Master of the Intricacies
of the Human Heart
Alice Munro, Nobel Winner, Mines the Inner Lives of Girls and Women
by Michiko Kakutani
The New York Times, October 10, 2012
Alice Munro, named on Thursday as the winner of the 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature, once observed: “The complexity of things — the things within things — just seems to be endless. I mean nothing is easy, nothing is simple.”
That is also a perfect description of Ms. Munro’s quietly radiant short stories — stories that have established her as one of the foremost practitioners of the form. Set largely in small-town and rural Canada and often focused on the lives of girls and women, her tales have the swoop and density of big, intimate novels, mapping the crevices of characters’ hearts with cleareyed Chekhovian empathy and wisdom.
Fluent and deceptively artless on the page, these stories are actually amazingly intricate constructions that move back and forth in time, back and forth between reality and memory, opening out, magically, to disclose the long panoramic vistas in these people’s lives (the starts, stops and reversals that stand out as hinge moments in their personal histories) and the homely details of their day-to-day routines: the dull coping with “food and mess and houses” that can take up so much of their heroines’ time.
Ms. Munro’s stories possess an emotional amplitude and a psychological density that stand in sharp contrast to the minimalistic work of Raymond Carver, and to Donald Barthelme’s playful, postmodernist tales. Her understanding of the music of domestic life, her ability to simultaneously detail her characters’ inner landscapes and their place in a meticulously observed community, and her talent for charting “the progress of love” as it morphs and mutates through time — these gifts have not only helped Ms. Munro redefine the contours of the contemporary short story, but have also made her one of today’s most influential writers, celebrated by authors as disparate as Lorrie Moore, Jonathan Franzen, Deborah Eisenberg and Mona Simpson.
In short fiction that spans four and a half decades — beginning with the collection “Dance of the Happy Shades” (1968), through classic volumes like “The Moons of Jupiter” (1982), “The Progress of Love”(1986), “Friend of My Youth”(1990) and “Open Secrets” (1994), up to “Dear Life” (2012), which she has said will be her last — Ms. Munro has given us prismatic portraits of ordinary people that reveal their intelligence, toughness and capacity to dream, as well as their lies, blind spots and lapses of courage and good will. Such descriptions are delivered not with judgmental accountancy, but with the sort of “unsparing unsentimental love” harbored by a close friend or family member.
There is always an awareness in her fiction of the subjectivity of perception, and the kaleidoscopic permutations that memory can work on reality. In “Friend of My Youth,” the story of a twice-jilted woman named Flora is remembered by a friend, and that friend’s account, in turn, is framed by her daughter’s thoughts on the subject, turning Flora’s sad tale into a kind of Rorschach test for the pair of them.
Like Ms. Munro, many of the women in these stories grew up in small towns in Canada and, at some point, faced a decision about whether to stay or to leave for the wider world. Their lifetimes often span decades of startling social change — from a time and place when tea parties and white gloves were de rigueur to the days of health food stores and stripper bars.
For that matter, Ms. Munro’s women, much like John Updike’s men, often find themselves caught on the margins of shifting cultural mores and pulled between conflicting imperatives — between rootedness and escape, domesticity and freedom, between tending to familial responsibilities or following the urgent promptings of their own hearts.
The narrator of “Miles City, Montana” craves “a place to hide” from the demands of running a household; she wants to “get busy at my real work, which was a sort of wooing of distant parts of myself,” only to realize, after a swimming pool accident, that her self-preoccupation has endangered her daughter. In “Family Furnishings,” the heroine doesn’t stay home to take care of her ailing mother, but wins a college scholarship, moves away to the big city and sets about becoming a writer.
In story after story, passion is the magnet or the motor that drives women’s choices. Love and sex, and marriage and adultery are often mirrors that reveal a Munro heroine’s expectations — her fondest dreams and cruel self-delusions, her sense of independence and need to belong.
Ms. Munro is adept at tracing the many configurations that intimacy can take over the years, showing how it can suffocate a marriage or inject it with a renewed sense of devotion. She shows how sexual ardor can turn into a “tidy pilot flame” and how an impulsive tryst can become a treasured memory, hoarded as a bulwark against the banalities of middle age.
Illness and death frequently intrude upon these stories, and the reader is constantly reminded of the precariousness of life — and the role that luck, chance and reckless, spur-of-the-moment choices can play. Some of Ms. Munro’s characters embrace change as a liberating force that will lift them out of their humdrum routines, or at least satisfy their avid curiosity about life. Others regard it with fearful dismay, worried that they will lose everything they hold dear — or at least everything familiar.
In “A Wilderness Station,” an orphan named Annie marries a gruff frontiersman and after his mysterious death, finds herself in jail for his murder. And in “A Real Life,” a woman who has led a marginal existence, trapping muskrats for their fur in the Ontario countryside, meets a visitor from Australia, begins corresponding with him and after he proposes, moves to Queensland, where she finds herself flying airplanes and shooting crocodiles.
Some of Ms. Munro’s more recent tales have exchanged the elliptical narratives she pioneered years ago for a more old-fashioned, stage-managed approach. Compared to her earlier work, many of the stories in “Dear Life” feature tightly plotted — even contrived — narratives and more closure than in the past.
The highlights of that volume were four final entries, which she described as “the first and last — and the closest — things I have to say about my own life,” a comment that cannot help but remind the reader of how closely many of Ms. Munro’s stories have followed the general contours of her life: from a hardscrabble childhood in an Ontario farming community, to early marriage and a move to British Columbia, followed by divorce, a new marriage and a move back to rural Ontario.
In the last paragraph of the last of those semi-autobiographical pieces, Ms. Munro writes, “I did not go home for my mother’s last illness or for her funeral. I had two small children and nobody in Vancouver to leave them with. We could barely have afforded the trip, and my husband had a contempt for formal behavior, but why blame it on him? I felt the same. 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.”
Writers and artists make quite a few appearances in Munro stories, but storytelling remains important to all her characters, no matter their vocation — in fact, it’s an essential tool for ordering and making sense of their lives. Sometimes, it’s a way of reimagining the past in order to manufacture an identity or mythologize one’s family. Sometimes it’s a way of foregrounding certain events, while smudging over others. Sometimes it’s a way of finding patterns in the chaos of the everyday. And sometimes, as in Ms. Munro’s own wonderful stories, it’s a way of connecting time past, present and future — not in conventional terms of beginnings, middles and ends, but in surprising new ways that leave readers with a renewed appreciation of the endless “complexity of things — the things within things.”
Alice Munro: Excerpts From Her Work
Published: October 10, 2013
Below are selections from the work of Alice Munro, who was awarded the 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature on Thursday. They are reprinted with the permission of Alfred A. Knopf.
From the story “Royal Beatings,” which appeared in “The Beggar Maid: Stories of Flo and Rose”:
Royal Beating. That was Flo’s promise. You are going to get one Royal Beating.
The word Royal lolled on Flo’s tongue, took on trappings. Rose had a need to picture things, to pursue absurdities, that was stronger than the need to stay out of trouble, and instead of taking this threat to heart she pondered: how is a beating royal? She came up with a tree-lined avenue, a crowd of formal spectators, some white horses and black slaves. Someone knelt, and the blood came leaping out like banners. An occasion both savage and splendid. In real life they didn’t approach such dignity, and it was only Flo who tried to supply the event with such high air of necessity and regret. Rose and her father soon got beyond anything presentable.
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From “Too Much Happiness,” which appeared in the book of the same name:
She has not, of course, reminded him that her work was on the Theory of Partial Differential Equations, and that it was completed some time ago. She spends the first hour or so of her solitary journey as she usually spends some time after a parting from him — balancing signs of affection against those of impatience, and indifference against a certain qualified passion.
“Always remember that when a man goes out of the room, he leaves everything in it behind,” her friend Marie Mendelson has told her. “When a woman goes out she carries everything that happened in the room along with her.”
At least she has time now to discover that she has a sore throat. If he has caught it she hopes he won’t suspect her. Being a bachelor in robust health he regards any slight contagion as an insult, bad ventilation or tainted breath as personal attacks. In certain ways he is really quite spoiled.
Spoiled and envious, actually. A while ago he wrote to her that certain writings of his own had begun to be attributed to her, because of the accident of the names. He had received a letter from a literary agent in Paris, starting off by addressing him as Dear Madam.
Alas, he had forgotten, he said, that she was a novelist as well as a mathematician. What a disappointment for the Parisian that he was neither. Merely a scholar, and a man.
Indeed a great joke.
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From “Amundsen,” which appeared in “Dear Life”:
Patricia Wall/The New York Times
For years I thought I might run into him. I lived, and still live, in Toronto. It seemed to me that everybody ended up in Toronto at least for a little while. Of course that hardly means that you will get to see that person, provided that you should in any way want to.
It finally happened. Crossing a crowded street where you could not even slow down. Going in opposite directions. Staring, at the same time, a bare shock on our time-damaged faces.
He called out, “How are you?” And I answered, “Fine.” Then added for good measure, “Happy.”
At the moment this was only generally true. I was having some kind of dragged-out row with my husband, about our paying a debt run up by one of his children. I had gone that afternoon to a show at an art gallery, to get myself into a more comfortable frame of mind.
He called back to me once more:
“Good for you.”
It still seemed as if we could make our way out of that crowd, that in a moment we would be together. But just as certain that we would carry on in the way we were going. And so we did. No breathless cry, no hand on my shoulder when I reached the sidewalk. Just that flash, that I had seen in an instant, when one of his eyes opened wider. It was the left eye, always the left, as I remembered. And it always looked so strange, alert and wondering, as if some whole impossibility had occurred to him, one that almost made him laugh.
For me, I was feeling something the same as when I left Amundsen, the train carrying me still dazed and full of disbelief.
Nothing changes really about love.
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