‘Friend of My Youth,’ by Alice Munro

This story, which pretends for a while to a kind of staid rural middle-Canadian domestic story of manners, suddenly opens out onto a recontextualizing, explosive endingthat connects the story of the present to a long-ago story an ocean away, and the reader is confronted with the terror of the cause-and-effect chain that history has enabled but the present has obscured, a situation common to all of us when you come to think of it.

First published in The New Yorker, January 1990. Collected in Friend of My Youth, Knopf/Vintage 1990 and Selected Stories, 1997

‘Jakarta’ by Alice Munro

As is the case with so many of Munro’s stories, ‘Jakarta’ is set in the Vancouver area in the 1950s, during the height of the Korean War and the execution of the Rosenbergs. Sonje, who is described as ‘calm’ and ‘Nordic’, is married to Cottar who, at 38, is significantly older than her. Cottar teases Sonje mercilessly about her bourgeoise aspirations. Cottar is a journalist who has scandalously travelled to communist China. He believes in free love and encourages Sonje to sleep with other men, the thought of which makes Sonje unhappy and so she doesn’t follow through. Sonje and Cottar are on vacation in a rented cottage for the summer when Sonje meets and befriends a woman called Kath, who lives in the area permanently with her husband Kent. During their days on the beach, Sonje and Kath discuss the relationships in the book they are reading—DH Lawrence’s ‘The Fox’—but the subtext of their discussion is their own attitudes towards their husbands and marriages. The story explores the fault lines of marriage—the personal struggle either to adhere to conventional notions of marriage or to find alternatives to it. The argument Kath and Sonje have about DH Lawrence’s ‘The Fox’ illustrates this perfectly. Kath and Sonje can’t admit it to themselves, or each other, but they have married the wrong people. What is left so beautifully understated in the story is that, deep down, they both know it.

In The Love of a Good Woman, Vintage, 1998

‘Postcard’ by Alice Munro

I’m afraid it’s true – I prefer her early work. The later stories – so spacious and surprising, technically extraordinary and self-effacing – are brilliant in their own way but it is in the first few collections, where the language is fuller and the emotion is allowed to flow more freely that Munro really does it for me. In ‘Postcard’ the narrator, Helen, has had a long affair with Clare, the scion of a grand local family. When Clare returns from Florida one summer with a wife, Helen’s mother tells her it is her own fault: ‘But once a man loses his respect for a girl, he is apt to get tired of her’. Munro seems to me very like Wolff, in that her subject has always been the complexities, surprises and essential unknowability of human character and behavior – yes, all that vague stuff! – a notion that is perhaps intrinsic to the short story form.

First published in Dance of the Happy Shades (Ryerson Press, 1968)