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‘Reading her stories is like watching a virtuoso pianist perform’: Alice Munro remembered

‘Reading her stories is like watching a virtuoso pianist perform’: Alice Munro remembered

Back in 2006, I visited Alice Munro in Ontario to interview her for the publication of her collection The View from Castle Rock. She had sworn off any future publicity and claimed she didn’t plan on writing much longer – two more collections followed, along with the International Man Booker and the Nobel. She was a mere 74 at that point. The cult of Munro was still something of a members only club then, with writers such as fellow Canadian Margaret Atwood (with whom she was friends for more than 45 years) and the late AS Byatt among her many admirers, along with relative young guns such as Jonathan Franzen and Lorrie Moore.

So, I found myself in Goderich (billed as “Canada’s prettiest town”) in a suitably Munrovian mizzle sometime in the autumn. Munro lived in neighbouring Clinton, with her second husband Gerry Fremlin. We met for lunch in a little restaurant called Bailey’s Fine Dining (white tablecloths and tinkly music). She had a regular table by the bar and a key that she produced from her handbag as the staff were clearing up so we could continue chatting over glasses of white wine diluted with water, while poor Fremlin listened to Swan Lake in his truck outside.

Years later, in 2011 to be precise, a tornado tore through the town. Among several of the old buildings on the square, Bailey’s was one of the worst hit. “A case of divine disapproval,” Munro quipped afterwards. In the April of 2013, before she was awarded the Nobel, Fremlin died. Time passing, a freak accident, personal loss and an unexpected ending – all the hallmarks of a Munro story.

As far back as 1997 the New Yorker critic James Wood declared her “such a good writer that nobody bothers any more to judge her goodness … her reputation is like a good address.” In 2004, in one of the most deliriously compelling pieces of criticism ever written, Jonathan Franzen urged people to “Read Munro! Read Munro!”, and anointed her “the Great One”. And Atwood noted Munro’s ascension to “international literary sainthood” in 2008.

It doesn’t get much higher than that. As Atwood pointed out, the great mystery of Munro was the prevailing sense that however elevated her reputation, she still wasn’t worshipped widely enough. There was a rallying cry of “At last!” when she was awarded the International Man Booker prize, and “Finally!” when she won the Nobel. With her death this week there can be no doubt that Munro was one of the finest writers of the last 50 years.

Partly this defensiveness arose from her genre and subject matter: short stories about ordinary lives in small-town Ontario – all those diminutives seemed to demand ever more outsized superlatives. She was herself petite, as self-effacing and unpretentious in person as she was on the page. In the relatively few photographs of her (she didn’t really do publicity), she is always unfashionably smiling and is often wearing a hat or standing on a white wooden porch – giving the impression that she might have stepped out of LM Montgomery’s Avonlea. All of which added to the idea that she was in some way a “modest” or “gentle” writer. Unless you had read her. Like all great writers, there is cruelty – as well as compassion – in her work. Not to mention sex. According to American novelist Mona Simpson, Munro did “for female sexuality what Philip Roth did for male sexuality”.

Alice Munro in Goderich, Ontario, Canada.View image in fullscreen

So what accounts for this remarkable “goodness”? Firstly, there was her mastery of form – Munro could stretch and contort the short story in almost shocking ways. She was undaunted by shifts of perspective or sudden leaps in time that would be perilous to lesser writers. To read a Munro story is like watching a virtuoso pianist perform alone on the stage, where novelists have the rest of the orchestra to hide behind. Every move, every note, is on show, and yet it is impossible to know how she does it.

A girl learns how to gut turkeys with local farmworkers before going off to college on a scholarship (The Turkey Season); a genteel piano teacher fallen on hard times holds a recital performed by children with Down’s syndrome (Dance of the Happy Shades); an elderly man and woman, both of them suffering from dementia and married to other people, rekindle a teenage romance in a residential home (The Bear Came over the Mountain) – in bald summary Munro’s stories often seem strange and unsettling.

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Her subject, as Franzen pointed out, was “People, people, people” – and because people have parents and children, need money, sex and dreams, her subjects were also family, economics, desire and ambition. These people came from Huron County, south-west Ontario, which has come to be called Munro country (Jubilee or Hanratty in her fiction), where the author grew up and returned to spend the second half of her life.

The broad outlines of Munro’s biography will be known to her readers from her stories: her father’s fox farm; her mother’s long illness (she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s when Alice was 10); the bookish, lonely childhood; the scholarship to University of Western Ontario; the young marriage when she was 20 to Jim Munro; early motherhood; the second marriage and return to Ontario. Its emotional shading will also be familiar: her remorse at not returning to care for her mother; her ambition and restlessness; her guilt at spending so much time writing as a mother. Her overriding theme is escape – the title of one story, and indeed collection, is Runaway – and her characters are often running away from home, marriage, responsibility.

After years of frustration, Munro first started writing in earnest after her first husband sent her into their bookshop, Munro’s Books, that he set up in Victoria in British Columbia (now a Canadian literary landmark) while he made supper for their daughters. When the children were small she would write whenever and wherever she could. “Housewife finds time to write short stories” announced the headline in the Vancouver Sun on one of the first pieces written about her. She would write first thing, often before getting dressed, with a cup of coffee until around 11 am – “the serious writing is done in the morning” – a routine she maintained long after her girls had grown up. Even when she and Fremlin lived in Clinton, she didn’t have a study, but wrote at a wooden desk in the corner of the living room. She wouldn’t write in chronological order, but endlessly reshaped and rejigged, sometimes calling back stories to change a couple of words.

For many years she assumed she would one day write a novel. Several of her stories started out as hopeful longer fictions, and as a result they are long, almost nudging on novellas. “I’m always trying,” she said in an interview with this paper in 2003.

“Between every book I think, well now, it’s time to get down to the serious stuff.” But it never happened, instead she felt that squeezing so much into each story was some sort of compensation, and – as was often remarked – each of her stories contains more depth and range than most novels. Her 1971 Lives of Girls and Women is subtitled “A Novel”, although as she herself put it, is “really just a collection of linked stories”.

Lives of Girls and Women contains the much-quoted lines that have been taken as a credo for Munro’s writing. They bear repeating not just because they sum up what she was trying to achieve, but because they are so lovely in themselves.

“People’s lives, in Jubilee as elsewhere, were dull, simple, amazing, unfathomable – deep caves paved with kitchen linoleum. It did not occur to me then that one day I would be so greedy for Jubilee … what I wanted was every last thing, every layer of speech and thought, stroke of light on bark or walls, every smell, pothole, pain, crack, delusion, held still and held together – radiant, everlasting.”

And here lies the key to Munro’s greatness – the way in which, over five decades, she polished the same apparently unlovely, humdrum material to a luminous sheen. Her stories are small miracles of humane understanding. But don’t be fooled into mistaking this for gentleness or sentimentality. Franzen nailed it when he called it “pathological empathy”, hers is an obsessive, merciless, probing of our psyches, rooting out all our small meannesses, insecurities and inconsistencies, our endless evasions and self-delusions.

At one point Munro became such a byword for literary good taste that her work came to be known as the – much imitated – “classic New Yorker-style short stories”. (Despite this genteel reputation, legend has it she was the first writer to get the word “fuck” into the magazine). But, as the Booker winner Marlon James told me of this trend: “Munro’s Bowie! The rest are A Flock of Seagulls.”

There is barely a piece written about Munro that doesn’t include a mention of Chekhov (in fact it was Fremlin, in a letter as her editor on the student newspaper years before they got it together in midlife, who first evoked him). The comparison makes her work seem a little rarefied or stuffy. How many of us read Chekhov regularly, after all? If you haven’t read Chekhov you can still read – and love – Munro. But her own description of reading Chekhov’s story Lady with the Dog, which she told me all that time ago in long-gone Baileys, is perhaps the simplest and best way to describe the effect of one of her own stories: “the mood of the story gets into your bones”. Munro’s stories get into your bones, and you carry them around with you for ever.

Source: theguardian.com