, of course, to the biblical imagery of the lost sheep. In the short stories Chance, Soon and Silence, which deal with the same character, there are allusions to myths and tragedies of the Greco-Roman antiquity, explored through the protagonist Juliet, who had a classicist background. In Chance, we follow her while she is still a young teacher, on a train trip that will change the course of her life. In Silence, Juliet is a middle-aged woman whose daughter, Penelope, had left home. Note the irony of the fact that, in this story, contrary to what happens in the myth narrated by Homer in the Odyssey, Penelope is not the one who is expecting someone, but the one who is being eagerly awaited.

In Passion, the young Grace is courted by a simpleton, a boy named Maury, by whom she allows herself to be passively led towards an engagement. A trivial event, however, ends up by uniting her to Maury’s half-brother, an alcoholic doctor to whom she keeps company for an afternoon. The reference to Anna Karenina, by Tolstoy, is the key with which you explore a very subtle and crude form of betrayal. The intertextuality in this collection comprises references to the Odyssey, Anna Karenina, Shakespeare’s plays, the Bible; moreover, it also pervades and links together each of the stories collected in the book. Each of them contains, in its plot, an allusion to an element of another story from the same collection. You managed to weave continuities among the plots, without abandoning the concise form of the short story.

In Trespasses, you carefully convey the way a child, Lauren, is violently thrown into the centre of a family lie. By adopting the child’s perspective, and simultaneously opting for a third person narrator, you equate in a more brutally way the events surrounding this family: we follow the plot under Lauren’s blurry perspective, while you bring us closer to a pain that this girl feels unable to explain. Simultaneously, you make us notice the details that the child is unable to understand or verbalize, and this artifice amplifies our empathy. Tricks, in turn, tells the story of Robin, a young nurse who, every summer, takes the train to Stratford, Ontario, to watch an adaptation of a play by Shakespeare. This small escape to the theatre is the brief respite that she allows herself in the limited life she leads with her controlling sister, in a provincial town. Robin accidentally meets a man from Montenegro, and finds herself entangled in a plot in which she is confronted with an artifice worthy of a Shakespearean comedy of errors.

The stories are mostly narrated in the third person by a subjective narrator who, while omniscient, adopts the perspectives of the central characters. Sometimes in the same story (as in Runaway), the narrator adopts alternate perspectives, coming and going between the characters. Only the last tale (Powers), in its first part, is narrated in the first person, as it compiles excerpts from the diary of the main character, whose best friend, Tessa, seems to be endowed with supernatural powers. Almost all the characters in this book are in some situation of self-deception, as in a dream, or waiting for something. They all inhabit some sort of imagined world, and lead ordinary lives that, under a layer of triviality, hide rather deep dramas. All, in one way or another, are submerged in an atmosphere of incommunicability; not infrequently, the apex of the plot takes place at a time when the central character accidentally catches up with a stranger, in a meaningful connection that changes the course of the plot and subverts not only the perspective with which we see this character, but also the way the she sees herself. They are events that, although banal, provide a rare moment of true communication, clear of the barriers of everyday interactions (“But before he was quite recovered, or quite himself, while he was still holding his head at a slant, he met her eyes. Not on purpose, it seemed, just by chance. The look in his eyes was not grateful, or forgiving—it was not really personal. It was just the raw look of an astounded animal, hanging on to whatever it could find”).

I had the impression you were concerned with that which is invisible in common lives, and which is later revealed to be exotic in a small but significant way. You seem to write so as to make a strangeness visible: you take out the layers of a character or a relationship, and show us the hitherto unsuspected aspects through which this character / relationship is unique and irreplaceable. Almost all stories are woven through gaps and leaps in time. Not infrequently, a certain episode which had been striking while a character was living it, is completely forgotten, only to be recalled, with astonishment, decades later (Her memory of this day remained clear and detailed, though there was a variation in the parts of it she dwelt on. And even in some of those details she must have been wrong”). The focus alternates between that which has been forgotten; that which was reinterpreted under another glance; and that which was remembered or talked about differently (“Describing this passage, this change in her life, later on, Grace might say – she did say – that it was as if a gate had clanged shut behind her. But at the time there was no clang – acquiescence simply rippled through her, the rights of those left behind were smoothly cancelled”). An excerpt from Powers, about Nancy, could apply to all the other characters in your stories, each in their own way: “what she wants to do if she can get the time to do it, is not so much to live in the past as to open it up and get one good look at it”.

Your writing, so devoid of sentimentality and at times so raw, evokes in the reader a kind of perplexity – soft but brutal – in the face of the strangely ordinary lives portrayed in the stories. The women in Runaway are impulsive and resilient, but somewhat indecisive and volatile; they change their plans and opinions as they seek, often unsuccessfully, to escape into a context they believe to be more true. A subtle look at eroticism and female sexuality runs through almost every story (“The conversation of kisses. Subtle, engrossing, fearless, transforming”). The plots are so changeable that it is difficult for the reader – and for the character – to anticipate the outcome of a choice just made. Its causes and motivations are only elusive, and many points are left open (“It wasn’t possible to tell the whole truth because she couldn’t get it straight herself, (…). She couldn’t explain what she had wanted, right up to the point of not wanting it at all”). You do not bother to explain or solve anything: you simply engage in the accumulation of seemingly unrelated details, which, in the end, will allow us to break through different points of view. The plots are entangled in the edges and paradoxes that make up the choices of their characters; in what they cling to, or choose to forget.

The focus of your writing is not the plot, but the exploration of the characters, or the exploration of their “inner plot.” The writing is concise; the pains it portrays are restrained. So as to express the feelings of a character, you use elements external to him (the objects that surround him, the landscape, the way the light impinges on him), and thus you capture, in brief brushstrokes, his complexity. In the scenario descriptions, the reader already obtains essential data about the character that is to be part of it.

As much as I have enjoyed it, Runaway is not my favourite book of yours: the stories collected here are marked by less crude and less explicit moments of violence than in works such as Too Much Happiness and The Dance of the Happy Shades. Your irony seems more restrained. Still, the collection has all the elements I have learned to love in your writing: conciseness, cruelty, courage, and a clean look at life, a perspective devoid of redemption. The little treasures that you spread throughout the book are as invisible as your characters – they inhabit the order of the unspoken. Violations – tiny, incommunicable, all too common – committed within a human relationship (filial, friendship, love) seem to be your focus: you are not interested in judging or explaining your characters; you simply reveal a complexity, and through it you weave our empathy for those women and men who are so reproachable, so broken, at once so innocent and cruel – and so like us.

Yours truly,

J.


Catrin Welz-Stein
Catrin Welz-Stein

“As a matter of fact she does not know to this day if those words were spoken, or if he only caught her, wound his arms around her, held her so tightly, with such continual, changing pressures that it seemed more than two arms were needed, that she was surrounded by him, his body strong and light, demanding and renouncing all at once, as if he was telling her she was wrong to give up on him, everything was possible, but then again that she was not wrong, he meant to stamp himself on her and go.”
― Alice Munro, Runaway

“But he just wanted somebody to talk to,’ she said, shifting sides a little. ‘He wanted somebody worse than I didn’t want somebody. I realize that now. And I don’t look mean. I don’t look cruel. But I was.'” – Alice Munro, Runaway

“She’d thought it was touch. Mouths, tongues, skin, bodies, banging bone on bone. Inflammation. Passion. But that wasn’t what had been meant for them at all. It was child’s play, compared to how she knew him, how far she’d seen into him, now. What she had seen was final. As if she was at the edge of a flat dark body of water that stretched on and on. Cold, level water. Looking out at such dark, cold, level water, and knowing it was all there was.” – Alice Munro, Runaway

“That is what happens. You put it away for a little while, and now and again you look in the closet for something else and you remember, and you think, soon. Then it becomes something that is just there, in the closet, and other things get crowded in front of it and on top of it and finally you don’t think about it at all.

The thing that was your bright treasure. You don’t think about it. A loss you could not contemplate at one time, and now it becomes something you can barely remember.

This is what happens.”

– Alice Munro, Runaway


About the book

  • Alfred A. Knopf, 2004, 335 p. Goodreads
  • Vintage, 2005, 335 p. Goodreads
  • Penguin Canada, 2919, 296 p. Goodreads
  • First published in 2004
  • My rating: 4,5 stars
  • The book won the Giller Prize (2004)
  • The Spanish-language version of the book can be seen in Pedro Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In (2011; IMDb). The second, third and fourth stories in the book – “Chance”, “Soon” and “Silence” – provided the basis for his screenplay for the film Julieta (2016; IMDB).

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