Thursday, November 21, 2013

"Gravel" by Alice Munro

 "Dear Life" by Alice Munro is a collection of short stories that highlights the brilliance and the quirks I admire in this author: the refined craftsmanship and willful weirdness of the grande dame of Canadian literature, now a distinguished Nobel laureate.  Her stories describe events in small town settings that defy the reader's expectations of narrow, prim lives, plots that thrust ordinary people into unconventional dilemmas.  Munro's great strength lies in exposing ways that ambition, imagination and oddity can disrupt, alter or enhance a life.   The drama, often presented from overlapping perspectives, is not always as simple as the clean, precise surface of Munro's narrative suggests.  We are left to question underlying motives, reassess dubious characters and try to unravel stubborn knots in a chain of minor incidents that escalate into serious misfortune or metamorphosis.

The story"Gravel" stands out as a work that might be described as a modern morality tale.   It features a mother who leaves her stable, loving husband for a bohemian, hippie actor and pays for sexual dalliance, distraction and lifestyle makeover with the tragic death of her eldest child.   The story is told by an adult narrator ( I'll call this character Sibling) who examines the events leading up to sister Caro's drowning in a water-filled gravel pit.  His/her five year-old self (Munro does not assign a gender to the narrator) is an unreliable witness, but Sibling looks back intently, analyzing the incident from an adult perspective in an attempt to come to terms with feelings of personal guilt.  

How much of a memory is factual, and how much is invented?  Munro joins separate threads of the story to weave a chequered pattern - one part imagination, one part truth - that is the fabric of all recollection.  She brings a famous ghost into the mix with the mention of Neal (mother's boyfriend) performing as Banquo in a theatre production of Macbeth.  Act 3, Scene 4  of Shakespeare's drama features Banquo's ghost appearing to Macbeth, seated in a chair at the banquet table.  Some directors prefer to play the scene with Banquo haunting from offstage, leaving an empty chair.  Others bring Banquo onstage, visible to the audience and Macbeth, but not apparent to the other actors.   The invisible ghost heightens Macbeth's isolation, inner turmoil and brink-of-madness state.  The visible, onstage version allows the audience to share Macbeth's perception and identify closely with his experience.   Either way, the ghost is an intruder at the party.

Neal, as substitute for natural father, is the most obvious ghost, but Munro makes him less potent than the invisible one that plagues Sibling. The circumstances surrounding sister Caro's drowning form a vision that continues to haunt, puzzle, torment, and nag.  For the surviving sibling, there is always a phantom figure seated at the table; an unnerving presence that no one else can see.  

Sibling's voice wavers between juvenile and mature as the story is sketched out.   Munro has her main character regress to the diction of a five-year-old as the crucial directive is reported.

" I was to go back to the trailer and tell Neal and mother something.  
That the dog had fallen into the water and Caro was afraid she'd be drowned.
Blitzee.  Drownded.
But Blitzee wasn't in the water.
She could be.  And Caro could jump in to save her.

I believe I still put up some argument, along the lines of she hasn't, you haven't, it could happen but it hasn't.  I also remembered that Neal had said dogs didn't drown.
Caro instructed me to do as I was told.
I may have said that, or I may have just stood there not obeying and trying to work up another argument."

Vague bits of information mulled over have the effect of destabilizing Sibling's account;  like small pieces of gravel, they shift under each footstep.   Munro concludes the story with a meeting between the adult Sibling and Neal.   Their conversation leads to Neal's admission of the reason for his failure to respond to the emergency - he was too stoned at the time and didn't know how to swim.  He says that pondering the accident is a waste of time and offers Sibling some advice based on his own breezy, hedonistic philosophy.

"The thing is to be happy," he said. "No matter what.  Just try that.  You can.  It gets easier and easier.  It's nothing to do with circumstances.  You wouldn't believe how good it is.  Accept everything and then tragedy disappears.  Or tragedy lightens, anyway, and you're just there, going along easy in the world."

There is no satisfactory solace or formula for closure in Neal's happy-go-lucky approach, and Sibling is left carrying the burden of questions and doubts about what actually happened.  The ghost remains onstage.

 "But, in my mind, Caro keeps running at the water and throwing herself in, as if in triumph and I'm still caught, waiting for her to explain to me, waiting for the splash."

N.B. The story "Gravel" by Alice Munro is available online in The New Yorker magazine.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Le Presbytere at Pre-d'en-Haut

In Pre-d'en-Haut near Memramcook a white church stands on a promontory overlooking the Petitcodiac River.   It's a registered heritage building, protected for posterity by the government of New Brunswick.  Unfortunately that designation does not extend to the house next door - le presbytere or rectory.
L' eglise Notre -Dame de l'Annonciation, built in 1934

The rectory

1945 photo

The large brick house with the wrap-around veranda is the site of a garage sale organized by parishioners.  The church ladies have all furniture, quilts, books, dishes and miscellaneous priced in an "everything must go" clearance sale.   Their dilemma is a common one for dwindling congregations: the archdiocese will not permit the sale of the rectory, and the church cannot continue to maintain an empty building.  Things are deteriorating and demolition looms.  Next week the electricity will be cut off.

The rectory was built in the 1940s under the direct supervision of the priest, E. Azarias Masse.  He was a college professor from Saint Hyacinthe, Quebec who took on the work of stabilizing the Pre-d'en-Haut community, improving economic conditions for its residents while enriching their spiritual lives.

The Reverend Father  E. Azarias Masse, c.s.c. (1898-1967)

The building was not only his home base, but served as headquarters for the Pre-d'en-Haut Credit Union.   In the front office there's a large commercial grade vault built into the wall that dates from 1944 when Father Masse established the bank in the rectory, providing reasonable loans for farmers.   He encouraged the locals to cultivate strawberries, visited farms to bless the seeds and conducted a special high mass service when a lack of rain threatened the crop.  The extra prayers worked, and the ensuing shower, specific to the immediate area, saved the strawberries in the dry summer of 1946.

Oak office chair with leather seat

Set of Century Encyclopedia, published in 1899

The word "skean" defined and illustrated
We purchase an oak chair, a set of antique reference books, a box of liturgical silks - the remains of an era when the Catholic church was the heart and soul of the community.  We come home with some nagging questions, too.  Couldn't the historic house be renovated and used for another purpose, perhaps a daycare center, a museum, a medical clinic or a bed and breakfast?   Once the rectory has been torn down, a significant piece of  Pre-d'en-Haut history will be gone forever.  If prayer could save the strawberries, then isn't it worth a try...?