Cynthia Ozick has called her “our Chekhov”.
Margaret Atwood, in the introduction to Carried Away (2006), an Everyman’s Library collection of 17 of her stories, describes her reputation as “international literary sainthood”.
Jonathan Franzen, in the opening paragraph of his review of Runaway (2004), says: “Alice Munro has a strong claim to being the best fiction writer now working in North America, but outside of Canada, where her books are No. 1 best sellers, she has never had a large readership.”
With those kind of assessments, from that diverse a group of authors, I think it is probably fair to conclude that the international writing community was not surprised last week when Alice Munro won the 2009 Man Booker International Prize.
There is that ominous ending to Franzen’s lede: “…outside of Canada…she has never had a large readership.” The reaction last week from the (very well-read) international blogging community tends to confirm that. Max at Pechorin’s Journal admitted he had never heard of her. Candy Schultz, who lives literally just down the road from Alice Munro Country (as it is known), thought she was American. John Self at The Asylum remembers reading The Progress of Love some 13 years ago, but nothing since. As far as I can tell, neither dovegreyreader nor Lizzy Siddal — two passionate advocates of Canadian fiction — has ever reviewed an Alice Munro book (dgr and Lizzy: please correct me if I am wrong on that front). I am not being critical of any of those readers; that seems a fair survey of where things are at as far as reading Munro is concerned.
So as someone who professes to blog about Canadian fiction, it behooves me to address the issue. I have been reading Alice Munro for more than 40 years (her first book, Dance of the Happy Shades, was published in 1968 and I do remember it) so I can confirm the first statement in Franzen’s review. It is also accurate to say that Munro not only sells in Canada, she is revered, to slightly alter Atwood’s metaphor. She has won three Governor-General awards and two Giller Prizes (all for different books). The volume under review here would almost certainly have been Giller number three except that Munro was on the jury that year and her book could not be considered — confirming that she is not only an exceptional writer, she is an exceptional person.
I’ve chosen Munro’s latest book (her twelfth, not counting collections), The View from Castle Rock (2006), because it is both atypical and typical of her work — if you have not read her, it is not a bad place to start exactly because of that dichotomy.
Before going any further, let me go back to Franzen's excellent review because he does contemplate reasons why she is not read as widely as he believes she should be. The first two are particularly relevant:
1. Munro’s work is all about storytelling pleasure. The problem here being that many buyers of serious fiction seem rather ardently to prefer lyrical, tremblingly earnest, faux-literary stuff.
2. As long as you’re reading Munro, you’re failing to multitask by absorbing civics lessons or historical data. Her subject is people. People people people. If you read fiction about some enriching subject like Renaissance art or an important chapter in our nation’s history, you can be assured of feeling productive. But if the story is set in the modern world, and if the characters’ concerns are familiar to you, and if you become so involved with a book that you can’t put it down at bedtime, there exists a risk that you’re merely being entertained.
The first half of the book is atypical because it does explore a broader history than a character’s everyday life. As the author says in a brief forward “about ten or twelve years ago I began to take more than a random interest in the history of one side of my family, whose name was Laidlaw.” She traced them back to late 18th century Scotland, discovered a writer (either published or a letter writer) in each generation since. “I put all this material together over the years, and almost without my noticing what was happening, it began to shape itself, here and there, into somthing like stories.” Munro is in Geoff Dyer territory here, on that border between sometimes non-fiction and sometimes fiction (she is like Dyer in no other way, however). It is a particularly attractive feature of this collection.
The family history is rooted in the Ettrick Valley on the sprine of Scotland: “This parish possesses no advantages” is the way the description of it began in the Statistcal Account of Scotland, 1799. The family are shepherds (Munro’s father still keeps a flock when we last see him centuries and a continent later) struggling to get by. The longest story of the book — the title story — begins at Castle Rock in Edinburgh with an ancestor’s dream of moving to America (that description includes Canada), which he finally undertakes with most of his adult family some decades later when he is in his sixties.
The other three stories of Part One — “Illinois”, “The Wilds of Morris Township” and “Working for a Living” — are as good an account as you will find anywhere of what it was like to be a settler in Ontario or the mid-west of the United States in the early 1880s. They are interesting from that point of view but they are even more important for understanding what it was that produced Alice Munro, the author that we know today.
Consider this example from “Working for a Living”. Alice’s somewhat agressive mother is off at a resort selling fox fur stoles and wraps made from skins that her father has raised and her grandmother is helping out at home:
When we sat looking out at this view my father rolled and smoked a cigarette, and he and my grandmother talked about the old days on the farm, their old neighbors and funny things — that is, both strange and comical things — that had happened. My mother’s absence brought a sort of peace — not only between them, but for all of us. Some alert and striving note was removed. An edge of ambition, self-regard, perhaps discontent, absent. At the time, I did not know exactly what it was that was missing. I did not know either what a deprivation, rather than a relief, it would be for me, if that was gone for good.
That is vintage Munro, as is the following excerpt — a conversation reported by her father from a smoke break at the Foundry where he works as night watchman:
One night somebody asked, when is the best time in a man’s life?
Some said, it’s when you are a kid and can fool around all the time and go down to the river in the summer and play hockey on the road in the winter and that’s all you think about, fooling around and having a good time.
Or when you’re first married if you’re fond of your wife and a bit later, too, when the children are just little and running around and haven’t shown any bad characteristics yet.
My father spoke up and said, “Now, I think maybe now.”
They asked him why.
He said because you weren’t old yet, with one thing or another collapsing on you, but old enough that you could see that a lot of things you might have wanted out of life you would never get. It was hard to explain how you could be happy in such a situation, but sometimes he thought you were.
The six stories of Part Two tell the story of Alice growing up and this is where Munro returns to that typical style that Franzen describes — except that in this book she is talking about her own growing up, not that of some created character. They are all set in Clinton (where she and her second husband live to this day), the heart of Alice Munro Country in southwestern Ontario, just inland from the eastern shore of Lake Huron and about 60 miles north of the U.S. border at Sarnia.
“Fathers” explores the different kinds of male parent that she runs into as a child; not just her own, but a brute who beats his children and another, rather sissified (he used to be a window-dresser in a Chicago department store) version who serves dinner to Alice and her friend:
I expected the sweetbreads to be like their name — some sort of bun with jam or brown sugar, but couldn’t see why that would come with potatoes. What arrived however, were small pads of meat wrapped in crisp bacon, and little potatoes with their skins on, that had been rolled in hot butter and crisped in the pan. Also carrots cut in thin sticks and having a slightly candied flavor. The carrots I could have done without, but I had never tasted potatoes so delicious or meat so tender. All I wished was for Mr. Wainwright to stay in the kitchen instead of hovering around us pouring out lemonade and asking if everything was to our liking.
Dessert was another wonder — a satin vanilla pudding with a sort of lid on it of golden-brown baked sugar. Tiny cakes to go with it, iced on all sides with a very dark, rich chocolate.
It doesn’t take very many excerpts to show why other writers respect Munro.
In “Lying Under the Apple Tree”, young Alice has her first kiss and, quickly after, first heartbreak. In “Hired Girl” she heads north to an island in Georgian Bay for her first summer job. In “The Ticket”, she prepares for her first marriage (it ended in divorce in 1972) and discovers quite a bit of family history. In “Home” she comes face-to-face with her father’s mortality; in “What Do You Want to Know For?” she contemplates her own.
None of that is earth-shaking stuff — Munro does not do earth-shaking. Everything in it, however, is something that every one of us experiences as we go through life. And great writer that she is, Munro has a way of exploring that in such meticulous detail that a reader — even an aging male like myself — can’t help but be touched.
I will confess that while I like and read Munro, I don’t revere her — I can’t help but be reminded of an author friend’s assessment that “every story is another view of boring southwestern Ontario through sepia-coloured glasses”. That isn’t fair but there are grains of truth in it. As a final confession, I’ll admit that when I picked up The View from Castle Rock for a reread after three years, a glance at the titles of each story in Part One brought back sharp memories of everyone. The titles in Part Two provoked no memory are all — but it is a recognition of Alice Munro’s brilliance that within a page or two of starting each one they moved sharply into focus. My subconscious was obviously more deeply affected than I had thought.
It isn’t just the national chauvinist in me that is proud she won the Man Booker International — the reader is every bit as happy that such an outstanding talent has been recognized, even if I am a sometimes grumpy critic of her work. Franzen is right; the rest of the world is missing something by not reading Alice Munro.