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Date About Titel From
02.10.2011 Alice Munro Surprises in ordinary landscape Claudio
16.10.2011 Ian McEwan Saturday Claudio
26.02.2012 John Updike A Sense of Shelter Claudio
John Updike - A Sense of Shelter

Picture from Amy McGill found on blogs.wdtn.com

	Snow fell against the high school all day, wet big-flaked snow that
	did not accumulate well. Sharpening two pencils, William looked
 3	down on a parking lot that was a blackboard in reverse; car tires
 	had cut smooth arcs of black into the white, and wherever a
 	school bus had backed around, it had left an autocratic signature
 6	of two V's. The snow, though at moments it whirled opaquely,
 	could not quite bleach these scars away. The temperature must be
 	exactly freezing. The window was open a crack, and a canted
 9	pane of glass lifted outdoor air into his face, coating the
 	cedarwood scent of pencil shavings with the transparent odor of
 	the wet windowsill. With each revolution of the handle his
 12	knuckles came within a fraction of an inch of the tilted glass, and
 	the faint chill this proximity breathed on them sharpened
 	William's already acute sense of shelter.
 15	[…]
	„What do you know about me“ he asked, setting himself up for a
	finishing insult but dreading it. He hated the stiff feel of his smile
 18	between his cheeks; he glimpsed, as if the snow were a mirror,
 	how hateful he looked.
	„That you're basically very nice.“
 21	Her reply blinded him to his physical discomfort, set him burning
 	with regret. „Listen,“ he said, „I did love you. Let's at least get
 	that straight.“
 24	„You never loved anybody, Billy,“ she said. „You don't know
 	what it is.“
	„O.K.,“ he said. „Pardon me.“
 27	„You're excused.“
	„You better wait in the school,“ he told her. „He's-eez-eez going
	to be a long time.“
 30	She didn't answer and walked a little distance, along the slack
 	cable that divided the parking lot from the softball field. One
 	bicycle, rusted as if it had been there for years, leaned in the rack,
 	its fenders supporting crescents of white.

A sense for detail

I'm very far from being an expert on Updike. So far, I've only read a handful of his early stories – and the fact that I picked them up was in one part due to the New Yorker Fiction podcast and in the other due to Ian McEwan being one of Updike's greatest fans.

So far, what has intrigued me very much about Updike is his great sense for detail. In fact, his love for detail seems to be a blessing as well as a curse: Updike's beautiful observations and metaphors are always on the edge of seeming too artistically constructed. Luckily, in his early stories, he manages to justify this keen sense for observation by narrating through the eyes of very observational protagonists (who, I have been told, are very often of autobiographical 'origin' – and thus represent the 'observational eyes' of the master himself).

To me, it's the details that enable Updike to manage one of his greatest feats: to transform an ordinary, commonplace plot – or maybe the better term would be: occurrence – into a tragedy of existential proportions.

A Sense of Shelter is about a teenager, William, who simply loves school. That is, he doesn't seem to particularly enjoy the education he's receiving there. And he doesn't really enjoy the company of his classmates (he's more of an outcast). What he does like about it is 'the sense of shelter' the institutional framework of the school gives him. He feels at home there, he feels like everything's in order there.

Now the very simple occurrence the short story describes is this: For years William has been in love with a schoolmate named Mary Landis. But naturally he has never told her. This being his senior year in high school, however, he decides that this day, of all days, is to be the one on which he will finally confess his love to her. This Mary is, of course, popular, very pretty, part of the cheerleading team, and guess what: she hates school. So after walking through the school's empty halls (which actually takes up the biggest portion of the story), William runs into her and even manages to let those three rare words part from his lips.

Mary's reaction: She just doesn't take his confession of love seriously – after all, the two of them are living in completely different worlds (i.e. she has the looks but is not looking forward to a great life, while he is unpopular but smart and therefore has a great future waiting for him).

So let's get to the first part of the quoted passage, which comprises the story's very first paragraph.

Snow serves as the leitmotif to the entire story. It represents the outside of the school, which, through the eyes of our protagonist, seems like a very uncomfortable place. As such, it constitutes the opposite to the very comforting environment of the high school building. The very first portion of the very first sentence serves to introduce this contradiction: “snow fell against the high school all day.” (l. 1) On its own, this clause could generate a rather romantic impression of a school building covered in fluffy snow – with the schoolchildren inside waiting for the bell to finally release them into an afternoon of snow-ball fights and freezing exhaustion. But before this mental image can even begin to take shape, it is obliterated by the second part of the sentence, which informs us more precisely about what kind of snow we're dealing with: it's the slushy kind of snow that melts as soon as you touch it – the 'disappointing' kind of snow.

Elaborating upon this contradiction between the comfortable inside and the uncomfortable outside, we're introduced to a very striking metaphor: to William, the parking lot looks like a “blackboard in reverse” (l. 3). Now, in my eyes, this is not a very intuitive metaphor, which is why the narrator chooses to 'explain what he means' in the very next sentence: The snow has created a white plane on the asphalt and the tire-marks the school bus has left look like black 'handwriting' on it. The great beauty of this metaphor is that it is not only very visual, but also serves to create a very unique impression of one of the story's major themes – the theme which might be called, a little sloppily, that of 'life inside school vs. life outside of school'. The parking lot is a black-board in reverse: the rules that serve to organize the comforting framework of what's going on inside the school are turned on their head once you go outside. The bus is like an autocratic 'teacher', leaving mean marks on the blackboard. The snow does not manage to cover these “scars” (l. 7) (An additional metaphor, maybe unneeded, but useful in expanding upon the threatening atmosphere being created within introductory sentences).

Now, this last simile complicates the relationship between outside and inside a little: Is the outside only threatening to William because the 'autocratic teaching' going on inside the school has left marks (“scars”) on him that will hinder him in functioning in society once he's graduated from school? I don't want to take this interpretation too far (although I'm getting the feeling that I've already done so – but the more closely I contemplate this passage, the more ambivalent, even mysterious, it becomes), so let's try to stick to what the text tells us: No matter what the exact chain of cause and effect between outside and inside may be, in William it generates the impression that he's safe as long as he stays in school. This is what the paragraph's final sentence builds up to: the cold air reaching his face, the mixture of scents from inside and outside (I guess the very mentioning of the smell of freshly sharpened pencils is enough to generate in every reader memories of his own time spent in school), the proximity of his knuckles to the outside – it is this mixing of elements from outside and inside that evoke in William a sense of shelter, a sense of just still being on the right side of the 'border'.

Notice how poetically (some might say: obtrusively) the act of sharpening the pencil is linked to the sharpening of William's sense for this very special feeling. (Even more impressively, this sentence fulfills the function of suggesting that it really is William who's having all these great impressions: the mentioning of his 'sharp senses' serves to make it more plausible that he may even come up with such an insightful metaphor as the 'reversed blackboard' – i.e., that this metaphor may stem from his own imagination and is not – as some critics of Updike may argue – generated purely by the aesthetic ambitions of the narrator.)

Now to the second part of the quoted passage. I included a portion of the dialogue between Marie and William so that you can get an impression of what the relationship between the two is like. I don't want to get into the dialogue all too closely – for this, you will have to read the entire short story. If you decide to do so, one suggestion would be to watch out for how a commonplace dialogue is transformed into a problem of almost tragic, all-or-nothing proportions: All of a sudden, Marie gets Billy to question if he is even capable of loving anybody.

All I wanted to get at was the very last paragraph of the quoted passage (the story goes on for only a few paragraphs after this). When reading the story for the first time, I was startled by Updike's audacity to end this encounter, not with, say, a description of how Marie chooses to walk away from William (so that we would be able to draw our conclusions from that), but with the very simple image of snow accumulating on the fenders of a rusted bicycle. The description of Marie's reaction is very vague (“She didn't answer and walked a little distance,” l. 30), but her surroundings, especially the snow, get all the attention (“along the slack cable that divided the parking lot from the softball field. One bicycle, usted as if it had been there for years, leaned in the rack, its fenders supporting crescents of white.” l. 31 - 33)

Some might say this is an old trick. The trick of describing the surroundings of a character in hope to avoid telling us all too directly what we're currently supposed to be thinking about this character. I don't know. Maybe there's some truth to that... But it's probably not that simple. Because we're not just dealing with any kind of description here, we're dealing with yet another great detail on the very central leitmotif of the story: the snow. This way, we get absolutely dazzling effects from contemplating all the different meanings which this final variation on the leitmotif may entail. After all, this reference to the leitmotiv is placed at the very climax of the story. And what's more, we've just been told that there appears to be a close connection between the snow and William's appearance: “he glimpsed, as if the snow were a mirror, how hateful he looked.” (l. 18)

I'll just offer a few thoughts: obviously, we've come round full circle from the story's introductory paragraph, and there have been essential changes. In the very first sentence, the snow was described as 'wet big-flaked snow that did not accumulate well' and was slushed and 'cut' by the tires of a bus. But what we end up with at the end of the story is that same snow accumulating on the fenders of a bicycle wheel.

I don't want to risk being carried away by over-blown interpretations of this reversal (or, with respect to the “blackboard in reverse”: the reversal of the reversal). But to say the least, there are countless ambivalent associations one might have while trying to come up with an adequate explanation for this turn-around.

So here's just my personal chain of associations: The snow is still the same snow. We're just being told that while it may seem slushy and icky from a distance and under the black, heavy tires of a school bus, it is also capable of accumulating if you take a close look at the way the snow actually is capable of accumulating on the light, romantically rusted fenders of an ordinary bike. From this, one could derive that what seemed so threatening from afar (the prospect of graduating from high-school, the dangers associated with leaving this 'place of shelter'), might, once experienced, turn out to be manageable. And how did this change of perception come about? Maybe it was initiated by the cathartic effect of finally telling somebody you love her, even if you get turned down.

It's all the more telling, however, that William doesn't like the outside very much. Right after the final mention of the snow on the fenders, he turns on his feet and returns to the shelter of the school building. (The very next sentence goes: “The warmth inside the door felt heavy”) Maybe he's not quite up to the task of standing his own snow-covered ground. But the comfortable, protective air on the inside has, within the few seconds of his absence, turned into something “heavy”, something more burdensome – something certainly less sheltering.

Berlin, 25.02.2012

Ian McEwan - Saturday
	„And the forward motion is prompt, it instantly returns him to his
	list, the proximal and distal causes of his emotional state. A
 3 	second can be a long time in introspection.
		Long enough for Henry to make a start on the negative
	features, certainly enough time for him to think, or sense, without
 6	unwrapping the thought into syntax and words, that it is in fact the
	state of the world that troubles him most, and the marchers are
	there to remind him of it. The world probably has changed
 9	fundamentally and the matter is being clumsily handled,
	particularly by the Americans. There are people around the planet,
	well-connected and organised, who would like to kill him and his
12	family and friends to make a point.
		The scale of death contemplated is no longer at issue;
	there'll be more deaths on a similar scale, probably in this city. Is
15	he so frightened that he can't face the fact? The assertions and the
	questions don't spell themselves out. He experiences them more as
	a mental shrug followed by an interrogative pulse.
18		This is the pre-verbal language that linguists call
		Hardly a language, more a matrix of shifting patterns,
21	consolidating and compressing meaning in fractions of a second,
	and blending it inseparably with its distinctive emotional hue,
	which itself is rather like a colour. A sickly yellow. Even with a
24	poet's gift of compression, it could take hundreds of words and
	many minutes to describe. So that when a flash of red streaks in
	across his left peripheral vision, like a shape on his retina in a
27	bout of insomnia, it already has the quality of an idea, a new idea,
	unexpected and dangerous, but entirely his, and not of the world
	beyond himself.
30		He's driving with unconscious expertise into the narrow
	column of space framed on the right by a kerb-flanked cycle path,
	and on the left by a line of parked cars. It's from this line that the
33	thought springs, and with it, the snap of a wing mirror cleanly
	sheared and the whine of sheet-steel surfaces sliding under
	pressure as two cars pour into a gap wide enough for one.
36	Perowne's instant decision at the moment of impact is to
	accelerate as he swerves right.
		There are other sounds – the staccato ratte of the red car on
39	his left side raking a half-dozen stationary vehicles, and the
	thwack of concrete against rubber, like an amplified single
	handclap as the Mercedes mounts the cycle-path kerb. His back
42	wheel hits the kerb too. Then he's ahead of the intruder and
	braking. The slewed cars stop thirty yards apart, engines cut, and
	for a moment there's silence, and no one gets out.“

There are many reasons why this scene has stayed in my head ever since I read it for the first time, but here's just one:

Shortly after having read Saturday, I participated in a creative-writing course at the FU-Berlin which was being held by Ulrich Peltzer. Among the many interesting things he got us to think about was this: Most really good novels, he stated, tend to have a central passage where the novel sort of explains its own mode of story-telling: the novel itself tells you (either directly or indirectly) why it is being narrated the way it is and not in any other way.

To me, the above passage most certainly fits this description very well. As a matter of fact one could argue that the self-referential material is all too abundant here – even for McEwan's standards. It lays out in direct terms that the personal narrator of Saturday spends a lot of time describing its main protagonist's – his name is Henry Perowne – thought processes, but that these passages are not supposed to be taken as an authentic protocol of his inner processes because, frankly, these would have to be captured in 'mentalese' – a language which itself consists more of feelings and 'hues' than of words.

How, then, should one go about narrating Saturday? There's a short YouTube video of McEwan explaining the benefits of 'free indirect discourse', also referred to as 'free indirect style'. LINK. In it, he argues that writers have been developing tools to help them get a grip on the way thoughts are represented in one's head for much longer than neuroscientists have. And most certainly, this passage – and McEwan's writing as a whole – is a shot at this particular goal.

James Wood describes the term 'free indirect style' in the following way: 'Free indirect style is at its most powerful when hardly visible or audible: 'Ted watched the orchestra through stupid tears.' In my example, the word stupid marks the sentence as written in free indirect style. Remove it, and we have standard reported thought: 'Ted watched the orchestra through tears.' The addition of the word 'stupid' raises the question: whose word is this? It's unlikely that I would want to call my character stupid merely for listening to some music in a concert hall. No, in a marvellous alchemical transfer, the word now belongs partly to Ted.' (1) [my italics]

Now, what's startling about this passage from Saturday is how abundantly it is outright telling the reader that it is doing 'free' (i.e. non-flagged) indirect discourse: 'introspection' (l. 3), 'without unwrapping the thought into syntax and words' (l. 5f.), and the whole passage on 'mentalese', which begins with the very repetitive 'The assertions and the questions don't spell themselves out.' etc. etc.

The irony of this passage is that while both protagonist and narrator are marvelling at how the brain manages to compress complex thoughts into emotions or even colors (cf. l. 22) in a way that not even a poet (!) could manage, the passage itself is not at all as concise as it could be: In addition to the references to the problem of adequately describing mental processes, isn't it, for example, absolutely tautological to extend the phrase 'distinctive emotional hue' (l. 22) with the subordinate clause 'which itself is rather like a colour' (l. 23)?

I'm not quite sure, this could very well be 'bad' or 'clumsy' or 'all-too-explanatory' writing. But it could also be a technique to make yet another statement about human thoughts, namely: that they tend to be repetitive, tend to circle around an idea before being able to fully grasp it, tend to be self-reflexive, and tend to be full of both shortcuts ('there'll be more deaths on a similar scale') and detours ('kill him and his family and friends').

Saturday>'s plot and theme only serve to make it even harder to decide on these terms. After all, its protagonist is a neurosurgeon – and at that one who is from the very beginning described as an 'habitual observer of his own moods.' So looking at pretty much any given passage, we can never be quite sure whether it is the narrator who is describing Henry's emotions in a more detailed way than Henry himself would be aware of – or if it is in fact Henry himself who is thinking about his own thoughts. To be sure, the fact that the novel takes pains to establish Henry as an observer of his own moods allows for the conclusion that we're supposed to assume that at least Henry could be thinking all these analytical thoughts which we're presented with throughout the novel. (2)

Be this as it may, the plentitude of self-referential material make it clear that the narrator 'wants' to be very clear on why he is telling you things the way he is. It's like he's saying: 'look, reader: I'm trying to get into the head of Henry but don't be fooled into thinking that my sentences could ever even come close to capturing the miracle of what it is actually like to really be Henry Perowne. All I can do is translate the 'emotional hues' he's confronted with into a comprehensible order and correct syntax – and hope that you'll be along for the ride, because there's just as much to learn just from that.' This, to me, is the very honest goal all of McEwans recent novels are aiming at - because, as the rest of the passage shows, McEwan is a master at translating personal experiences into very palpable and comprehensible pictures.

Just have a look at the wonderful way the narator explains how, when day-dreaming, exterior events can seem to be generated by one's own mind. He starts off with a very analytical, once again introverted statement: 'So that when a flash of red streaks in across his left peripheral vision, like a shape on his retina in a bout of insomnia, it already (3) has the quality of an idea, a new idea, unexpected and dangerous, but entirely his, and not of the world beyond himself.' (l. 25f.). Immediately following this sentence, the narrator changes perspectives a little and now, for the first time in this passage, gives us a detailed account of exterior events. Lines 32f. showcase a flash of sharp sounds and precise imagery: the 'snap of a wing mirror cleanly sheared and the whine of sheet-steel surfaces sliding under pressure as two cars pour into a gap wide enough for one.' Notice how the quadruple alliteration in 'sheet-steel surfaces sliding' onomatopetically transfers a sense of this screeching sound. But the source which generates all these noises (there are more to come in l. 38f.) is not the car in its common shape but still the 'thought' representing the car. Only in the next paragraph is the 'red flash' of 'thought' definitively identified as the 'red car' (l. 38). And a few lines later, this same car again is referred to as an 'intruder'. Now, 'intruder' is a noun one does not commonly find in descriptions of street incidents. One doesn't usually intrude streets; one intrudes on conversations, one intrudes private places – one intrudes people's minds. Henry's mind, one is tempted to add.

So what we end up with is a very clever way of representing the transition and interaction between exterior events and inner thoughts. This process is even foreshadowed in the very first sentence of the quoted passage: 'And the forward motion is prompt, it instantly returns him to his list, the proximal and distal causes of his emotional state.' It is the motion of Henry's car which gets his own thoughts going at the beginning of the passage and it is the intrusion of somebody else's car which forces him to hit the breaks on them.

It's this balancing act between writing from the inside and from the outside – fulfilling both the mission to convey human emotions and the goal to remain comprehensible and entertaining – which I see as one of the major challenges in literature. And it's a challenge that McEwan's never fails to at least rise up to.

Berlin, 16.10.2011


(1) Wood, James: How Fiction Works. London 2008. P. 10.

(2) To discuss this, let's have a short look at the passage on mentalese: 'The assertions and the questions don't spell themselves out. He experiences them more as a mental shrug followed by an interrogative pulse. This is the pre-verbal language that linguists call mentalese. Hardly a language, more a matrix of shifting patterns, consolidating and compressing meaning in fractions of a second, and blending it inseparably with its distinctive emotional hue, which itself is rather like a colour.' In this particular passage, it does not seem very likely that Henry would have to explain to himself what mentalese is ('Hardly a language, more a matrix of shifting patterns.') Being an observant neuroscientist, this must be common knowledge to him. On the other hand, it is not entirely out of consideration that Henry, as some scientists do, has a habit of calling learned definitions to mind when contemplating a particular problem. This assumption does, however, seem a little far-fetched and so it could just be the case that the narrator, in this particular passage, is really trying to get a point across to the reader. From this perspective, the fact that everything is spelled out in such broad terms would serve as a marker for the importance of this passage pertaining to its vital function as what Peltzer would call setting up a 'contract with the reader'.

(3) Why 'already'? Wouldn't one expect the complete opposite, i.e. 'still'? This must be a very clever example of free indirect discourse, comparable to the use of the word 'stupid' in the example James Wood uses. After all, maybe Henry is surprised that shortly after having thought about the dangers of terrorist attacks, he is already being confronted by a 'dangerous red thought'. Please comment if you have any other explanations.

Surprises in ordinary landscape

Alice Munro 1980

Alice Munro around 1980 outside her old house in North Vancouver. Photo by Alex Waterhouse-Hayward

So this goes back to about 1,5 years ago, when Katharina handed me her copy of Alice Munro's Runaway to borrow. We had been speaking about how her writing classes in Biel had impaired her appreciation for most novels and stories – the reason being that once you're discussing your own writing on a daily basis, it becomes so easy to see through the techniques most contemporary authors use; every sentence they form seems more artificial, more goal-oriented, more pretentious than before.

But with Runaway, she said, it was different. The stories really intrigued her – but not necessarily in an intellectual but in a much more down-to-earth-way. However, she couldn't figure out exactly what it was about Munro's stories that were creating this 'effect'. So she let me borrow the book – saying that she's interested on my take on it.

As I said: this took place about 1,5 years ago. And of course, I could not come up with an answer. Even though by today I don't regard Runaway to be Munro's best collection of short stories, I was immediately taken in by Munro's prose – just like Katharina, Mom and pretty much all the rest of the family. I dare even say that Munro has in a way become the common denominator of the family's taste in literature – which diverges, at times, quite radically.

But, just like Katharina, I could never put a finger on what exactly was so intriguing about her.

However, being labeled the 'family philosopher' on this site, I kind of feel obliged to at least finally put up a short, personal take on Alice Munro – and thereby maybe even revive the Reviews-section of this site which has recently been suffering from neglect. (1) All I can offer, though, is sort of a metaphor, derived from Munro's own work, to try to approximate the certain kind of magic her fiction achieves.

This is the metaphor of geology.

Throughout Munro's oeuvre, geology is a recurring motif. I can think of two stories that feature a main character who's a geologist – and I'm sure there are more (maybe the Winters can help out in finding further examples). In Deep-Holes - from her most recent collection Too Much Happiness -, the main character's husband is a geologist. In fact, the second paragraph of the story begins this way: 'The picnic was in honour of Alex's publishing his first solo article in Zeitschrift für Geomorphology. (2) Only ten pages later – encompassing the passing of many years! –, Alex has retired from teaching and is planning on writing a book on geomorphology. Sally, 'to her own surprise', becomes interested in geology and decides to help him with his studies:

'So she became the small figure in black or bright clothing, contrasting with the ribbons of Silurian or Devonian rock. Or with the gneiss formed by intense compression, folded and deformed by clashes of the American and Pacific plates to make the present continent. Gradually she learned to use her eyes and apply new knowledge, till she could stand in an empty suburban street and realize that far beneath her shoes was a crater filled with rubble never to be seen, that never had been seen, because there were no eyes to see it at its creation or throughout the long history of its being made and filled and hidden and lost. Alex did such things the honour of knowing about them, the very best he could, and she admired him for that, although she knew enough not to say so.' [my italics].

This passage, to me, is the greatest – not at all pretentiously self-referential – metaphor for Munro's way of writing.

Now, Munro has written hundreds of short stories, and all of them have their own particular dramaturgy. But there are two things she does rather consistently. First, as every newspaper keeps on mentioning, her characters are pretty much always every-day sorts of people who are always living in the provinces (and only sometimes in the cities) of Canada – usually somewhere in Ottawa. However, their problems and desires are usually very universal (at least within Western cultures, but also beyond that, I would say). And secondly: a large portion of her stories, although rarely more than 35 pages in length, usually cover several decades in the lives of their protagonists. And, as Deborah Treisman from the New Yorker Fiction Podcast points out, it's hard to think of another writer who manages to narrate this fast-paced passage of time more naturally and expertly than her.

To me, these two aspects are interrelated in a very important way: On the one hand, the down-to-earth-ness, the prosaicness, of her characters and their universal problems leave the impression of realism, of a lack of pretension and make-believe (which Katharina, most of all, is so allergic to). On the other hand, the very quick passage of time creates the impression that we, as readers, are bearing witness to the very most important events within that person's life. (3)

And this, to me, is exactly what makes geomorphology so fascinating: Beneath the seemingly solid and static surface of the earth there are huge, unimaginable forces that have the most profound effects on the very structure of the earth. By looking at a mountain, for example, you become, to a certain degree, aware of this: Once you think about it, you can basically only stand back in awe of the forces that managed to shape this massive, monstrous rock-formation in front of you. Only, and this is decisive, in everyday life, you don't notice this: geomorphology moves at such a slow pace that it is virtually impossible for any one human being to witness it directly. Only by being able to fast-forward through millions of years, do we get a real impression of the great forces that shape – well, basically everything we see around us.

So here's what I'm actually trying to get at this entire time: With her stories, Munro is doing the same thing to our understanding of life that one of those computer-animated simulations of tectonic movements over the course of millions of years is doing to our understanding of geomorphology. By fast-forwarding through the protagonist's life she makes things visible that would normally be outside of the field of vision of both her protagonist and the reader. By racing through seemingly commonplace occurrences within the life of one person, she's showing us, in a very subtle way, how that person has changed throughout time. And by doing that, she's basically, in her best moments, offering a glimpse at the awe-inspiring forces that shape life without our ever noticing it.

This may be why Royce, a character from one of Munro's most recent short stories Axis, experiences a moment of epiphany – one that will change the course of his life – when looking at a cliff he has never noticed before:

'Then he got out and he saw across the road in the cut of the highway a tower of ancient-looking rock that seemed quite out of place there. […] He was on the edge of the Niagara Escarpment, though he did not know that name or anything about it. But he was captivated. Why had he never been told anything about this? This surprise, this careless challenge in the ordinary landscape. He felt a comic sort of outrage that something made for him to explore had been there all along and nobody had told him. Nevertheless he knew. Before he got into the next car he knew that he was going to find out. He was not going to let this go. Geology was what it was called - and all this time he had been fooling around with arguments, with philosophy and political science. It wouldn't be easy. It would mean saving money, starting again with pimpled brats just out of high school. But that was what he would do. Later, he often told people about this trip, about the sight of the escarpment that had turned his life around. If asked what he'd been doing there he'd wonder and then remember that he had gone up there to see a girl...' [my italics]

I guess no further comment is needed regarding this passage. Suffice it to say that in the very last paragraph of Deep-Holes, Sally is having a very bitter-sweet thought which expresses the core of my 'argument' much more concisely than I would be able to express: 'And it was possible, too, that age could be her ally, turning her into somebody she didn't know yet. She has seen the look on the faces of certain old people – marooned on islands of their own choosing, clear sighted, content.'

Berlin, 02.10.2011


(1) Dare I state that I seem to be the only one contributing to it? Well, being the one who came up with the idea, I guess it's my own fault...

(2) I have no idea why the editors didn't catch the obvious error in the German word.

(3) These events may be minor encounters or mere observations – or, on the other side of the spectrum: moments in which a loved one is lost. Whether 'major' or 'minor', these occurences may be described as 'out of the ordinary' – but, crucially, since the entire life of the character is being covered, it does not seem surprising or contrived that things like this could and do happen.

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