Among my collection of Alice Munro’s books, the two most prized are the ones that she autographed for me on a visit to Adelaide in March 1979. One was my copy of her first book of stories, Dance of the Happy Shades (1968). The other was the Women’s Press reprint of Lives of Girls and Women (1971), which my students and I were reading as part of a class on women’s writing. We were all entranced by this small woman with dark curly hair and a diffident manner who, when she began to read from her work, created a world both strange and instantly recognizable to us, where a young girl living in provincial Canada in the 1940s harbours dreams and desires that are flatly denied by her circumstances, but which she refuses to relinquish.
These early books established Munro as a significant voice in Canadian fiction. As she modestly remembered it, her apprenticeship in writing coincided with a period when there was a great outcry for a distinctive national literature: ‘So some people in Toronto noticed my uneasy offerings and helped me along.’ Her younger contemporary, Margaret Atwood, captures the breakthrough Munro made by writing from the centre of her own experience, redeeming small town life in the very act of writing about it. She quotes Del, the heroine of Lives of Girls and Women, as speaking for her creator when she says: ‘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.’
It was not only small town life that Munro redeemed for literature, it was also ‘the lives of girls and women’ – that is, material which was regularly shunned and despised, ‘the lives of women at their most muddled … who can’t quite believe in the world of careers … or just managing to keep afloat in the woozy world of maternity, with its shocks and confusions and fearful love and secret brutality.’ Munro wrote these words in appreciation for what she had learned from her contemporary, Marian Engel. They belonged to an extraordinary group of women writers who emerged in the 1960s, including Margaret Laurence and Audrey Thomas, as well as Atwood, who changed the map of Canadian literature, opening up new possibilities for fiction, eventually forcing an expansion of ideas about the universality of human experience to include the feminine, the suburban and the provincial.
Reviews of Munro’s latest book of stories, Dear Life, invariably remark on the way she uses ordinary characters and events to explore the human condition. Yet it was not so long ago that these very characters would have been seen as unsuitable material for serious fiction, as too limited to accommodate the universal. The situations they enter into are banal – marriage and adultery, conflicts between parents and children, ageing and its discontents, loneliness in many forms. What makes the stories ‘radiant, everlasting’ is Munro’s art, in particular her use of point of view, and her manipulation of narrative time.
The stories often begin in the middle of things, moving backwards and forwards, apparently at random. ‘Train’ does this most radically, beginning with a returning solder’s sudden decision to jump off the train before his home station, then following him through decades of the new life he establishes, first on an isolated farm, then in Toronto; the final quarter lays out a series of scenes from his youth, which suggest the reason for his initial decision. The story contains more than enough material for a full-length novel, but is pruned and shaped so as to offer a number of perspectives on the soldier’s relations with women. These obliquely explain his habit of moving on, which is the motor of the story – but only obliquely.
Munro’s perspective is intriguing. In an interview, she describes this character as if he were a person she has observed from afar whose motivation she can only guess at: ‘the man who is confident and satisfied as long as no sex gets in the way. I think a rowdy woman tormented him when he was young. I don’t think he can help it – he’s got to run.’ In relation to other stories, she claims not to know how the situation will develop after the story ends:
In ‘Leaving Maverley’ a fair number of people are after love or sex or something. The invalid and her husband seem to me to get it, while, all around, various people miss the boat for various reasons. I do admire the girl who got out, and I rather hope that she and the man whose wife is dead can get together in some kind of way.
It is as if the characters have their own reality that she merely tries to understand, or even just to describe, without being able to predict their future actions.
Consistent with this approach to character – to motivation and consequence – Munro often uses narrative point of view to create closeness to the character without claiming sympathy for them. The young woman in ‘Amundsen’ who is seduced and abandoned by an older man is fully conscious of her participation in the process. Readers are privy to her awareness of sexual attraction and surrender, but also to her self-deception about the man’s character. His treatment of one of her pupils, who obviously has a crush on the doctor herself, is a clear indication of what he will do to the heroine. Her capacity for wishful thinking is revisited at the story’s conclusion when, years later, she sees him crossing the street in the opposite direction and ‘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.’ But while the reader may feel that this expresses exactly the truth of what people generally do with their lives – ‘carry on in the way we were going’ – the heroine has the last word, on her own terms: ‘For me, it was the same as when I left Amundsen, the train dragging me still dazed and full of disbelief. Nothing changes really about love.’ The character is allowed the authority of her own emotion. The author refuses the temptation to know better, to set it in perspective.
That phrase ‘carry on in the way we were going’ is characteristic of Munro’s diction, which is extraordinarily literal. At the end of ‘Leaving Maverley’, a man whose wife has died after lying in hospital in a coma for years experiences this loss as the ‘outrageous fact’ that ‘she had existed and now she did not. Not at all, as if not ever.’ Outside the hospital, ‘What he carried with him, all he carried with him, was a lack, something like a lack of air, of proper behavior in his lungs, a difficulty that he supposed would go on forever.’ The simplicity of the language – the repeated negative, the unqualified ‘all he carried’, ‘forever’ – perfectly conveys the absoluteness of his loss.
The stories in Dear Life have long timelines that run from the immediate post-war years to the present. Several begin with a ‘once upon a time’ kind of phrase, such as ‘In the old days when there was a movie theatre in every town’, or ‘All this happened in the seventies, though in that town and in other small towns like it, the seventies were not as we picture them now.’ Attention is often drawn to the social changes time has brought, especially in women’s lives. In the opening story ‘To Reach Japan’, Greta, the young narrator, digresses: ‘It would become hard to explain, later on in her life, just what was okay in that time and what was not’ for a woman, when ‘having any serious idea or maybe even reading a real book, could be seen as suspect, having something to do with your child’s getting pneumonia.’ But Greta is not uncritical of the changes that the 1960s would bring, when ‘barriers between the inside and the outside of your head were to be trampled down. Authenticity required it. Things like Greta’s poems, things that did not flow right out, were suspect, even scorned.’ In the middle of ‘Leaving Maverley’, the narrator refers in passing to people being ‘swept up in this bright new era, their former viewpoints dismissed and their language altered, straining to be crisp and crude.’
These longer perspectives are one of the gifts, or maybe privileges, of old age. But they don’t necessarily bring wisdom. In ‘Dolly’, an ageing woman, who with her husband has been calmly planning a suicide pact, experiences a storm of intense jealousy when an old girlfriend of his appears in their life. ‘All is over,’ she decides as she drives off in a fury. When the high melodrama is finally over, the husband reminds her that ‘we can’t afford rows’. ‘No indeed,’ she thinks. ‘I had forgotten how old we were, forgotten everything. Thinking there was all the time in the world to suffer and complain.’ The final point of the story is not this wise insight, but rather the rush of ‘rage and admiration’ that she feels for him: ‘it went back through our whole life together.’
The power of emotion, and the ambiguous meanings of emotions, have always been central to Munro’s stories. Dear Life concludes with four pieces which are not exactly stories but rather accounts of emotions recollected in tranquility. They are described by the author as ‘autobiographical in feeling, though not, sometimes, entirely so in fact’ and ‘the first and last – and the closest – things I have to say about my own life.’ These acts of memory involve herself as a child, her parents, the farm they lived on, the family’s relationship to the community centred in the nearby town – but most centrally they involve the girl’s formative experiences.
Munro’s version of Wordsworth’s ‘growth of a poet’s mind’ is dominated by incidents of secret recognition – by her nursemaid, Sadie; of her capacity for madness, when she terrifies herself with the realisation that she could harm her little sister; and of her capacity to share in the mysteries of sex. In all these memories, her mother figures as a dominating presence. An unconventional woman for her day, she constantly attempts to impose her will on her clever elder daughter. It is only in the final, title story, that there emerges an implicit recognition that the girl no longer has to exert herself to evade her mother’s impositions.
In the interview quoted earlier, Munro was asked: ‘Your mother plays a role in all four pieces. You said in a 1994 interview in The Paris Review that your mother was the central material in your life. Is that still true?’ Munro answered: ‘My mother, I suppose, is still a main figure in my life because her life was so sad and unfair and she so brave, but also because she was determined to make me into the Sunday-school-recitation little girl I was, from the age of seven or so, fighting not to be.’ The story of mother and daughter is a familiar one, though it has no culturally sanctioned name, like the Oedipus Complex. It is all the more powerful for that.
In 2009, Alice Munro was awarded the Man Booker International Prize, which ‘seeks to recognise a living author who has contributed significantly to world literature and to highlight the author’s continuing creativity and development on a global scale.’ Dear Life demonstrates again and anew her extraordinary capacity to make the details of ordinary lives ‘radiant, everlasting’.
Margaret Atwood, Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature (Anansi, 1972).
Shelagh Wilkinson, ‘By and about women,’ Changing Patterns: Women in Canada, edited by Sandra Burt, Lorraine Code and Lindsay Dorney, second edition (McClelland & Stewart, 1993).
Deborah Treisman, ‘On “Dear Life”: An Interview with Alice Munro,’ The New Yorker (20 November 2012).