I couldn’t sleep last night and I decided to clean up my reading list a bit and finish something I had already started. It didn’t take long to set in on the last story in Alice Munro’s last collection of short stories, Too Much Happiness. This was the long story… almost a novella… that the collection was named after. Too Much Happinesswas addicting and I had to keep reading until I was done, no matter how tired I was or how soon the next day’s work would come.
Alice Munro is a brilliant genius. She is, in my humble opinion, the unquestioned master of her genre. If you read the plot summary of one of her stories, you will scratch your head – it will read as melodrama, or a series of random, unconnected action, or it will seem that nothing much really happens. Her mysterious skill is so great that when you actually read the test it makes sense, draws you in, and takes you on an emotional journey far from your pitiful little room where you sit clutching that tattered paperback.
If I could have one ability – I would choose to be able to do, whatever it is, that she does. She makes seamless connections where none should exist. There is a concept that art is the conveying of something that can’t be done any other way. And that is what Alice Munro does, that is her genius. You can’t really summarize or explain what she writes because it is art of such exquisite subtleness that it has a kind of Heisenberg Uncertainty about it – to explain it is to change it.
The collection has a series of her typical mastery. Thinking about it, I almost want to go read it again.
But that’s not what I want to talk about tonight. I want to discuss that last long story, because it is different than what she usually writes.
The long story, “Too Much Happiness” is the story of a woman traveling across Europe one winter in the last decade of the nineteenth century. She visits a series of people from her past and spends a lot of time on cold trains moving through dreary country thinking about her life.
As I plunged on I realized that this was a real person that I had heard of before. The woman was Sofia Kovalevskaya – the first Russian female mathematician. She had been rumored to be the subject of a Thomas Pynchon novel – though she ended up being only a minor character. A fascinating character with an unusual, varied, courageous, and ultimately tragic life. Given such a dynamic protagonist most authors, writers of lesser vision and talent, would have wrote of the high points of such a person, scribbling in breathless prose her struggles to become a woman of letters in a time and place this was unheard of – her arranged marriage – her wild affairs – her political involvement – her friendship with famous figures of the day: Darwin, Eliot (there is a passage in Middlemarch where her mathematical theories are mentioned), and Dostoevsky.
But Munro spends most of her words simply detailing her journey, the people that she shares her compartment with, the difficulties she has with the changing weather, languages, and currency she has to deal with.
And I don’t know how she does it… but it works. By the end you feel you know Sofia… you want to meet her… and most of all you care about her. The ending is devastating, but not unexpected. It is, after all, a life.
The final sentence notes that there is a crater on the moon named after Sofia Kovalevskaya.
And, that’s that.
Reviews of the Alice Munro Collection Too Much Happiness: