“Soon”
by Alice Munro
from Runaway

Trevor

Munro’s “Soon,” the middle part of a trio of stories about Juliet, begins a few years after “Chances” ends. In that prior story, Juliet started her relationship with Eric in western Canada. When “Soon” begins, Juliet and Eric have a child, Penelope (who will become more central in the next story), and mother and young daughter are visiting Juliet’s parents, Sam and Sara, back in Ontario.

Other than as a potential source of shame (for he and Juliet are not married), Eric is not present. “Soon” is primarily about Juliet’s difficult trip back to her parents and her home. Like many of us who return after years away, home feels strange and strangely familiar.

When she gets there, she sees that the painting she purchased for her parents — Chagall’s painting I and the Village — is hidden away. It’s a strange painting that does seem out of place in a rural Ontario home, but Juliet bought it because it reminded her of Sam and Sara. “It makes me think of their life . . . I don’t know why, but it does.”

This painting was the key to this story for me, though there is so much more going on in “Soon,” as there is in most of Munro’s stories. The painting was painted in 1911 while Chagall was in Paris, but the dreamy, lovely, absurd scene is about his hometown in Belarus. It’s a painting Munro knew well. She herself, in 1959, had a print of it hanging in her home (before her first husband asked her to remove it). Robert Thacker’s Alice Munro: Writing Her Lives, has a section where Munro talks about the painting and how it represented, in a curious way, a concrete past.

In my bedroom I had a print of Chagall’s I and the Village which I looked to for help. I don’t like admitting that — the moony cows head, the precious stones, the upside-down church, all seem rather stylish and cleaned-up, in relation to that real past I had to deal with, even as a dream that picture is a long way out — but it is true that when I lay on the bed and looked at it I could feel a lump of complicated painful truth pushing at my heart; I knew it wasn’t empty, I knew that I had streets and houses and conversations inside; not much idea how to get them out and no time or way to get at them.

When Juliet returns home she expects it to be a rather fraught, boring, dutiful visit. In some ways it is. She writes a letter to Eric in which she clearly thinks there is little for her back with her parents. But later in life, she realizes she was wrong:

When she first read the letter, Juliet winced, as anybody does on discovering the preserved and disconcerting voice of some past fabricated self. She wondered at the sprightly cover-up, contrasting with the pain of her memories. Then she thought that some shift must have taken place, at that time, which she had not remembered. Some shift concerning where home was. Not at Whale Bay with Eric but back where it had been before, all her life before.

But this realization is still painful to Juliet. She didn’t realized it soon enough to take advantage of it and the realization uncovers another loss.

Again, there is a lot more going on with “Soon,” but to me Munro is continuing to explore some of the themes she’s gone over through her entire career: leaving home, the freedom, the guilt, the losses that accumulate as life builds up wherever you are. We’ll explore this some more in the last story of this trio, “Silence.”


Betsy

“Soon” is the second of three stories about Juliet that comprise a 100 plus page novella. “Chance” introduced us to Juliet, and tells how she lost her bid for a Ph.D. in Greek at the university in Toronto and then fell, by chance, into a totally different life with a charismatic fisherman in Whale Bay.

“Soon” covers a brief visit Juliet makes east with her baby to see her parents. Juliet is still with Eric, but she is unmarried, a not very common thing in the sixties. Worse, her 13-month-old baby is now part of the mix. Juliet has always had a close relationship with her parents, who as intellectuals were a little unconventional themselves. The story explores, however, Juliet’s inevitable maturation and separation from her parents has left her father feeling angry, her mother feeling lost, and Juliet herself wanting nothing more than to return as fast as possible to Whale Bay. Thomas Wolfe says you can’t go home again. Juliet, for sure, cannot return to what was probably an isolated and demanding, or even suffocating, family of origin.

Juliet’s father may have lost his teaching job in a fracas over Juliet’s unmarried state. He seems annoyed at Juliet and the whole situation. No longer teaching, he has taken up truck gardening. Ironically, he now appears to be modelling Eric’s free-wheeling love life and seems to have an inappropriate, even slightly disgusting, interest in the young caretaker who helps him with his invalid wife. Her father cuts Juliet by remarking that the caretaker “has restored [his] faith in women.”

The caretaker, of course, had absolutely rescued Sam from the chaos that Sara’s illness had become. Nonetheless, Juliet sees her father spraying Irene with a hose — the same thing an old benighted husband had done to a young girl who was later murdered in “Open Secrets.”

Juliet’s mother presents an even more complicated challenge. Her health, always frail, has taken a turn for the worse. She is apparently having an affair of the mind with a local fundamentalist minister, a turn of events that is also somewhat disgusting to Juliet.

Sara’s clinginess is nothing new. She had cultivated a very, very close relationship with Juliet in the old days. Juliet and her father had to stay up late to find the privacy to talk about intellectual things.

Juliet composes a letter in her head to Eric: “I don’t know what I’m doing here, I should never have come here, I can’t wait to go home.”

Inevitably, when Juliet’s dying mother makes an emotional appeal to Juliet, Juliet is turned to stone.

My faith isn’t so simple,” said Sara, her voice all shaky (and seeming to Juliet, at this moment, strategically pathetic). ‘I can’t describe it. But it’s – all I can say – it’s something. It’s a wonderful – something. When it gets really bad for me –when it gets so bad I – You know what I think then? I think, all right. I think— Soon. Soon I’ll see Juliet.

Juliet’s response? She “turned away.”

You can’t go home again.

You also, if you’re a daughter, cannot stay married to your mother.

But breaking away? Pain. Such terrible and necessary pain.

2

“Soon” versus now. Juliet’s mother is so ill she can only have faith in “soon.”

But Munro’s later stories often mention the necessity of “paying attention” to the present. In this case, the present is Eric, the baby, and Whale Bay. The present is also the changed condition of her parents’ life, her mother’s illness and her father’s lost job.

Whether their weird distance from her is due to her failed PhD or her unmarried-mother state, or both, it seems clear that so much has changed that this visit is basically a failure. “Soon” is how fast Juliet needs to leave.

And “Soon” is how fast her mother will actually die, although Juliet doesn’t know that.

Later, Juliet may look back and wonder how she didn’t realize how close death was. As if she was  not paying attention.

3

This is another story that refers the reader to some corollary art, in this case, Chagall and Picasso. (Recall that the first Juliet story referred the reader to Greek myth and to a French movie.)

Juliet had sent her parents a print of Chagall’s I and the Village.  It “reminded” her of them.

Britannica.com explains:

 . . . his early works, such as I and the Village (1911), were among the first expressions of psychic reality in modern art. . . . . The often whimsical figurative elements, frequently upside down, are distributed on the canvas in an arbitrary fashion, producing an effect that sometimes resembles a film montage and suggests the inner space of a reverie.

Britannica.com also notes that Chagall used elements from his childhood to shape the content of these early paintings.

Psychic reality . . . arbitrary . . . film montage . . . inner space . . . reverie.

It is no surprise that Munro might be interested in an autobiographical representation of “psychic reality.” In addition, Chagall is interested in the provincial.

But it turns out that Juliet’s gift is a failure. She finds it stored in the attic. You can remember home. But you can’t actually go home again.

Is Chagall’s method therefore also a failure in Munro’s view? Yes and no.

Chagall revisits the home of his memory, an obvious concern of Munro’s. But Juliet’s friend tells her that Picasso said, “Chagall is for shopgirls.” While Chagall is compelling, does he miss the mark that Munro is aiming for?

Even in his paintings of war, violence is suggested from afar in a sentimental blur. Chagall seems unable to face the barbarism and cruelty that Munro faces head on.

Picasso has been purposely added to the discussion. See here from the Encyclopedia Britannica:

Collage . . . “re-presentation” fracturing . . . different points of view, different axes, and different light sources in the same picture . . . inclusion of abstract and representational elements on the same picture plane . . .  flat pictorial elements that play off other flat planes or curvilinear motifs . . . inclusion of lettering . . . manipulation of the picture shape . . . use of the oval . . . underlined the fact that in a Cubist picture the canvas provides the real space.

And violence. Picasso sees and remembers and re-presents violence. As does Munro.

As for the fracturing of planes and the different points of view within one work? That is Munro to a T. Once again, Munro is referring the reader to an artist whose work is groundbreaking and similar to hers and perhaps an inspiration.

What’s the violence in this story? That the old man is almost preying on the young caretaker? That he is doing it right in front of his wife? That the two are contesting for ownership of the girl, in a repeat of how they brought up Juliet? That the sick wife is having a platonic liaison with a minister in full view of her husband? That Juliet does not see that her mother is dying?

Munro does not address national violence, such as depicted by Hiroshima Mon Amour and by Picasso. She addresses violence in the family.

4

Faith is a topic that repels and engages Munro. In “Age of Fatih” Munro explores how young teens experience faith and also how they reject it, in its conventional sense. Del appears to choose love and compassion as the signs of real faith. Other stories also explore alternative experiences of religion: “Baptism,” “Walking on Water,” “Circle of Prayer,” “Pictures of the Ice,” “Goodness and Mercy,” “Floating Bridge,” and “Vandals,” not to mention Munro’s frequent mention of “paying attention.”

Juliet appears to have put her faith in a life of erotic ecstasy with her charismatic lover, and Munro has made sure, in the previous story, to associate Juliet’s hookup with Eric Porteous with Maenads and Dionysius.

Juliet’s father says that the attractive and energetic caretaker has “restored my faith in women.”

Juliet’s mother appears, at first glance to have put her faith in a kind of evangelical faith, and then at a second look, she has put her faith in the minister’s close support. What is ironic is that when Juliet was growing up, they had belonged to no church at all, and that Sam had once said they were “druids.”

But then Juliet’s mother says that her real faith is in the hope that she will see Juliet “soon”. But this faith is based on the very close relationship that she imposed on her daughter during childhood. Juliet is now estranged from her mother, although her mother does not seem to acknowledge or understand this. What Juliet doesn’t realize is that her mother will die “soon.” Knowing that, it is easy to see how she could keep herself going, as so many people do, with this simple faith:

When it gets really bad for me — when it gets so bad I — you know what I think then? I think, alright. I think — Soon. Soon I’ll see Juliet.

Even if it is just a worn-out dream. Sometimes that is what faith is. It’s what keeps you going. Even if it is a worn-out dream.

5

Motherhood. We are aware that Juliet’s relationship with her mother is something so close she must break away, even to the tune of ignoring the death which is oncoming. We are aware that neither Juliet or her mother pay much attention to the baby. There is a distance in Munro between her young mothers and children, as if she is always afraid of the semi-incestuous, over involved, and domineering force that a mother can be. And yet, there is in several stories, notably “Miles City, Montana” and “The Children Stay,” and “Deep Holes,” the terrible pain that mothers feel upon the real loss, or the threat of a loss, of a child.

It is as if in paying attention to the present, the young mothers are paying attention more to the isolation that babies create than to the real baby. And then. When the children are gone or grown up or lost, they are keenly missed.

Munro’s over-arching subject is loss. Always there is the question of loss of self, of being submerged in a parent’s needs or ambitions or a husband’s or partner’s requirements. Always there is the question of escape.

As it turns out, this is the one story where Munro considers loss from the old mother’s point of view, first in Juliet’s mother’s fervent desire for reunion in her faith in “Soon,” and then, in “Silence,” in the break-away that Juliet’s own daughter imposes on her.

Brave, of Munro, I think. But not entirely successful.

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