Critical Response: Alice Munro and W.G. Sebald

 

This is a response to two short stories, chosen to illustrate the roles objects and setting can play in fiction: Alice Munro's The Love of a Good Woman, and W.G. Sebald's Dr. Henry Selwyn. The question was how these two readings illustrate how one can “exploit and activate the physicality of fiction”.

The Love of a Good Woman begins with an old optometrist’s box of instruments sitting in a small museum. Its location, coupled with the attention Munro gives it—a careful, detailed description—create in the reader a sense that there must be some story attached to it. Still, Munro doesn’t tell us right away what that story is. We jump to a description of a place, instead. The setting dominates the narrative; it feels as if the three boys, and their movement through the landscape, are incidental: indeed, they’re not separated into individual characters until page 9. And it’s only much later that we meet the protagonist of the story. I think the reason the story works is because the more concrete the images become and the more real Jutland seems to us, the more urgent the lack of action on anyone’s part becomes, and the greater our anticipation. We follow the boys as they fail to do anything about the dead body they’ve discovered. Then we follow Enid as she echoes our own questions and discovers the action driving the story (the murder of the optometrist), but she never really takes definite action within the confines of the narrative. Munro pushes us to anticipate, to make up, what happens after Enid and Rupert get on the boat. At the very last moment, we circle back to the beginning, and the box, which has always been the answer.

The idea of repressing the main action of a story was something many of the stories we read had in common, and it’s something I’ve tried to borrow a few times this semester, with varying degrees of success. My main problem has been, I think, treating it like a magic trick. Rereading Munro, I see that maybe the key to success, to our willingness as readers to play the game, is actually in the richness of the background and all the little details we’re given: because we get to know the place and the people (both the children and Enid) so fully, we can easily imagine them doing the things we don’t see. The characters acquire lives off the page, in the Jutland that becomes fully realized in our minds.

This world inside the reader’s mind is also something I thought about while reading WG Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, and later, Dr. Henry Selwyn. It seems to me that there are actually two stories a writer needs to think about: the story among the characters, and the narrative that is the reader’s perception of what has occurred. It’s something beyond dramatic irony. I think in Sebald’s work, the narrative arc described by the reader’s thinking about the story is even more important than the narrative arc of the events unfolded on the page.

In Dr. Henry Selwyn, Sebald takes the idea of recurrence, of history inevitably exposing and repeating itself, and builds a series of images that reflect and refract it on a minutely drawn, physical plane. The setting itself suggests secret histories, waiting to burst out. The piling up of images becomes as pressing as it is poignant, creating anticipation in the reader that is only somewhat resolved by the last image of the story: the most literal iteration of the returning dead. When the body of a man long dead emerges from a glacier, we see not only Naegeli returning to haunt the living, but Dr. Selwyn himself. As the narrator tells us: “And so they are ever returning to us, the dead.” There aren’t any real answers to be had, not in terms of what happened to Naegeli, not in terms of what happened between Naegeli and Selwyn, and especially not in terms of what prompted Selwyn’s suicide, only a few suggestions. But there’s still a narrative, because we’re forced to contemplate not only what might have happened, but the sense of irretrievable loss and discomfort that comes with an unsolvable mystery: a mirror of what Dr. Selwyn himself experienced in losing Naegeli and in his emigration.

 

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