If you have never before fantasized about the strangers you see on a bus, you begin doing so after having read Alice Munro.
-from The Nobel Prize in literature presentation speech, given by Professor Peter Englund.
This month I treated myself to a new new book (not a second-hand $2 photocopy!): a collection of short stories by Alice Munro, published by Vintage. It’s been a while since I’ve read a short story collection, and I’ve missed the experience of getting through a story in one sitting. Ever since Munro won the Nobel Prize in literature last year I have been meaning to read more of her work (I read “The View from Castle Rock” a few years ago, and heard Lauren Groff read “Axis” on The New Yorker Fiction Podcast), mostly to see what the all the fuss is about. Munro is certainly a master of her craft; she has an enviable control of language, her characters are simultaneously complex and recognisable, her plots are carefully constructed and – in a quiet, understated way – epic. I must admit that I found some of the stories at times a little dull; Munro’s style is slow and careful, not at all flashy, and my attention span has been shortened by too many TV dramas. Overall, however, Munro’s stories are insightful, moving, and beautifully written.
This collection includes six stories from various stages of Munro’s career. The first (“The Moons of Jupiter”) was originally published in 1977, and the last (“In Sight of the Lake”) in 2012. It is interesting to see how Munro’s focus has shifted across the years; “The Moons of Jupiter” is about a semi-successful writer facing the death of her father, while “In Sight of the Lake” is told from the perspective of an elderly woman losing her mind (Munro’s own grip on reality – at age 82 – is as strong as ever).
In his Nobel Prize presentation speech Peter Englund notes that “Munro writes about what are usually called ordinary people … she shows how much of the extraordinary can fit into that jam-packed emptiness called The Ordinary.” Each of the stories here serves as a great example of this: Munro’s characters are housekeepers, factory workers, farmers, soldiers. Many of her characters are women (though she does not shy away from writing from male perspectives), and the ways in which female lives are connected to male ones is often described. From “The Moons of Jupiter”: “Judith moved ahead and touched Don’s arm. I knew that touch – an apology, an anxious reassurance. You touch a man that way to remind him that you are grateful, that you realize he is doing for your sake something that bores him or slightly endangers his dignity.”
Munro’s details are skilfully selected; in a two-word sentence she can convey an image or a feeling perfectly. From “Carried Away”: “He would have to go and see her. As soon as possible. Clean clothes”; “Brown-and-cream piping. Such was the end, and had to be, to her romance.” Her descriptions of southwestern Ontario are also simply yet vividly rendered; not a word is wasted. From “The Progress of Love”: “milkweed and wild carrot in the pastures, mustard rampaging in the clover, some fields creamy with the buckwheat people grew then.”
Many of these stories begin with the present and stretch back to an event from the past. In “The Progress of Love” a woman struggles to understand how the experiences of her mother have affected her own life, and in “Differently” a visit to an old home brings back memories of infidelity and lost friendship. The passing of time is an important structural and thematic aspect of Munro’s writing – a thirty page story often encompasses a lifetime, and allows for multiple perspectives and reflection. We come to understand the true nature of a person after being made privy to her life as a whole. As Englund points out, Munro “shows that our innermost self is essentially inaccessible to other people, often eluding even ourselves – until it is too late.” Looking back across a life is something of a habit of Munro’s characters; seemingly trivial moments become significant in retrospect, and the ideas of chance and fate are strongly felt, as is regret. From “Differently”: “People make momentous shifts, but not the changes they imagine.”
Human connection – and, inevitably, love – is also a recurrent them in Munro’s work. Connection with another person seems to be a key component of human happiness and in Munro’s stories characters come together in many different ways, for many different reasons. One of my favourite Munro moments of human contact – from “Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage” – happens in a dress shop, where a saleswoman helps the main character find the perfect outfit: “She must have felt she owed this person something – that they’d been through the disaster of the green suit and the discovery of the brown dress together and that was a bond.” Romantic love features in these stories, but it is by no means lauded as a superior sort of relationship – perhaps the opposite. For Munro’s characters, happiness is often brought about through a quieter type of communion. In “Carried Away”, a man discovers that he is most content sitting in a library: “He felt his presence to be genial, reassuring, and, above all, natural. By sitting here, reading and reflecting, here instead of at home, he seemed to himself to be providing something. People could count on it.”
Peter Englund says that “If you read a lot of Alice Munro’s works carefully, sooner or later … you will come face to face with yourself”. For me this happened – unexpectedly – with “The Moons of Jupiter”. Upon reading this story for the first time I felt profoundly sad, without really understanding why. I think good literature can do this to you – can reach into your subconscious and touch you there, without warning, when you think you’re safe. I realised later that I related to Janet’s (the main character) anxiety about losing the people she loves the most – her father, her daughter. The idea that we must love – that we are necessarily bound to other people, that this is what makes us human – but that we also, therefore, must suffer, is painfully true. But there is beauty in this truth, and in the realisation that, as people, we are connected by it.
There was care – not a withdrawal exactly, but a care – not to feel anything much. I saw how the forms of love might be maintained with a condemned person but with the love in fact measured and disciplined, because you have to survive.
I think I’ve realised, after writing this post, that one of the things that makes Munro’s work so great – as in, Nobel Prize great – is the way it stays with you. And then – days, months, years later – it is there for you to remember, to relate to, and (ultimately) to be comforted by.
Alice Munro is a Canadian writer. She has published fourteen collections of short stories and one novel (Lives of Girls and Women). She was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in December, 2013.