Dear Life, by Alice Munro
(Penguin Books Canada, 2012)
The significant moments in Alice Munro’s latest collection of short stories tend to creep up behind you and hit you in the back of the head with a brick. You read one – you get to the final lines – you think, “I don’t get it” or “oh good grief, is that what I think it is? – you go back and reread it. Then you find the pivotal moment, the line where the storyline changed, where she started the build-up to the climax, or put in the key to the puzzle.
Architectural structure and psychological insight
It takes patience and skill to construct stories that way, and Munro manages to combine this almost architectural precision with a psychologist’s insight into relationships, emotions and people’s reaction to major life events. For instance, in “Gravel”, about siblings’ conflicts and their relationship with their somewhat dissolute mother, it ends with these words “I see what he meant. It really is the right thing to do. 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.” (p. 109) The buildup to the reader’s recognition that the narrator’s sister killed herself in the gravel pit only dawns when you go back to earlier in the story, when she describes what happened. “I was to go back to the trailer and tell Neal and our mother something. That the dog had fallen into the water. The dog had fallen into the water and Caro was afraid she’s be drowned. Blitzee. Drowned. Drowned. But Blitzee wasn’t in the water.” (p. 102) Munro stretches out the suspense to the very last part of the story – not mentioning, except at the end, that the child had actually drowned. Like the narrator lives with the effects of the accident for the rest of her life, the reader stays in a state of suspense, waiting to exhale, until the last lines.
At the same time, she does it in clean, elegant language, every word very carefully selected. There isn’t an adjective or simile out of place. It is restrained writing, like contained grief. It evokes a similar response in the reader, recognition, empathy, but also sadness and a sense of dislocation or alienation. She creates distance between the reader and herself through her use of language and form, but at the same time, closeness through the situations and characters who are mostly ordinary people. This dichotomy continues through her placing of these plain, often self-doubting, wary people, in disturbing, explosive or perverse situations. Yet, she keeps these situations small in scale, it’s not like the people are involved in holocausts or world wars.
In “To reach Japan”, a woman’s life unravels after she becomes obsessed by a man she had briefly met once at a party. She writes this man a letter consisting of a haiku: “Writing this letter is like putting a note in a bottle – / And hoping / It will reach Japan.” As she disconnects with her old life, and her marriage, her daughter notices, as children often do, seeing clearly what adults cannot. “Even before the useless, exhausting, idiotic preoccupation with the man in Toronto, there was the other work, the work of poetry that seemed she had been doing in her head form most of her life. That struck her now as another traitorous business – to Katy, to Peter, to life. And now, because of the picture in her head of Katy alone, Katy sitting there amid the metal clatter between the cars – that was something else, she, Katy’s mother, was going to have to give up.” (p. 28) The clincher in this story is that she realises this too late. The man in Toronto is waiting for her, the message in the bottle has reached Japan.
“Amundsen” is about a place, not the Norwegian explorer, but to a certain extent the narrator, a young teacher, is dumped in the middle remote village that is as strange and inhospitable to her as the Antarctic must’ve been to Amundsen. One the one hand, life goes on and she gets involved with a doctor in the hospital where she teaches. He proposes, she accepts, they go to get married, he dumps her just before the ceremony. Sad, but nothing so unusual about that. Then, in the last lines, Munro describes so eloquently, so delicately, what everyone learns in life. She runs into her old lover again many years later, feeling “a bare shock on our time-damaged faces”. She looks at him at a distance and recalls: “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.” (p. 66)
Short story format and fame
Munro was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature on Oct. 10, 2013, but her fame was world-wide long before then. Even in South Africa, at the other end of the world to Canada, she is renowned and respected not only by readers, but the most acclaimed South African authors, like Hennie Aucamp, himself a master of the short story form. Willem de Vries, in an Afrikaans review of her work on the announcement of her winning the Nobel Prize for Literature on 10 October 2013 (“Munro Uitstekende Keuse – Kanada se Tsjechof bekroon”, in Die Burger, Oct. 11, 2013, p. 10), writes that many literary experts are complimentary of her work. Prof. Louise Viljoen of the University of Stellenbosch, says: “I have read Alice Munro’s work for many years, and am impressed every time by the precision with which she calculates the point at which her generally long short stories have to terminate, so that you feels it is neither a word too short, nor a word too long. I have great appreciation for the clear, but ironic manner in which she describes complex human relationships and enlivens the Canadian landscape for her readers.”
In a review of her short story collection “Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage” (2001, republished as “Away From Her”), the award-winning Afrikaans poet and author Hennie Aucamp says “She writes about many characters within a specific social framework, often small town and farming communities, and for this she often needs four or five times the space of average short stories. Review after review mentions that her stories create the impression of a novel, but they are not novels, but long short stories, which is also a specialized short story format.” The short story format that Munro adopts is a risky strategy for most writers, explains Aucamp. Consider that Jorge Luis Borges (1899 – 1986), one of the greatest short story writers of the 20th century, was ignored by the Swedish Nobel Academy for his entire life. In fact, only three short story writers have been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature: – William Faulkner (1949), Ernest Hemingway (1954) and Gabriel García Márquez (1982): “The perceptions exists that that which is long, is of necessity good and thorough. This is simply not true. Short story writers often take longer to write a short story than a writer would take to produce a novel.” (Stehle, Rudolf, “Eer vir Munro ‘n triomf vir kortverhaal”, in Die Burger, October 19, 2013, p. 12.)
Aucamp says that there is a connection between Munro and Anton Checkov, to whose writing hers is often compared. But while many short story writers are “promoted” as the “next Chekov” without real proof of success, writers like Munro, Ruth Praver Jhabvala and Raymond Carver do pass the Chekov-test. The similarity lies in the humane, yet ironic tone, as well as in the distance between the writers and their characters – never too near or too far. “It is this almost mathematically precise distance that allows the reader to associate themselves objectively with the problems of a specific character.”
This is precisely what happens in the stories in “Dear Life”, where, for the most part, until the ending, and sometimes even then, the reader remains feeling fairly sober and objective, even unmoved, by the plight of the characters. That makes Munro’s endings, exposés, explanations all the more surprising, and they leave lingering effects on the reader, who can no longer objective. This is why readers will always revisit Munro’s old collections and eagerly await her new books.
The morning after the announcement of her Nobel Prize, I was in my local branch of Chapters bookstore. I was looking for Munro’s books, realising that my mother had read them in South Africa and still had the copies. I was not the only one down on my knees amongst the Ms in Fiction. So was an elderly gentleman, and the teenager who works the till – all looking for a well-loved author.
Alice Munro in her own words:
“I never have a problem with finding material. I wait for it to turn up, and it always turns up. It’s dealing with the material I’m inundated with that poses the problem.”
“A story is not like a road to follow … it’s more like a house. You go inside and stay there for a while, wandering back and forth and settling where you like and discovering how the room and corridors relate to each other, how the world outside is altered by being viewed from these windows. And you, the visitor, the reader, are altered as well by being in this enclosed space, whether it is ample and easy or full of crooked turns, or sparsely or opulently furnished. You can go back again and again, and the house, the story, always contains more than you saw the last time. It also has a sturdy sense of itself of being built out of its own necessity, not just to shelter or beguile you.”
“I want to tell a story, in the old-fashioned way — what happens to somebody — but I want that ‘what happens’ to be delivered with quite a bit of interruption, turnarounds, and strangeness. I want the reader to feel something is astonishing — not the ‘what happens’ but the way everything happens. These long short story fictions do that best, for me.”
“I don’t think of myself as notably modest. [The Nobel Prize] could be a tremendous joke, but I don’t think it is.”
“I can’t play bridge. I don’t play tennis. All those things that people learn, and I admire, there hasn’t seemed time for. But what there is time for is looking out the window.”
“As soon as a man and woman of almost any age are alone together within four walls it is assumed that anything may happen. Spontaneous combustion, instant fornication, triumph of the senses. What possibilities men and women must see in each other to infer such dangers. Or, believing in the dangers, how often they must think about the possibilities.”
“This is what I wonder: what do most people do once the necessity of working all the time is removed? Even the retired people who take courses and have hobbies are looking for something to fill this void, and I feel such horror of being like that and having that kind of life. The only thing that I’ve ever had to fill my life has been writing. So I haven’t learned how to live a life with a lot of diversity. The only other life I can imagine is a scholarly life, which I probably idealize.”
Alice Munro has written 14 short story collections since 1968, and has published 5 compilations of her stories. She has won a long list of awards and in the Wikipedia entry, there is also a list of scholarly analyses of her work. Read some of her short stories on-line, here…
Telephone interview by Nobelprize.org’s Adam Smith with Alice Munro following the announcement of the 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature, 10 October 2013.