I recently returned from a conference in Manchester. I hung out with some IT people—geeks, journalists and activists. I had a lot of fun, visited with old friends, and on the flight back, I was lucky enough to sit next to a very charming person. In the course of our conversation, I tried to explain why I like Alice Munro. I kept saying it was her honesty. To prove my point, I’m going to be writing a series of posts about her and her stories. Today I’ll start with “The Albanian Virgin.”Claire is a young married woman with an identity problem. Below, she is describing her extramarital affair with Nelson. I like this passage because of its startling qualities: as a character, Claire has perceptions tilted towards self-deception. Nelson represents a challenge in that regard:
He was not shy in love. I found him resourceful and determined. The seduction was mutual…I was amazed all the time. There was no bleakness or triviality about it, only ruthlessness and clarity of desire, and sparkling deception.
What is refreshing about Munro is that there is no moralizing. We get only an honest description of what Claire is experiencing. And of course we see the overturning of our expectations: most of us, secretly or not so secretly, don’t want adulterers to enjoy themselves.
But we’re not let off the hook so easily. The “ruthlessness and clarity” of the affair is something that Claire enjoys. She likes the power it gives her. And that’s what makes the story challenging: Claire is fallible, but likeable. Later on, we see her losing her way, physically and metaphysically:
The change in the apartment building seemed to have some message for me. It was about vanishing…I was tipped into dismay more menacing than any of the little eddies of regret that had caught me in the past year. I had lost my bearings. I had to get back to the store so my clerk could go home, but I felt as if I could as easily walk another way, just any way at all. My connection was in danger—that was all. Sometimes our connection is frayed, it is in danger, it seems almost lost. Views and streets deny knowledge of us, the air grows thin. Would we rather have a destiny to submit to, then, something that claims us, anything, instead of such flimsy choices, arbitrary days?
Claire is looking for Charlotte and Gjurdhi, the eccentric couple who befriended her shortly after she arrived in Victoria, B.C. She loses touch with them for a time, and when she tries to find them, this is what she experiences. Their apartment building has been gentrified and now they are gone. We see the setting—on Pandora Street–and Claire’s rising panic.
Here Munro captures that universal longing to have “a destiny to submit to”: she’s referring to that comforting position of submission where we don’t have to choose anything. This is in opposition to living in a way that necessitates making “flimsy choices” and living “arbitrary days.” It’s the distinction between childhood and adulthood, but Munro manages to make childhood—and the childishness it implies—sound far more desirable. Put away your toys if you must, she seems to say, but do not forget how to play. None of us needs to lose our sense of awe.
The overall theme of this story is the power of romance, both the real thing—as evidenced by Charlotte and Gjurdhi’s relationship—and the form of romance, that mental configuration that causes so many of us trouble in our personal lives. Traditional roles are subverted here: Nelson, the man, has no problem with commitment; it’s Claire who does. And Claire’s ideas of romance, along with ours, are going to be challenged. The question here is does love deserve to play such a strong role in our lives? Does it spare us from living aimlessly and arbitrarily? The landscape of love, as indeed the landscape of this story, is fully articulated here in its capacity to surprise and dismay. Immediately after Claire’s affair with Nelson is revealed, and both of their spouses depart, Claire notes that:
The scene had lasted a much shorter time than I had expected. Nelson seemed gloomy but relieved, and if I felt that short shrift had been given to the notion of love as a capturing tide, a glorious and harrowing event, I knew better than to show it.
A capturing tide indeed. Watch out for my next installment.