Friday, July 20, 2018

The Beggar Maid by Alice Munro

She could not turn Patrick down.  She could not do it.  It was not the amount of money but the amount of love he offered that she could not ignore; she believed that she felt sorry for him, that she had to help him out.  It was as if he had come up to her in a crowd carrying a large, simple, dazzling object--a huge egg, maybe, of solid silver, something of doubtful use and punishing weight--and was offering it to her, in fact thrusting it at her, begging her to take some of the weight of it off him.  If she thrust it back, how could he bear it?  But that explanation left something out.  It left out her own appetite, which was not for wealth but for worship.  The size, the weight, the shine, of what he said was love (and she did not doubt him) had to impress her, even though she had never asked for it.  It did not seem likely such an offering would come her way again.

Rose grows up, like all of Alice Munro's characters, in a little town in Ontario, this one called Hanratty.  It's not far from Toronto, but it sure feels far, and the first trip to Toronto is always a moment of mysterious ritual, a moment in which one's life changes for good.  It's a testament, I think, to Munro how similar Rose is to someone like Del Jordan from Lives of Girls and Women, but still so real and alive.  Nothing in her seems like a pale imitation.

The distinguishing mark given to Rose is her poverty.  Not that Del isn't poor, or essentially working class, but this collection of stories revolves around Rose's childhood poverty like an orbiting planet.  Poverty's at the heart of the stories that her stepmother Flo peddles about hard-luck locals: vigilante mobs, cruelly treated dwarves, incestuous siblings.  Reflecting on her stepmother, Rose maintains that poverty is the source of not just horror but also pride: "It meant having those ugly tube lights and being proud of them.  It meant continual talk of money and malicious talk about new things people had bought and whether they were paid for.  It meant pride and jealousy flaring over something the new pair of plastic curtains, imitating lace, that Flo had bought for the front window."

Rose ends up at school in Toronto, where she meets Patrick, the wealthy heir to a set of BC department stores.  Their love is no Romeo and Juliet story; it's an unflinching portrait of people whose capacity to understand each other is so limited as to doom their marriage from the very beginning.  Patrick romanticizes Rose's poverty, likening her to the Beggar Maid in a painting: "She studied the Beggar Maid, meek and voluptuous, with her shy white feet.  The milky surrender of her, the helplessness and gratitude.  Was that how Patrick saw Rose?  Was that how she cold be?"  The novel, or collection of stories, follows Rose through her tumultuous marriage and out the other side, after which she becomes a lonely and single actress and television presenter.  (So much of the latter stage of Rose's life seems like an alternate version of Juliet from the three-story cycle in Runaway.)  I particularly liked this observation about Patrick and Rose's daughter of Anna, a canny insight into the life of children of divorce:

Yet for Anna this bloody fabric her parents had made, of mistakes and mismatches, that anybody could see ought to be torn up and thrown away, was still the true web of life, of father and mother, of beginning and shelter.  What fraud, thought Rose, what fraud for everybody.  We come from unions which don't have in them anything like what we think we deserve.

Eventually, the story returns to Hanratty and Flo.  Of course, Rose's experience outside the world of Hanratty means she can never really go home again.  It's left her behind as much as she has.  Life in Hanratty has been pretty bitter for those who stayed, but it hasn't been a cakewalk for Rose, either.  Flo ends up in a home.  I loved this passage especially, about a blind old woman whose only way of interacting with the world is spelling words that she's given by a nurse:

There she was sitting waiting; waiting, in the middle of her sightless eventless day, till up from somewhere popped another word.  She would encompass it, bend all her energy to master it.  Rose wondered what the words were like, when she held them in her mind.  Did they carry their usual meaning, or any meaning at all?  Were they like words in dreams or in the minds of young children, each one marvelous and distinct and alive as a new animal?  This one limp and clear, like a jellyfish, that one hard and mean and secretive, like a horned snail.  They could be austere and comical as top hats, or smooth and lively and flattering as ribbons.  A parade of private visitors, not over yet.

Too good.  Like this woman, like Flo maybe, stricken with dementia, there is a great and painful loss in losing the knowledge and experience of your youth.  But maybe there's an opening, too, to see life as a child again, to remake and remold oneself.  Or at least, to believe that such a thing is possible.

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