Alice Munro: an appreciation by Margaret Atwood

Alice Munro is among the major writers of English fiction of our time. She's been accorded armfuls of super-superlatives by critics in both North America and Britain, she's won many awards, and she has a devoted international readership. Among writers, her name is spoken in hushed tones. She's the kind of writer about whom it is often said - no matter how well known she becomes - that she ought to be better known.

None of this happened overnight. Munro has been writing since the 1960s, and her first collection, Dance of the Happy Shades, appeared in 1968. To date - and including her latest, the rapturously received Runaway (2004) - she has published 10 collections, averaging nine or 10 stories each. Though her fiction has been a regular feature of the New Yorker since the 1970s, her recent elevation to international literary sainthood took as long as it did partly because of the form in which she writes. She is a writer of stories - "short stories", as they used to be called, or "short fiction", which is now more common. Though many American and British and Canadian writers of the first rank have practised this form, there is still a widespread but false tendency to equate length with importance.

Thus Munro has been among those writers subject to periodic rediscovery, at least outside Canada. It's as if she jumps out of a cake - Surprise! - and then has to jump out of it again, and then again. Readers don't see her name in lights on every billboard. They come across her as if by accident or fate, and are drawn in, and then there is an outbreak of wonder and excitement, and incredulity - Where did Alice Munro come from? Why didn't anybody tell me? How can such excellence have sprung from nowhere?

But Munro did not spring from nowhere. She sprang - though it's a verb her characters would find overly sprightly, and indeed pretentious - from Huron County, in south-western Ontario. Ontario is the large province of Canada that stretches from the Ottawa River to the western end of Lake Superior. This is a huge and varied space, but south-western Ontario is a distinct part of it. It was named Sowesto by the painter Greg Curnoe, a name that has stuck. Curnoe's view was that Sowesto was an area of considerable interest, but also of considerable psychic murkiness and oddity, a view shared by many. Robertson Davies, also from Sowesto, used to say "I know the dark folk-ways of my people", and Munro knows them, too. You are likely to run into quite a few signs in Sowesto wheat fields telling you to be prepared to meet your God, or else your doom - felt to be much the same thing.

Lake Huron lies at the western edge of Sowesto, Lake Erie to the south. The country is mostly flat farmland, cut by several wide, winding rivers prone to flooding, and along the rivers - because of the available boat transport and the power provided by water-driven mills - a number of smaller and larger towns grew up in the 19th century. Each has its red-brick town hall (usually with a tower), its post-office building and handful of churches of various denominations, its main street and residential section of gracious homes, and its other residential section on the wrong side of the tracks. Each has its families with long memories and stashes of bones in the closets.

Sowesto contains the site of the Donnelly massacre of the 19th century, when a large family were slaughtered and their home burnt as a result of political resentments carried over from Ireland. Lush nature, repressed emotions, respectable fronts, hidden sexual excesses, outbreaks of violence, lurid crimes, long-held grudges, strange rumours - these are never far away in Munro's Sowesto, partly because all have been provided by the real life of the region.

When Munro was growing up in the 1930s and 40s, the idea of a person from Canada - but especially one from small-town south-western Ontario - thinking she could be a writer to be taken seriously in the world at large was laughable. Even by the 50s and 60s there were very few publishers in Canada, and these were mostly textbook publishers that imported whatever so-called literature was to be had from Britain and the United States. There might have been some amateur theatre - high-school performances, Little Theatre groups. There was, however, the radio, and in the 60s Munro got her start through a CBC programme called Anthology, produced by Robert Weaver.

But very few Canadian writers of any sort were known to an international readership, and it was taken for granted that if you had hankerings of that kind - hankerings about which you would feel defensive and ashamed, because art was not something a grown-up, morally credible person would fool around with - it would be best for you if you left the country. Everyone knew that writing was not a thing from which you could ever expect to make a living.

It might be marginally acceptable to dabble around the edges of water-colour painting or poetry if you were a certain kind of man, described by Munro in "The Turkey Season": "There were homosexuals in town, and we knew who they were: an elegant, light-voiced, wavy-haired paperhanger who called himself an interior decorator; the minister's widow's fat, spoiled only son, who went so far as to enter baking contests and had crocheted a tablecloth; a hypochondriacal church organist and music teacher who kept the choir and his pupils in line with screaming tantrums." Or you could do art as a hobby, if you were a woman with time on your hands, or you could scrape out a living at some poorly paid quasi-artistic job. Munro's stories are sprinkled with women like this. They go in for piano playing or write chatty newspaper columns. Or - more tragically - they have a real though small talent, like Almeda Roth in "Meneseteung", who produces one volume of minor verse called Offerings, but there is no context for them.

If you moved to a larger Canadian city, you might at least find a few others of your ilk, but in the small towns of Sowesto you'd be on your own. Nevertheless, John Kenneth Galbraith, Robertson Davies, Marian Engel, Graeme Gibson and James Reaney all came out of Sowesto; and Munro - after a spell on the west coast - moved back there, and lives at present not far from Wingham, the prototype of the various Jubilees and Walleys and Dalgleishes and Hanrattys in her stories.

Through Munro's fiction, Sowesto's Huron County has joined Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County as a slice of land made legendary by the excellence of the writer who has celebrated it, though in both cases "celebrated" is not quite the right word. "Anatomised" might be closer to what goes on in the work of Munro, though even that term is too clinical. What should we call the combination of obsessive scrutiny, archaeological unearthing, precise and detailed recollection, the wallowing in the seamier and meaner and more vengeful undersides of human nature, the telling of erotic secrets, the nostalgia for vanished miseries, and rejoicing in the fullness and variety of life, stirred all together?

At the end of Munro's Lives of Girls and Women (1971), her only novel and a bildungsroman - a portrait of the artist as a young girl - there's a telling passage. Del Jordan of Jubilee, who has by now (true to her surname) crossed over into the promised land of womanhood and also of writerhood, says of her adolescence:
'It did not occur to me then that one day I would be so greedy for Jubilee. Voracious and misguided as Uncle Craig out at Jenkin's Bend, writing his history, I would want to write things down.
'I would try to make lists. A list of all the stores and businesses going up and down the main street and who owned them, a list of family names, names on the tombstones in the cemetery and any inscriptions underneath ...
'The hope of accuracy we bring to such tasks is crazy, heartbreaking.
'And no list could hold what I wanted, for what I wanted was every last thing, every layer of speech and thought, stroke of light on bark or walls, every smell, pothole, pain, crack, delusion, held still and held together - radiant, everlasting.'
As a programme for a life's work, this is daunting. But it's a programme Munro was to follow over the next 35 years with remarkable fidelity.

Alice Munro was born Alice Laidlaw in 1931, which means that she was a small child during the depression. She was eight in 1939, the year Canada entered the second world war, and she attended university - the University of Western Ontario - in the postwar years. She was 25 and a young mother when Elvis Presley first became famous, and 38 at the time of the flower-child revolution and the advent of the women's movement in 1968-69, when her first book was published. In 1981 she was 50. Her stories are set mainly over these years - the 30s to the 80s - or even before then, in the time of ancestral memory.

Her own ancestry was partly Scottish Presbyterian: she can trace her family back to James Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd, friend of Robert Burns and the Edinburgh literati of the late 18th century, and author of Confessions of a Justified Sinner, which could itself be a Munro title. On the other side of the family there were Anglicans, for whom the worst sin is said to consist of using the wrong fork at dinner. Munro's acute consciousness of social class, and of the minutiae and sneers separating one level from the next, is honestly come by, as is - from the Presbyterians - her characters' habit of rigorously examining their own deeds, emotions, motives and consciences, and finding them wanting. In a traditional Protestant culture, such as that of small-town Sowesto, forgiveness is not easily come by, punishments are frequent and harsh, potential humiliation and shame lurk around every corner, and nobody gets away with much.

But this tradition also contains the doctrine of justification by faith alone: grace descends upon us without any action on our part. In Munro's work, grace abounds, but it is strangely disguised: nothing can be predicted. Emotions erupt. Preconceptions crumble. Surprises proliferate. Astonishments leap out. Malicious acts can have positive consequences. Salvation arrives when least expected, and in peculiar forms.

More here.


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