I recently had a few spare hours on my hands, while sat at a computer and without my paperback novel on me. I wanted desperately to read something, to lose myself in a story, but because I didn’t have my physical novel with me, I didn’t think it would be possible to get any reading done.
Then, I had a brilliant idea, if I do say so myself: I decided to look up my favourite short story writers online to see if any of their works had been featured in online publications. I should qualify this by saying that my two favourite short story writers of all time are my fellow Canadians, Alice Munro and Mavis Gallant. These two incredibly talented women (I mean, Munro did win the Nobel Prize in Literature recently) have had works in numerous publications, so I figured one or two of these would be floating around online. And, much to my satisfaction, they were!
I ended up reading a short story by each of my favourite ladies: “Train” by Munro and “Florida” by Gallant. And, let me tell you, they were both seriously strange! I thoroughly enjoyed each of them and I was immediately sucked into the literary voices I knew so well and craved at the moment. But, I still don’t know what to make of these stories at all, and I’m not even entirely sure what they were about, if anything… I’m just quite confused, to be honest.
“Florida” was the more random story of the two. It followed a French Canadian mother visiting her son at his new home in Florida. Honestly, that’s about all I can say on the subject – the relationship between the mother and son is tense and strained at best, but it’s such a short story that it’s kind of impossible to get a sense of why exactly that is. It’s definitely possible that this story was later expanded and I just got to read an excerpt, but from what I read, it seemed like a simple slice of life narrative, an uncomplicated account of that odd stage of parenthood when a child has branched off on their own and become an adult that isn’t altogether a person you’re proud to have created. It was awesome to read a story by Gallant because I totally idolize her work, but this story wasn’t as poignant or touching to me as something like “Varieties of Exile”. It didn’t leave a lasting impression on me, BUT it did solidify just how brilliant Gallant is for being able to come up with a story about something so mundane and realistically human.
“Train” was a bit more profound and had a greater message, but, as with most Munro stories, it seemed so random as well. It never ceases to amaze me that Munro can start a story in one mood, voice or location and with one apparent focus, and then totally shift gears pages later and move the story in a totally unexpected direction. “Train” did exactly that – I thought I had a grip on the characters, their relation to each other, their histories, and then all of a sudden, Munro pulled a 180 on me and I was left reevaluating everything I had come to believe. The plot follows a young man named Jackson, who I actually thought was going to be a more minor character. For half the story, I thought he was more of a catalyst to the experiences of the female character, Belle, and then, in the second half of the story, I realized that everything actually centres on Jackson’s life after all. Not to mention, Munro introduces an entirely different female character at that point, and the two women are seemingly unconnected to each other, except for the string that is Jackson between them. So, the story went from being an interesting tale about a female farmer to a detailed analysis of a troubled character who has created multiple identities for himself and who is reluctant to become attached to any people or circumstances. It was truly fascinating! Although it isn’t my favourite Munro story by any means (“Tricks” will always and forever hold that title for me), it was classic Munro in the sense that it spun a tale that was truly unique and mind-bending.
And that’s where we get to the Throwback Thursday element of this post: I first encountered Gallant and Munro when I was in my second year of university and took a Canadian Literature class. While I turned out to not love the class for a variety of reasons, I fell in love with these two authors and I have been moved and inspired by their work ever since. As I sat at my computer and read through these two short stories, I felt instantly transported back to the library at University College (part of the University of Toronto), a library that I’ve always adored for its gothic, quiet and serene atmosphere. I vividly remember sitting in this library, at a tiny desk in an even smaller alcove, reading page after page of Canadian literature. I always seemed to find myself at this library at night, and I was overcome by a feeling of warmth, contentment and peace on each occasion. As I read these short stories that I had never encountered, just a few days ago, I felt nostalgic for the student I was, for the days when I had infinite hours to read, and for those courses that pushed me to discover new writers, new voices and new tales to take my breath away.
Here’s hoping I will always be that exact same reader, and always crave the voices of my favourite author-friends!
Girl with a Green (and forever Canadian) Heart