A place to call her own
Alice Munro tackles life’s big themes in everyday dramas set in a beguiling world where the roads run straight and nothing much seems to happen beyond yard sales and church services, says Alan Taylor
WHEN in 2013 Alice Munro announced she was capping her pen and would write no more the overwhelming reaction was one of sadness. At the age of 82, and having won every major literary award from the Nobel to all the bouquets her native Canada had it in its gift to throw at her, she was adamant she was calling it quits. Her bereft fans, however, took a soupçon of comfort in the fact that she had said the same before only to resume where she left off.
The problem, she said, was that she kept having ideas for stories and could not resist exploring them. As long ago as 1994, when she had first considered retirement, she realised that it would be far from easy. “It’s not the giving up of the writing that I fear,” she said. “It’s the giving up of this excitement or whatever it is that you feel that makes you write. This is what I wonder: what do most people do once the necessity of working all the time is removed?”
The esteem in which Munro is held may be gauged by the fact that while she is not appearing herself at the Edinburgh International Book Festival – which she has never done – she is top of the bill. In the absence of the woman herself, Stellar Quines theatre company is staging an adaptation of The View From Castle Rock, a melange of history, memoir, myth and fiction published in 2007. In it, Munro looks back on her Borders ancestry and the consequences of a decision made in the second decade of the 19th century to emigrate to Canada in search of a better life.
It was her forebear, one James Laidlaw, who is responsible for her being a Canadian. In 1818, he uprooted his family from the Ettrick Valley and travelled west, ending up in a corner of Ontario which lies midway between Toronto and Detroit. Today it is associated with a short story writer who is its atomist and celebrant. Munro County, as it may well be renamed in future, is a place as flat and featureless as the Netherlands, where the roads run straight as an arrow for mile after mile and nothing much seems to happen beyond yard sales and church services. For the moment, however, it it is called Huron County where, as Margaret Atwood has noted, you are likely to see signs in wheat fields telling you to be prepared to meet your God, “or else your doom – felt to be much the same thing”.
But as Munro’s devoted readers know well, where there are people things do happen; accidents, unions, partings, anniversaries, bankruptcies, love affairs, job losses, major and minor misdemeanours. Often her principal characters are women fearful of being left on the shelf or who have become dissatisfied with their lot in life and hanker for more – whatever that is. In an essay titled Working for a Living, Munro recalled how as her mother grew older she had unrealistic pretensions to a genteel, middle-class existence, which included funding a school bursary on the basis of the family’s fox-fur business. That it had rarely broken even was immaterial. Such pride, such profligacy in the face of poverty, Munro reflected, bordered on perversity.
What is most impressive and compelling about the way she writes is the steadiness of her tone and how she resists any temptation towards sentimentalism. Like the pioneering Laidlaws, she knows that it is pointless to complain. If you want to survive you must knuckle down and deal with whatever is thrown at you as best you can. Two hundred years on little in essence has really changed. Immigrants want to better themselves and will seek to do so wherever they think that a possibility.
Alice Munro, née Laidlaw, was born in 1931, and grew up during the Depression. She attended the University of Western Ontario where initially she studied journalism before switching to English. By 20, she was married and she had her first child, a daughter, two years later. By then, though, magazines had already begun to appreciate her stories. A second daughter died the day she was born; a third was born in 1957. In 1963, she moved with her family to Victoria where she and her first husband, Jim Munro, opened a bookshop, Munro’s Books, which is still trading. Another daughter was born in 1966.
Munro’s life was thus one in which motherhood and domesticity were combined with writing and thinking about writing. Like Chekhov and Cheever, with both of whom she is routinely compared, she prefers suggestion to specificity. She never spells out what’s going on in a story, preferring to leave it to her readers to figure it out for themselves. Religion is a hammer used to nail down sinners. Shame and humiliation are hurled from the pulpit. Sex is never far from the surface. Secrets are kept until they need to be used, like poisoned darts. Women look on other women as rivals and predators while men strut like peacocks and lie like snake oil salesmen. “A rumpled bed says more, in the hands of Munro,” Atwood has remarked, “than any graphic in-out, in-out depiction of genitalia ever could.”
Moreover, there is nothing neat and tidy about Munro’s world. It is inchoate, chaotic, ongoing, asymmetrical. Rarely does she tie up loose ends, life goes on, you feel, even after she makes the last full stop. Often her stories begin in the middle of scenes so that when you start to read one you are immediately involved in it. Miles City, Montana, a personal favourite, begins: “My father came across the field carrying the body of the boy who had drowned.” Another superb one, The Progress of Love, opens:
What do most people do once the necessity of working all the time is removed?