Alice Munro: “Amundsen”

Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Alice Munro’s “Amundsen” was originally published in the August 27, 2012 issue of The New Yorker.

Click for a larger image.

I’ll complain still that The New Yorker publishes too much Junot Díaz, but the number of his appearances in the last few years is overshadowed by Alice Munro’s. But I won’t complain that there’s too much Munro, because I also don’t feel Díaz’s stories hold a candle to Munro’s. That she can produce, time and time again, these quietly powerful stories is wonderous.

“Amundsen” itself is wonderous. Once again, Munro gives us a story that dwells on the details while shunning what many writers would consider the larger moments. When the story opens, Vivien Hyde has left Toronto to become the new teacher at a tuberculosis “san” near a frigid place called Amundsen. It’s the mid-1940s and the War is the big news, but in Amundsen, everyone is dealing with life and death closer to home. When someone doesn’t show up for work, you assume the worst. At first, it makes the residents seem distanced, but Vivien begins to understand: “It was just that whatever happened in places they didn’t know had to be discounted; it got in their way and under their skin. Every time the news came on the radio, they switched it to music.”

The first person to really introduce herself to Vivien is a young girl — healthy, so she won’t be in Vivien’s class — named Mary. Mary’s mother works at the sanitorium, and Mary is boisterous and happy to welcome Vivien. Mary introduces Vivien to her new boss, the doctor, Alister Fox. As they talk, Vivien quickly figures out that Fox is “the sort of person who posed questions that were traps for you to fall into.”

Munro allows us to settle into this community, and we aren’t sure exactly where this will all go. But, as usual in a sudden and perfect transition, Vivien is on her way to dinner with Dr. Fox. We know it means something to Vivien because she chooses to miss Mary’s play in order to subject herself to Dr. Fox’s superiority and condescension — or is that just the way he flirts (reminding me of the despicable Count Alexei Alexandrovich Karenin).

Why does she allow Dr. Fox into her life? She knows how he is, but she can’t deny a desire to be with him. There are some explanations — “My stock had risen. Whatever else I was, at least I might turn out to be a woman with a man.” But even this doesn’t seem to answer the question completely.

Anyway, Munro continues to move the story forward quickly, again, taking time to develop small moments (it’s heartbreaking when Mary comes to perform her play while Vivien and Dr. Fox are having another dinner together), and the seemingly large moments are passed by quickly, as if Vivien doesn’t want to dwell on them, either because they don’t matter (which is quite possible) or because the pain is slightly more intimate.

I don’t want to give much more away, but if the sunlight outside is too strong and you’re feeling a bit hot in this late summer weather, I can promise this story will cool you down.

23 thoughts on “Alice Munro: “Amundsen””

  1. Alice just won’t stop, will she? Her collection Too Much Happiness was supposed to be her “writing farewell” — but there is another collection scheduled for release this fall (Dear Life, dated for Nov. in the U.S.) which I am sure includes this one and the other frequent New Yorker recent stories.

  2. Jon says:

    Wow–that was quite a story. I thought the opening was really masterful–the way in which Ms. Hyde slowly reveals herself to us and the scene is set for her entering the “raw” (repeated twice) wilderness of Amundsen.

    On first reading, I found it hard to register much beyond the incredible sadness of it all. Then, I appreciated the almost mythical nature of the story–city girl enters raw world where people are constantly dealing with life and death, and scorn her for indulging in observing the natural beauty. Then she gets ensnared by the Fox (anyone know if there’s some fable involving a “Hyde/Hide” and a fox?).

    Mary’s an interesting character. Mr. Fox seemed to pay extra special attention to her when her friend was alive, and her attitude toward loss of her childhood friend (and later humiliations at Mr. Fox’s and in loosing the Basketball game) are nice foils.

    Other than that, in terms of style, I can’t remember Munro every writing lines like this in the past:

    “Not yet. A little while yet. Not yet do I hear his voice for the last time. Not yet.”

    Striking.

  3. Lee Monks says:

    There surely can’t be anyone alive to rival Munro at the short form. Too Much Happiness was, at times, pretty scarily good.

  4. Dave Thom says:

    Really enjoyed the story. I’ll bet a Tim Hortons double-double that this is loosely based on the former Muskoka Sanatorium in Gravenhurst, Ontario. A haunting place (and still in ruins today — http://www.flickr.com/photos/martinreis/sets/72157625186934008/

  5. Trevor says:

    I am with Jon on this one, a great story, and that line you quote is striking. Munro does invert sentences every once in a while, but there it worked so well, and the repetition bookending the inversion just solidified it.

    I also think I’m with Lee; is there anyone as great at the short story today? I love Deborah Eisenberg and Lydia Davis, but I think Munro is up a notch in my book.

  6. Trevor says:

    Dave, those are some haunting pictures. They fit nicely with the story. Thanks for sharing!

  7. Lee Monks says:

    Trevor: you happen to mention Eisenberg and Davis. Both great. I think I’d take Davis’ Collected Stories over pretty much anyone’s collected short fiction, Munro aside. Maile Meloy as has often been mentioned is also exceptional – why are the men lagging behind? I think David Means is fantastic and there are others near that level but the top 4 places are clearly occupied by the ladies. Interesting.

  8. Trevor says:

    I’m glad you brought up David Means, Lee, because I was just reading an interesting post about him last night on a blog I just found for the first time, Charles E. May’s Reading the Short Story.

    There May says something I’ve been trying to say for a long time when discussing short stories and, in particular, Alice Munro:

    what happens is not as important as what it signifies

    That says a lot about what I consider to be the most sucessful short story writers. It’s something I think novelists posing as short story writers, or excerpts posing as short stories, don’t get.

    As for the idea that women dominate the short story right now, I agree, and I’m ashamed I didn’t mention Meloy in my comment yesterday, as she is someone I’ve been trying to push on to people since I first read her.

  9. Trevor says:

    So, male short story writers (living) of the caliber we are talking about when we’re talking about Alice Munro, Deborah Eisenberg, Lydia Davis, and Maile Meloy.

    If I’d have thought of him yesterday, I’d never have left him off the list: Steven Millhauser. He’s in their circle. I’m also a fan of Tobias Wolff and Thomas McGuane. I once would have said George Saunders, but in the last few years I’ve lost a lot of excitement there.

    Lee (and anyone else interested), I’m going to set up a thread on my new forum to discuss this a bit there too, if you’re interested in coming over and adding there. Of coures, you’re welcome to sit down right here and continue. You can follow this link to get to the main page, and the thread will be set up in the Short Stories section under Authors.

  10. Shelley says:

    As a writer, I find that detail about switching the radio from news to music to be most telling. In a nutshell, it’s the problem we have today with getting people involved with politics: personal economic life has become so painful that it’s hard to make that leap to trying to fix the larger picture.

  11. Jon says:

    Trevor,

    I’m interested in the question you raise in your OP about why our Heroine agrees to dinner with Mr. Fox in spite of her negative impressions of him. There’s this after incident with Mary:

    “He had been brutal. It shocked me that he had been so brutal. To one so much in need. But he had done it for me, in a way. .. This thought flattered me, and I was ashamed that it flattered me.”

    Early in the story, Vivien is tempted to steal some fruit (which she rationalizes was probably already stolen), and though she feels protective of Mary, she goes against her promise to her regarding the play and formulates a lie to tell. (And later lies to her about why she’s on the train.) And she casually lies to Mr. Fox about having a boyfriend (and actually seems pretty practiced at it.)

    I find all this interesting. One one level she’s tempted by fruit and (Mr.) Fox to perhaps go against her better nature. On another level, what do we really know about Vivien? This may be obvious, but there’s a well-done tension between naturally wanting to see her as the noble victim / heroine in the events of the story and acknowledging her own initiative in causing events. (After all, she perhaps initiated the real flirtation with Fox by her provocative question to him on Magic Mountain.)

  12. James Gurung says:

    Wonderful story. Just finished reading it. The little jump in time at the end reminded me of Axis, another recent Munro story in the New Yorker.

  13. Jane says:

    There’s a lot in the story to indicate Viviene feels lonely and bored and also conspicuous in the small town where she just doesn’t fit in. An invitation to dinner from an attractive, bookish man wouldn’t be something she could refuse, nor anything that followed. A familiar Munro theme: a young woman, who had previously experienced life through books, discovers how the raw reality of sexuality and love overwhelms the rational, civilized self of normal life.

  14. Trevor says:

    Jon, you raise a good point. She is hardly blameless in the tale she is telling. I also like how we can assume she is fairly naive and inexperienced, as Jane says, but I can’t reconcile this with her feelings for Mr. Fox at the end of the story, and those last words. You’d think after a decade she would feel differently toward him if she was really just going through the motions expected from her at the time.

    I say it is hard to reconcile, but it feels all the more filled with true human nature because of it. I love that as much as we can break down Munro’s stories, they never allow us to shine a light in every corner, keeping their mystery.

  15. Roger says:

    It seemed to me that Vivien fell in love with Dr. Fox, despite his churlishness, because she was moved by how he has dedicated himself to saving the lives of children with TB. Also, from Mary, she learns that Fox can be kind and caring – Mary reveals the boating and swimming outings Fox took Mary and Anabel on. When he visits Vivien’s classroom and clowns with the children, she gets her own glimpse of his capacity for kindness. Even when he snaps at her during that same scene, she abandons her anger after learning that he had just lost a patient in surgery that morning. So her feelings for Fox seemed understandable to me, which made her heartbreak poignant.

  16. Paul Monsky says:

    Reddy Fox brings to mind the doctor father in “Before the Change”, a Munro story
    that moved me to tears.

  17. Gloucester says:

    Great blog! As Roger suggests, one of the many unexplained things are the signs that Fox once served as a sort of surrogate father for Annabel (and Mary, too?). Things changed, it seems, after Annabel really began to deteriorate, so we can imagine that this is a painful memory for both Fox and Mary. This may explain Mary’s unwillingness to tell the narrator who Annabel was and Fox’s subsequent moves to push Mary away.

    Doctors and teachers are an interesting pairing here, since their roles entail lots of closeness with the children, yet they are not parents and have to maintain some distance, especially when the children’s health is so fragile. Also, Fox and Vivien’s relationship prevents them from giving Mary the attention she’s seeking, and the manner of their break-up prevents Vivien from saying goodbye to her students.

  18. jerry says:

    I had been a bit disappointed in some of her recent stories in TNY but this is as good as anything she has ever published. Amazing story

  19. Aaron says:

    Trevor, in your August 24th comment, you hit on the issue I had with this story — not that it isn’t well-written, mind you, but that it isn’t what I’d wanted it to be (as I write about here: http://bit.ly/WEhJdf). There’s a voice issue that I can’t get past, in the way in which you’d think she could reconcile the past (since she’s a decade older now) with the experience she now has. Instead, the story just chalks it — and all the inventive stuff about the sanitarium’s imaginary school — up to the nature of love, which compels us in inexplicable ways. “The heart wants what the heart wants,” and all.

    In my mind, I give Munro all the credit in the world for helping me to understand HOW Vivien could fall for someone as economical and austere and Dr. Fox (especially since she’s a reader, who must fantasize about things far less mundane) — Jon’s comment hits the nail on the head. And yet, I don’t agree that there’s no “big moments” in this, when there’s a entire tense shift for two of the last three sections, one that exaggerates what’s going on in Vivien’s head during the aborted marriage sequence. Why not write the whole story in that voice? Why call that portion out more than it already is?

    I know I’m very late to the table with my thoughts on this one, but MY heart can’t help what IT feels.

  20. Betsy says:

    Munro’s locale shares a name with Amundsen, the explorer who raced to both the Arctic Poles. Vivien Hyde is also an explorer in a cold country, and to this reader, she feels, from the start, cold, cold, cold.

    How does Munro do it? In the first paragraph of the story, Vivien is waiting at the station to pick up the last train to the “San”. We are almost completely confused about why she is where she is – which is perhaps a clue to her psychology. She is not thinking about the children she will teach, not able to name a fear, or even a wariness about entering a tubercular environment, not interested in what she is actually doing – committing herself to teach dying children..

    Instead, she notices that she can actually smell what the woman at the end of the bench was carrying – “Meat – raw meat.”

    Later, on a date at the doctor’s house, she engages Fox in a discussion of lung dissections. While Fox is fixing dinner for her, she doesn’t notice the pleasant smell of food cooking. Instead, she “watch[ed] him cooking at the stove. His easy concentration, economical movements, setting up in [her] a procession of sparks and chills.” She drinks in his power.

    At their “wedding” lunch, Vivien notices the cold plates, the lack of music, and the “stringy chicken”, and she reads his mind – that he is thinking they could have done better at the other place. Or is she putting words in his mouth? Can she read her mind – the cold plates, the stringy chicken, the criticism.

    On my first reading, I thought that Fox was perhaps engaged in a serial seduction, and that Vivien was not the first teacher to be put on the train back to Toronto. Rereading it now, several months later, I wonder if it can just as easily be read that the mistake would have been for Fox to actually marry Vivien – whose first name uneasily reminds me of vivisection, and whose last name, Hyde, reminds me of flaying.

    At story’s end, the snapshot we get of her marriage is of her being in the midst of a “dragged out row” with her husband. Perhaps Fox had not made a mistake.

    The fact that she doesn’t teach as he suggested – with music and stories and art – but in direct opposition – with games – is the most proof that their marriage might have been a mistake.

    But it is he who is brutal, is it not? Munro does make the point that things are not always as they seem. In fact, Fox stops Mary/Buttercup before she can sing the Gilbert and Sullivan words – “White milk masquerades as cream.” (That story being about babies switched at birth.) Not everything is as it seems, suggests Munro.

    After all, it is Vivien, almost at the outset, who notices that birch trees are actually not white, but “Grayish yellow, grayish blue, gray.” And, right at the beginning, we learn that she is wearing a collar that is intended to look like “Persian lamb.” But, “Actually, it’s an imitation.” More layers of actuality.

    What further makes me doubt Vivien is that it is she who is the narrator…making the puzzle all the more interesting if it is she who is trying to tell one story and we who are actually hearing a very different story.

    But cold, cold, cold? What convinces me of her Arctic nature is her complete lack of feeling regarding the children who die. For her, they have no name, no drems, no talents, no life, no past, no mourned future. She says, of “the children whose absences were to be prolonged” that the other children erased their names from the blackboard, “without a mention”.

    Perhaps her cold territory was something Fox needed, for a while, the way Amundsen need the Arctic.

    Perhaps, Vivien, with her ability to smell raw meat, had a kind of brutality herself – one that Fox, surrounded by death, wanted to try on for a while.

    But the story is ambiguous. One could also argue otherwise.

  21. Mary Charron says:

    Am I the only one who wonders if Anabel may have been Fox’s daughter?

  22. Trevor says:

    I think so, Mary, and I don’t remember seeing anything that suggested such a possibility. That said, it’s been a while since I read this story, so could you elaborate and explain the basis for that possibility?

  23. Mary Charron says:

    Merely a hunch Trevor. Mary describes a very playful Reddy when Anabel was alive, yet that’s certainly not the side of him we see in this story; quite the opposite, as if that part of him has died? We were left wondering if Fox didn’t have a predatory history; he was quite ‘prepared’ when he and Vivien had sex the 1st time. I just wondered if he’d been less careful in the past perhaps?

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