The title character in Munro’s “The Albanian Virgin” is neither Albanian nor a virgin. At one point, she assumes the role of an Albanian man. And, we learn after her introduction, she is actually a fictional character in a story within the story. Indeed, she’s the fictional character in a story being told to our narrator by another woman. Such is the complexity of Munro’s later work. Yet the layers fit together wonderfully. The themes and structure may be complex, but reading it is far from a chore.
The story begins with this story-within-the-story. We step back into Albania in the 1920s to meet a Canadian woman who will be the Albanian virgin. We never know the real name of this woman. When she says it to the Ghegs, they don’t quite understand and call her Lotar. That’s who she is to us as well. She’s with the Ghegs by accident. While she was out on a guided tour of the olive trees, they killed her guide (the guide had killed someone from their group some time before, and he would, in turn, be avenged later). The Ghegs never meant to be burdened with this Canadian woman, but her horse gets spooked and she gets injured. They take her to nurse her back to health.
As I mentioned above, this is how Munro opens the story, but this is actually several layers removed from our narrator, a woman named Claire: “I heard this story in the old St. Joseph’s Hospital in Victoria from Charlotte, who was the sort of friend I had in my early days there.” As is often the case in Munro’s stories, there is another, invisible layer between the action of the story and the narration: some time has passed since Claire heard this story, and she is now returning to it to examine some other parts of her life. Even before she moved to Victoria, Claire had been a Ph.D. student in London, working on thesis about Mary Shelley’s late works, written after “she learned her sad lessons,” and perhaps Claire has learned some more sad lessons as she thinks back on this time in her life.
And quite a time it was, too. A string of sad events, in which Claire played an integral part, Claire is abandoned by her husband and in turn abandons her studies to move to Victoria to start a bookstore.
For her part, Charlotte (doesn’t that sound like a name that could be mistaken for Lotar? maybe?) and her husband handle books. They meet Claire at Claire’s store. Claire attends their home for dinner. Charlotte hopes this story she’s telling Claire can be turned into a successful film.
And so the story goes, back and forth between the past and the deeper past, between fiction and reality, breaking down the barriers between all of these planes to show just how much they influence one another.
Those are not the only barriers being explored or broken through. Each of the women have roles to play. Roles based on gender: Lotar, after all, to avoid being sold into marriage, publicly renounces sex to become a virgin, meaning she could live as an equal with the men: carry a weapon, participate in a blood feud, be served by women, even own and inherit land (but who to pass that land onto?), though she must wear men’s clothes and keep her hair shaved and never go back on her vow. No one thinks she is actually a man, but functionally she is because sex has been taken out of the equation. Sex was the factor that would have lowered her social station.
From one angle, this may look liberating. A woman treated as an equal to the males in a distinctly patriarchal and patrilineal society. What an escape! However, from another, it’s clear this is not true equality. The woman must renounce sex and adopt another, entirely constructed role. This is another prison with no real escape. The motivation for doing such a thing was to escape a variety of fates directed at women. But being a sworn virgin is, itself, another fate solely for women.
This is a fascinating — and real — social construct in Albania (though one that plays out less frequently today). It’s also a fascinating link to the story of Charlotte and, through her, to the story of Claire, herself seeking some kind of fulfillment in a world of damaging social constructs and expectations.
Fitting that this is done in a story that thwarts our expectations so often!
“The Albanian Virgin” is a stunner. There are flights, leaps, and juxtapositions which entertain, dazzle, and confuse, and the no-end-of-speculation regarding what it all means is one of its rewards.
As always, I cannot imagine you being here, reading what paltry ideas I have to peddle about the story if you have not read the story first. To lay eyes unaware on a world in the Munro galaxy is to be both flummoxed and completely diverted. It is a disorientation devoutly to be desired. The disorientation is a leap central to the experience. So read the story first. That’s a moral choice that’s completely on you.
Munro almost always leaves enough gaps to keep the reader busy thinking for hours after the book has been closed; surely she enjoys the possibility that readers might converse and disagree regarding what the story might have meant. There’s been no end of speculation about what Henry James really meant in The Turn of the Screw. Same here. Sometimes I believe that James is a primary touchstone for Munro, and “The Albanian Virgin” mimics, in its own way, the Screw’s ghostly unreality.
Five stories run simultaneously:
- “wracked-up” Claire has fled marriage and graduate work to start up a bookstore in Victoria, all precipitated by an affair she had with a lodger
- Charlotte is a patron/shoplifter in the bookstore whose husband peddles second hand books
- Charlotte has a movie she wants to sell about an American woman who gets kidnapped in the 1920s by an Albanian mountain tribe and who, threatened with being sold into marriage, assumes the life of an Albanian man
- Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein and some later, lesser books which are the subject of Claire’s Ph.D. thesis, provides background and danger
- Will Claire go back to her husband? Will the lodger follow Claire out west? Or neither of the two?
At the same time, “The Albanian Virgin” investigates numerous ideas: can we escape from roles that society has imposed upon us, and in particular, can we escape our assigned gender roles? Can running away ever be good? Is story-telling inherently thievery? And tangentially, what is happiness?
Before I continue with a serious exploration of a serious story, I want to remark on the wicked wit that permeates this piece. First of all, Alice is making the point that getting a Ph.D. is like being kidnapped by Albanians. I could go on and on about the parallels, but I won’t. Second, she is simultaneously making the point that marriage, especially a marriage made way too young, can be like being kidnapped by Albanians. Ditto on how I won’t beat that dead horse. Third, she is remarking on how being a writer sets you up for all kinds of suspicions, accusations, and flip opinions, such as, you’ve used that thing that I told you in confidence, but that thing that happened to me! You’re nothing but a thief rummaging around in my life! Charlotte, the old, unkempt, Bohemian shoplifter clearly portrays a funhouse version of the responsibilities of the writer.
One: A Little Background
Women in mountainous Albanian tribes have for a long time had the right to assume the role of a man. They had only to forswear sex for life in front of twelve tribal elders. As a “Sworn Virgin,” a woman could carry a gun, drink alcohol, smoke cigarettes, own land, and participate in blood feuds. But that list misses the key thing: she did not have to submit to anyone, did not have to be controlled by father or brother or husband or other women or society, and, given that she could carry a gun, did not have to endure being beaten. In Munro’s vernacular, she did not have to surrender.
There is, however, a flip side to being a sworn virgin: the role might not have been a choice; it might have been chosen for her and forced upon her. The family, for example, might not have had a male heir, and they might have assigned this identity to the girl at birth (or later). A Yugoslav movie, Virdzina (1991), explores the plight of such a sworn virgin. The young man/woman falls in love with a man, and her only way out of the role that society has assigned her and the only way to be with the man she loves is to run away. She escapes to the United States with him.
Running away to escape a societal or parental expectation is a common theme in Munro. Running away in Munro involves a lot of breakage and sorrow, but it is seen as a necessary thing, something without which life would be half lived. One can see that Virdzina might have resonated with Munro.
In addition, choices in Munro, especially marriage, are often short-sighted, simultaneously risking disaster as much as freedom. The swapped gender role of the sworn virgin offers a woman heady freedom, but becoming a sworn virgin could also be a trap, in more ways than one.
In much of Munro, the liberation of women in the 60s via the pill and Betty Friedan (America’s Simone de Beauvoir) offered the same simultaneous possibilities: freedom and disaster.
Two: Shedding an Assigned Role
In “The Albanian Virgin” it’s the 20s, and the Ghegs are a mountain tribe who murder a guide and end up being saddled with an injured American woman. Enmeshed in the laws of the blood feud, the Ghegs must retaliate every time one of their own gets killed. A man can be a marked man from birth. A priest explains:
This would go on, it had been going on for a long time now, there were always more sons being born. They [the Ghegs] think they have more sons than other people in the world, and it is to serve this necessity.
These two sentences incorporate the leaps of illogic that are very common in Munro, but more important, they reflect the belief of provincial peoples that custom is incontrovertible, that custom is destiny. Here, the Ghegs believe that their twin blood feud roles of possible killer and possible victim are the permanent situation into which you are, if a man, born stuck.
In contrast, Lottar, the kidnapped American woman, reverses what looks like destiny and escapes. Although she is tangled up with this tribe, Lottar escapes them several times. First, she becomes a sworn virgin, and then she runs away. Situation, for Lottar, is not destiny.
Munro makes clear early in the story that nothing in life is locked in place:
At one time they were on a boat and she woke up and saw the stars, brightening and fading and changing places — unstable clusters that made her sick.
Munro makes clear that “changing places” is a theme, and although we know that stars move, she also emphasizes that it is very unsettling to perceive the stars as “unstable clusters.” Change, especially changing yourself, can be revolutionary, Copernican, and possibly fatal. Of course, that’s me talking about Munro. Munro only says, with her customary understatement, that the “unstable clusters . . . made her sick.”
In the course of Lottar’s stay with the Ghegs, she changes places several times. She recuperates, near death, in a dying house. She becomes first an Albanian woman, and then an Albanian man, entitled to live the good life, entitled to the manly privilege of not a lot of work plus fooling around with horses and guns.
While it would be tempting to see “The Albanian Virgin” solely as a story about assigned gender roles, however, I think it is much more fruitful to see it as a story about assigned roles in general, about submitting to a role you didn’t choose, or more important, about passively accepting a role you didn’t fully understand when you chose it.
Sometimes, changing places is what is required for survival, although changing places can be both difficult and dangerous.
Three: Which is it? Shedding an assigned gender role or shedding a role?
Munro has long exhibited an interest in assigned gender role and whether it can be escaped, especially in her early story “Boys and Girls.” Girls and women sometimes cross-dress and pass as men or boys, as in “The Moon Over the Orange Street Skating Rink” and “The Turkey Season.” One of Munro’s key concerns is the assigned gender requirement of women that they submit or surrender, two words that reappear again and again in the stories. While in Munro surrender is often paradoxically necessary in order for a woman to have an authentic sexual experience, continual surrender to a role assigned by society, marriage, or job is something from which a woman may need to free herself.
In order to avoid being sold into a Muslim marriage, Lottar, according to Albanian custom, switches her assigned gender role to male. It is an amusing and fascinating excursion. As a sworn virgin, Lottar is freed from the endless heavy work assigned to the women and is free to smoke, joke around, and live undisturbed. Even so, treachery appears to be right around the corner: she could still be trafficked into a slave-marriage. Lottar escapes from her role as a sworn virgin, and escapes from Albania altogether, with the help of a priest. Merely switching her assigned gender role was not enough, in the end, to assure Lottar either safety or fulfillment.
Munro repeatedly depicts teenaged girls as having an unabashed joy in their emerging power, a power that gets quickly surrendered or drowned and must be, if one is going to survive, reclaimed later in life. In “The Albanian Virgin,” Lottar tries, like a crazed teenager, to experience Albania. She ends up kidnapped. Similarly, Claire appears to have leapt into both marriage and the academic life unprepared. She must jump the false bonds of both wife and student to thrive. It’s important to remember that at the time, being a Ph.D. candidate was essentially switching gender roles. When you hear what her Ph.D topic is (the later, mostly forgotten, novels of Mary Shelley), and when you hear she is more interested in Shelley’s life than this later fiction, it makes sense that she must escape. For Munro (and for Claire), running a bookstore, talking with whomever you like, and reading as you please is a setting of far greater pleasure and power than being submerged in the narrow demands of the university system.
Being freed of certain gender expectations, therefore, can be liberating, but it’s not the whole story. Being free to reject assigned roles in general is the key.
Four: What is happiness?
Another aspect to assigned roles in “The Albanian Virgin” is that Claire runs from an orderly and nurturing marriage into an electrifying affair. Although she dreams of finding a man who is both fatherly and electrifying, she accepts the truth that this is likely impossible, and she ends up with the electrifying lover. Although Alice is elusive on sex, she counts it as one of the key ways a woman can be “known” or “recognized,” and so good sex is central to a happy life. As for Claire, she chooses good sex. Many years later, she describes her partnership with Nelson as happy enough, and passing “in a sort of a blur.” What is key to the story is that in order to be happy enough, Claire had to slip the assigned roles of university and submission to the wrong husband, and it was not easy.
We have been very happy.
I have often felt completely alone.
There is always in this life something to discover.
Here again, there is the illogic of non-sequitur. How can you be very happy with a partner if you often feel “completely alone”? Maybe it is because being completely alone is the human condition. Maybe it is because in order to be happy, you must be free enough to be sometimes left completely alone. Maybe being often free of interference is a necessity to being happy. Maybe being completely alone leaves you free to pursue your own purposes, for instance, without having to submit or surrender to another person’s assigned role for you.
It’s important to note that Munro won her Nobel Prize from the situation-room of housewife, that presumably self-extinguishing assigned role.
Munro makes it clear that escaping an assigned role is not easy. She runs Lottar’s wild story side by side with Claire’s more ordinary story. Lottar’s wild tale of kidnapping, murder, violence, injury, trafficking and isolation runs like a dream mirror of Claire’s story. Thus Munro makes the point that running away from assigned roles may be necessary, but is not as easy as it looks. Seizing control of your own life is a violent affair, and not a simple thing.
But while Lottar’s story emphasizes switching one’s assigned gender role, I think Munro means to address the freedom to abandon any role assigned by society or by a partner. While it might be fun for a woman to try on being a man, the way a couple of girls do in “The Turkey Season,” surviving your life is not as simple as merely shucking an assigned gender role. Survival is shucking submission to any role you either have not chosen or which does not allow you to thrive.
(I am reminded here of the gorgeous Barbara in “Oranges and Apples,” who required the freedom of the housewife that allowed her to read and read, think and think.)
Finally, there is the issue of money and happiness. For Munro, there is poverty and then there is poverty. Grinding poverty often involves the disorganization, isolation, and suffering that devolves from one or more family members being deranged. “A Queer Streak” is an example. A less profound poorness, one that still allows for reading, family, stories, and sharing — that kind of poverty is not poverty at all. Many women in the 70s embraced the idea of the Ph.D. as a way out of the lack of financial independence, indentured servitude, and general powerlessness of marriage. Claire gives all that up, so far as we know. In contrast, Munro herself has said, “I’ve done housework all my life.” So, to Munro, there is a potential poverty in the academic life that bears no comparison to the potential richness of a good marriage: an alliance that allows for someone the freedom to be, off and on, completely alone.
Five: Ghost Presences in “The Albanian Virgin”
Shelley’s Frankenstein is never mentioned in this story, but its presence is implied. Frankenstein is a mythic tale of misbegotten ambition. Ironically, in Frankenstein, Mary Shelley has Robert Walton say:
[N]othing contributes so much to tranquilize the mind as a steady purpose — a point on which the soul may fix its intellectual eye.
Being married to the wrong man and being devoted to the wrong purpose (such getting a Ph.D. in the novels of Mary Shelley that no one reads and in which you yourself have no interest) are situations that are not tranquil. To get away will take a transformation similar to being captured by a mountain tribe. To get away will take an embrace of danger and recklessness. But get away you must.
Another implied presence in the story is Freud.
Women oppose change, receive passively, and add nothing of their own.
~From Sigmund Freud’s 1925 paper “The Psychical Consequences of the Anatomic Distinction Between the Sexes”
Passivity is one of the key markers in Munro; passivity is a form of insanity. Thus she dismisses Freud. Freud famously remarked that he could not answer the question: What do women want?
Munro’s narrator supplies some answers for Freud: some women want a man who combines fatherly goodness and adolescent sexual power in one lover. Some women want to be free of having to submit to anyone’s assigned purpose for them. Some women want to do men’s work, some women want to do women’s work, and all women want to have a purpose. Charlotte may be a pretender, but at least she has a vision of purpose — she wants her Albanian tale to be made into a movie.
Curiously, when Claire the bookseller is talking about how she loves to set up the books so the subjects slide into one another, she gives these shelves as an example:
Political Science could shade into Philosophy and Philosophy into Religion without a harsh break, so that compatible poets could nestle together, the arrangement of the shelves of books – I believed – reflecting a more or less natural ambling of the mind, in which treasures new and forgotten might be continually surfacing.
Note how Psychology doesn’t appear on these shelves, nor are Psychologists counted among the Poets.
Six: Running Away
There are numerous runaways in this story: Claire, Lottar, Mary Shelley and her sisters, and Charlotte herself, who in the end runs away from the hospital with Gjurdhi. Claire and Nelson talk, later in their marriage, about “starting a new life, somewhere far away, where we don’t know anybody.”
Running away is a perverse theme with Munro — perverse because “running away” is most often associated with moral failing. But with Munro, running away is a necessity required for self-preservation. Three great Munro stories (and others) reflect this: “Runaway,” “To Reach Japan,” and “Train.”
In “The Albanian Virgin,” running away is associated with necessary transformation. After Claire arrives in Vancouver, she admits that she is in a bad way, “underfed and shivering”:
But I was not despondent. I had made a desperate change in my life, and in spite of the regrets I suffered every day, I was proud of that. I felt as if I had finally come out into the world in a new, true skin.
“The Albanian Virgin,” itself a daring high-wire act of extremely complex story-telling, is also a funny riff on the act of story-telling.
For one, there are the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. One of the thrills of “The Albanian Virgin” is that Charlotte may or may not be the real Lottar, but a companion thrill is that Lottar is for sure an alter ego of great significance for Charlotte. Similarly, the attentive reader also knows that many of Munro’s heroines are stand-ins for herself as she explores the meanings, what-ifs, and consequences of choices in her own life. Assuming the guise of someone slightly different (Claire) or very different (Charlotte), in the form of fiction, thus provides not just a therapeutic role, but a philosophic one as well: the attempt to see things from another point of view.
Secondarily, Perkin Warbeck, one of the Mary Shelley novels that Claire is studying, is about a pretender. Munro appears to be interested in what we pretend to be, as opposed to what we really are, when we finally run away and start anew.
Given that identity in Munro wears many hats, so it is with the process of writing. “Fiction,” of necessity, may be from your own life or things you’ve read or heard, although to others your writing may feel like theft, petty or otherwise, and get you banned from certain circles, including your own family. Writing is always a conversation with other writers, be they novelists, philosophers, historians, or philosophers.
Charlotte is the quintessential story-teller, spinning a tale to keep Claire returning to her hospital bed-side like a modern day Scheherazade. But Charlotte is also a bit of a peddler, a bit of a grifter. She and her husband have gotten known as shop-lifters, to the extent that they are banned from certain stores. Charlotte even goes so far as to review other writers, as when she refers to Anais Ninn as “that old fraud!” One can’t help but think, in turn, of Charlotte herself as “that old fraud.” But what an entertaining fraud.
Is writing necessarily a suspect enterprise, stealing as it does from here and there, and even venturing into banned territory?
Munro clearly does research for some her stories: “Axis,” “Lichen,” and “Dulse” are but a few where complex scientific ideas are used as metaphor. Munro archly reveals her research for “The Albanian Virgin”: A Trek through the Black Peaks, High Albania, and Secret Lands of Southern Europe.
And yet, even if the writer is a bit of a shop-lifter, a bit of a peddler, a bit of a fraud, and subject to being “banned in Boston [or Wingham],” you have to admit the story is still wildly entertaining.
Eight: The ideal reader
Charlotte does a riff on reading. She starts out by remarking that she can’t believe that Anais Nin (that “old fraud”) is still on the go. She tells the young bookseller to pay no attention to her presumption, that she’s quite fond of Nin, that it’s Henry Miller she can’t stand:
She went on talking about Henry Miller in a scoffing, energetic, half-affectionate way. She seemed to have been neighbors, at least, with the people she was talking about. Finally, naively, I asked her if this was the case.
“No, no. I just feel I know them all. Not personally. Well — personally, Yes, personally. What other way is there to know them? I mean, I haven’t met them, face to face. But in their books? Surely that’s what they intend? I know them. I know them to the point where they bore me. Just like anybody you know. Don’t you find that?”
Hmmm. How dare Charlotte, that old fraud, perfectly express how I feel about reading and writers? That I love Ernest Hemingway, but now that I know him I’m bored by him? That I feel I know Henry James, know his hesitancies, know his sureties, but am never bored by him? (The key thing being that he changes over time: his concerns deepen or change, and the writing changes, too, the way a real person changes.)
And then, of course, there’s how I feel about Alice. I feel like I am in the presence of a person when I open one of her books. A complex, shimmering person. So Alice is being coy here. Reader, do you think me a fraud? are you bored with me?
And the ideal reader? Someone who doesn’t just skim the surface. Someone who takes the time. Someone who allows the time it takes for things to gel or rise to the surface; someone who allows the story to take life, someone who wants to join in and converse with as much of the story as possible. Someone who assumes that writers are people allowing themselves to be known.
But the ideal reader must be willing to explore, take risks, and endure, like Lottar, injury, as well as the expense of time and danger in strange encounter.
Nine: I have so many reactions to this story. What do I make of all this?
In “Differently,” Georgia’s writing instructor says her stories have:
Too many things. Too many things going on at the same time. Also, too many people. Think, he told her. What do you want us to pay attention to? Think.
But he misses the point. Georgia is actually writing about thinking — how thinking is never about just one thing. Georgia, like Munro, was after the kaleidoscopic shimmer of inter-related forces as the true manner in which we perceive reality. To represent the multiplicity of how we experience any one event, Munro’s necessity is the juxtaposition of the “too many things.” She must juxtapose scenes from radically different times and places. She wants us not only to pay attention to all of the too many things, she wants us to see how these many things interact. She wants the reader to construct the answer, much in the manner of the new novel espoused by Alain Robbe-Grillet.
It’s the reader who is supposed to do half of the thinking. “The Albanian Virgin” would have driven this writing instructor crazy. As for me, I loved it: the exotic, dangerous foolhardy adventure, the foolishness, the chaos of striking out on your own, the exploration of gender role, the exploration of the idea that sometimes it’s men who have all the fun, the instability, the feeling you don’t understand what is going on, the exploration of what it means to be really trapped and “wracked up”, the idea that a marriage may actually need to be blown up, but it won’t be easy or look good, the interest in what it means to be a story teller, and the idea that a steady purpose is more likely to prevent one from being “wracked-up all the time” than is finding the perfect partner, although finding an (imperfect) partner can help.
Munro’s understatement gives Munro’s writing untold power. A lot is left unexplained. Gaps in the narrative, leaps in time, and ellipses in logic all abound. Diction is typified by mental skips, the shorthand of slang, and extreme reserve.
Claire tells us that her husband is kind and that her affair with Nelson was marked by “clarity of desire.” She does later think that she would have liked to have been able to describe it as a “capturing tide” and a “glorious and harrowing event,” but apparently neither her husband nor Nelson’s wife were interested. Thus Munro dismisses the grandiose.
The truth of the matter, from Nelson’s wife’s point of view, was her refusal of Nelson’s offer to walk her to her late shift at the hospital: “she told him she would rather be escorted by a skunk.”
Claire’s husband explains in three words why the marriage is a disaster: first, he wants a wife who is “unwracked-up.” Second, he wants someone who is “kind.” Third, he wants someone who is “sensible.”
That’s it. That’s the backstory of Claire’s marriage and why she had to get out. Done and done. Undertold. Understated.