Boy, between “What Is Remembered” and the last story we did, “Post and Beam,” I find myself working a lot harder than usual to pull thoughts together for these posts. It seems that every insight I think I have amounts to only a tiny fraction of what the story is about, making it unsatisfactory, but I can’t seem to put one insight together with another to amount to anything greater. Don’t get me wrong, the work has been good. It’s invigorating. Though, I admit if these were my first Munro stories I might have a different opinion of her work. However, I’m almost done with everything she published, so I’m in a place where I can sit back, take a breath, and dig in to see what riches there are to discover.
I really liked “What Is Remembered,” particularly as what I got out of it is a new perspective on Munro’s analysis of a life that is mundane on the surface, but which has tumult threatening to erupt just below.
In this story Meriel, our narrator, is an old widow looking back on the first years of her marriage. Already at that time, with two children, she and her husband, Pierre, settled into roles they weren’t too happy with but were playing anyway. There was nothing uniquely wrong with Pierre. It’s just that their life together was mostly without a spark, and it seems to be due to the roles they adopted. They were living it because it was the rut they settled in:
Young husbands were stern, in those days. Just a short time before, they had been suitors, almost figures of fun, knock-kneed and desperate in their sexual agonies. Now, bedded down, they turned resolute and disapproving. Off to work every morning, clean-shaven, youthful necks in knotted ties, days spent in unknown labors, home again at suppertime to take a critical glance at the evening meal and to shake out the newspaper, hold it up between themselves and the muddle of the kitchen, the ailments and emotions, the babies. What a lot they had to learn, so quickly. How to kowtow to bosses and how to manages wives. How to be authoritative about mortgages, retaining walls, lawn grass, drains, politics, as well as about the jobs that had to maintain their families for the next quarter of a century. It was the women, then, who could slip back — during the daytime hours, and always allowing for the stunning responsibility that had been landed on them, in the matter of children — into a kind of second adolescence.
That’s a devastating paragraph. Two unique individuals putting on new roles. Putting on roles, play-acting, is a large part of this story, I think. For, you see, the way that Meriel and Pierre sparked their marriage a time or two before was by running into each other at a party and pretending they were strangers, meeting and flirting for the first time.
For Meriel, though, those are not enough, and she gets a chance for something more soon. When the story begins, Meriel and Pierre go to a friend’s funeral. This friend never married and seemed to live a hot life, but he has died young. Pierre even wonders if his death was suicide. After the funeral, Meriel has decided to visit her mom’s old friend, Muriel (after whom Meriel was named, though Meriel changed the spelling of her name in college, perhaps another way to try on a new role). Aunt Muriel, as she is called, is in a rest home that is far enough away Meriel rarely visits any more. This funeral got her close enough she thinks she should make the remainder of the trip. However, she admits to herself that this selfless visit also has a selfish desire: she wants some time away from her family.
A doctor at the funeral offers to take Meriel so she doesn’t have to ride the bus. One thing leads to another. They have a loveless, practically meaningless one-night stand. I say practically meaningless because it doesn’t change Meriel’s life on the outside at all. She and the doctor never see each other again. By the end of the story, he has died, and she doesn’t care.
The fact that he was dead did not seem to have much effect on her daydreams — if that was what you could call them. The ones in which she imagined chance meetings or even desperately arranged reunions, had never had a foothold on reality, in any case, and were not revised because he was dead. They had to wear themselves out in a way she did not control and never understood.
She stays with Pierre until he also dies. Still, this fling with the doctor changes Meriel’s ability to live in her life. She feeds on it, makes the memory (and all kinds of elaborations) her own, fits it to her needs, even changes the locations, etc. She is surprised when a new bit of the memory surfaces, and how that bit might help her through something else.
It affects the way she sees herself. It affects, I think, the way she sees her role. This memory, modified and kept inside, is, after all, a bit of imagination that has a slight link to reality, and it becomes useful to her self-perception. When the story ends, we see it might still be of some use:
She wondered if he’d stay that way, or if she had some new role waiting for him, some use still to put him to in her mind, during the time ahead.
At the end of “What Is Remembered,” widowed Meriel considers her memories. She remembers not just her husband but also a chance episode of a day spent in sexual liaison with a man she met at a funeral. The significance of the memory is that it is all she has of the lover. Their liaison lasted only that one day. Meriel indicates that the day was vivid and important in the extreme. Upon leaving, she knew she would never see the man again:
The job she had to do, as she saw it, was to remember everything — and by “remember” she meant experience it in her mind, one more time — and then store it away forever. The day’s experience, set in order, none of it left ragged or lying about, all of it gathered in like treasure and finished with, set aside.
The thing is, Meriel also remembers her husband from this very same period.
Young husbands were stern, in those days. Just a short time before, they had been suitors, almost figures of fun, knock-kneed and desperate in their sexual agonies. Now bedded down, they turned resolute and disapproving . . . What a lot they had to learn, so quickly. How to kowtow to bosses and how to manage wives.
How easy it is for the reader to predict the affair. How specifically fifties the story is.
The story has numerous small observations about memory: how Meriel often reconsiders the day spent with the lover, how things might have been different, how she might have refused to have been brushed off.
When she remembers the day of the assignation, she often remembers a new detail or applies to the lover some other use than that of the day itself.
What is clear is that the memory has been just as she thought — a “treasure” to sustain her through the long years with her husband, as if it had been this one intense day that had allowed her, during her long marriage, to “keep her balance.”
That was the fifties. Does the story still obtain?
These days, people surely still have affairs. But can one argue that more women now have more ways to “keep their balance”? A life in the arts? In politics? In education, business, medicine?
Note: This is another one in a series of stories where suicide is a subject. “Floating Bridge,” in which 42-year-old Jinny is facing a death sentence from cancer. “Comfort,” in which Lewis, with his pills, dispatches the locked-in agony of dying from ALS. “Nettles”, in which the reader cannot imagine going on after running over a child. “Post and Beam,” in which Lorna’s subjection feels like the ante-room to suicide. Even the very first story, the title story, has a whiff of suicide surrounding Marcelle’s death from an operation for female troubles in London. And now “What is Remembered,” in which Pierre assumes that it is suicide that caused his friend’s death, a death which had been preceded by the somewhat dramatic ministrations of a bush-pilot doctor. But with this last story, we know very little about what actually caused Jonas’s death. What the reader does know is that suicide has been a running topic in this entire book.
The key to these suicides is that phrase (which Munro does not use) that describes the final agonies of ALS: that the patient is locked in. One has lost all physical power to do anything, even swallow or talk, but one’s mind is completely alive to register the loneliness.
Locked in. This is a category of suffering to which Munro is acutely sensitive.
Images of jail thread through these stories as well. Jinny in her cubicle bus-stop reading about Amanda W who is in jail. Jinny, lying down in a cornfield. “Nettles,” in which the writer and Mike shelter from a storm by lying down beside the stalks of joe-pye weed. The title story, in which the teenaged Edith feels that for her sins, “her past [would] shut off her future.” Lewis, who will soon be locked in for real. Alfrida, who is a real prisoner of her past, having had and given up a baby at 16. Lionel, who has had shock treatments and lost his memory. Lorna and Queenie, whose husbands are their jailers, the one worse than the other. The last story in the book, “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” features Fiona, the elegant, well to do woman with the philandering husband, cross-country skiing at night, passing through the black barred shadows of the birch trees. But we have the feeling that Fiona is escaping her prison.
What is the underlying idea? That people have choices to make, that people can choose to alter their lives, that “bargains” can be made, that people can change, that they can run away and even disappear, that they can open the prison door. One is put in mind of Hester Prynne, who spent some time in jail before she freed herself through art and effort.
Second note: Compare Meriel in “What is Remembered” to the young wife in “The Children Stay.” Meriel’s entire life is not wrecked by her affair. At the same time, however, one wonders at the type of prison her marriage might have been, save for the memory.
Third Note: Munro was around 70 when she published this book. The whole book is an exploration of what women have to do when they find themselves trapped in a 50’s marriage. Although they flirt with it, they don’t find the answer in philosophy. Their situations are dire — they are near death. If they are able, it is paying attention to the experience of life that saves them. (But not all of them. Marcelle, in the title story, dies in London after or during a mysterious and possibly imposed “surgical procedure”. Something was not right.)
Fourth note: Is Meriel’s solution for equanimity what a woman should teach her daughters? Maybe what should be taught is that if you find yourself in a relationship to life that is like being in jail, you are going to need a memory like this. Better, though, to find yourself some authority, some agency, and a life partner who recognizes you. Meriel is so fifties.
It’s a late summer afternoon in 1959, and I am in my best friend’s living room. One of the neighbors, a young woman of thirty or so, is langorously waiting in the living room, smoking and talking, waiting to go to a cocktail party with my friends’ parents. Her husband is not present, or is at home, or at work, or traveling, or much older. She has left the kids with a sitter. I am mesmerized by her. She’s tall and long legged, and she’s wearing a sophisticated bright patterned summer dress, cinched at the waist, the full skirt draped over her knees. She is smoking. She has very short dark hair, like Audrey Hepburn. She fits right in at my friend’s house; they are like martinis — extremely dry. My friend’s witty and handsome parents doted on her wit and beauty. The young woman says something about her husband, something clever and wry and ironic and dismissive.
To me, at fifteen, she is very beautiful, very alluring, very powerful.
Now, what I think is this — she was someone looking for a memory which would keep her alive despite the bargain she had made to make of her life a living prison.