William Wordsworth’s “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, On Revisiting the Banks of the Wye During a Tour. July 13, 1798” (sheesh, we should all just call this exactly what we always do: “Tintern Abbey”), the poet famously returns to a place he’d last seen five years earlier. All seems the same — “again I hear/These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs/With a soft inland murmur” — time may as well have not passed. But, of course, it has, and the poet is a different man, a man who has often, while away, reflected back on this scenery while in “lonely rooms” and “‘mid the din/Of towns and cities.” It’s a fascinating phenomenon, revisiting a place one has reflected upon so often, perhaps embellishing in the process.
And what if you are visiting a place for the first time, but a place that has a similar effect, having been such a place for a spouse who would reflect openly about pleasant times somewhere far away, “On that best portion of a good man’s life,” where you were not? Such is the general set up of Munro’s lovely “Hold Me Fast, Don’t Let Me Pass.”
Hazel Curtis is a widow in her 50s. When the story begins, she has left her home in Walley, Ontario, and finds herself in Scotland, sitting in the Royal Hotel. She has never been here, but she’s often thought of visiting. When he was in the war, her husband, Jack, spent some time in this area, living with his cousin, Margaret Dobie. It was a wonderful time in Jack’s life, to the extent that it plays a part in his growing resentment of pacifists later in life. One particularly aspect of this time that continues to give Jack joy is his relationship with the young daughter of the proprietor of the Royal Hotel, Antoinette.
Jack talked about her in front of Hazel and to Hazel as easily as if he had known her not just in another country but in another world. Your Blond Bundle, Hazel used to call her. She imagined Antoinette wearing some sort of woolly pastel sleeper outfit, and she thought that she would have had silky, babyish hair, a soft, bruised mouth.
For years, since she married Jack, Hazel has heard about this place, this time, this girl, and has been something that has affected her life in “lonely rooms,” albeit not as a source of peace and comfort. And so she has come to see what lies underneath her made-up memories of this place. Much to her surprise, though time has passed, the people are still there, including Antoinette. In her attempt to recover her husband’s past, to become a part of this past, even, Hazel got more than she bargained for.
The problem was just the opposite of what she had expected. It was not that people had moved away and the buildings were gone and had left no trace. Just the opposite. The very first person that she had spoken to that afternoon had been Antoinette.
At the same time, this is Hazel’s own life, and she is about to create her own impression of the place. This leads to a rewriting of everything she thought she knew about this place, but also much of what she thought she knew about Jack.
And not just Jack. Hazel herself has attempted to hide from some things in her own life. There are secrets and attempts to uncover those secrets throughout “Hold Me Fast, Don’t Let Me Pass,” suggesting just how aspirational that title is. It’s a complex yet warm story.
The New Yorker apparently passed on “Hold Me Fast, Don’t Let Me Pass,” Alice Munro’s fourth story in Friend of My Youth. I am guessing that the entertainment quotient in “Hold Me” was not quite The New Yorker’s dark cup of tea. For one thing, the indomitable Hazel is unsinkable; as is Margaret Dobie, the old lady she meets in Scotland; as is Antoinette, Hazel’s husband’s old girl-friend; and as is the flame haired Judy, the red herring in the whole business.
Another reason The New Yorker may have passed on the story is its element of farce, with all the characters playing a chess game of withholding and lies. Their stubborn silences are maddening, and in the end, the mysteries are mostly unanswerable. A ballad is recited not once, but twice, and as it suggests, nothing in this story is easily held fast. But there is a delicious quality to the whole thing. I loved reading it and loved re-reading it.
Like many Munro stories, “Hold Me Fast” is a lot of stories all strung together, but there’s a looseness to it that frustrates. Nonetheless, I loved it. But I’m Scottish, and I like a determined woman. Also, the recitations remind me of sitting on the front porch in West Virginia, listening to my grandmother, who also did “recitations.”
Hazel is in her fifties, a widow with three grown children. She’s a sensible biology teacher, self-directed and determined, traveling alone and taking notes as she goes. She’s in Scotland on a quest. We gradually realize she wants to see for herself the people her husband Jack talked about, the people he met while on leave so many years ago in Scotland. Jack had been a handsome bomber pilot who flew 50 missions in World War II. Maybe somebody will appear who knew him. Maybe they will tell her about him, she thinks. Maybe they will satisfy some unanswered questions that she has.
The irony is that when she finally meets two people who knew Jack, after all these years, they weren’t hard to find, and it’s clear they did know Jack, but they’re not talking.
From the beginning, it’s not clear to Hazel exactly what she’s doing. The story opens with a note she’s taken in her journal about Selkirk, the Scottish town she’s visiting. She thinks the word “lilac” is not quite right to describe the colors on the hills. But “[s]he didn’t know what to write in its place.” Truth in this story is hard won. Things keep shifting.
Hazel herself is feeling a bit of “panic.” She wonders: “It had to do with a falling off of purpose and the question why am I here?”
She thinks she’s there to pay a visit on a relative of Jack’s, Margaret Dobie, whom he stayed with when he was on leave. She also thinks she’s there, the reader deduces after much difficulty, to find Antoinette, the 16-year-old Scottish “Blond Bundle” that Jack couldn’t stop talking about. But once Hazel finds her, she doesn’t know what to do with her. Antoinette denies she’d ever met Jack, although the reader is quite suspicious of Antoinette’s story that she’d had a husband in England who disappeared.
When Hazel finally finds Miss Dobie, Margaret also denies that she ever knew Jack. The reader begins to realize that handsome Jack had had three women who loved him, none of whom could hold him, none of whom would spill their secrets.
The reader gets all tangled up in the unanswered questions in the story, just as Hazel does, so that it would be easy to miss where we end up. One of the unanswered questions is just why Hazel suddenly had a nervous breakdown after she’d been married for fifteen years. Hazel had stayed in bed for three months, and then, when she decided to get up, everything was different. After three months in bed, she was done with “a part of herself” and she admits that part of what she’s done with is Jack. But just like anybody, she double-thinks that. At the time, “she doesn’t think that any abandonment had to be permanent.”
(I want to note here Munro’s ideals regarding psychology. Hazel’s self-treatment is Munro’s preference. She doesn’t hold a lot of truck for psychological theory, psychologists, or therapy. See “Dulse” in The Moons of Jupiter, in which therapy fails and it is experience, and experience only, that heals the ailing poetess.)
Although Hazel gets out of bed and applies to college, what Hazel doesn’t tell us is why she’s done with Jack. Yes, we know he treats her intelligence as “a kind of a joke,” and yes, we know he talks foolishly to Hazel about the beauteous Antoinette. But we know that Hazel was swept away by Jack, and that their sex-life was good, and that looking at him, she could be, as a young wife, swept away by desire. We know that she is still troubled by her deep attraction to him. What drove Hazel to her bed for three months fifteen years into their marriage? Was it just Antoinette?
Hazel herself doesn’t seem to know or want to admit.
The story diverts itself and us with Dudley, an attractive Scottish man who himself has a secret or two, and who is assigned the role, both by Antoinette and Munro, to entertain Hazel and draw her out. In the course of several days, Dudley has numerous drinks with Hazel, and we discover that Dudley himself is the impossible object of love of two women, and by his nature, we notice that Hazel, in her black velvet pants and ivory silk shirt, is also the object of his interest. So we know Hazel is still attractive, despite the fact that Hazel says she had stopped prettifying herself.
Where this shaggy dog story finally ends up is this: Hazel realizes that the thing that happened to Jack in World War II wasn’t Antoinette (although he may have happened to her), wasn’t his second cousin Margaret (although he may have happened to her as well). We also realize that the thing that happened to Jack was not that Hazel stopped taking care of herself, although Hazel wonders about that.
It’s that World War II happened to Jack, with all its grandeur and all its brotherhood, all its adventures, and all its intensity. And ultimately, what happened to Jack was the immensity of war: its death, confusion, and mystery. By the time of Hazel’s breakdown, Jack had become a shell. Hazel glimpses him once at his store.
All she saw was the stillness about him, a look you could have called ghostly.
I’ve seen that look. Maybe you have, too. What happened was he gradually killed himself off, at the pace of three or four drinks a night.
So what Hazel went to Scotland to find was not why he seemed to pine for Antoinette or Margaret Dobie. What Hazel went to Scotland to find was not what they knew about Jack, or whether they could explain him. What she’d gone to find was this surety: that it was the war that had killed him, not really his desire for Antoinette, not the homeland, and not the fact Hazel’d lost her beauty.
If you survive it, nothing can match the intensity of war. Just read Tim O’Brien. Just read Sebastian Junger. What is life after war?
“Meanwhile, what makes a man happy?” is the penultimate line. Something different, thinks Hazel, than what makes women happy.
I am reminded of the William Carlos Williams poem, “Marriage”:
So different, this man
And this woman:
A stream flowing
In a field.
I think Williams is on Munro’s mind about this time. The last story, “Meneseteung” has a group of boys tormenting an old woman, carting her about in a wheelbarrow and dumping her in a ditch. Almeda dreams of the wheelbarrow. It is so pointed and troubling, this image of a wheelbarrow. There, in “Menesteung,” Munro seemed to be arguing with the possibly misogynistic Williams. But here, Munro seems to be agreeing with him.
As for the Ballad of Tam Lin, the ballad the old Margaret Dobie recites and the one Dudley takes up as well, there is a great essay in the Cambridge Companion to Alice Munro by Heliane Ventura entitled “The Female Bard: Myths, Ballads, Sagas and Songs.” Ventura explores, with some erudition, this later turn in Munro’s work toward ballads and sagas.
As for Munro herself and the overall complexity of her stories? The reader is often perplexed, liked Hazel. Just where am I going with this? Just what is going on here? Is it erudition? Is it showing off? Is it faddy New Yorker dismalities? Or is it a mind working at full throttle, all systems go all at the same time in an immensely complicated, integrated whole, like a huge rumbling rocket poised on the launchpad and you’re the passenger?
I think, the latter.
And I think the best approach is to let the stories gradually sink in. Each story has fully realized people, fully realized places, fully realized forces, fully realized elements, all connected in a vast web, every thread singing, every thread in contact with every other thread. Her stories are not really stories, in any slight sense. They are more compressed novels than mere stories, more very long modern poems than stories, more diamond than coal, more myth than not. There are worlds in her work, and it takes time for Munro’s elaborated and four dimensional meanings to dawn.
But of course, she being so complex, what she means to me may not be what she means to you.
Ultimately, even if you are a woman strong enough to make the choice to lead a self-determined life, strong enough to advise other women to do the same, not everything will become clear to you. Some stories, some people, are a locked room mystery. But the investigations you make may lead you closer to what are not the answers, but to a more accurate sense as to what the real mysteries of life actually are.
And as for that Scottish ballad? In it, a man possessed by fairies begs his lover to hold him fast, no matter the changes the fairies wreak in him, no matter if he transubstantiates from man to snake to lion to esk (which is a name for a Scottish river). In fact, Munro suggests, you cannot really hold a man fast, can’t really understand him, as Williams says. It’s like a field attempting to understand a river.