The last story we covered in Alice Munro’s The Beggar Maid was titled “Providence” (you can read our thoughts here); this one is called “Simon’s Luck,” bringing to mind yet another force that, along with fate, choice, and manipulation, has some bearing on which direction our lives go. It’s a good time to stop and think about those forces, as Rose, for the last few stories, has been out on the sea, relatively alone and without mooring. After she ended her marriage to Patrick, she left for the unknown, unsure where she was going to land, what she was going to do. Time kept passing, carrying her forward whether she had footing or not. I’ve commented on the meandering feeling to those stories (which I still consider a weakness), and some of that feeling continues in “Simon’s Luck.” Rose is still trying to answer the question: Who do you think you are?
Interestingly, while Rose is finding her way to some degree of establishment when the story begins, she is an actress, a job that helps keep her identity rather fluid: “she can fit in anywhere.” Established doesn’t mean financially successful, though. To make ends meet, she is teaching at a community college where she sometimes attends gatherings with other professors and has to make some connections with students. She does not belong in this world any more than she belonged in Patrick’s. But that’s where she finds herself.
At one particular gathering meant to be restricted from students, Rose attempts to get along with others by telling amusing, if not completely true, stories about her life. She’s being the actress again; at her core she is uncomfortable and uncertain. When she ends is verbally assaulted by a former student who is apparently disgruntled because he didn’t get a position he wanted and assumes Rose is the reason, though she probably isn’t. This altercation only takes a moment, but Rose is deeply embarrassed.
A man she never knew, Simon, steps in and escorts the student, who should not have even been there, away and, because he and Rose talk a bit, steps into Rose’s life for the weekend. From conversations about the suicide of female artists that Rose had at the party, we go to conversations about plants and gardens. Simon is an unexpected, and very welcome, safe harbor:
It’s good that you’re here . . . otherwise I’d be spending my time thinking about that boy. I’d be trying not to, but it would keep coming at me. In unprotected moments. I would have been in a state of humiliation.
The boy, however, is not the root of Rose’s general state of humiliation. Simon, it seems, may provide lasting relief for much of Rose’s pain. He himself has lived through a great deal of pain, and it is lucky he’s even alive. When Rose learns a bit more about his luck, she remarks that it was luck only for him. Other victims were not so fortunate. But she does feel lucy to have found Simon, as sudden and unexpected as their encounter has been. When the weekend ends, Simon returns to his home, and there are excited words about when they will meet again and continue to work on the garden.
In some of the strongest pages we’ve gotten since the earlier stories in The Beggar Maid, we watch Rose become increasingly agitated as she waits for Simon to call. She is infatuated, and we all know how awful time can be when we are agitated with expectations arising from infatuation:
Soon it was midnight. The rain came down hard. The next time she looked it was twenty to two. How could empty time pass so quickly? She put out the lights because she didn’t want to be caught sitting up. She undressed, but couldn’t lie down on the fresh sheets. She sat on in the kitchen, in the dark. From time to time she made fresh tea. Some light from the street light at the corner came into the room.
And the sense of umooring returns:
She could see that light, a bit of the store, the church steps across the road. The church no longer served the discreet and respectable Protestant sect that had built it, but proclaimed itself a Temple of Nazareth, also a Holiness Center, whatever that might be. Things were more askew here than Rose had noticed before. No retired farmers lived in these houses; in fact there were no farms to retire from, just the poor fields covered with juniper. People worked thirty or forty miles away, in factories, in the Provincial Hospital, or they didn’t work at all, they lived a mysterious life on the borders of criminality or a life of orderly craziness in the shade of the Holiness Center.
She thinks of herself as one of the desperate:
And this was a situation she had created, she had done it all herself, it seemed she never learned any lessons at all. She had turned Simon into the peg on which her hopes were hung and she could never manage now to turn him back into himself.
He does not call. And we are ushered into another period of waiting, “for which the weekend would have been only a casual trial run, a haphazard introduction to the serious, commonplace, miserable ritual.” There is no communication again. The promise of that garden looks more like a curse. Munro perhaps even overemphasizes this by having the sunlight she’d frequently remarked upon earlier turn into rain. When Rose finally cannot stand it again, she packs up and leaves everything, including her job mid-term. She says she got a better job on the west coast.
And she does, luckily. She also learns some time later that Simon died of cancer. As unlikely as one would have thought her earlier fears he wasn’t calling because he was dying in a hospital bed, this was probably the case. Simon’s luck had run out. Rose’s good fortune turned out to lead her to another period of loss, though at least she has a better job than she did before.
The question of suicide looms over this piece, threatening to strike Rose as a viable option, though it never quite does. Rose continues to run, looking for something solid, feeling, it seems, the whole time like she’s far away. Again, as a reader, I feel the same way. So wonderfully has Munro established Rose’s childhood in Hanratty, her relationship with the miserable Flo, that as awful as that past has been, it still feels right. We’ll return there, finally, in the next piece.
“Simon’s Luck” continues the theme of happenstance in life. Rose, in the depths of despair over losing a man who could have been “the man for [her] life,” runs away from the man, her work, and the whole east coast. Ironically, it is this run that lands her the part that is “the best job she ever had.”
Out there in British Columbia, where Rose has finally become an established actress, “a word everybody was using was fragile.” Rose exclaims that in fact the word doesn’t apply to her, now. She’s now made of “horsehide.”
Maybe. But the story is also about how fragile Rose is, how fragile life is. A cat dies in a dryer; a man dies of cancer; Jewish children flee Poland and then try to flee France, barely escaping the French and German authorities. Chance is a theme. Rose may be successful, but her seventeen-year-old daughter is “remote” and “unforthcoming,” the girl treats her mother to “silences.”
Given the difficult chanciness of life, its “disarrangements” and its “predictable disasters,” it’s no surprise that Rose runs into a woman at a party who is writing a book on women and suicide, or, to be specific, “the suicide of female artists.” She goes on and lists the evidence: “Diane Arbus, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Christiane Pflug.”
While the narrative concerns itself with Rose’s brief affair with Simon, the pulse of the story has more to do with the fragile state of the woman artist. Rose is underpaid because she doesn’t have the proper degrees; she is loudly insulted and unfairly humiliated at a party by a former student; she is often alone, probably because she is a single woman pursuing a career; she has a tendency to ruminate to ill-effect, essentially running herself down until she is run-over. She has happenstance friends, friends who are, for instance, also fortune tellers on the side, and she is given to bouts of drinking (“not so very much, but steadily”) when things do not go well.
Suicide is never far from the reader’s mind with Rose. As a child, the royal beating her father gave her makes her think of using suicide as a way to punish him. During her ill-advised marriage to Patrick, she (half-heartedly) slits her wrists. In this story, Rose commits career suicide by running off from her teaching job in the middle of the semester.
In fact, though, by luck, Rose is an actress. With her, suicide is more of a gesture whose effects and drama she wishes to observe and perhaps enjoy. In this case, it is ironically the career suicide that gives her the big chance.
Chance. Munro is interesting in that at a time when psychoanalysis was still the rage, Rose is not portrayed as the victim of a Freudian plot or Freudian culture or the lack of Freudian therapy. She is merely the victim of life, its happenstance and its providence and its predictable disasters. Simon’s luck was to evade the Germans but get hit by cancer; Rose’s luck was to be born a poor woman but get a big chance when she chose to run away. The issue is not victimization. Life is naturally victimizing. The issue is choice.
The issue is also that running away is not always bad. Sometimes it is survival.
Munro’s own success appears to be, on the surface, due to steady work. Perhaps she is telling us that artistic success is also due to doing the very thing that looks like suicide, but which, in fact, saves your life. Having jettisoned the past, you can finally get on with your future.
That is not to say Munro does not observe the truth of things:
The host appeared in a velvet jumpsuit . . . only three years younger than Rose but look at him. He had shed a wife, a family, a house, a discouraging future, set himself up with new clothes and new furniture and a succession of student mistresses. Men can do it.
Careers, art, marriage, and wealth: they are all easier to manage if you are a man.
There is a comic vein in Munro, a wicked wit, a sense of the proper uses of ridicule, and the enjoyment of both. Suicide is a fact — people do do it — but that country sensibility (that lucky ability to deprecate yourself, that personal inclination to say you’ve developed horsehide, or maybe just honesty or its partner, humility), may be the lucky chance that helps you survive.
Ironically, with all this talk of suicide, Rose’s TV series features a young woman who is threatening to throw herself into the sea because she is pregnant. But that doesn’t happen.
People watching trusted that they would be protected from predictable disasters, also from shifts of emphasis that throw the story line open to question, the disarrangements which demand new judgments and solutions, and throw the windows open on unforgettable scenery.
Anyone reading The Beggar Maid does so without a life jacket. There are no guarantees in Munro. The reader is not protected from predictable disasters. Rose’s life has required new judgments of her and new solutions. Some scenes trouble the reader long after the play has been over, such as the royal beating, or the turds frozen in the snow, or the rape with a stick, or the sight of Rose, possibly drunk, pulling up grass out of the yard in the middle of the night, or the vision of Anna eating Captain Crunch for dinner in front of the TV while Rose is busy working, or possibly busy trying to figure out how to meet her married lover.
Simon, the classics professor, says he never saw the children again with whom he fled the French pogrom. Rose intimates that they died; he laughs when she says it was “lucky only for you.” He laughs because it’s true, because it’s comic, because, “that’s life,” in a sense. Rose never saw Simon again. Cancer of the pancreas. That’s life.
People in the 60s and 70s did dramatic things for art, like kill themselves: Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton. Not Rose. Not Munro.
Post Script: Trains continually figure in Munro as a trope for escape. Here, Simon escapes the Germans on a train. Elsewhere, women flee difficult marriages on a train, meet strangers, indulge fantasies, and have dangerous sex. Men flee themselves. They pretend to be who they aren’t; one actually jumps off a train that’s heading home. Trains allow Munro to encapsulate that sense we have (right or wrong) that we can make a run for it when we’ve made hash of things or life has become, for whatever reason, a prison. It’s not a pretty sight — that train ride, that run for the money, so to speak — but sometimes it works. Trains (and all escapes) provide that necessary steam valve for choice and self-determination.
At the same time, however, there’s an element of luck. You might make it. You might not.