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Alice Munro

AWAY FROM HER

Preface

Every now and then, a piece of writing enters your life and collects seemingly unrelated threads, tangling some of them together, straightening out a few, until an articulate pattern is embroidered. One you could have never made yourself.

“The Bear Came Over the Mountain” entered my life when I was twenty-one years old. It crept right into me, had its way with me, and shifted my direction in ways I didn’t understand until years later. I am not an academic, nor a writer (I don’t consider the adaptation of other people’s stories serious writing), so I feel ill equipped to complete the task of writing this preface other than from a purely personal point of view. I believe I can say, without danger of overstatement, that I have had a relationship with this story that has been as powerful and as transformative as any I have had with another human being.

I first read the story on a plane on my way home from Iceland, where I had just finished acting in a film with Julie Christie. My grandmother was gradually losing her grip on her independence and on her memory. My romantic life was in tatters. (These details are only relevant to one another in the context of my own reading of the story. As the details of someone else’s life are only relevant to their reading of it. That’s one of the strangest things about the adaptation of fiction into film. You can never claim that it’s faithful to anything but the story that you read, at that moment, in those particular circumstances. The person next to me, who may also have been reading that week’s New Yorker on the plane from Reykjavik to London, could have easily read another story entirely.) The film that I made, Away from Her, may seem blasphemously untrue to what another reader may see in it, though I painstakingly honored the story that I loved.

I’ve always admired Alice Munro’s writing, but this story punctured something. I read it, stunned,and let it sit there. It seemed to enter like a bullet. So concise and unsentimental, nothing to cushion the blow of its impact. When I was finished, I couldn’t stop weeping.

I returned to it many times in the following months, trying to make sense of the hold it had over me. First, there was Julie Christie. I had met her on the set of Hal Hartley’s film No Such Thing. It had been a magical time, being exposed to someone so essentially curious and alive, and as Alice Munro writes about Fiona, “not quite concealing a private amusement.” It was compounded by meeting her in such a stunning and strange place. And it was a wonder to discover it with her. It was immediately impossible to not imagine Julie’s face when Fiona was described in the story. (And the coincidence of Fiona’s Icelandic background was odd, to say the least.)

Meeting Julie was a kind of salvation for me and distracted me from the exhilarating mess I had been making of my life. In retrospect, I wonder if it isn’t part of the job description of being in your early twenties to make a mess of things. If it is, then I was excelling at my work. I had one unstable, destructive relationship after another, and I didn’t want it any other way. I was a love glutton, addicted to melodrama, and convinced that happiness was the stuff boredom was made of. In the middle of this heart wrenching, hugely stimulating time, I met a film editor named David.

He was a respected editor in Canada, and he agreed to guide me through making my first short film. I immediately liked him, his dry humor, his achingly empathetic eyes, his introspection, the compassionate way he listened when others told stories, his lack of need to take over a room. I loved sitting next to him in the dark in front of the Avid editing system as we talked about images, sound, and the emotional narrative of two other, fictional people. After the film was complete, I stalked him until he dated me, and when, after three weeks, he hadn’t fallen in love with me, I was hurt, and possibly furious. I confronted him. Looking back, I am in awe of the gall it takes to “confront” someone over not falling in love with you.

He was patient with me. He explained that he didn’t believe that love was the name for the butterflies he had in his stomach after three weeks. The butterflies were there, but he didn’t think they were… important. I believed that initial obsession was the main signal, the chief aim of coming into contact with someone you were in love with, and didn’t understand his apparent disregard for irrational passion. If he felt these things as he was claiming to, why wouldn’t he call it love?

He talked about his parents, how they had been together for forty-five years, and how sometimes, as his mother washed the dishes, her husband would approach her as she worked, slip his arms around her waist and lightly kiss the back of her neck. He thought that this endurance was the definition of love, not that initial insanity. If something remained, some inexplicable, intangible thread managed to stay unbroken, after the betrayals, the hurt, and the disappointment that any marriage must surely endure, then that was what he was willing to concede must be love.

Finding this the most boring, unromantic, staid portrait of the thing, I bid him adieu and ran into the arms of the next nightmare I could find. We stayed friends, but the friendship was fraught with hurt and abandonment, more obviously for him, but for me too.

And so, much of my time in Iceland was spent negotiating an impossible and uncompassionate relationship with someone else, someone with whom I could see no future, and which caused much harm to other people.

Over the next few years, I kept coming back to “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” again and again. I couldn’t shake the sound of Grant and Fiona’s private jokes, the sinking, sick feeling of Grant’s guilt, the absolute tenderness between two people who have and are in various ways failing each other and simultaneously doing everything they can. I couldn’t stop thinking about Fiona’s tender use of the word “forsaken” and how ironically and genuinely she says it to him. I couldn’t stop seeing Grant as he “skied around and around in the field behind the house as the sun went down and left the sky pink over a countryside that seemed to be bound by waves of blue- edged ice,” and the eloquent, wintry canvas that serves as the backdrop for their marriage and their loss and discovery of it. I had thought, when I’d finished reading it the first time, that with all of this fictional marriage’s failures, this was perhaps not the greatest love story I’d ever read, but the only love story I’d read. I made no connection between what David had said and my experience of the story, but it stayed with me in such a potent, visceral way, and despite the dust of melodrama I was kicking up around me in my own life, I couldn’t get free of its clarity.

Something in me needed to live inside this story. I think now that it somehow lived in my subconscious for those years, and unhappy as I was in the life I had chosen for myself, I think it was my way of returning, again and again, to the idea of a life with David.

All I knew then was that “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” had raised important questions for me, and I needed to take a good long walk around it and inside it to find out what exactly the natures of those questions were. The way I articulated all of that at the time was simply that I had to make a film out of it.

At around this time, my grandmother’s health starting fading. She was finding that the day-to-day struggle of living alone was becoming too much for her, and as her memory began reforming itself, she began to forget basic facts of her own history, glom-ming onto passages and songs from a lifetime ago that had an elusive relevance she couldn’t finger. Once, as I sat with her at her kitchen table, looking out the high-rise window at the suburban streets below, she said, out of nowhere,

“I see the lights of the village gleam through the rain and the mist And a feeling of sadness comes o’er me that my soul cannot resist
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