In other countries, Alice Munro’s book Who Do You Think You Are? was published under the title The Beggar Maid, which is unfortunate – it sucks something essential from the book – since ‘who do you think you are?’ must be the most Canadian title, the most Canadian question. ‘Who do you think you are?’ we used to say when I was growing up, sometimes followed by, ‘the Queen of England?’ A demand posed of those who dared to express desire, pride or some other innocent form of self-determination. The royal reference is at once scornful and reverent – colonial jokes, with their complex subtexts and subjects.
‘Who does she think she is?’ or ‘She really thinks she’s something, doesn’t she?’. It’s usually a she – a particular, subtle yet existential kind of shaming – a diffuse embarrassment, for an ambiguous wanting. And, in fact, an unanswerable question. What would one say?
Munro’s book of linked stories, about a girl and then woman named Rose, begins and ends with this question. ‘Royal Beatings’ is a story about Rose’s childhood in Hanratty, a small town in Southern Ontario – West Hanratty, is where they live, the ‘poor part of town’ that runs from ‘factory workers and foundry workers down to large improvident families of casual bootleggers and prostitutes and unsuccessful thieves.’ Flo, Rose’s stepmother who runs a general store, is irritated with Rose, and says she’ll get her father to give her a ‘royal beating’: ‘Oh, don’t you think you’re somebody, says Flo, and a moment later, Who do you think you are?’ Rose protests, as she does in the final titular story of the book, recalling a teacher who asked her the same thing after she stands in front of the class and flawlessly recites a poem. ‘The lesson she was trying to teach her was more important than any poem,’ Rose later understands, ‘and one she truly believed Rose needed. It seemed that many other people believed she needed it too’.
The lesson is never entirely clear, but it has something to do with wordless prohibition and shame – a feeling, texture, substance, a character in itself that runs through all the stories in the book. Rose is always a fish out of water, always wondering if she has managed to finally become someone else, or if people can still see something true, fated, unbearable, shamefully hopeful at her centre. Munro’s subtle brilliance in rendering Rose’s life – from childhood poverty to scholarship girl to marriage, mother, divorce, to TV interviewer, university lecturer, primetime actor – is that each story proceeds with self-aware, sometimes pastiche and parodic prose. The narrative wrestles with itself to find a different language in which Rose might live, hoping, like Rose, that if it performs with enough commitment and brio, a new character, a new life will come into being.
I was disturbed, several years ago, to read a review of a new Munro book in which the critic described her entire oeuvre as depressing, shabby, grubby, filled with poverty and dull lives that inevitably descend into interminable sadness; as well as an obsession with a kind of ‘realism’, by way of her obsessive interest in domestic interiors. Which, of course, is actually an interest in class and the social, material, cultural forces that shape an individual and how she experiences the world. Could he not see how funny the books were? Or that the characters themselves do not believe their lives poor or sad, but rather simply their lives: complex, disappointing, bizarre, stupid, radiant, just like anyone else?
Rose is deeply comedic, awkward, hopeful, full of accident, bad jokes, transparent attempts at cleverness and sophistication, of which she is intensely aware. Munro’s narrative tone is at once immersive and retrospective, rueful – a version of what it’s like to remember one’s past. ‘The thing she was ashamed of, in acting, was that she might have been paying attention to the wrong things, reporting antics, when there was always something further, a tone, a depth, a light, that she couldn’t get and wouldn’t get,’ Rose realises, in the final story of the collection. ‘And it wasn’t just about acting she suspected this. Everything she had done could sometimes be seen as a mistake.’
My mother, also a writer, gave me Munro to read as a young person – a gift, a treasure – and also an insight into her own work, her own past and identifications. I have sometimes thought of these stories as stories about my mother – who was born, like Munro, in Seaforth, Huron County, Ontario – although they are not. I have read them so often that sometimes I cannot remember what is mine and what is hers – Munro’s, Rose’s, my mother’s. Did I go to that party in Kingston, with pretentious staff and students from Queen’s University? Did I tell the off-colour joke that fell flat and offended other guests? Was it me who wore those embarrassing clothes, too much eyeshadow, laughed too loudly? Did I want love, to distraction? Do I believe that a story can be found anywhere, hidden in the barest folds of any moment? And who, after all, do I think I am?
There is an anecdote that Munro initially wrote the stories in Who Do You Think You Are? as separate, each a different woman, but woke one morning with the idea that they were in fact all the same woman, and so she became. How time passes, what makes a person. The simple, extraordinary idea that the woman in these stories is and is not the same Rose is a Rose is a Rose is a Rose.
Photograph © zaphad1