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‘Her stories are life itself’: Yiyun Li on the genius of Alice Munro
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‘Her stories are life itself’: Yiyun Li on the genius of Alice Munro

Two days after Alice Munro died, I went to an event in New York, and found myself among strangers. A woman asked me if I’d heard that the great “Janet Munro” had died. Janet? The confusion was cleared up, and a man told me about Munro’s life story, with a detailed description of the photo used for her obituary in the New York Times. Another woman told me that, unlike most writers, Munro did not write novels, only stories. “Isn’t that interesting?” Next came the inevitable question, which people often ask of someone who writes novels and stories: “Which is easier for you?”

Easy? That’s an adjective that I’ve never associated with literature.

Lives of Girls and Women by Alice Munro.View image in fullscreen

My mood was a little dire, suspecting that the animated group might not have known Munro beyond her fame. For a moment I wanted to mischievously ask each of them about their favourite Munro story. But I did not – if someone asked me that question, I would not have known the answer, either.

William Trevor, the only other short story writer in recent history of Munro’s calibre, once described to me his visits to Monet’s garden in Giverny. He would go to the garden for days in a row and stay from dawn to dusk to observe how the light changed. Then he would study Monet’s paintings, trying to understand through the strokes what Monet had seen.

Reproductions of Monet’s paintings hang comfortably in many waiting rooms, and Munro’s life and career provide a fine topic for small talk. A meaningful relationship with an artist’s work, however, takes time. Trevor’s approach to Monet seems the only way (at least to me) to read Munro. Her work is not for sampling (which sometimes happens to short story writers) or devouring in one sitting (a wrong-headed phrase, which equates reading to consuming). Rather, Munro’s work is for rereading over time – years, decades – until one’s relationship with her work becomes part of one’s relationship with life itself.

I first read Munro in my late 20s. Over the years I have become a revisitor of her writing, in contrast to some other authors, whom I read perennially. The latter category, which includes Trevor and Tolstoy, becomes an invariable of life. But Munro is an entirely different case, and she may be a singular author in that category for me: the time spent not reading her is as essential to my understanding of her work as the time spent immersed in her words.

Alice Munro in Ontario, Canada, in 2006.View image in fullscreen

A year or two would pass when I would feel no urge to read her, and then suddenly rereading her becomes a priority. And between the revisits life keeps changing: marriage, different jobs, giving birth to and parenting two children who grew from helpless infants to boys with deep thoughts communicable and incommunicable, losing them six years apart, and now, mourning them. At each juncture of my life, I have returned to reread Munro, whose characters too have gone on living with catastrophes minor and major, disturbances perceptible and imperceptible.

What have I noticed with each rereading? Not the events in one or another story, not what happens to this or that character. Rather, it’s the texture of life: trains and cars, weathers and seasons, paths in the woods or next to a creek, a child’s gesture or a mother’s thought, seemingly inexplicable, days and years, and of course, leave-takings, some more permanent than others.

My feelings about the events and the characters are full of ambiguities: one may root for the mother abandoning her children while feeling devastated by the children left behind. But the experience of paying attention to what Munro paid attention to, akin to William Trevor’s studying Monet’s garden and Monet’s paintings, blurs the line between living and reading: the lives of those characters are no more insoluble than mine, and no less, either.

I last read Munro in the summer of 2022, on a family holiday near Lake Geneva. Every morning I got up early to walk by the lake, and sat down to read a story from Friend of My Youth. I had lost one child then; I did not yet know what was to come. I distinctly remember the moment I underlined a passage when a pair of swans moved effortlessly past me: “For she hasn’t thought that crocheted roses could float away or that tombstones could hurry down the street. She doesn’t mistake that for reality, and neither does she mistake anything else for reality, and that is how she knows that she is sane.”

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Rereading the passage today, I can’t say I am saner than I was then, for on that day I was sane, too. Only, I’ve come further in life, with new knowledge about what is called reality.

When I was younger, there was a witty saying circulating among writers about the difference between writing a novel and writing a short story: a novel is like a marriage, a story is like a love affair. I don’t know to whom this idea is to be credited, but how wrong it is! A novel is often an escape, for readers as well as for the author. In that sense a novel is like a love affair – it begins, it ends, and then a writer moves on to write the next novel while the readers find the next novel to occupy themselves.

Stories, at least the kind Munro had written in her career that spanned more than 40 years, are more than an affair, more than a marriage; they are life itself. Rereading Munro is demanding – it asks the readers not to shy away from life; rewarding, too, as I am certain many of Munro’s readers will agree.

Source: theguardian.com