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

The Herald - Arts - - BOOKS -

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?

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