Archive for the ‘Short Stories’ Category

Anna Karenina (Everyman's Library) Cover    Half-Blood Blues Cover  Dear Life: Stories Cover

This past January, I ended up reading three books at the same time.  I hadn’t intended to get involved in this menage a trois, but I’d already started Anna Karenina when I realized I needed to read Half Blood Blues for book club and then bought Dear Life on an impulse at the bookstore (I cannot resist the dual temptation of a beautiful cover and a staff recommendation note).  So for a few weeks in January I read one of Munro’s stories every day along with either Anna Karenina or Half Blood Blues.  Strangely, it all made sense.

When I kept seeing a common theme between three randomly chosen books, I assumed it was my brain’s way of making sense of this haphazard trio.  One was a short story collection about the small, quiet lives of (mostly) women in Canada in the years after World War II.  Another was one of the greatest novels ever, Tolstoy’s portrait of Russia in the nineteenth-century, as told through the story of three marriages.  The other was a Booker shortlisted novel about a group of multiethnic jazz musicians in Berlin and Paris at the onset of World War II.  Yet all three seemed to present a similar theme: “The Moment.”

I don’t think I’m alone in thinking about Munro’s Dear Life as a collection of stories that focus on the decision, or The Moment, when our lives irrevocably change course.  A soldier who jumps from a train before he reaches the stop where his fiance is waiting;  an engagement broken on the way to the wedding; a sister’s leap into a cold, deep pond.  Almost every single story in this beautiful collection depicts a lifetime shaped around a moment.  As well, these stories explore how our individual actions become the events that change the lives of both strangers and family alike.

What struck me was how this theme seemed equally important to my understanding of Anna Karenina and Half Blood Blues.  In Anna Karenina, it’s the moment when Anna and Vronsky sleep together that I’d identify as pivotal to everything that comes before and after in the novel.  Immediately after Anna and Vronsky consummate their affair, Vronsky compares himself to a murderer as she declares that her life as she knew it is ended.  “All is over,” she said; “I have nothing but you.  Remember that.” (173)  In an instant, she realizes that she has been irrevocably changed, her life forever altered. “She felt that at that moment she could not put into words the sense of shame, of rapture, and of horror at this stepping into a new life…” (173)  Despite the fact that there are about 750 pages left in the novel, Anna’s life has been decided in this one moment.

I’m not sure that everyone who reads Anna Karenina views it as being as fatalistic as I do, but it seemed to me that once she rejected her marriage with Karenin, she would never be able to change course.  We can’t help but envision Anna galloping to her demise with too much momentum to save herself when we see Vronsky in the steeplechase, proclaiming his love for his horse while at the same time racing it to its death.  In Anna’s case, it’s hard to see her affair with Vronsky as anything but destructive.  Everyone suffers as a result: Anna, Vronsky, her children, even Karenin.

In Half Blood Blues, the moment that changes everything is morally ambiguous.  On an impulse, Sid makes a decision that forever changes the history of Jazz, but also destroys a life.  It is both horrible and understandable; destructive and creative; selfish and altruistic.  Everything that happens in the novel, both before and after we find out what Sid did is shaped by one brief moment.   Perhaps this theme in all three books is best explained when Sid tells us:

Hell, I known this was it, this was our moment, our lifetime.  Folks think a lifetime is a thing stretched out over years.  It ain’t.  It can happen quick as a match in a dark room. (205)

What each of these three books explore in their own way is the consequences of that moment.  What motivates people to act and what are the consequences of our actions?  Can we know how important a single moment is as it occurs, as Anna did, or only realize it when we look back on our life, like Munro’s characters?

After finishing (and loving) Esi Edugyan’s Half Blood Blues, I was looking for reviews of the novel and more info about the author, when I found this interview!!  Who are Edugyan’s favorite authors?  Tolstoy and Munro! No joke.  I’ll take this as a sign that the unifying theme in all three works was less a figment of my imagination than I’d thought.  It seems that by some happy accident, I’d immersed myself in a perfect literary trio.  It was a great reading experience, in part because all three books were amazing, but also because the questions they raised were perfectly interrelated. Gotta love a little literary serendipity.


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