Jul. 10, 2004
What She Was Wearing
Poem: "what she was wearing," by Denver Butson, from illegible address. © Luquer Street Press. Reprinted with permission.
what she was wearing
this is my suicide dress
she told him
I only wear it on days
when I'm afraid
I might kill myself
if I don't wear it
you've been wearing it
every day since we met
and these are my arson gloves
so you don't set fire to something?
and this is my terrorism lipstick
my assault and battery eyeliner
my armed robbery boots
I'd like to undress you he said
but would that make me an accomplice?
and today she said I'm wearing
my infidelity underwear
so don't get any ideas
and she put on her nervous breakdown hat
and walked out the door
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of short story writer Alice Munro, born Alice Laidlaw in Wingham, Ontario (1931). She's the author of many collections of short stories, including Something I've Been Meaning to Tell You (1974), The Moons of Jupiter (1982) and Open Secrets (1994). She's widely considered one of the greatest living short story writers in the world.
Her father was a fox farmer, and as a young girl she preferred helping him on the farm to helping her mother in the house. She studied journalism on scholarship at the University of Western Ontario and then struggled to support herself as a writer, but she finally gave up and became a housewife in the 1950s. She had four children, and stayed home to take care of them, but while they were napping, she began to read widely—many of the most important books of the twentieth century. And she began to write, though she found it very difficult. She said, "I went through about a year…when I couldn't finish a sentence. It was a time of terrible depression, about what I could do measured against what I wanted to do." Then, in 1959, her mother died, and Munro suddenly found that she was able to explore her personal life in her fiction in ways she'd never been able to do before. Nine years later she published her first book of stories, Dance of the Happy Shades (1968).
Munro often writes about ordinary people in small town Ontario, where she grew up. She said, "People's lives, in [my home town] as elsewhere, were dull, simple, amazing, unfathomable—deep caves paved with kitchen linoleum." And she said, "I am at home with the brick houses, the falling-down barns, the occasional farms that have swimming pools and airplanes, the trailer parks, burdensome old churches, Wal-Mart, and Canadian Tire. I speak the language."
She has never written what she considers a real novel, but throughout her career her short stories have gotten longer and longer, and sometimes she covers entire lifetimes within the space of fifty or sixty pages. Her story "Differently" (1989) begins: "Georgia once took a creative-writing course, and what the instructor told her was: Too many things. Too many things going on at the same time; also too many people.... Eventually [Georgia] wrote a story that was about her grandfather killing chickens, and the instructor seemed to be pleased with it. Georgia herself thought that it was a fake. She made a long list of all the things that had been left out and handed it in as an appendix to the story. The instructor said that…she was wearing him out."
Munro's most recent collection of stories is Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage (2001).
It's the birthday of novelist Marcel Proust, born in Paris (1871). He's the author of an autobiographical novel that is more than three thousand pages long, and which has been translated and retranslated into English so many times that people now call it by two different English titles: Remembrance of Things Past or the more literal In Search of Lost Time.
Proust's father was a doctor who wrote several best-selling books about healthy living. Ironically, Proust himself grew up terribly unhealthy, suffering from asthma for most of his life. He had a small allowance from his parents, and supported himself by writing satirical pieces for various magazines. He spent years trying to write a novel that he never published. His asthma grew worse and worse, and he often had attacks just before falling asleep, which gave him terrible insomnia. In his exhaustion, he began spending more and more time in bed, where he did all his reading, writing, and eating. He kept his windows and curtains shut, and lined his room with cork to keep out the noises from the street. After both his parents died, he moved into a new apartment that he would barely leave for the rest of his life, and in that room he began to re-imagine and fictionalize almost everything that he had ever experienced.
The narrator of the novel, also named Marcel, says that the idea for the book came to him one day when he tasted a small pastry called a madeleine that had been dipped in tea. It was a flavor that he associated with his childhood. He wrote, "As soon as I had recognized the taste of the piece of madeleine soaked in the decoction of lime-blossom which my aunt used to give me…immediately the old grey house upon the street, where her room was, rose up like a stage set…and with the house the town…the good folk of the village and their little dwellings and the parish church and the whole of Combray and its surroundings … sprang into being, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea."
When he submitted the first volume of the novel for publication, one publisher said, "I may be dense, but I fail to see why a chap needs thirty pages to describe how he tosses and turns in bed before falling asleep." All the other publishers agreed, and Proust had to publish the first volume himself in 1913. Few of his socialite friends expected that his book would amount to anything, so they were all surprised when it was hailed as a masterpiece.
Proust spent the rest of his life trying to finish the book, and he drove his editors crazy by constantly adding to it. Every time they sent him proofs of the novel to look over, he would insert extra sentences and paragraphs, sometimes pasting whole extra sheets of paper onto the margins of the pages that he was supposed to be checking for errors. The result was that the book became filled with endless parenthetical digressions about the tiniest of details, and the sentences are some of the longest in the history of literature. The longest sentence in the book, printed in average type and arranged in a single line, is more than thirteen feet in length.
Proust died while he was still revising the last volumes of the novel, and a definitive version of the complete seven-volume novel wasn't published in France until the 1950s. For most of the second half of the twentieth century, he fell out of favor with readers who thought his work was too long winded and antiquated. Then in the late 1990s, at the height of the memoir boom, Proust suddenly came back into fashion. The writer Alain de Botton published his book How Proust Can Change Your Life, in which he used Proust's ideas to illustrate simple life lessons, and the writer Phyllis Rose published a book called A Year of Reading Proust, about her experience doing just that. Several new biographies of Proust came out, and there was even a comic book based on the first volume of Proust's novel published in France, with sold more than 12,000 copies in the first three months of its release. In the year 2000, more than eighty years after its first publication, In Search of Lost Time made the bestseller list for the first time.
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