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In Appreciation: Alice Munro

Way back in 1968, Alice Munro published The Dance of the Happy Shades, her first collection of short stories. She was 37, married to bookseller Jim Munro and living with him and their three daughters in sleepy Victoria, British Columbia.

“Housewife finds time to write stories,” ran the headline in a local newspaper, but the late Hugh Garner, who wrote the introduction to Munro’s debut collection, recognized that she was more than a dabbler. Garner defined her as a “literary artist” right out of the publishing gates: “Not only do real people, situations and places – yes and our memories of those we have known – become the paint and clay of the artist in words but they come to life in the hearts and minds of the readers.”

It was this talent for turning ordinary life into art which made her international reputation among readers, critics and writers – including the American writer Cynthia Ozick, who called her “our Chekhov,” and her friend Margaret Atwood, who ranked Munro “among the major writers of English fiction of our time.”

From that first collection, which won the Governor-General’s Award, then the country’s major literary prize, Munro went on to write a novel, Lives of Girls and Women, and close to 150 stories over the next half-century. Her fiction usually appeared in magazines, mainly The New Yorker, before being published in book form, often with a slightly different ending. Her 14 collections amassed national and international awards. Besides winning the Governor-General’s Award three times, she won the Giller Prize (twice), the O. Henry Award, the Man Booker International Prize and the Nobel Prize for literature in 2013 as a “master of the contemporary short story.”

Munro’s Books, which the author opened in Victoria with her then-husband in 1963, would continue to promote her work as she produced dozens of short stories. Patrons came to take selfies with her books in October, 2013, in the week that her Nobel honors were first announced.

A woman with a sly sense of humor, Munro always shunned the spotlight, preferring to let others hold forth while she plumbed her own emotional life to write penetrating, deceptively artless stories. A writer in the vein of the Irish novelist and playwright William Trevor, she lures readers into her imagined world, then shakes them up with time switches and chillingly plausible character revelations that leave readers puzzling long after they have turned the page.

Her subject matter, the emotional lives of girls and women, deepened over time as she matured as a writer, aged as a woman and broadened her perspectives. Railing against the pretensions and limitations of her own mother, she struggled to succeed as a writer without being swamped by domesticity and motherhood. These themes are as familiar in Munro’s fiction as are the landscapes of Southwestern Ontario and the coastline of British Columbia. Her writing is rooted in time and place and yet universal, not least because she has never allowed herself to be seduced in her fiction by current events or discussions of political movements, or, with one early exception, to choose the larger canvas of a novel. Instead, she has packed the short story with nuance, honing in on the emotional and psychological truths of human frailty in a narrative voice that speaks conspiratorially with readers.

Munro has created a complex world that nourishes readers in different ways as they too love, suffer and cope with life’s inevitable exigencies. The stories themselves don’t change, but we intuit new insights with each rereading, a quality that Virginia Woolf recognized in an earlier literary artist, Charlotte Brontë.

In Woolf’s 1916 essay (collected in Genius and Ink) to mark the centenary of Brontë’s birth, she wrote about “the peculiarity which real works of art possess in common.” When reading Brontë, Woolf argued that it was impossible “to lift your eyes from the page” because she “has you by the hand and forces you along her road, seeing the things she sees and as she sees them. She is never absent for a moment, nor does she attempt to conceal herself or to disguise her voice.” That is the reaction I have when I read Munro: that she is, as Woolf said of Brontë, “primarily the recorder of feelings and not of thoughts.”

Munro explained her process in a rare onstage interview in 2008 with Deborah Treisman, fiction editor of The New Yorker. She said that she imagines her stories visually (a quality that Woolf admired in Brontë’s writing) often focusing on an image or an incident or the effect characters may have on each other. And then she might sit and stare out the window for days “just letting things get settled in my head” before struggling to write anything down.

Munro may not be a novelist, but that does not make her a miniaturist – far from it. Her stories expand in the minds of her readers to incorporate the other half of the conversation – the shared experience of being ridiculed, beaten or sexually exploited, or for having the audacity to put your own ambitions and appetites ahead of husband and children.

All fiction writers are memoirists in camouflage, however much they protest to the contrary. Munro, who didn’t bother with denials, was ruthless in paring away fripperies to expose the politics of relationships by exploring the snobberies, disappointments and treacheries of everyday life and love. She had no respect for privacy or hurt feelings – not even her own.

Eschewing plot-driven narratives, hooked to current events, Munro internalized the wider world as she zoomed in on the rural landscapes and small towns of Huron County in Southwestern Ontario, a region immortalized by the late painter Greg Curnoe as “Souwesto,” an area that was also the birthplace of Robertson Davies, James Reaney and John Kenneth Galbraith.

Munro knows that geography intimately, as Brontë knew the Yorkshire moors. “I am intoxicated by this particular landscape,” Munro told writer Daphne Merkin in a 2004 profile in The New York Times magazine. “I am at home with the brick houses, the falling-down barns, the trailer parks, burdensome old churches, Walmart and Canadian Tire. I speak the language.”

Alice Ann Laidlaw was born in July, 1931, on the outskirts of a town called Wingham. It is a prototype of all the Jubilees, Dalglishes, Walleys and Hanrattys in Munro’s fiction, small towns where people’s lives were “dull, simple, amazing and unfathomable – deep caves paved with kitchen linoleum,” as she wrote in Lives of Girls and Women.

She was a child of the Great Depression. Her father, Robert Laidlaw, of Scottish descent, was a failed breeder of silver foxes and minks; her mother, Anne Clarke Chamney Laidlaw, of Irish and Scottish heritage, hailed from the Ottawa Valley. Poverty constrained the lives of the Laidlaws, and so did a fussy decorum that hid the dire reality of life behind lace curtains. Sex is a frequent topic in Munro’s fiction because she came of age when women were meant to service their husband’s pleasure rather than acknowledge, never mind seek, their own. As her first-person narrator writes about Flora, a twice-jilted woman in Friend of my Youth: What made her “evil in my story was just what made her admirable in my mother’s – her turning away from sex.”

The narrator confides that her “mother had grown up in a time and a place when sex was a dark undertaking for women. She knew that you could die from it. So, she honoured the decency, the prudery, the frigidity, that might protect you. And I grew up in horror of that very protection, the dainty tyranny that seemed to me to extend to all areas of life, to enforced tea parties and white gloves and all other sorts of tinkling inanities. I favoured bad words and a breakthrough, I teased myself with the thought of a man’s recklessness and domination.”

The only way Alice Laidlaw was going to escape the rundown farm and small-town life was to keep going to school, no matter how far she had to walk or the hours she had to spend earning money as a babysitter or a turkey gutter on school holidays in a meat-processing plant.

Of course, these experiences provided a different kind of education, which supplied the material for many of her early stories in which she explored what might have happened had she become pregnant and dropped out of high school or failed to win a scholarship and had to find a job.

None of those calamities came to pass. And yet, after two years on scholarship at the University of Western Ontario, and having published a story, The Dimensions of a Shadow, in a college literary magazine, she gave it all up. In 1951 she married Jim Munro, a recent graduate, and moved with him to Vancouver, on the other side of the country. She was 20, he was 22, and soon she was pregnant with the first of their three daughters.

Why would she quit school to get married? Sex was the simple answer. “You got married to have sex. Methods of birth control were too chancy,” she said bluntly to Merkin about those prepill, prechoice days.

The Munros’ marriage did not survive second-wave feminism, the frenetic sexual shenanigans of the 1970s and her need to escape domesticity. Back in the early 1990s, broadcaster Eleanor Wachtel, of CBC’s Writers and Company, asked Munro why she was so interested in adultery. Munro’s answer was more general than personal, referencing her writerly purpose rather than source material based on her own lusts and behaviour. “Adultery is like modern theatre in the adventure it offers in ordinary people’s lives,” she said. “It’s a drama … that I think a writer is naturally attracted to.” Perhaps so, but in a writer so attuned to her own history, it is hard not to draw a connection between Munro’s experiences as a woman fleeing a traditional marriage and the characters she was drawing in her fiction.

After her marriage broke down, Munro returned to Ontario, her literary wellspring, and concentrated more fully on writing. She and Jim Munro divorced in 1972, the year after Lives of Girls and Women was published with a dedication to him; he remained a huge supporter of his former wife’s writing until his death in 2016.

Four years after her divorce, Munro married Gerald Fremlin, a cartographer and geographer who was seven years her senior, and, as she later admitted, an unrequited flame from university days. They lived in the house in which he had grown up in Clinton, a small town in Southwestern Ontario near her hometown of Wingham, and eventually spent winters in Comox, B.C., where the eldest of her daughters then lived.

Munro was no longer writing in the vein of a young woman; rather she was reflecting on her life and times as a mature artist, sometimes expanding to incorporate genealogical portraits of the Laidlaw family in The View from Castle Rock or to write deeply researched novella-length historical fictions, not unlike Margaret Atwood’s genre blurring in Alias Grace.

She also wrote as an older woman reckoning with the perfidy of young girls and atoning for her own impatience during her mother’s long decline from Parkinson’s disease. Some stories, such as the Faustian sexual bargain a devoted husband strikes to ease his demented wife’s anxiety in The Bear Came Over the Mountain, might seem eerily prescient, while others, such as the haunting Nettles, evoke the consequences of earlier choices.

Nettles, a 30-page story, could easily have been a novel in a lesser writer’s hands. It opens with an unnamed female narrator referring to Mike, a seemingly forgotten man she had remet by chance. The narrative abruptly shifts back to the era of Munro’s youth on her parents’ silver-fox farm and her childhood friendship with the son of a well-digger, living a peripatetic existence “wherever his father was working,” while attending “whatever school was at hand.” The two children, age 8 and 9, are “like brother and sister,” her mother insists to the hired man, attempting to dismiss his snickers about what the kids are really up to when they wander off.

Suddenly, the story switches time frames and the divorced narrator is on her way to spend a weekend with Sunny, a friend from the days when their pregnancies “had dovetailed nicely.”

Both women have left Vancouver for Ontario, Sunny with her children and husband because he has a new job, and the narrator on her own after “leaving husband and house and all the things acquired during the marriage (except of course the children, who were to be parceled about) in the hope of making a life that could be lived without hypocrisy or deprivation or shame.”

Good luck with that one. That’s the glum lesson the narrator learns in a confessional passage in which she describes a summer visit from her daughters, aged 10 and 12, a custodial sojourn that ends in tantrums and accusations and quickly rearranged flights so that the girls can return to their father’s house. Meanwhile, the narrator, an aspiring writer and a sexually avid woman, returns to what? Not “a fine and amazing thing to be happening but the stale habit of a lonely life.”

The narrator knows that what she is writing “wasn’t any better than what I’d managed to write back in the old life while the potatoes cooked or the laundry thumped around in its automatic cycle. There was just more of it, and it wasn’t any worse – that was all.”

Has a writer ever been more honestly disparaging about her early writings, and yet more persistent in her efforts? (At this stage of her career, the real Munro had published two highly acclaimed books of fiction.) From that despair, the narrator – is she unnamed because the story is so autobiographical? – phones Sunny, invites herself for the weekend and re-encounters Mike, who is bunking with them because his wife and children are away.

Mike and the narrator, no longer “like brother and sister,” seem destined to have an incandescent affair. Of course, Munro never does the expected. Instead, she twists the story in a heartbreaking way when Mike shares a terrible secret that makes betraying his wife untenable. There will be no affair, casual or otherwise.

Fans may find in reading Nettles an evocation of a similar negligence but with a vastly different outcome in Miles City, Montana, a much-anthologized Munro story. The two stories are different takes on the lasting harm that can occur because of a momentary self-indulgent distraction.

And then there is Vandals, an eerily disturbing and multilayered horror story that Munro published in The New Yorker in 1993 and included in Open Secrets the following year. The mother figure is Bea Doud, a hedonistic supply teacher who moves in with Ladner, a taxidermist with perverted sexual proclivities. Doud befriends the two children who live next door to Ladner’s rural property while ignoring the sadistic way her lover sexually assaults them. The story changes perspectives and time frames as the reader stumbles through a narrative labyrinth of horrors.

Vandals presents an extreme version of the mother in several Munro stories who snitches on her children to their father, moves backstage while he beats “the tar out of them,” and then offers tea and sympathy to her bruised and battered offspring.

Novelist Elizabeth Hay has written a perceptive essay, “The Mother as Material,” in the Cambridge Companion to Alice Munro (edited by David Staines). “It seemed to me I was picking up the scent of the real mother inside the fiction, a mother who came from the Ottawa Valley in eastern Ontario, as did mine.” I read the stories with the same recognition, although my mother came from a different part of Ontario. “And what was the truth the stories revealed?” Hay asks rhetorically. “It had to do with the way intimate yet tentative knowledge about one’s mother leads to unsparing self-knowledge … for in order to become a writer, Munro had to abandon her ill and needy mother, who then became the subject to which she irresistibly returned.” The mother figure, with whom we have battled in the domestic trenches, turns out to be the voice in our ear as we struggle to raise our own daughters and preserve a sense of self and creative purpose. Who else but Munro could use a short form to take a long view of life?

Like a cinematographer, Munro cuts and splices scenes, forcing the reader to focus on crucial emotional moments while the dross falls to the floor. “I’d love to see her drafts, or the inside of her mind as she works,” the Irish writer Colm Toibin observed in The Guardian, “because my feeling is that this takes a great deal of erasing, adding, taking risks, pulling back, taking time.”

As an artist, Munro resents the notion that the short story is a minor literary form. “I haven’t read a novel that I didn’t think couldn’t have been a better story,” she told Merkin in the Times piece. Or, as the late British writer A.S. Byatt wrote in the Literary Review, “Munro’s short stories … are extraordinary in that they contain whole lives (which should have taken whole novels) in the brief spaces of tales.”

Munro takes on the short-story-versus-novel issue in one of her later stories, Fiction, from Too Much Happiness, in which she exacts her revenge on Joyce, a middle-aged reader who spurns the talent of Christie, a rising literary star.

In the story, Christie has written a book entitled How Are We to Live. Joyce buys it spontaneously, and discovers it is a collection of short stories, rather than a novel. “This in itself is a disappointment,” Joyce thinks. “It seems to diminish the book’s authority, making the author seem like somebody who is just hanging on to the gates of Literature, rather than safely settled inside.”

And yet, Joyce does read the book and recognizes that Christie is the stepdaughter of Joyce’s first husband, and a former pupil of hers from a lifetime ago. Chuffed that the book may be all about her, Joyce shows up at Christie’s crowded book signing, assuming the author will recognize her as a beloved and formative teacher. In Munro’s famous bait-and-switch literary technique, that is not what happens.

“There is not a scrap of recognition in the girl’s face,” Joyce realizes, as Christie signs her book and shifts her glance to the next person in line. “Joyce at last has the sense to move on, before she becomes an object of general amusement or, God knows, possibly a matter of interest to the police.”

“Who Do You Think You Are?” I couldn’t help thinking, remembering both the title of Munro’s 1980 collection and the familiar slur hurled at people such as Munro, the aspiring writer, who have the gall to rise above their “station.” And yet, Munro’s perspective has changed from those early days. It is Joyce, the dismissive reader, who gets her comeuppance, not Christie the talented writer, as Munro wants us, her fans, to know. The bond that Hugh Garner recognized so long ago with the “hearts and minds” of readers has only grown stronger as the years have passed and Munro has elevated the art of the short story.

Munro toyed with retiring in 2006, after some health issues, but like a sensible woman she kept on writing. Her last collection, Dear Life, was published in 2012, when she was 81.

It is an extraordinary collection for its ability to look forward as well as backward, including In Sight of the Lake, the peripatetic story of a woman in the middle stages of dementia trying to navigate her way home, a place that turns out to be an institution from which she has wandered away. Knowing what we know now of Munro’s long decline, it is hard not to read the story as prescient.

The collection ends with three stories that are obviously autobiographical. In the title story, published as a “personal history” in The New Yorker, Munro learns a different version of an oft-told family story, a revelation that she would love to share with her mother, who by then has long since died. That maternal absence leads Munro to add a postscript, a flagellation that will be familiar to readers. “I did not go home for my mother’s last illness or for her funeral.’’ She presents her perfectly reasonable excuses and then adds: “We say of some things that they can’t be forgiven, or that we will never forgive ourselves. But we do – we do it all the time.”

Make of this what you will, but I think it suggests that Munro has made peace with herself. She has resolved her maternal conflict, the motivating spur for so much of her fiction.

The following year, 2013, was momentous. Munro’s second husband died in April, at the age of 88, and six months later she won the Nobel. The literary world was in a frenzy. Munro, deemed too frail by her family to travel to Stockholm, watched the ceremony on television, as her middle daughter Jenny accepted the prize on her mother’s behalf.

In truth, Munro was in the early stages of dementia. There would be no more stories, only the pleasure of rereading and being struck anew by the genius of Alice Munro. As we mourn her death, let rereading be our solace. The stories live on.