Too Much Happiness

Alice Munro

I’ve read so many of Alice Munro’s stories, some of which were pre-booklog and some that I didn’t bother to write up at the time. This collection feels like a particularly strong batch of stories, if a bit more vicious overall, compared to other collections — so much death and injury!

The highlight is definitely the story that won the title, “Too Much Happiness,” which is about the Russian mathematician Sophia Kovalevsky. Munro explains in the acknowledgments that she discovered Sophia while researching something else and then commenced reading everything she could find about her — in particular she notes that Little Sparrow “enthralled [her] beyond all others.”

The story recounts the last days of Sophia’s life, with a few earlier recollections. I felt a little dubious about why I was reading about 1891 in Genoa — because where’s small-town Ontario? But Sophia is indeed fascinating, starting with her difficulties in securing a professional life as a mathematician: she has a “fictitious marriage” in order to overrule her father’s authority, as she needs a father or husband to give her permission to leave Russia in order to go somewhere that allows women to attend universities; then she makes great achievements and wins awards, but for years no school in Europe will give her a professorship. In the story Sophia is returning to Sweden by train and coming down with the influenza which will kill her in a few days, all the while obsessing about her hopes to remarry with a sociologist named Maksim, who is portrayed as a guy who doesn’t really want to settle down. Munro omitted the “romantic friendship” with Anne-Charlotte Edgren-Leffler I see referenced elsewhere, but then it is a short story. I have to say I feel pretty entranced by Sophia now too.