- Robert Howard
- Wingham, Canada
- Abner Stein Agency
Canadian writer Alice Munro grew up in Wingham, South West Ontario and has written short fiction since 1950.
Her books consist of collections of short stories, and one book which has been published as a novel, although it is actually a set of inter-linked stories which falls between the two genres. Her accessible, moving stories are set in her native Canada, in small, provincial towns like the one in which she grew up, and explore human relationships through ordinary everyday events. Although not necessarily directly autobiographical, they reflect the author's own life experiences, are concerned with women's lives and are 'probably unrivalled in their fullness' (Washington Post 1998).
Born in 1931 to a farming family, Alice Munro won a scholarship to the University of Western Ontario, where she studied from 1949-1951, but she left before graduating and moved to Vancouver. From 1963 she ran a bookshop in Victoria, British Columbia for several years, before returning to Ontario in 1972. She now lives in Comox, British Columbia and Clinton, Ontario. Her first short story was published in Folio, a student literary magazine, in 1950. During the 1950s and '60s her stories were also accepted for broadcast by CBC and for publication in various journals. Since then many more short stories have been published regularly in prestigious periodicals such as The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and Atlantic Monthly. Fifteen of her earliest stories, many of which have autobiographical elements, were collected in her book, Dance of the Happy Shades (1968 Canada, 1974 UK). In Canada it won the Governor General's Literary Award for Fiction, a success she later repeated with further collections Who Do You think You Are? (1978) and The Progress of Love (1986). Lives of Girls and Women (1973) was intended as a novel, and published as one, but is in fact a collection of interlinked stories. In this book, the narrator Del Jordan explains what she hopes to achieve in writing a work of fiction about small-town life in Ontario. It won a Canadian Booksellers Association Award. Who Do You Think You Are? (1978), published as The Beggar Maid: Stories of Flo and Rose outside of Canada, chronicles the life of a young woman, Rose, growing up in rural Ontario, the theme of identity being central to the book, and was shortlisted for the 1980 Booker Prize for Fiction. During 1977-1981, Alice Munro travelled widely, visiting Australia and China. In 1983, The Moons of Jupiter was published, containing stories also set in Australia and New Brunswick. This was followed by Friend of My Youth (1990), which has an interest in adultery and relationships, and Open Secrets (1994), winner of the 1995 WH Smith Literary Award. It contains longer stories, as does The Love of a Good Woman (1998).
Alice Munro has also written television scripts. A Selected Stories appeared in 1996. Recent collections include Runaway (2004), which won the 2005 Commonwealth Writers Prize (Africa Region, Best Book), The View from Castle Rock (2006), Too Much Happiness (2009) and Dear Life (2012). A further selection of her short stories, Carried Away, was published in 2006, while Lying Under the Apple Tree: New Selected Stories appeared in Britain in 2014.
In 2009 she was the winner of the Man Booker International Prize, and she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2013.
One Alice Munro short story has the power of many novels.
Nothing is wasted. Nothing is irrelevant. Every word glows. Munro is able to capture the shape and mood, the flavour of a life in 30 pages. She tells us what it is to be a human being. She is wholly without cliché. At the end of one of her stories you have to pause, catch your breath, come up for air. Alice Munro has done more than any living writer to demonstrate that the short story is an art form and not the poor relation of the novel.
Munro’s fictions are usually set in small-town rural Ontario, where she has lived for much of her life. Her characters often leave the confines of the country for an intellectual and creative existence in the city, find that they have become ensnared within an undesired domesticity, which forces them into pale versions of themselves, and then, in later life once more feel the urge to break free. Yet the recurrent and very personal themes of Munro’s fiction – the stirring of the creative impulse, the bohemian rejection of provincial anonymity and conservatism, the refusal to be bound by narrow definitions of womanhood, and the complexity of female sexuality – are not what make her work so remarkable. For that we need to look to her style. Munro’s way with form, the scattered chronology of her stories, captures the drift of our thoughts, the endless movement in and out of moments. A Munro sentence, beguiling in its lucidity, compelling in its precision, seductive in its simplicity, offers constant enchantment. Munro’s prose, without sentiment, yet suffused with a hard melancholy, has a composed, wry, crystalline grace. Take this, from 'Floating Bridge', in Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage (2001): ‘what she felt was a light-hearted sort of compassion, almost like laughter. A swish of tender hilarity getting the better of all her sores and hollows, for the time given.’ Read that last sentence again. From the honest beauty of ‘swish of tender hilarity’ to the striking ‘sores and hollows’ to those final words: ‘for the time given.’ The time given contains multitudes.
Munro has talked about ‘the complexity of things, the things within things’. It is her natural ability to describe the ‘shameless, marvellous, shattering absurdity’ of life, to express it in just the right way, to capture it in all its endless, shapeless strangeness, which makes her so good. She has an acute sensitivity to the treasons, duplicities, evasions, snatched passions, tendernesses, compromises, commitments and pained avowals of human relationships. She teases the surface, until all that is hidden, all those tucked away pivots of a life, are revealed. In her stories there are no neat endings, no straightforward progressions, no character arcs. There is a detachment from the crude mechanics of bold brushstrokes. Munro’s palate is infinitely subtle, with modulations of tone and colour that unsettle, surprise and delight. Munro finds the extraordinary within the ordinary, and reveals life to be a layering of secrets and lies, a meshing together of disparate elements. She shows us that we can never truly know anyone. After the travelling salesman father has visited a women called Nora in 'Walker Brothers County' (with his two children in tow), the narrator comments: ‘my father does not say anything to me about not mentioning things at home, but I know, just from thoughtfulness, the pause when he passes the liquorice, that there are things not to be mentioned. The whiskey, maybe the dancing. No worry about my brother, he does not notice enough. At most he might remember the blind lady, the picture of Mary.’ This is note-perfect writing. Munro plays with our own lack of knowledge; we feel complicit in the need to share a secret we know nothing of. We assume that Nora is a former love of the narrator’s father, and yet we are given no confirmation of this, no specific reason why the father has decided to visit her. We are, like the narrator and her brother, in the dark. As a consequence this scene becomes far more poignant.
Munro's narrators are philosophical, melancholic, at an ironic distance from their own lives. In Lives of Girls and Women (1973), a collection of interlinked short stories, Del, unflinching in her examination of concealed motive, says: ‘I wanted to know. There is no protection, unless it is in knowing. I wanted death pinned down and isolated behind a wall of particular facts and circumstances, not floating around loose, ignored but powerful, waiting to get in anywhere.’ Del is the classic Munro narrator – a woman in opposition to her family, her home town, her upbringing, a woman seeking her own kind of order. Munro’s narrators have an eloquent intelligence, a controlled ferocity of spirit. They possess, at centre, a sense of disquiet, an amused despairing wonder at the knowledge of the way life is tainted by its brevity and unexpected twists. The Munro narrator is the voice in your head that will not be silenced.
Alice Munro is routinely spoken of in the same breath as Anton Chekov. She resembles the Russian master in a number of ways. She is fascinated with the failings of love and work and has an obsession with time. There is the same penetrating psychological insight; the events played out in a minor key; the small town settings. In Munro’s fictional universe, as in Chekhov’s, plot is of secondary importance: all is based on the epiphanic moment, the sudden enlightenment, the concise, subtle, revelatory detail. Another significant feature of Munro’s is the (typically Canadian) connection to the land, to what Margaret Atwood has called a ‘harsh and vast geography.’ Munro is attuned to the shifts and colours of the natural world, to life lived with the wilderness. Her skill at describing the constituency of the environment is equal to her ability to get below the surface of the lives of her characters.
Now in her mid 70s, Munro’s work has inevitably shifted focus of late. Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage (2001) shows the effect of memories arriving as jolts to the present. There is the failure of mind and body and the constraints of loneliness. The final story, 'The Bear Came Over the Mountain', recently filmed as Away From Her by Sarah Polley, begins as a story about the onset of Alzheimer’s. With Munro’s sure command of detail, pace, and the incremental revelation of past incidents, it gradually becomes an incredibly powerful examination of betrayal and the many varieties of love.
The stories in Runaway (2005) are of trapped lives and missed opportunities, of dulled passions and the need for flight; they are among the most beautiful and haunting that Munro has ever written. There is a lingering sense of regret throughout this true and heartbreaking collection, and a resigned acceptance of that. Munro’s next book, The View From Castle Rock (2006), is a memoir that reads like a collection of stories, an emotional treatise on memory, and an attempt to find the pitch of the present in the distant past. It is an outstanding achievement, a characteristically intricate weaving of fact and fiction. Munro shows the pull of the past, exploring the pressing and urgent need to make our own personal myths as the drift of the years begins to narrow the future.
Everything in Alice Munro’s fiction is tinged with irony. There is the possibility of failure, hope, redemption and despair, but only the possibility, the suggestion. Nothing is ever fixed, nothing is closed off or closed down. It is in this treatment of the essential imperfection of life and its failure to conform to the quick of our fantasies, that Munro achieves greatness.
Garan Holcombe, 2008