Special From Joan Larsen: The World of Alice Munro

Posted on October 11, 2013

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By Joan Larsen

Author Alice Munro has just become the 13th woman to win the Nobel Prize for literature.

There is a limit to the amount of misery and disarray you will put up with, for love, just as there is a limit to the amount of mess you can stand around the house.  You can’t know the limit beforehand, but you will know when you’re reached it. I believe this.

 – Alice Munro

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I wonder if she’d mind if I called her Alice.  Already I believe we think alike.

Like all women who eagerly await opening her latest book of short stories, Too Much Happiness – stories that touch the core of what lies within us – we sense that this is a woman who is not only “open” but who thinks like we do.  A long lunch with Alice would result in an even longer friendship, full of confidences shared, stories told.  Or so I would like to think.  When she speaks with that beautifully modulated voice, we find ourselves listening to every word.  When she can be enticed into reading small segments of her books, we hear that same voice soften, emotions coming to the fore.  We know that she is seeing flashes of her own life, so skillfully woven into the narrative.

The world of Alice Munro – the effect of her past life on her work – deserves exploring further.  And so I did.  When she was asked about a story in which country girls sleep with summer boys, she said: “Oh, that came from a friend of my husband, who was visiting and told us about going to the country and meeting a girl…”

“She writes memorably about men, but the lives she writes about are female.  She has become one of the most acute chroniclers of female sexuality, sidling up to erotic secrets in a way that lends them extra charge.”  Her fellow well-known Canadian writer, Margaret Atwood, tells us:  “Pushing sexual boundaries is distinctly thrilling to many a Munro woman; but in order to trespass you have to know exactly where the fence is and Munro’s universe is criss-crossed with meticulously defined borders.  Hands, chairs, glances – all are a part of an intricate inner map strewn with barbed wire and booby traps and secret paths through the shrubbery.”   Oh, she’s good at what she does!

I happen to know the farmlands and small towns of rural western Ontario, Canada after many visits over many years.  Even now, it doesn’t seem too different than it was in the early 19th century.  Munro’s mother, once a school teacher, and her father struggled on their farm, raising foxes in the Depression years and in the wartime ‘40s.  Those years were the hardest in Alice’s life.  She worked for her father – receiving blows – and was forced to take care of the younger children when her mother became chronically ill.  She wanted to read.  She needed to write, but such things were frowned on.  She didn’t ever fit in, she said.  But she became a keen observer of domesticity, the detritus of daily life, what people wore, how they talked.  Later, every memory, every story had its beginnings in the truth of these “ordinary lives.”  Characters are carefully drawn.  And, from these beginnings, we find we recognize a bit of ourselves, our own lives, but somehow, seem to experience these moments for the first time, encountering surprises along the way.  Munro tells us:  “I know what happened before and what happened after the part of life I am dealing with.”  It is no wonder Alice Munro has risen to the top of the short story genre.

Leaving home to go to Western Ontario University was really an escape from a very sick mother.  “Most girls at that time would have sacrificed themselves for family.  It didn’t occur to me to do that.”  Two years later, we find her married to Jim Munro, a fellow student, and not too long after, her daughters were born.  “I think I married to be able to write, to settle down and give my attention back to the important thing,” she has said.  “Sometimes now when I look back on those early years I think:  this was a hard-hearted young woman.”  Talking about her young children and her compelling need to write, Munro says:  “I was big on naps.” Every moment, every bit of life would provide themes that she would write about:  rebellious daughters, difficult mother-daughter relationships, wives with interior lives.  Is it any wonder that many of us can relate to her?

By the time she met her second husband (and she was quoted:  “We met for lunch.  After three martinis, we decided to get together.”), her writing was already well-received in Canada.  Her name, her reputation, and her early books were drawing attention in the states.  I found myself awaiting each one, finding it difficult to pick favorites.  Each was truly a “small gem.”  However, after you have thoroughly enjoyed her latest book Too Much Happiness, you really should pick up her recent Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage.  Capturing us in a single twist of a sentence, you will find Munro addressing the problems of women living alone, middle age, and the elderly.  A truly special “read.”  The highest accolade a critic can pay a short story writer is to say that he or she is our Chekhov.  By one and all, Munro is considered “our Chekhov” after that short story collection came out in print.  A masterpiece.

One more in her collections I cannot resist.  For those of us who know her, we find in her latest books a special place known as Alice Munro Territory.  No other author can touch her stunning collection of nine short stories, Away From Her, that bring us into the substance of adult life.  Definitely don’t miss reading the title story, already made into a movie (now in a stunning DVD starring Julie Christie), of an aging woman who develops Alzheimer’s disease and forgets her long good years of marriage but finds another companion.  Beautiful, sad, and I believe you will find it completely unforgettable as I did.

Three years ago, Alice Munro stunned her reading audience by declaring she planned to stop writing fiction.  Well… after all, she was 75 and had written a dozen books, been showcased in the New Yorker for years, and gleaned more shining awards than most of her contemporaries.  There was a collective gasp among her readers.  This just could not be.

And then, several new short stories began appearing in New Yorker and Harper’s.  She had thought it over.  Perhaps her body was aging a bit, she said, but her mind was sharp as ever.  Sharper, actually.   A glimpse of her latest collection of short stories, Too Much Happiness, only served to tantalize this Alice Munro fan.  I could not resist sitting down with it.   Her themes are familiar ones from Munro:  infidelity, estranged children, drowning, controlling husbands.  Her control is so concentrated that she is able to squeeze a story the size of a novel into 30 pages.

“A story is not like a road to follow,” she says.  “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.”

In the opening story, “Dimensions”, we find that Doree’s husband has killed their three children in their beds after she confided in her friend of her difficult marriage.  Doree has somehow picked herself up, finding solace in her visits to her husband in prison.  The story is bleak, but always the women have fortitude and manage to wiggle free of all that has befallen them.

In some of these stories, it is the secondary characters who come on the scene, shocking the main character by not acting according to type. In “Child’s Play” (a wonderful title for this story), it is the confident best friend and summer camp bunk mate  who participates in a ghastly crime at the lake.  Often it is a short paragraph that stands out, hits home.  “I suppose I hated her as some people hate snakes or caterpillars or mice or slugs.  For no decent reason.  Not for any certain harm she could do but for the way she could disturb your innards and make you sick of your life.”

In “Deep Holes,” a geologist’s son falls into a crater caused by erosion as they hiked.  He survives but years later, his personality erodes.  We soon find how lives are shaped, then sealed by chance happenings.

The title story was the final one, relating the final journey of Sophia Kovalesvski, the famous 19th century Russian mathematician.  I found the biography of the protagonist interesting, but leaving me one step away from being totally caught up in the tale.  However, a short paragraph within proved so memorable.  “Always remember that when a man goes out of the room, he leaves everything in it behind,” her friend told her. “When a woman goes out she carries everything that happened in the room along with her.”  That truism alone captured me.

And so, for Alice Munro, her star has never been so high.  In Spring 2009 she received the Man Booker International prize, which is about to be the biggest prize for literature in our world today.  In her acceptance speech for the Booker, she told us that she is interested not in happy endings, but in “meaning… resonance, some strange beauty on the shimmer of the sea.”    That night she might have felt something akin to “too much happiness” as she saw the short story genre achieve the highest achievement in the literary world.  Alice Munro is its master.

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.

            -Alice Munro

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JoanAvatarWriter Joan Larsen has spent a lifetime searching for the most remote places on Earth.  But it is the polar regions of our world that she has been drawn back to again and again.  She has done research in these lands of ice, and considers Antarctica to be her “other home.”

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