Alice Munro / An appreciation by Margaret Atwood / The Guardian
Alice Munro: an appreciation by Margaret Atwood
In Munro's work, emotions erupt. Preconceptions crumble. Surprises proliferate. Astonishments leap out Lurid crimes, hidden sexual excesses and strange rumours lurk beneath the surface respectability in Alice Munro's short stories. Fellow Canadian Margaret Atwood on how these tales of small-town Ontario elevated Munro to 'international literary sainthood'
THE GUARDIAN, Saturday 11 October 2008
Alice Munro Photograph: Kriston Ross/PR
Alice Munro is among the major writers of English fiction of our time. She's been accorded armfuls of super-superlatives by critics in both North America and Britain, she's won many awards, and she has a devoted international readership. Among writers, her name is spoken in hushed tones. She's the kind of writer about whom it is often said - no matter how well known she becomes - that she ought to be better known.
None of this happened overnight. Munro has been writing since the 1960s, and her first collection, Dance of the Happy Shades, appeared in 1968. To date - and including her latest, the rapturously receivedRunaway (2004) - she has published 10 collections, averaging nine or 10 stories each. Though her fiction has been a regular feature of the New Yorker since the 1970s, her recent elevation to international literary sainthood took as long as it did partly because of the form in which she writes. She is a writer of stories - "short stories", as they used to be called, or "short fiction", which is now more common. Though many American and British and Canadian writers of the first rank have practised this form, there is still a widespread but false tendency to equate length with importance.
Thus Munro has been among those writers subject to periodic rediscovery, at least outside Canada. It's as if she jumps out of a cake -Surprise! - and then has to jump out of it again, and then again. Readers don't see her name in lights on every billboard. They come across her as if by accident or fate, and are drawn in, and then there is an outbreak of wonder and excitement, and incredulity - Where did Alice Munro come from? Why didn't anybody tell me? How can such excellence have sprung from nowhere?
But Munro did not spring from nowhere. She sprang - though it's a verb her characters would find overly sprightly, and indeed pretentious - from Huron County, in south-western Ontario. Ontario is the large province of Canada that stretches from the Ottawa River to the western end of Lake Superior. This is a huge and varied space, but south-western Ontario is a distinct part of it. It was named Sowesto by the painter Greg Curnoe, a name that has stuck. Curnoe's view was that Sowesto was an area of considerable interest, but also of considerable psychic murkiness and oddity, a view shared by many. Robertson Davies, also from Sowesto, used to say "I know the dark folk-ways of my people", and Munro knows them, too. You are likely to run into quite a few signs in Sowesto wheat fields telling you to be prepared to meet your God, or else your doom - felt to be much the same thing.
Lake Huron lies at the western edge of Sowesto, Lake Erie to the south. The country is mostly flat farmland, cut by several wide, winding rivers prone to flooding, and along the rivers - because of the available boat transport and the power provided by water-driven mills - a number of smaller and larger towns grew up in the 19th century. Each has its red-brick town hall (usually with a tower), its post-office building and handful of churches of various denominations, its main street and residential section of gracious homes, and its other residential section on the wrong side of the tracks. Each has its families with long memories and stashes of bones in the closets.
Sowesto contains the site of the Donnelly massacre of the 19th century, when a large family were slaughtered and their home burnt as a result of political resentments carried over from Ireland. Lush nature, repressed emotions, respectable fronts, hidden sexual excesses, outbreaks of violence, lurid crimes, long-held grudges, strange rumours - these are never far away in Munro's Sowesto, partly because all have been provided by the real life of the region.
When Munro was growing up in the 1930s and 40s, the idea of a person from Canada - but especially one from small-town south-western Ontario - thinking she could be a writer to be taken seriously in the world at large was laughable. Even by the 50s and 60s there were very few publishers in Canada, and these were mostly textbook publishers that imported whatever so-called literature was to be had from Britain and the United States. There might have been some amateur theatre - high-school performances, Little Theatre groups. There was, however, the radio, and in the 60s Munro got her start through a CBC programme calledAnthology, produced by Robert Weaver.
But very few Canadian writers of any sort were known to an international readership, and it was taken for granted that if you had hankerings of that kind - hankerings about which you would feel defensive and ashamed, because art was not something a grown-up, morally credible person would fool around with - it would be best for you if you left the country. Everyone knew that writing was not a thing from which you could ever expect to make a living.
It might be marginally acceptable to dabble around the edges of water-colour painting or poetry if you were a certain kind of man, described by Munro in "The Turkey Season": "There were homosexuals in town, and we knew who they were: an elegant, light-voiced, wavy-haired paperhanger who called himself an interior decorator; the minister's widow's fat, spoiled only son, who went so far as to enter baking contests and had crocheted a tablecloth; a hypochondriacal church organist and music teacher who kept the choir and his pupils in line with screaming tantrums." Or you could do art as a hobby, if you were a woman with time on your hands, or you could scrape out a living at some poorly paid quasi-artistic job. Munro's stories are sprinkled with women like this. They go in for piano playing or write chatty newspaper columns. Or - more tragically - they have a real though small talent, like Almeda Roth in "Meneseteung", who produces one volume of minor verse calledOfferings, but there is no context for them.
If you moved to a larger Canadian city, you might at least find a few others of your ilk, but in the small towns of Sowesto you'd be on your own. Nevertheless, John Kenneth Galbraith, Robertson Davies, Marian Engel, Graeme Gibson and James Reaney all came out of Sowesto; and Munro - after a spell on the west coast - moved back there, and lives at present not far from Wingham, the prototype of the various Jubilees and Walleys and Dalgleishes and Hanrattys in her stories.
Through Munro's fiction, Sowesto's Huron County has joined Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County as a slice of land made legendary by the excellence of the writer who has celebrated it, though in both cases "celebrated" is not quite the right word. "Anatomised" might be closer to what goes on in the work of Munro, though even that term is too clinical. What should we call the combination of obsessive scrutiny, archaeological unearthing, precise and detailed recollection, the wallowing in the seamier and meaner and more vengeful undersides of human nature, the telling of erotic secrets, the nostalgia for vanished miseries, and rejoicing in the fullness and variety of life, stirred all together?
At the end of Munro's Lives of Girls and Women (1971), her only novel and a bildungsroman - a portrait of the artist as a young girl - there's a telling passage. Del Jordan of Jubilee, who has by now (true to her surname) crossed over into the promised land of womanhood and also of writerhood, says of her adolescence:
'It did not occur to me then that one day I would be so greedy for Jubilee. Voracious and misguided as Uncle Craig out at Jenkin's Bend, writing his history, I would want to write things down.
'I would try to make lists. A list of all the stores and businesses going up and down the main street and who owned them, a list of family names, names on the tombstones in the cemetery and any inscriptions underneath ...
'The hope of accuracy we bring to such tasks is crazy, heartbreaking.
'And no list could hold what I wanted, for 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.'
As a programme for a life's work, this is daunting. But it's a programme Munro was to follow over the next 35 years with remarkable fidelity.
Alice Munro was born Alice Laidlaw in 1931, which means that she was a small child during the depression. She was eight in 1939, the year Canada entered the second world war, and she attended university - the University of Western Ontario - in the postwar years. She was 25 and a young mother when Elvis Presley first became famous, and 38 at the time of the flower-child revolution and the advent of the women's movement in 1968-69, when her first book was published. In 1981 she was 50. Her stories are set mainly over these years - the 30s to the 80s - or even before then, in the time of ancestral memory.
Her own ancestry was partly Scottish Presbyterian: she can trace her family back to James Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd, friend of Robert Burns and the Edinburgh literati of the late 18th century, and author ofConfessions of a Justified Sinner, which could itself be a Munro title. On the other side of the family there were Anglicans, for whom the worst sin is said to consist of using the wrong fork at dinner. Munro's acute consciousness of social class, and of the minutiae and sneers separating one level from the next, is honestly come by, as is - from the Presbyterians - her characters' habit of rigorously examining their own deeds, emotions, motives and consciences, and finding them wanting. In a traditional Protestant culture, such as that of small-town Sowesto, forgiveness is not easily come by, punishments are frequent and harsh, potential humiliation and shame lurk around every corner, and nobody gets away with much.
But this tradition also contains the doctrine of justification by faith alone: grace descends upon us without any action on our part. In Munro's work, grace abounds, but it is strangely disguised: nothing can be predicted. Emotions erupt. Preconceptions crumble. Surprises proliferate. Astonishments leap out. Malicious acts can have positive consequences. Salvation arrives when least expected, and in peculiar forms.
But as soon as you make such a pronouncement about Munro's writing, or any other such analysis, inference or generalisation about it, you're aware of that mocking commentator so often present in a Munro story - the one who says, in essence: Who do you think you are? What gives you the right to think you know anything about me, or about anyone else for that matter? Or, to quote from Lives of Girls and Women again: "People's lives ... were dull, simple, amazing and unfathomable - deep caves paved with kitchen linoleum." The key word here is "unfathomable".
Munro's fictional world is peopled with secondary characters who despise art and artifice, and any kind of pretentiousness or showing off. It's against these attitudes and the self-mistrust they inspire that her central characters must struggle in order to free themselves enough to create anything at all.
At the same time, her writer protagonists share this scorn of the artificial side of art, and the distrust of it. What should be written about? How should one write? How much of art is genuine, how much just a bag of cheap tricks - imitating people, manipulating their emotions, making faces? How can one affirm anything about another person - even a made-up person - without presumption? Above all, how should a story end? (Munro often provides one ending, then questions or revises it. Or else she simply distrusts it, as in the final paragraph of "Meneseteung" where the narrator says: "I may have got it wrong.") Isn't the very act of writing an act of arrogance, isn't the pen a broken reed? A number of stories - "Friend of My Youth", "Carried Away", "Wilderness Station", "Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage" - contain letters that display the vanity or falsity or even the malice of their writers. If the writing of letters can be so devious, what about writing itself?
This tension has remained with her: as in "The Moons of Jupiter", Munro's artistic characters are punished for not succeeding, but they are punished also for success. The woman writer, thinking about her father, says: "I could hear him saying, Well, I didn't see anything about you in Maclean's. And if he had read something about me, he would say, Well, I didn't think too much of that write-up. His tone would be humorous and indulgent but would produce in me a familiar dreariness of spirit. The message I got from him was simple: fame must be striven for, then apologised for. Getting or not getting it, you will be to blame."
"Dreariness of spirit" is one of the great Munro enemies. Her characters do battle with it in every way they can, fighting against stifling mores and other people's deadening expectations and imposed rules of behaviour, and every possible kind of muffling and spiritual smothering. Given a choice between being a person who does good works but has inauthentic feelings and is numb at heart and being one who behaves badly but is true to what she really feels and is thus alive to herself, a Munro woman is likely to choose the latter; or, if she chooses the former, she will then comment on her own slipperiness, guile, wiliness, slyness and perversity. Honesty, in Munro's work, is not the best policy: it is not a policy at all, but an essential element, like air. The characters must get hold of at least some of it, by fair means or foul, or - they feel - they will go under.
The battle for authenticity is waged most significantly in the field of sex. The Munro social world - like most societies in which silence and secrecy are the norm in sexual matters - carries a high erotic charge, and this charge extends like a neon penumbra around each character, illuminating landscapes, rooms and objects. A rumpled bed says more, in the hands of Munro, than any graphic in-out, in-out depiction of genitalia ever could. Munro's characters are as alert as dogs in a perfume store to the sexual chemistry in a gathering - the chemistry among others, as well as that of their own visceral responses. Falling in love, falling in lust, sneaking around on spouses and enjoying it, telling sexual lies, doing shameful things they feel compelled to do out of irresistible desire, making sexual calculations based on social desperation - few writers have explored such processes more thoroughly, and more ruthlessly. Pushing the sexual boundaries is distinctly thrilling for many a Munro woman; but in order to trespass you have to know exactly where the fence is, and Munro's universe is crisscrossed with meticulously defined borders. Hands, chairs, glances - all are part of an intricate inner map strewn with barbed wire and booby traps, and secret paths through the shrubbery.
For women of Munro's generation, sexual expression was a liberation and a way out. But out of what? Out of the denial and limiting scorn she describes so well in "The Turkey Season":
'Lily said she never let her husband come near her if he had been drinking. Marjorie said since the time she nearly died with a haemorrhage she never let her husband come near her, period. Lily said quickly that it was only when he'd been drinking that he tried anything. I could see that it was a matter of pride not to let your husband come near you, but I couldn't quite believe that "come near" meant "have sex".'
For older women like Lily and Marjorie, to enjoy sex would have been a humiliating defeat. For women like Rose in "The Beggar Maid", it's a matter for pride and celebration, a victory. For later generations of women - post-sexual revolution - enjoying sex was to become simply a duty, the perfect orgasm yet another thing to add to the list of required accomplishments; and when enjoyment becomes a duty, we're back in the land of "dreariness of spirit". But for a Munro character in the throes of sexual exploration, the spirit may be confused and ashamed and tormented, even cruel and sadistic - some of the couples in her stories get pleasure out of torturing each other emotionally, just like some real people - but it is never dreary.
In some of the later stories, sex can be less impetuous, more calculated. For example, Grant in "The Bear Came Over the Mountain" uses it as the decisive element in an astonishing feat of emotional commodities trading. His beloved wife Fiona has dementia and has become attached to a similarly afflicted man in her care facility. When this man is taken home by his hard-bitten, practical wife, Marian, Fiona pines and stops eating. Grant wants to persuade Marian to put her husband back in the institution, but Marian refuses: it would cost too much. However, Grant detects that Marian is lonely and sexually available. She has a wrinkled-up face, but her body is still attractive. Like an adroit salesman, Grant moves in to close the deal. Munro knows full well that sex can be a glory and a torment, but it can also be a bargaining chip.
The society Munro writes about is a Christian one. This Christianity is not often overt; it's merely the general background. Flo in "The Beggar Maid" decorates the walls with "a number of admonitions, pious and cheerful and mildly bawdy":
'THE LORD IS MY SHEPHERD
BELIEVE IN THE LORD JESUS AND
THOU SHALT BE SAVED'
Why did Flo have those, when she wasn't even religious? They were what people had, common as calendars.
Christianity is "what people had" - and in Canada, church and state were never separated along the lines laid down in the US. Prayers and Bible readings were daily fare in publicly funded schools. This cultural Christianity has provided ample material for Munro, but it is also connected with one of the most distinctive patterns in her image-making and storytelling.
The central Christian tenet is that two disparate and mutually exclusive elements - divinity and humanity - got jammed together in Christ, neither annihilating the other. The result was not a demi-god, or a God in disguise: God became totally a human being while remaining at the same time totally divine. To believe either that Christ was only a man or that he was simply God was declared heretical by the early Christian church. Christianity thus depends on a denial of either/or classifying logic and an acceptance of both-at-once mystery. Logic says that A cannot be both itself and non-A at the same time; Christianity says it can. The formulation "A but also non-A" is indispensable to it.
Many of Munro's stories resolve themselves - or fail to resolve themselves - in precisely this way. The example that first comes to mind is from Lives of Girls and Women, in which the teacher who'd staged the high school's airy and joyful operettas drowns herself in the river.
'Miss Farris in her velvet skating costume ... Miss Farris con brio ... Miss Farris floating face down, unprotesting, in the Wawanash River, six days before she was found. Though there is no plausible way of hanging those pictures together - if the last one is true then must it not alter the others? - they are going to have to stay together now.'
For Munro, a thing can be true, but not true, but true nonetheless. "It is real and dishonest," thinks Georgia of her remorse, in "Differently". "How hard it is for me to believe that I made that up," says the narrator of "The Progress of Love". "It seems so much the truth it is the truth; it's what I believe about them. I haven't stopped believing it." The world is profane and sacred. It must be swallowed whole. There is always more to be known about it than you can ever know.
In a story called "Something I've Been Meaning to Tell You", jealous Et describes her sister's former lover - a promiscuous ladies' man - and the look he gives to every woman, a look "that made him seem to want to be a deep-sea diver diving down, down through all the emptiness and cold and wreckage to discover the one thing he had set his heart on, something small and precious, hard to locate, as a ruby maybe on the ocean floor".
Munro's stories abound in such questionable seekers and well-fingered ploys. But they abound also in such insights: within any story, within any human being, there may be a dangerous treasure, a priceless ruby. A heart's desire.
• Alice Munro's Carried Away: A Selection of Stories is published this month by Everyman (£12.99).
Margaret Atwood: Alice Munro's road to Nobel literature prize was not easy
Initially regarded as a housewife whose writing was domestic and boring, elusive perfection drove Canadian to literary stardom
THE GUARDIAN, Thursday 10 October 2013
Nobel literature prize winner Alice Munro is quintessentially Canadian, says fellow countrywoman and writer Margaret Atwood. Photograph: Peter Morrison/AP
Alice Munro has been awarded the Nobel prize in literature, thus becoming its 13th female recipient. It's a thrilling honour for a major writer: Munro has long been recognised in North America and the UK, but the Nobel will draw international attention, not only to women's writing and Canadian writing, but to the short story, Munro's chosen métier and one often overlooked.
Whenever the Nobel is conferred, a deluge of media descends – like the pack of cards cascading on to that other Alice, she of Wonderland – not only on the winner, illuminated in the sudden glare of international publicity like a burglar trapped in headlights, but on every other writer who has known the chosen one. A quote, a reminiscence, an evaluation! Account for it! Why her? they clamour.
Munro herself is unlikely to say much along these lines: Canadians are discouraged from bragging – see the Munro story, Who Do You Think You Are? – so will probably spend much of her time hiding in the figurative tool shed.
We're all slightly furtive, we writers; especially we Canadian writers, and even more especially we Canadian female writers of an earlier generation. "Art is what you can get away with," said Canadian Marshall McLuhan, and I invite the reader to count how many of the murderers in Munro's stories are ever caught. (Answer: none.) Munro understands the undercover heist that is fiction writing, as well as its pleasures and fears: how delicious to have done it, but what if you get found out?
Back in the 1950s and 60s, when Munro began, there was a feeling that not only female writers but Canadians were thought to be both trespassing and transgressing.
Munro found herself referred to as "some housewife", and was told that her subject matter, being too "domestic", was boring. A male writer told her she wrote good stories, but he wouldn't want to sleep with her. "Nobody invited him," said Munro tartly. When writers occur in Munro stories, they are pretentious, or exploitative of others; or they're being asked by their relatives why they aren't famous, or – worse, if female – why they aren't better-looking.
The road to the Nobel wasn't an easy one for Munro: the odds that a literary star would emerge from her time and place would once have been zero. She was born in 1931, and thus experienced the Depression as a child and the second world war as a teenager. This was in south-western Ontario, a region that also produced Robertson Davies, Graeme Gibson, James Reaney, and Marian Engel, to name several.
It's this small-town setting that features most often in her stories – the busybodies, the snobberies, the eccentrics, the cutting of swelled heads down to size, and the jeering at ambitions, especially artistic ones.
The pressure of cramped conditions may create the determination to break free, to gain some sort of mastery; but if you try this, you'd better do it well. Otherwise those who have laughed at you will laugh even harder, since an ice dancer who tries a triple axel and falls on her behind is hilarious.
Shame and embarrassment are driving forces for Munro's characters, just as perfectionism in the writing has been a driving force for her: getting it down, getting it right, but also the impossibility of that. Munro chronicles failure much more often than she chronicles success, because the task of the writer has failure built in. In this she is a romantic: the visionary gleam exists, but it can't be grasped, and if you drivel on about it openly the folks in the grocery store will think you're a lunatic.
As in much else, Munro is thus quintessentially Canadian. Faced with the Nobel she will be modest, she won't get a swelled head. The rest of us, on this magnificent occasion, will just have to do that for her.
Alice Munro by Triunfo Arciniegas
Photo by Derek Shapton
AN APPRECIATION OF ALICE MUNRO
by Margaret Atwood
Lisa Dickler Awano, Compiler and Editor
The fifties were a very male period of writing in the United States. America didn’t have a tradition of women writers. Who, among women, were admired? Eudora Welty, Katherine Anne Porter. Among poets? Emily Dickinson. How many others? In Canada, you didn’t get points off for being a woman. The challenge wasn’t so much being female as it was being Canadian. Embroidery, oil painting, writing, it was all considered a hobby. Writing wasn’t important. There was hardly a market for new novels. The writing community up here was so small at that time. Because of readings and little magazines, poets knew one another’s work, but it was different for prose writers in Canada.
When we were growing up the idea of being a writer was so alien. Just to think you could do it was an act of major hubris. Talent was discouraged. Yet as a child, Alice had read L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables and Emily of New Moon,about a young girl growing up on Prince Edward Island who wants to be a writer. Alice has written an afterword for the latter book.
Two other early influences on her were Wuthering Heights and Pride and Prejudice. In Wuthering Heights you never hear the story directly from the most powerful people in it. You hear it from the observers: a gentleman named Lockwood, who rents Thrushcross Grange, and Nelly, the housekeeper. This is a very interesting way of putting a book together. Also, there are the two houses. There are the Lintons, who are genteel—not forceful and not sexy. And then there’s Heathcliff.Pride and Prejudice is another very well put together book that draws on the emotions we love so much, and there’s Mr. Darcy, another rude man with lots of money underneath. And economics is such a big factor in Alice’s work. Who’s got money, who hasn’t, who needs money, who’s making it, and who’s paying for things.
Her other influences were writers of stories set in small towns. Alice read Sherwood Anderson—who made her feel that maybe she could do this kind of thing—as well as Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, and Carson McCullers. Having grown up in a small town herself, Alice knows them well—specifically, small towns in southwestern Ontario. Why are there so many crazy, demented people in a small town? It’s just that everyone knows everyone and one another’s background. Like a big, dysfunctional family. It’s that way in cities, too, but you don’t necessarily know about all of it, because you may not know the people across the street, or even next door. In small towns people are conscious of gossip, rumor, the keeping up of pretenses, and the varying gradations of social level. It can be confining.
That’s why Alice’s stories are so place- and time-specific. What people eat, what they wear, what appliances they are using, are all important to her. She is interested in questions of authenticity; she looks at her characters’ fronts and pretensions, at what effect they are trying to achieve, and then she examines what lies underneath. Maybe the characters see through each other, and so they have social lies, such as, “You look terrific.” Sometimes they mean it benignly; sometimes they don’t.
She writes about the difficulties faced by people who are bigger or smaller than they are expected to be. When her protagonists look back, from later points of view, the older people they have become possess within them all of the people that they have been. She’s very good on what people expect, and then on the letdown.
One of the many things Alice does so well is to contrast how people thought something would be, compared to how it turned out. We depend on a certain amount of fulfilled expectation. The sun will rise in the morning. Mr. Brown will be at the corner store at 8 a.m. and sell milk. In Alice Munro stories, people go into a house and find out that someone has been murdered. Every expectation is met; and then, there is an event, a surprise—and that’s the story.