The narrative twist of Axis is that the fictional events are narrated from the perspective of fifty years in the future when the past re-enters the present via a chance meeting, something that's bound to resonate with readers of a certain age, as it did with me. Nevertheless, two years on and surprised that Munro had been awarded the Nobel Prize, I listened again hoping to appreciate why the committee chose this "master of the contemporary short story" over other living writers. In the end, it helped me appreciate a lot more.
Axis was doubly resonant with me because I was reminded of all the John Updike novels I'd read when I started reading fiction in the late 1980s, but perhaps not for the reasons you might assume. While Axis traverses the same landscape of lower-middle-class sexual politics as Updike's, it was above all the sentences that evoked that time; sentences in which the narrator has no qualms in explaining why, for example, Avie decided to have sex with her boyfriend:
She thought it would make him seem more manly, more assured. He was a nice-looking, eager boy with dark hair flopping over his forehead, and he had a tendency to pick out people he could worship: a professor, a brilliant older student, a girl: Avie. If they slept together, she thought, she might fall in love with him.Sentences like this appear throughout. When Grace and her boyfriend Royce are in dialogue, she expresses her preference for Acacia trees while he holds his tongue and thinks:
Favorite trees? What next: favorite flower, favorite star, favorite windmill? Did she have a favorite fence post? About to inquire, he figured it would hurt her feelings.There is something peculiarly north American in these sentences – witty, wistful, above all knowing – perhaps because every week on Michael Silverblatt's BookWorm podcast, I listen to extracts reporting the inner lives and experience of people narrated in the third person. In the movie Wonder Boys, Tobey Maguire's contribution to Michael Douglas' creative writing class begins in exactly this way. Updike's fiction is exemplary in its reliance on these reports, something Gore Vidal noted, if for different reasons. Summarising the plot of the 1996 novel In the Beauty of the Lilies, he quotes a typical line:
Clark is in rebellion against the Communism of his mother and her friends pinks if not reds [sic] and, worse, unabashed enemies of the United States in the long, long, war against the Satanic Ho Chi Minh. "Mom, too, wanted North Vietnam to win, which seemed strange to Clark, since America had been pretty good to her." As irony, this might have been telling, but irony is an arrow that the Good Fiction Fairy withheld from the Updike quiver. Consequently, this non sequitur can only make perfect sense to a writer who believes that no matter how misguided, tyrannous and barbarous the rulers of one's own country have become, they must be obeyed; and if one has actually made money and achieved a nice place in the country they have hijacked, then one must be doubly obedient, grateful, too.For Vidal, the non sequitur is solely political but the sentence also enables us to recognise how Updike uses fictional characters as vehicles for comment, with their inner lives as accessible as mustard in a jar. Yet how did the narrator know Clark found anything strange? And, in Axis, how can anyone but Avie and Royce know what they thought?
In those early days of reading, I would not have questioned such narration and I suspect the vast majority of common readers will be nonplussed by such difficulties: this is what fiction does, after all, isn't it? Perhaps their happy innocence reveals what is after all ideological; that narration is imperial in nature, demanding that writers colonise minds as an empire colonises the world and calls it freedom. The ideology of power infects the reception of literature too, so that mastery is the guarantee of literary value. Note the prevalence of the word "tackle" in newspapers' description of what an author does to their subject matter.
What Lauren Groff sees as revolutionary appears then to be merely the condensation into a short story what Proust or Sebald do in the novel. But, in their works, the narration is for the most part first person or telescoped through that first person, so the kind of sentences Munro uses would never appear without qualification. In this way the literary project is borne on uncertainty in the way life, as seen in the conclusion to Axis, is determined by either chance or necessity. The impact of this revelation in Axis is certainly moving in context, but hardly deep or revolutionary.
The alternative in the US, those "very experimental" writers, those "breakers of the form", might be the school of Gordon Lish, whose writing "represents the US's answer to Samuel Beckett and Thomas Bernhard". His creative writing classes advanced "a distinctive and demanding approach to the craft of fiction", preaching "what his student Gary Lutz has called a 'poetics of the sentence' – an almost mystical attunement to language's hidden rhythms and resonances". So let's sample some of Lutz's sentences from his short story Loo narrated by an unnamed sibling:
She supposed that it helped her to be far from the center of anything and uninfluenced by what went on in any thicker populations.
Her private life was not so much private as simply witnessless.
Her life did not so much advance as narrow itself out unamelioratingly.In isolation the contrast to the work of Munro is not subtle, but the epistemological certainty here and throughout is identical.
Kafka recognised the danger of such sentences in a diary entry from 1911 in which he says the "special nature" of his inspiration is that, as a writer, he can do everything: "When I arbitrarily write a single sentence, for instance, ‘He looked out of the window’, it already has perfection." On first glance this appears to be uncharacteristic hubris, but "perfection" here is the mastery Georg Bendemann exercises as he gazes through his window high over Prague and writes to his Russian friend before being condemned to death by drowning by forces without and within the domain of writing. Georg's real life begins only when the sentence has been carried out and the story ends. The rest is fantasy.
I have been thinking about Tomas for many years. [...] I saw him standing at the window of his flat and looking across the court-yard at the opposite walls, not knowing what to do.Milan Kundera's Unbearable Lightness of Being begins by presenting the main character as both a product of imagination and independent of it, with the effect of foregrounding the work and responsibility of the imagination rather than indulging its freedom to noodle with language. (The claim to know Tomas' uncertainty exists under this effect.) What Beckett and Bernhard, Kafka and Kundera have in common then is very different to what is shared by Munro and Lutz.
While thinking about the differences, I remembered an essay in this book by John Mepham on narrative and fictional time in Woolf's To the Lighthouse. It might help. He begins by acknowledging that for a story to be told at all there must be "the voice of one who knows". Writing would then be a means of creating order by means of an independent framework much like those provided by political or religious values. "But", Mepham writes, "what if we lack this sense of epistemological certainty? What if our experience seems fragmented, partial, incomplete, disordered?". The reader is then asked to think about the memory of a person they have loved, an act perhaps similar to Munro and Lutz writing about Grace, Avie and Loo. Without the means of thought and expression provided by an independent framework "we might have the feeling that the remembered person escapes us, is ungraspable, cannot be contained in our minds except as a disordered flow of particular fragments of memory". We might still feel there is a unity in these memories if only we could use them as raw materials to "work on, condense, assemble into a form of speech worthy of their object":
If writing could be the means of completing the half-finished phrase, or bringing together and thereby enriching the fragments, then writing would not be primarily the telling of a story but the search for a voice. Narration would not be the embodiment of some pre-existing knowledge but the satisfaction of the desire to speak with appropriate intensity about things of which our knowledge is most uncertain.Does the search for a voice define what is unique about contemporary European fiction in that the sense of epistemological certainty is certainly lacking? Mepham goes on to examine the relationship between the narration of To the Lighthouse and the fictional story told within that narration. I was struck by a quotation in which parts of words are emboldened to emphasise the narrative's own search for a form worthy of its object, while also reminding me of Lish's demand for an attunement to the hidden rhythms and resonances of language:
Standing between her knees, very stiff, James felt all her strength flaring up to be drunk and quenched by the beak of brass, the arid scimitar of the make, which smote mercilessly, again and again, demanding sympathy ....James as he stood stiff between her knees, felt her rise in a rose-flowered fruit tree laid with leaves and dancing boughs into which the beak of brass, the arid scimitar of his father, the egotistical man, plunged and smote, demanding sympathy.The word repetition reminds me of the most alluring feature of Thomas Bernhard's prose (which of course also had a deep influence on Sebald) but which is used less in his short stories, suggesting that the short story itself is less amenable to the slowing down necessary to be worthy of its object. Of course, Woolf also uses the kind of sentences of which I have been suspicious, but here the attunement is to another's experience sensed in the swell of wandering words. The short story instead tends to display a confidence in form, of the strength of a long-practised voice, and the dominance of narrative time. It is appropriate then that the Nobel committee chose the word "master". Contrast this to Woolf's creative letting go.
In this [Mepham writes] we suddenly hear the narration transformed into poetry. We hear repetitions of metrically striking phrases. It is as if the narrative space and time are multiplying themselves. Things which are singular and short-lived in the fiction become multiple and protracted in the narration, as if their fictional intensity were forcing an expansion of narrative dimensions. Repetition slows down fictional time for us, and opens up its pores and allows its full force to swell through into the narration.