Anne Enright on Alice Munro's collection of subtle short stories
Anne Enright THE GUARDIAN Thursday 8 November 2012
'Before anyone calls a lawyer, it is important to say that the Ontario woman whose life Alice Munro plunders most is herself.' Photograph: Ocean/Corbis
I remember a conversation I had about Alice Munrowith a Canadian, 30 years ago, that was, for reasons I could not quite figure, a bit sticky. It took me a while to realise he thought Munro wrote about the lives of women in rural Ontario – which she did, of course – and this was why he didn't like her work so much. He didn't like it because of Ontario.
by Alice Munro
It stayed with me, as a kind of deliberate smallness about what writers do. Thirty years ago, in Canada, people thought Munro was writing about what it was like to be a woman in rural Ontario, and that this was territory they knew something about. Because rural Ontario was not just a flat place with some farmers and small towns, it was a set of ideas about itself, and these ideas could be owned and disputed and placed in the balance. Is this what Ontario is actually like? Are there, perhaps, more important things to be said about Ontario – or, indeed, about being a woman, in 1982? Also, by the way, are there more important books to be written about being Canadian: ones about men and grizzly bears, ones about immigrant communities in Toronto?
No disrespect to the good people of Ontario, but it is now pretty clear that Munro was just using them in order to write about the human condition. Her work is, in this regard, steadfast. Her characters are bare and true. It is also the case that she could not have done this so well without rural Ontario, in all its ordinary, fascinating particularity.
Before anyone calls a lawyer, it is important to say that the Ontario woman whose life she plunders most is herself. It is a chilly business, writing well: even the writer does not know how much is selfishness and how much generosity. Munro has calibrated to perfection the intimate distance that exists between writer and reader. She holds back in order to give us more.
Although she has lived in other cities, Munro returned many years ago to the landscape of her childhood, and her home is 20 miles from where she went to school. She lives, like her characters, in a stable, small-town world, where it is possible to know certain things about people and to be surprised by what they do next. Here she is, talking to an interviewer about a plane, spotted in a local field: "The man who owned that farm," she says, "had a hobby of flying planes, and he had a little plane of his own. He never liked farming so he got out of it and became a flight instructor. He's still alive. In perfect health and one of the handsomest men I've ever known. He retired from flight instruction when he was 75. Within maybe three months of retirement he went on a trip and got some odd disease you get from bats in caves."
This description is – almost – already a short story. You can see how a life like this might linger in her writer's mind, waiting for the extra thing, the alchemy. Or you can see her working on a story and stalling; waiting for the emotion, or gesture, or turning point, to which a farming flight instructor is the suddenly obvious key.
In a known landscape, every house asks and answers the question "what happened here?" By leaving and then returning to the countryside of her childhood, Munro has stocked and then restocked her mind with other people's choices, fates, furniture, budgets, realisations and regrets. The "natural" shape of her stories comes from a sense of the way life goes. Time reveals. Things "turn out". We know how they turn out because people do not disappear, or not for long. In fact, you can't get away from people, in these stories. Even the ones you thought had wandered off show up again, if only to be avoided, if only as a voice in the next room.
This sense of circumference is possibly one of the reasons she writes stories and not novels. There is also an uncertainty about how things are. Munro is interested in how we get things wrong. Age she says, changes your perceptions "of what has happened – not just what can happen but what really has happened". One of the ways her stories "turn out" is simply "different to what the main character thought all along". The story forms a new circumference, but it is not a new trap. "I feel so released," says Belle, in "Train", when the strangeness and ether of a hospital operation makes her remember and then tell the story of her father's death. "It's not that I don't feel the tragedy, but I have got outside the tragedy, is what I mean. It is just the mistakes of humanity."
Munro is now in her 80s. The timelines in her stories have become longer, and the sense of fatedness has stretched to match. Some of the stories in her new collection, Dear Life, begin with the cultural and economic shift that happened after the second world war and end anytime around now. It is as though the events of that time loosened peoples lives up just enough to make them their own.
The past resurfaces constantly in these tales; there is no escaping it, or its sense of consequence. But the past doesn't just catch up with Munro's characters, it also exists, quite peaceably, behind the present. A character, walking down a street, sees what used to be there very clearly. "Housewives who had finished washing the dishes and sweeping up the kitchen for the last time that day, men who had coiled up the hose after giving the grass a soaking." In fact, the present is slightly less vivid to her since "every single person is inside with their fans on or their air conditioning".
Munro is amazed by the effects of time. It is not difficult to remember the past so much as to believe that things were like that once. Belle talks about her warm sponge bath as an adolescent, how she washed in a basin that had no plumbing, so the plughole drained out to a bucket. In "To Reach Japan" Greta tries to explain what it was like for women in the early 1960s, when having a serious idea "or maybe even reading a real book, could be seen as suspect, having something to do with your child's getting pneumonia".
We can never fit back in to our former selves. Change may be the central mystery in Munro's stories, but her approach is pretty secular (or at least low church). Although she shares Flannery O'Connor's interest in the gothic, there is very little use of epiphany, transcendence, metamorphosis or even metaphor. Although her characters suffer the occasional interventions of fate, Munro is most interested in the slow changes that time itself wreaks; the difference a new road makes, the reality of wooden houses giving way to brick and brick to concrete. She is interested in how we make our lives, as much as how we escape them; the degree to which we are connected, or alone.
This swirl of people around each other – where no character is truly lost – is a cause of both fascination and anxiety for Munro. This anxiety becomes critical when it comes to children, who disappear with some frequency in her work, and sometimes die. One of her most anthologised stories is "Miles City Montana", first published in 1985, in which a father hauls his baby daughter from the water, after a moments's inattention by a swimming pool. The baby's sister is distracted by the lifeguard and her boyfriend, who are kissing. The baby's mother, stretching her legs after a long drive, is distracted by the "poorest details of the world" in this strange town; "their singleness and their precise location and the forlorn coincidence of your being there to see them". She is, let's face it, "being" a writer, or at least thinking like one, when the "ever ready guilt" causes her to startle and check for her daughter. "To Reach Japan" in this collection is also about maternal guilt and a wandering toddler. This time the mother is doing the kissing (adulterously, on a train) as well as the imagining and noticing and writing. Greta has run off for a few months to be a poet, or a bohemian, or to sleep with a newspaper columnist, which in the 60s was all sort of the same thing.
Munro has spoken about her need to write when her children were small. "Some part of me was absent for those children, and children detect things like that … When my oldest daughter was about two, she'd come to where I was sitting at the typewriter, and I would bat her away with one hand and type with the other. I've told her that. This was bad because it made her the adversary to what was most important to me."
It is not clear why a child should be threatened by the work a writer does, as opposed to, say, the work a cook does (who might just as easily bat a child away), or why a mother's imaginings are, in Munro's fiction, such an invitation to disaster. There is no reason why a child should be on the same hierarchy of importance as a story, they are not the same kind of creature. But there it is. Munro makes fiction from her anxiety about making fiction, that mixture of distraction and attention, absence and desire.
But more than this, a kind of absence is essential to Munro's work. It would be wrong to say there is an absence at the heart of it – that would sound aggrieved – but there is nothing wrong with holding yourself a little in reserve. A slight sense of withholding gives Munro's prose its gracefulness, and allows intimacy without danger. After many years, many collections and many wonderful stories, readers may feel they know everything about Alice Munro, especially as so many of her characters lead lives similar to her own. In fact, we know very little about her. This is one of the reasons readers become dizzy with love for Munro. This other reason is that she is so damn good.
These stories are difficult to read because the writer is so alert to her own mortality, and as honest as ever. The last section of the book, which is "autobiographical in feeling, though not, sometimes, entirely so in fact" has a sombre preamble. "I believe they are the first and last – and the closest – things I have to say about my own life."
These four short autobiographical pieces are beautifully written and give some insight into Munro's formation as a writer. The uncanny doubling of the title piece "Dear Life"makes us think of lives we might have led, or endings we might have endured. "The Eye" shows how reality cedes to imagination in the face of death. Munro tells us a little about her process; how real life throws up details that are too loud for fiction, such as a loose woman's orange dress, or details that lead nowhere, such as the man from her childhood who bore the "troll's name" of Roly Grain. We see her as a child, rehearsing her skills with her younger sister, taking on the role "of sophisticated counsellor or hair-raising story-teller". These are fascinating pieces, but they are also, as she says herself, "not quite short stories" and though I count myself as one of the people most interested in this writer on planet Earth, I find, to my surprise that they do not hold me in the same way – it is Munro's stories that I want; not her, after all.
• Anne Enright's The Forgotten Waltz is published by Vintage.
‘The final four works in this book are not quite stories. They form a separate unit, one that is autobiographical in feeling, though not, sometimes, entirely so in fact. I believe they are the first and last – and the closest – things I have to say about my own life.’
Alice Munro has long been hailed as one of the very best short-story writers in the English language. Four fascinating semi-autobiographical pieces at the end of this new collection show the influence of incidents and undercurrents observed in childhood and youth, as the author acknowledges her own strong reactions to events. Rivetingly, we also see her acknowledging the lives and selves of others from an early age.
In ‘Night’, teenage Alice is recovering from surgery. Little is demanded of her, and her days are lazy. At night, she cannot sleep. On one of her interminable walks, she encounters her father, also waiting. She confesses that she has thought of strangling her younger sister, and that this is what is disturbing her. Instead of being shocked, he helps her: ‘People have thoughts they’d sooner not have. It happens in life.’ What is most remarkable here is Munro’s ending, where she thinks about why he was out there at dawn, sitting on the stoop.What was he worrying at?
It is this humane curiosity that drives and distinguishes the Munro opus. Over and over again, Munro ends with a question of some kind. We see this in ‘Gravel’, for example, where another pair of sisters, contending with the effects of their mother’s love affair, become embroiled in tragedy: ‘But in my mind, Caro keeps running at the water and throwing herself in, as if in triumph, and I’m still caught, waiting for her to explain to me, waiting for the splash.’
Speaking of being ‘caught’, this is one of Munro’s favourite subjects. In her stories, the men are often to be seen laying down the law, losing their money, breaking their backs on the farm or going off to war; they puzzle over their wives and daughters, or fail to commit in the first place; some are magnificently (or maddeningly) tolerant or wise, but most are not quite all they are cracked up to be. The women can be difficult too: unscrupulous, provocative, devious, deranged. Mostly, though, these average men and women are destined to be bound together, and they do not always like it.
It is the not liking, the war between mutual dependence and freedom, that Alice Munro catches so well – whether she is writing about lovers, siblings, husbands and wives or parents and children.
Another hugely rewarding volume from a mistress of the art.
That Alice Munro, now 81, is one of the great short story writers not just of our time but of any time ought to go without saying by now. This new volume — her 14th, not counting a collection of selected stories that came out in 1996 — is further proof of her mastery, and also a reminder that unlike a lot of accomplished short story writers — unlike William Trevor, say, her only living rival — Munro did not hit a characteristic note early on and then stick with it. Over the years her work has deepened and enlarged. At the end of “Dear Life” is a suite of four stories that Munro says are “autobiographical in feeling, though not, sometimes, entirely so in fact,” and she adds: “I believe they are the first and last — and the closest — things I have to say about my own life.” They seem to me as good as anything she has ever done, but also to strike out in the direction of a new, late style — one that is not so much a departure as a compressing or summing up of her whole career.Munro has never been an autobiographical writer in the strictest sense — not the way Updike was, for example — and yet certain themes and patterns in the stories more or less parallel the trajectory of her own life: a dreamy, misunderstood girlhood in hardscrabble western Ontario; an early marriage and move to Vancouver; children, separation, divorce; the death of parents; a return to that Lake Huron landscape, now inevitably altered; the contents and discontents of middle age. These four new stories all take place during the narrator’s childhood, and some of the material and the atmosphere will be familiar to readers of Munro’s earlier ones, especially those in “The Beggar Maid”: the ailing, hard-to-please mother; the remote, angry father; the childhood beatings; the mink farm that goes bust.
The style of those early stories was often bold, dramatic, a little raw. I edited many of them for The New Yorker, one of the first American publications to pay any attention to Munro, sometimes in spite of the hesitancy of William Shawn, who found them “rough” — violent, that is — and objected to the vulgarity of some of the language. (Years later I introduced Munro, who in person is shy and proper and as understated as most of her writing, to Shawn, and he said to me afterward, “She wasn’t at all what I expected.”)
But there is nothing in “Dear Life” that would give Mr. Shawn pause. As is so often the case now in Munro’s fiction, the drama sneaks up and then slips past almost before you’re aware of it. The descriptions are, even by Munro standards, precise and economical, and the mood is less angry or sorrowful than merely accepting. The very beautiful title story, for example, is ostensibly a reminiscence about living on a farm at the edge of town — neither truly rural nor really citified — and about the efforts of the narrator’s somewhat grandiose mother to keep up standards. It finishes with an anecdote about a misunderstanding — about a day when the mother, fearing that a neighbor was coming to snatch or attack her child, hid inside the house — and only then do you realize that it’s really a story about childhood intolerance, our need to misunderstand our parents so that we can be embarrassed by them, and about filial guilt. At the end, the narrator remarks almost matter-of-factly that years later, living in Vancouver, she did not go home for her mother’s last illness or even her funeral, and she ends the story this way: “We say of some things that they can’t be forgiven, or that we will never forgive ourselves. But we do — we do it all the time.” The deeper theme here, as so often in Munro’s work, is memory itself and its selectivity and unreliability, its falseness even. As one character observes, no lies are “as strong as the lies we tell ourselves and then unfortunately have to keep telling.”
Another great Munro theme, sex or romantic longing — its unpredictability and the price it too exacts — is present only implicitly in these last four stories. In two of them, oddly, a prostitute appears and becomes an alluring, mysterious figure to the narrator’s younger self, bearing a hint of illicit thrill. But elsewhere in the volume a woman who is only half-knowingly on the way to dissolving her marriage astonishes herself by having a one-nighter with a younger man on a cross-Canada train, temporarily abandoning her young daughter; another mother flees her strait-laced marriage to take up with a dope-smoking hippie and is stoned or making love with him when her daughter drowns; a father throws himself under a train after lusting for his naked daughter; a crippled single woman allows herself to be blackmailed in order to continue a long-running affair; and a young teacher falls in love, as if on command, with an older doctor, is jilted by him and never gets over it.
Many of these stories are told in Munro’s now familiar and much remarked on style, in which chronology is upended and the narrative is apt to begin at the end and end in the middle. She has said that she personally prefers to read stories that way, dipping in at random instead of following along sequentially, and this structure also echoes her view of the world, in which events seldom follow a plotline but merely happen, suddenly and inexplicably. Love especially: it strikes like a thunderclap in Munro’s fiction and often as ominously. In one of her earlier stories a character reflects that “love is not kind or honest and does not contribute to happiness in any reliable way.” And in a story in the new collection an elderly man, seemingly long past romance yet smitten again by an old girlfriend, tries to explain the nature of the attraction to his angry wife: “You know, it’s not even the person. It’s like a sort of aura. It’s a spell. . . . Do you understand? It just strikes like an eclipse or something.”
Munro is among the least fanciful of short story writers, seldom resorting to an image or a metaphor. This may reflect a lifelong habit of Canadian understatement — a suspicion of cleverness and a resistance to making too much of things — but it also accords with a sense in her fiction that the world is strange enough, without need of embellishment. In one of those last autobiographical stories, Munro makes a joke at her own expense. After describing in some detail a woman wearing a showy, too-tight dress, she remarks, “I think that if I was writing fiction instead of remembering something that happened, I would never have given her that dress. A kind of advertisement she didn’t need.” In fact, Munro’s fiction is full of details that initially seem distracting or extraneous, because life is like that, and especially life as we recall it.
The stories in this volume are filled with incidents, subplots, even characters that at first glance don’t fit the requirements of a classic, well-made short story — like those of Chekhov, to whom Munro is always being compared — and they’re why the narratives often take such surprising directions. In “Amundsen,” the story about the schoolteacher and the doctor, there’s a character both the principals wish weren’t there: a schoolgirl named Mary, clever, needy, a bit of a wiseass, who turns up at inopportune moments. At one point she interrupts a romantic dinner by appearing in costume and insisting on performing a number from “H. M. S. Pinafore.” She won’t be shut up or brushed away because she’s too full of life — or dear life, as the book’s title would have it: precious but also costly and so unpredictable it’s all one can do to hang on.
Charles McGrath, formerly the editor of the Book Review, is a writer at large for The Times.