Wenlock Edge by Alice Munro

Wenlock Edge by Alice Munro is a story from the collection Too Much Happiness. This is one of those stories by Munro that you can read in the New Yorker (although the book version is slightly modified and more impactful, so do try to get your hands on the book.) I’ve been tackling the book fairly slowly, which is a nice idea considering the layered complexity of Munro’s stories. The only story from the book I’ve blogged about before is Fiction, which I read over three months ago.
Wenlock Edge followed a college student, living as a tenant in the attic of an old house, and her new roommate, Nina, a young girl with a terrible past. A series of unfortunate affairs, Nina told the narrator, had led to her making an arrangement with a certain Mr. Purvis. The old gentleman had arranged for Nina to attend college like any other girl on the weekdays and the spend the weekends with him. Nina seemed sincerely grateful to the man, until the narrator noticed that she rarely wrote in her college notebooks and had a black car tailing her at all times. One weekend when Nina was supposed to visit Mr. Purvis, she fell ill and instead, convinced the narrator to accompany him for dinner. That night, at Mr. Purvis’s modern house, the narrator discovered the ugly truth of Nina’s arrangement.
Somewhere in the story, somewhere in his house, Mr. Purvis made the narrator read to him the poem On Wenlock Edge by A. E. Houseman.
On Wenlock Edge the wood’s in trouble;
      His forest fleece the Wrekin heaves;
The gale, it plies the saplings double,
      And thick on Severn snow the leaves.

‘Twould blow like this through holt and hanger
      When Uricon the city stood:
‘Tis the old wind in the old anger,
      But then it threshed another wood.

Then, ’twas before my time, the Roman
      At yonder heaving hill would stare:
The blood that warms an English yeoman,
      The thoughts that hurt him, they were there.

There, like the wind through woods in riot,
      Through him the gale of life blew high;
The tree of man was never quiet:
      Then ’twas the Roman, now ’tis I.

The gale, it plies the saplings double,
      It blows so hard, ’twill soon be gone:
To-day the Roman and his trouble
      Are ashes under Uricon.
At first read, the poem didn’t make any sense to me, then this analysis, which explained all the vocabulary, helped. A reread made it clearer. The poet says all actions and all feelings are the same and they’re all mortal in the end, just as we are. In the context of the story, On Wenlock Edge affected the narrator, it touched the victim in her when Mr. Purvis made her read to him and it haunted her into revenge.
Had he known? Had he known that I would never think of those lines again without feeling the prickle of the upholstery on my bare haunches? The sticky prickly shame. A far greater shame it seemed now than at the time. He had got me, in spite of myself.
I would always be reminded of what I had done. What I had agreed to do. Not been forced, not ordered, not even persuaded. Agreed to do. 
Nina would know. She would be laughing about it. Not cruelly, but just the way she laughed at so many things. She would always remind me.

Wenlock Edge by Alice Munro was atmospheric, melancholy. It was intriguing and engrossing. The subtlety of writing, the gentle choice of words somehow enhanced the obscenity of Mr. Purvis’s actions, the emotional abuse. The story showed us two victims, one blaming herself and desperate to shift the blame onto another, the other turned painfully nonchalant and ruthless by her suffering. It showed us how we’ll never know what we’re capable of, how we can not only surprise but often horrify ourselves, and how we can never really know someone, no matter how well we think we do. The cruelty of the story was not altogether unusual and that’s what made it most effective.
I love Munro’s writing, how it makes me really dig deep, every line, every word is significant. The flitting timelines make for a punchline which you might not understand at once and which, when you do, will leave you speechless. What makes this whole book most attractive to me is the apparent ease with which Munro constructs her stories; she sews together seeming inconsequentialities into a vast canvas and the big picture thrills and stuns you.
Do you have any Alice Munro favourites you would recommend? And what do you make of this story? I’ve spent some time dissecting it and would love your thoughts on the poem!

Fiction (from Too Much Happiness) by Alice Munro

I read Dimension by Alice Munro a little less than a month ago – after reading about her at Viktoria’s Bookshelf. It’s a haunting story published, like many others by Munro, in the New Yorker. When I realized it was part of a collection, ironically titled Too Much Happiness, I could hardly wait to get my hands on it. Dimension is the first story of the collection. Since I have linked to it above, I won’t spoil it for you with a summary. Read it, it’s worth your time.
The second story in Too Much Happiness is called Fiction. This is another gem, and though I’ve still only read two stories by Munro, I can tell you she’s one of the most talented authors I’ve ever come across and certainly the best short story writer. Like Dimension, Fiction has everything you expect from a novel compressed to fit into a few dozen pages – plot, style, a set of wonderful characters and a staggering climax. The story sucks you in and leaves you awestruck by its complex simplicity. It’s incredible how interesting the most commonplace things can seem.

(Spoilers ahead!)

Joyce and Jon, two of the smartest students at an urban high school in Ontario, get married, drop out of college and leave behind their bright futures. Joyce ends up as a music teacher at a local school, and Jon becomes a carpenter. Then the story, which starts out in a calm and happy place, takes an abrupt turn as Jon has an affair with his apprentice Edie and leaves Joyce. Pity is replaced by reluctant derision as you watch Joyce throw her life away, grow bitter. Trying to get him back, she goes so far as to stalking Edie and Jon.
Years later, you see Joyce contentedly married to Matt, a rich sixty-something amateur violinist. At Matt’s birthday party, among a group of connections, close and distant, Joyce spots a young woman she vaguely recognizes. She happens to be a writer, from the same school that Joyce taught at all those years ago. On an impulse, Joyce buys her book. 
Through a story about a small town music teacher, which hits far too close to home, Joyce discovers how her obsession with Jon and his new wife affected Edie’s little child. Joyce then attempts to reconcile with the now the writer, presumably the daughter, now grown-up. The encounter exposes Joyce as an unreliable narrator and goes to show Munro’s understanding of people, how they function, how they react. It describes the fictions people spin in their minds, how a life inevitably revolves solely around itself, truths no one would willingly confess to.

(End of spoilers.)

What I love about Munro’s writing is that every word counts and every line is loaded with meaning. Fiction is not a one dimensional story. There are so many themes, so many characters – each as important as the next. Munro manages to recount a whole life in just one short story and narrates it seamlessly. It’s almost incredible how involved it keeps you, how deeply every event affects you. And the best part is, the writing which, though never blatantly funny, does make you chuckle every so often.
Joyce has never understood this business of lining up to get a glimpse of the author and then going away with a stranger’s name written in your book.
She doesn’t even know if she will read the book. She has a couple of good biographies on the go at the moment that she is sure are more to her taste than this will be.
How Are We to Live is a collection of short stories, not a novel. This in itself is a disappointment. It seems to diminish the book’s authority, making the author seem like somebody who is just hanging on to the gates of Literature, rather than safely settled inside.

(…says one of the greatest short story writers alive, you’ve got to love that.)