What an astonishing story we have here. I have read “Family Furnishings” several times since I set off to write about it a month or so ago, and each time I come away with more. I’m not entirely sure how to contain my thoughts to something that makes sense here, but I will try.
With “Family Furnishings” Munro once again takes a look at the life of a female writer (this first-person narrator remains nameless), of the lives that writer uses for material, the effect they have on one another.
Much of the first half of the story is about this writer’s early life in a provincial home with little money. It’s a life built by ceremonies (family dinners, the conversations while washing up, etc.), and one that narrator sees as apart from her. Instead, she focuses on Alfrida, an aunt who has left and who seems to be living quite the cosmopolitan lifestyle.
More and more, the narrator grows up to love a life that was not the life she grew up in. She sees no relationship between her and the family she leaves. Distance is easier.
That was the kind of lie I hoped never to have to tell again, the contempt I hoped never to have to show, about the things that really mattered to me. And in order not to have to do that, I would pretty well have to stay clear of the people I used to know.
Part of this life is her own fascination with stories that are larger than life. She is attracted to men at college who go to movies and concerts with her. She eventually marries one. In describing him, Munro once again perfectly states what I think so much of her own art is about:
He admired opera and Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet, but he had no time for tragedy — for the squalor of tragedy — in ordinary life. His parents were healthy and good-looking and prosperous (though he said of course that they were dull), and it seemed he had not had to know anybody who did not live in fairly sunny circumstances. Failures in life — failures of luck, of health, of finances — all struck him as lapses, and his resolute approval of me did not extend to my ramshackle background.
Munro’s work has so often sought to look at the “squalor of tragedy in ordinary life,” and that seems to be what this narrator is attracted to as well. Later in the story, after Alfrida offers her some details about her own tragic past, the narrator walks away with an epiphany:
I did not think of the story I would make about Alfrida — not of that in particular — but of the work I wanted to do, which seemed more like grabbing something out of the air than constructing stories. The cries of the crowd came to me like big heartbeats, full of sorrows. Lovely formal-sounding waves, with their distant, almost inhuman assent and lamentation.
This was what I wanted, this was what I thought I had to pay attention to, this was how I wanted to live my life.
She thinks back on the moment she heard Alfrida say the phrase that would set the narrator off on a life dedicated to her own kind of art:
And the minute I heard it, something happened. It was as if a trap had snapped shut, to hold these words in my head. I did not exactly understand what use I would have for them. I only knew how they jolted me and released me, right away, to breathe a different kind of air, available only to myself.
It’s rather self-centered and self-gratifying. It’s a price many pay for the life of an artist. It’s a life that not everyone appreciates, of course. Alfrida, for one, resents her story’s appearance, something the narrator at first cannot understand:
I could not even think, at first, what Alfrida might be upset about. My father had to remind me of the story, published several years ago, and I was surprised, even impatient and a little angry, to think of Alfrida’s objecting to something that seemed now to have so little to do with her.
“It wasn’t Alfrida at all,” I said to my father. “I changed it, I wasn’t even thinking about her. It was a character. Anybody could see that.”
But as a matter of fact there was still the exploding lamp, the mother in her charnel wrappings, the staunch, bereft child.
And so the narrator continues to see herself as separate from the ordinary, even as she wants to convey that ordinary tragedy. She doesn’t think anyone understands her, and distance grows.
There was a danger whenever I was on home ground. It was the danger of seeing my life through other eyes than my own. Seeing it as an ever-increasing roll of words like barbed wire, intricate, bewildering, uncomforting — set against the rich productions, the food, flowers, and knitted garments, of other women’s domesticity. It became harder to say it was worth the trouble.
So does this narrator have what she wants? She’s told off in no uncertain terms as the story comes to a close, and she learns that there is more tragedy and pain in her family that she herself didn’t see. She’s converted some of this complexity into art. This story looks at that conversion and what that perspective might feel like from the point of view of the artist. It’s wonderful.
“Family Furnishings” is notable for its exploration of the writer as a young woman.
Other stories also discuss the work of the writer: “Material,” “Meneseteung,” “Differently,” “Labor Day Dinner,” “My Mother’s Dream,” and “Who Do You Think You Are?,” with “Epilogue” being chief among them all.
In “Family Furnishings” the narrator remembers the gauzy day when she was about twenty and felt her serious writing life was about to begin:
When I had walked for over an hour, I saw a drugstore that was open. I went in and had a cup of coffee. The coffee was reheated, black and bitter — its taste was medicinal, exactly what I needed. I was already feeling relieved, and now I began to feel happy. Such happiness, to be alone. To see the hot late afternoon light on the sidewalk outside, the branches of a tree just out in leaf, throwing their skimpy shadows. To hear from the back of the shop the sounds of the ball game that the man who served me was listening to on the radio. I did not think of the story I would make about Alfrida — not of that in particular — but of the work I wanted to do, which seemed more like grabbing something out of the air than constructing stories. The cries of the crowd came to me like big heartbeats, full of sorrows. Lovely formal-sounding waves, with their distant, almost inhuman assent and lamentation.
This was what I wanted, this was what I thought I had to pay attention to, this was how I wanted my life to be.
This is a side of the writing life. To me, it is a stage of the writer’s life, when the writer can indulge herself in the “heartbeat” of the world. The thought is gorgeous, but romantic. It’s a twenty year old’s writing — beginning with the reheated coffee and the skimpy shadows, and ending with the “almost inhuman assent and lamentation” of the crowd. It’s a stage. It’s the period of very high hopes, but it’s a stage marked by a lack of experience.
Contrast it with Del’s famous passage from the “Epilogue” of Lives of Girls and Women, published almost thirty years before.
[. . .] what I wanted was every last thing, every layer of speech and thought, stroke of light on bark or walls, every smell, pothole, pain, crack, delusion, held still and held together — radiant, everlasting.
Concision marks this passage. Note that in “Family Furnishings,” in the earlier stage of the writer, the challenge of writing is to “[grab] something out of the air.” Later, the writer will be able to define what it is that must be grabbed: a very specific catalog of “every last thing.” It’s not that the writer in “Family Furnishings” is no good; it’s that she is at an incomplete state of development. Whereas the one writer hears “heartbeats,” the other, more experienced writer is after “every smell, pothole, pain, crack, delusion, held still and held together [. . .]”
Note that while the narrator of “Family Furnishings” believes she hears heartbeats, she writes a story that hurts the woman whose story she is telling.
The story she wrote about Alfrida is completely incomplete, but this is something the writer would only realize later in her life. There are stages. She’s young. I think that’s the point. She’s way beyond the point of Edith in “Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage,” but she’s not quite yet Del. For one thing, Del has suffered.
I want to note that for the third story in a row, Munro says it is a hot day, this time in the section where Munro addresses her narrator’s intention of becoming a writer. The point is, I believe, that the heat is a part of the writer’s lot, that heat is a necessity, most likely. Munro mentions how some coffee the writer-to-be drinks was “reheated,” much as the stories a writer tells can be served reheated. Is Alfrida’s story merely reheated? I think, however, that Munro means that when a story is merely reheated and not actually passed through a crucible it’s not going to be great.
But the writer’s lot is, necessarily, a hot seat.
In the case of “Family Furnishings,” the young writer has used the story of a family friend she considers only tangential to herself. Alfrida was an acquaintance of the family who very occasionally visited for dinner throughout the writer’s childhood. Alfrida was a “writer” for a newspaper who took an interest in the young writer’s career. Alfrida’s strange life made up the core of a story the young writer later sold, but Alfrida took great offense and cut the young writer dead. It turns out that there was more to Alfrida’s story than the young writer knew, a secret of substantial significance and connection to the writer of which she knew nothing. Would she have used Alfrida in the same way had she known? Would her conception of the writer’s responsibilities to her “material” have been any different?
One of the challenges a writer must live through is the inevitable burden of inexperience.
Does the writer sign a Hippocratic Oath? First, do no harm?
How, for instance, does publishing fiction differ from gossip? Gossip is something which apparently serves a function in everyday society.
David Sloan Wilson (professor and author of Darwin’s Cathedral) says (see here):
[. . .] gossip appears to be a very sophisticated, multifunctional interaction which is important in policing behaviors in a group and defining group membership.
Wilson’s research emphasizes that gossip is how we investigate the world and its rules. In particular, gossip is how we learn what is not taught in school: how to function productively in society.
The problem for the writer is that gossip is private and published fiction is not. Published fiction is public. Regardless of whether a published story is instructive or not, there is a difference between stories which are complete and those which are incomplete.
The problem for the writer in “Family Furnishings” is a life-long conundrum — whether using someone else’s story was right. The problem is on a spectrum: how is the use of someone else’s life instructive? Or a necessity? Or cruel? Or a violation of the person’s right to privacy? Or an assault on trust? When do you have the right to use someone else’s life?
“Family Furnishings” does not answer any of these questions. It does raise them, however. It specifically raises the lesser problem of being cut dead. Munro herself suffered some significant cut dead experiences.
In a superior bio-essay in The Guardian in 2003, Aida Edemariam says (see here):
Her subjects — or those who believed they were her subjects, the residents of Wingham — were not appreciative. They wrote wounded editorials and angry letters; attempted to ban her in schools; there was even a death threat.
Edamariam points out that the book title Who Do You Think You Are? comes from a letter writer from Wingham.
Munro provides the reader a clue to the problem of what gives a writer the right to use someone else’s life. The clue lies in the metaphor of Alfrida’s apartment. Alfrida lived in a jumbled state with a lot of family furnishings she’d inherited. She also had a jumbled emotional life in that her partner was actually someone else’s husband. The place is claustrophobic. Nothing has been sorted out, not the furniture and not the relationships. For one thing, the reader gets the idea that Alfrida wants to assume a relationship with the young writer she does not actually have the right to assume.
Alfrida, to the writer’s surprise, appears to have borne a child out of wedlock at the age of 16 or 17. The father was the writer’s father. Alfrida gave up the child. It seems that perhaps Alfrida wanted a close relationship with the young writer as a substitute for the child she had given up. The young writer feels there’s something off in Alfrida’s advances upon her. At the very least, Alfrida feels claustrophobic.
Alfrida’s situation is a depiction of the writer’s dilemma. Alfrida has a lot of furnishings she’s not sorted, she has someone else’s husband, and she has assumed a closeness to the young writer that is inappropriate.
The writer has a lot of “family furnishings,” but it is the writer’s responsibility to sort it all out. Which are the stories to which she has a right? And which are the one she has inappropriately appropriated?
Do you just grab something out of the air?
We know that Munro has used her mother and father over and over in her writing, but the reader at least knows that she knew them very, very well. She did not just snatch their stories out of the air, the way you might catch a falling leaf or a caterpillar hanging by a thread. Their “heartbeats” are not some vague romantic thing.
The young writer knows she must “pay attention.” But what is it, to really “pay attention”?
Is it to hear the “lamentation” of the world? Or is it to deeply understand an individual life or individual situation or individual emotion? Remember that what the young writer calls “lamentation” is actually only the noise of the crowd at a ball game. The young writer has a way with words. But she has a long way to go.
In the famous interview with the Paris Review (#137), Munro says (see here):
I never have a problem with finding material. I wait for it to turn up, and it always turns up. It’s dealing with the material I’m inundated with that poses the problem.