Too Much Happiness
Although Alice Munro has insisted in more than one place that she does not write as a novelist does, many critics and reviewers have tried to give her fiction the dignity they think belongs only to the novel by suggesting that her stories are “novelistic” and therefore more complex than most short stories. In a story titled “Fiction” in Too Much Happiness, Munro cannot not resist a wily jab at all those critics who have trivialized the short story as a genre and chided her for not writing something more serious, namely novels. Joyce, the central character, buys a book written by a woman she has met briefly at a party. When she opens it, she is disappointed to find out it is a collection of short stories, not a novel: “It seemed to diminish the book’s importance, making the author seem like somebody who is just hanging on to the gates of Literature, rather than safely settled inside it.” After climaxing a distinguished career of numerous awards with the Man Booker International Prize for Lifetime Achievement in 2009, Munro must have had a sly smile on her face when she wrote those words.
Given her own advancing age, it is not surprising that many of the narrators in these ten new stories are older women who are made to recall some crucial event from their past. In “Fiction,” the past is the 1970’s, when Joyce’s husband left her for another woman. However, the primary action of the story takes place in the present day, when, having remarried, she meets a woman at a party who seems familiar to her. Later, she sees her picture on the back cover of a book and buys it. While reading the first story, Joyce realizes that the author, Maggie, is the daughter of the woman for whom her husband left her. The story is about Maggie’s experiences when she was a student in Joyce’s music class. She is chagrined to be reminded that she used the child’s love and adoration for her as a means by which she could pry into the domestic life of her ex-husband and his new wife. However, at the end of the story Joyce is reading, Maggie’s character comes to the realization that, in spite of Joyce’s selfish motives, if the great happiness she felt in her relationship with her teacher came out of Joyce’s unhappiness, it is happiness nonetheless and not to be regretted.
The inextricability of happiness and unhappiness, a theme woven throughout many of these stories, is perhaps most obvious in the long title piece. Deriving from Munro’s interest in historical subjectsevident in her 2006 collection The View from Castle Rock“Too Much Happiness” originated with her discovery of the nineteenth century Russian mathematician and novelist Sophia Kovalevsky while looking for something else in the Encyclopedia Britannica. The story focuses on the last few days before Kovalevsky died of pneumonia, which she contracted during a cold, wet trip from Paris to Stockholm. She held a chair in mathematics in Stockholmthe first woman in European history to hold such a professorship. Kovalevsky’s seemingly contradictory talents led Munro to a biography by Don H. Kennedy and his wife titled Little Sparrow: A Portrait of Sophia Kovalevsky (1983), which quotes Kovalevsky’s last words at four o’clock in the morning on February 10, 1891: “Too much happiness.”
In Munro’s story, Kovalevsky has been looking forward to the future, having received recognition for her work in an era when woman were not thought to be capable of higher mathematical thinking. She is also happily anticipating her forthcoming marriage to Maxsim Kovalesky, a distant relation and a professor of lawa great bear of a man who offers her comfort and security. Although the title of the story may suggest that Kovalevsky has so much happiness her death is a tragedy, it also may suggest her acceptance of the fact that happiness cannot be separated from unhappiness.
It is not surprising that Kovalevsky’s expertise as both a mathematician and a writer of fiction would fascinate Munro, for her brilliant short stories are always complex combinations of the poetic and the formal, embodying a delicate and precise balancing of relationshipsbetween spouses, between family members, between the present and the past. At the end of the title story, as Kovalevsky lies dying, she thinks about writing stories in which she hopes she will discover something underlying that goes on in human life, whether invented or not. Munro has always been driven by the desire to probe the basic mysteries of human experiences. One of her aging female characters says she...
(The entire section is 1873 words.)