What is most amazing and refreshing about Alice Munro’s Nobel Prize in Literature is that her body of work is so largely focused on women and their domestic lives. Politics are absent. Feminism is implicit, but never explicit. Yes, there are male narrators in Munro’s fiction, as in “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” reprinted in last week’s New Yorker, but her drama is largely that of the human heart—what used to be pigeonholed as “women’s fiction.” Munro transcended that genre decades ago.
Alice Munro snuck up on me—as, I suspect, she snuck up on a lot of her devoted readers. Slowly, over decades, I looked forward to seeing her byline or purchasing a new volume of her short stories (10 collections). Then one day it became clear to me that the appearance of a new story of hers in, say, The New Yorker or The Atlantic caused me to drop everything to read it. Right Away. She had become an essential literary treasure and source of pleasure.
Munro is not an author whose work shouts. Her tales usually begin quietly and deal with what appear to be quotidian people, places, and events, then gradually thicken, deepen, and take you to an often unexpected and profound place. Her conversational voice draws one in, but is deceptive, because it often conveys the deepest of feelings and the most appalling calamities. Death, abandonment, betrayal—it’s all there, but revealed in a voice uniquely her own. And that voice is at its best—a master at work—in her latest (last, she says) book, Dear Life (2012). Some of her stories are so stunning they took my breath away. They begin simply enough, then unfold like a gathering storm until the lightening and thunder crack over our heads.
Many of her stories take place in the 1940s and ‘50s, just far enough removed to think of them as set not only in the distant past but a past peopled by small towns, by agricultural communities, by pre-1960s values, by a provincialism and prudery that no longer exist. Munro regards all her characters with empathy and provides us with a compassionate overview of their ordinary lives. She does so, in part, through unflashy language and gripping metaphors. In “To Reach Japan,” the first story in Dear Life, her main character, Greta, a married women fantasizing about a possible romance, thinks to herself, “The dream was in fact a lot like the Vancouver weather—a dismal sort of longing, a rainy dreamy sadness, a weight that shifted round the heart.” And then, after Greta drops a note to a man who flirted with her briefly at a party, she reflects, “Writing this letter is like putting a note in a bottle—and hoping it will reach Japan.” It’s an act of desperation, and, dear reader, it works, as romantic acts of courage sometimes do. Although how it works out, we do not know.
We, Munro’s readers, vibrate to her characters’ joys, sorrows, sexual awakenings and shocks, because they are timeless and ageless, just as the sorrows and joys of Chekov’s characters are timeless and ageless.
The protagonist in “Amundsen” is another, fairly typical, Munro creation. “I board the train as if there are chains around my ankles.” The time is World War II. She has given herself to an older man, a doctor, who wants to marry her. And then, mysteriously, shockingly, he gets cold feet and backs out. Decades later she sees him for a fleeting moment, crossing a Toronto street, and feels “ . . . the same as when I left Amundsen, the train carrying me still dazed and full of disbelief. Nothing changes really about love,” concludes Munro, an insight that detonates like a quiet bomb.
Munro has a fairly oblique storytelling style. She is masterly at leaving things out. What others often put stage center—a seduction or a betrayal—she chooses to place offstage. It’s a style with a big payoff, because, when the truth is revealed, you wonder how you missed it, just as her protagonists often miss it. This is particularly true in one of her most brilliant tales, “Carrie.” Munro writes, “There is always one morning when you realize that the birds have all gone. She (Carrie) knows something. She has found it in her sleep. There is no news to give him. No news because there never was any.” And suddenly we discover, just as Carrie discovers, the unfathomable truth about her married lover. It’s a shocker.
Munro’s stories have deepened as she’s aged, and her skills as a writer have matured.
On one level, instead of tales about young married women with children and no money trying to have careers, we have characters struggling with Alzheimer’s or late-life passion. Munro well understands the odd and unexpected twists and turns of contemporary aging. In “Dolly,” a couple in their late seventies—already planning their funerals, believing that nothing of importance could lie ahead of them—are almost destroyed by the reappearance of an old flame. The rage of the wife is so palpable that it leaps off the page.
On another level, her characters, reflecting backward at their earlier selves (and parents) and forward, to their grandchildren, recognize that they might well have gotten things wrong, not fully understood what was happening. Her stories sweep back and forth in time, beginning and ending in unexpected places.
Also, her characters dispense the kind of wisdom that only aging brings. As Neal, a character in “Gravel,” says: “The thing is to be happy. No matter what. Just try. You can. It gets to be easier and easier. It’s nothing to do with circumstances. You wouldn’t believe how good it is. Accept everything and then tragedy disappears. Or tragedy lightens, anyway, and you’re just there, going along easy in the world.”
That the Nobel Prize committee has now acknowledged what we, her devoted readers, have known for a long time—that Munro is a great fiction writer—is cause for true celebration. Her work is a marvel and a treasure.