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There’s another “Dear Life” out there – Comparing H.E. Bates and Alice Munro

The delightful My Uncle Silas, by HE Bates (Herbert Ernest Bates, CBE, 16 May 1905 to 29 January 1974)
The delightful My Uncle Silas, by HE Bates (Herbert Ernest Bates, CBE, 16 May 1905 to 29 January 1974)

TWO “DEAR LIFE” TITLES

The other day, I was rereading one of my favourite short story compilations, My Uncle Silas, by H.E. Bates (Penguin Books, 1939), and noticed that he had, like Alice Munro, published a book under the title of Dear Life. Like Munro’s work, it was in the short story or novella format. It was published by Little, Brown and Company, London, UK, in 1949,  a couple of years after the end of WWII. Bates had made his name with his ripping war novels and stories set in India and Burma, and the jolly tales of the Larkin family, especially the televised The Darling Buds of May. However, Bates’ Dear Life was an experiment and a departure from his usual bucolic, sentimental visions of a vanished past.  It is a graphic story of a teenager whose life devolves from an abusive and miserable home situation to a series of senseless robberies and killings with an ex-soldier. As social criticism it was not well received and was generally panned by reviewers. Perhaps the very dark novella deserves reevaluation – it could simply have been ahead of its time, since it sounds like a common scenario in today’s world.  But after the war, people were looking for distraction from, not a re-emphasis of their hardships.

WHAT SORT OF DEAR IS THIS?

However, it did make me re-think Munro and Bates’ choice of title. In Bates’ case, “dear” was probably used in its meaning of “scarce”, or as an expression of distress or sadness, and not so much in the sense of  “earnestness” or “affection”. In this instance, the delinquent’s life was certainly not precious, and she had very little of a good life.

Dear Life, by H.E. Bates - also a novella, but a different kind of dear.
Dear Life, by H.E. Bates – also a novella, but a different kind of dear.
Dear Life, by Alice Munro
Dear Life, by Alice Munro

Particularly, I wondered whether there was particular significance in Nobel Prize winner Munro’s choice of wording for the title of her latest work.

Since 2006, rumours have abounded that she has written her last book. Munro’s agent, Virginia Barber, has said: “nearly every time Alice completes a book she opines that it will be her last. She used up all of her materials; she has nothing to say.” Yet, she has continued to write prolifically. However, in Dear Life, she crossed the dividing line between fiction and autobiography, something she has avoided doing in previous works, saying simply about what she writes: “They are stories.” 

In Dear Life, Munro wrote in a preface, “The final four works in this book are not quite stories. They form a separate unit, one that is autobiographical in feeling, though not, sometimes, entirely so in fact. I believe they are the first and last—and the closest—things I have to say about my own life.”

A LITTLE NOSTALGIA

This point of view has been beautifully developed in Julian Barnes’ Man Booker Prize-winning novel of 2011, The Sense of An Ending, which has the themes of ageing and memory. Barnes writes that nostalgia is not the getting “soggy” from memories of childhood, or deceiving yourself sentimentally about something that may or may not have been true in the past, but rather that “nostalgia means the powerful recollection of strong emotions – and a regret that such feelings are no longer present in our lives.” 

Extremely touching and elegantly portrayed: The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes
Wonderfully touching and elegantly portrayed: The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes (to be reviewed in full on this blog)

Nostalgia, the powerful recollection of strong emotions, and our regret that those emotions are lost to us, happen to us all as we age, as our memories go, as we are assailed by doubt about how things were and how we were when we were young. 

Perhaps Munro, in the final four stories in Dear Life, a segue into a little nostalgia, is acknowledging the emotions in her life that are closest – dearest – to her, because she is nearing both the end of her life (being over 80 and frail) and her writing career (with those frequent rumours of retirement). And in writing them down, she both recollected and relived them, and so do we, as her readers.  

Thus, in Munro’s case, the title means both “most precious” and “most scarce”.  I find her writing very dear indeed, in the best possible senses of the word. Strange what a difference in interpretation one little word can make.