“Amundsen” by Alice Munro

For week 37 of the Deal Me In challenge, I drew the Jack of clubs, which I had assigned to this short story by Alice Munro, published in The New Yorker Magazine August 27, 2012. Deal Me In is an annual short story reading challenge (explained here). My list of stories I’m reading this year, with links to those I’ve posted about thus far, may be found here.

Nothing changes, apparently, about love.”

This story, which details an episode in the life of our narrator, a teacher named Vivien Hyde, where she travels north from Toronto to take on a teaching position at a sanatorium for tubercular children. Rest assured, though, this was no Fräulein Maria showing up for her first day of work as the Von Trapp governess. The timing is similar though, with this story taking place near the end of World War II, instead of near the beginning.

The sanatorium is run by Dr. Alister Fox, who is well read and gives miss Hyde a rather difficult interview upon her arrival. (As she relates, “He was evidently the sort of person who posed questions that were traps for you to fall into.”) He is somewhat impressed with her, however, as he learns she has read Russian novels and Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. Has he found a kindred intellectual spirit in the new teacher, who is perhaps fifteen years his junior? Will a romance develop between them? It seems unlikely at first but before you know it… Well, I’ll leave the details of this story for you to explore yourself if you’re interested. It may be found on line at http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2012/08/27/amundsen (I believe The New Yorker allows non-subscribers to read a limited number of articles for free)

I liked how the author deftly handled a key turning point in the plot of the story by “not even telling us it had happened.” All of a sudden, the narrator is speaking as though something has changed and I was thinking, “Wait, did I miss something,” quickly retracing my steps through the last few paragraphs, but no. Something important had transpired that she didn’t tell us about. Somehow this didn’t really bother me, though.

I’ve also really come to appreciate Munro’s writing. Some brief examples:

On waiting in the coat room for Dr. Fox: “It was like being punished at school. Sent to the cloakroom. Yes. The same smell of winter clothing that never really dried out, of boots soaked through to dirty socks, unwashed feet.”

On the sanatorium’s Matron: “Whatever you asked for seemed to astonish her and cause difficulties, but eventually it was seen to or provided.”

On the nurses aides: “It was just that whatever happened in places they didn’t know had to be discounted; it got in their way and under their skin. Every time the news came on the radio, they switched it to music.”

Of Dr. Fox’s house: “There was a bleak but orderly look to the place, a suggestion of the minimal but precise comfort that a lone man—a regulated lone man—might contrive.”

On the doctor’s book collection, they were: “Books suggesting someone anxious to know, to possess great scattered lumps of knowledge. Perhaps not someone whose tastes were firm and exacting.”

Oh, and what does the title mean? When I see Amundsen, the first thing that comes to mind is polar exploration. It turns out it’s the name of the town that is close by the sanatorium.

3 Comments

  1. Alex said,

    September 14, 2015 at 7:58 am

    Last year I read her for the first time and I absolutely recommend her short-story collection “Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage”. I feel a bit nostalgic every time I think about that book because it was my last book club in Brussels before moving to Geneva…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Jay said,

    September 14, 2015 at 2:02 pm

    Thanks Alex! I’ll make a note of that one.🙂

    Like

  3. Dale said,

    September 15, 2015 at 9:44 pm

    I’ve been saying that I’m going to read something by Munro for a very long time. Still nothing. This one sounds very good!

    Like


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