Friday, July 2, 2010

Book #14: Chance Encounters through Munro

There is a certain kind of woman whom Alice Munro often writes about, and for better or for worse I identify with her. Sophia Kovalevsky, the heroine of "Too Much Happiness" (the final story in Munro's latest collection by the same title) exemplifies what I'm saying. Sophia is a mathematics professor in late nineteenth-century Stockholm, "an utter novelty, a delightful freak, the woman of mathematical gifts and female timidity." So does Juliet, the Classics grad student at the centre of "Chance," in Munro's earlier collection Runaway. This type of woman, who fascinates Munro, is someone who could be attractive to men and lead a normal married life, if it weren't for one little problem: she possesses a strange, burning passion for some esoteric field of study.

I remember having this moment of recognition four years ago, in the library of the college in small town Nova Scotia, where I had ended up as Visiting Assistant Professor of English Literature (the "Visiting" was an important part of my title, just so I wouldn't forget not to become too comfortable beyond my two-year contract). Au contraire.

It was a Friday night, and I was supposed to be working on my Faulkner article (for I was intent on publishing my way to greener pastures), but instead I found myself sitting in the lounge area, where Runaway had been discarded on the table. Randomly opening the book, I found myself reading "Chance" and immediately I recognized myself in Juliet. Her social awkwardness - hyper sensitivity to when men are flirting with her - leads her to blow off a homely stranger who later kills himself. And then, when she does meet a man who interests her, Eric, her attempts at flirtation go no farther than repartee about Greek tragedy.

Yet at her core, she craves a normal life - the life of a happily married woman.

Or does she?

When Eric asks her why she majored in ancient Greek and Latin, she says lightly, "Oh, just to be different, I guess," but deep down, it's more than that. She considers these languages her "bright treasure." But the closer she gets to Eric and the ordinary happinesses and burdens of domestic life - motherhood, housework - the more her treasure risks slipping away. Juliet reflects:

"Kallipareos. Of the lovely cheeks. Now she has it. The Homeric word is sparkling on her hook. And beyond that she is suddenly aware of all her Greek vocabulary, of everything which seems to have been put in a closet for nearly six months. Because she was not teaching Greek, she put it away."

Tears stung my eyes. Here I was sitting in a deserted library, while all my students were at Piper's Pub getting hammered, and all I could think was: what will become of me?

I had done everything to hold onto my bright treasure - all those brilliant, long dead authors. I had broken up with lovers at a moment's notice to throw my books in a suitcase and jump on a plane. I had moved to a town where walking to the supermarket meant getting covered in slush as I trudged three miles along the highway (I still have not learned how to drive).

Yet flickering in my chest was a rivalrous doubt. Yearning for the life of just an ordinary, happy woman.

Photo from: here


B.Kienapple said...

I'm not sure holding onto one's "bright treasure" and having a #2/family are mutually exclusive, unless you have more than 2 children.

Anyway, I've only read Who Do You Think You Are but I remember the theme there too was the pull between the ordinary rhythms of life and identity.

Leslie Shimotakahara said...

Yes, I agree that Munro's view of female identity and career/family balance (or the impossibility of achieving such balance) may be more extreme than for women of later generations. After all, she is almost 79 (her birthday is July 10).

Funnily enough, I find that since my departure from academia I am happier than I have been since childhood both in terms of my love life and love of literature. For the first time in years, I actually have time to read and write for pleasure, rather than gearing all my thinking toward climbing the tenure ladder. And I recently moved in with my boyfriend, an architect, who appreciates my eccentricities (indeed, he has many idiosyncracies of his own!)


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Toronto, ON, Canada
Leslie Shimotakahara is a writer and recovering academic, who wanted to be simply a writer from before the time she could read. Hard-pressed to answer her parents’ question of how she would support herself as a writer, Leslie got drawn into the labyrinthine study of literature, completing her B.A. in Honours English from McGill in 2000, and her M.A. and Ph.D. in Modern American Literature from Brown in 2006. After graduation, she taught English at St. Francis Xavier University for two years. Leslie woke up one morning and realized that she’d had enough of the Ivory Tower. The fact that she wasn’t doing what she wanted to do with her life loomed over her, and the realization was startling. It was time to stop studying and passively observing life and do something real instead. She needed to discover herself and tell her own story. This blog and the book she has written under the same title (Variety Crossing Press, spring 2012) are her foray. Leslie's writing has been published in WRITE, TOK: Writing the New Toronto, Maple Tree Literary Supplement, and GENRE.