Monday, October 21, 2013

Dear Life: Stories by Alice Munro

Dear Life: StoriesI have read Alice Munro time and again over the years, not with compulsion but with curiosity, and her stories never entirely worked for me. If I might be so bold, I might say that there seemed too many words. There is a book of hers which seems the height of her skills, however, written in 2001: Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage: Stories. In it one senses a muscularity and an ease that is not as noticeable in some of her other collections.

So, this may be a meditation on Nobel Prizes for Literature as well as a review of Munro’s latest collection. The Nobel Committee has confounded me on occasion, but I have always thought they must know more, have read more, knew the big picture. And perhaps they do. But still I wonder about some of their choices in the past, specifically Mo Yan and Elfriede Jelinek. However, after reading the stories in this book and trying to review it which meant I had to look closer at what worked and what didn’t, I get it. There is something quite remarkable about someone who has spent her life writing short stories, not stories “as practice for a novel” as she once remarked. With her skill she elevates the story to literature that stands on its own, yes, like the Russian greats.

Friends of mine have said their favorite story in Dear Life is “Amundsen.” I agree it is a wonderful story: delicious, dark, complete. Another I would choose for the favorites category is “Corrie,” which slyly reveals human nature and has a propulsion all its own. There is a moment of real tension towards the end of that story that makes us imagine all that can come of our not-so-lofty moral choices.

Another thing about Munro’s work: it feels Canadian. It doesn’t feel American, European, or any other thing. She mentions trees and shrubs and birds common to North America, but somehow the place she writes about feels distant, a little lonely, a little chilly, a little spare. Towards the end of this collection, in “Night”, Munro locates us more specifically:
”This conversation with my mother would probably have taken place in the Easter holidays, when all the snowstorms and snow mountains had vanished and the creeks were in flood, laying hold of anything they could get at, and the brazen summer was just looming ahead. Our climate had no dallying, no mercies.”

There is a difference between stories written recently, looking back fifty years and stories written fifty years ago. I don’t know why. Theoretically, one could make the two merge until indistinguishable from one another. While part of it may be simply the author’s personal growth in confidence, language skills, or in wisdom, it might have something to do with that wider view that we all share now that simply was not imaginable fifty years ago. Individual universes were so small then.

What strikes me about Dear Life is how old some of the stories seem. Some are placed in the 1950s, some in the 1960s or 70s; some (e.g., “Amundsen”, “Train”) may even have been written then. What gives me that impression is hard to say. Her characters are from a different time. I suspect Munro had at least some of these stories in a drawer somewhere and she pulled them out years later to discover there is something there after all. She polished them with the knowledge and skills she has now, and voilà!

There is nothing wrong with this, in case you were thinking I was being critical. All life-long writers must have bits and pieces put away, like any crafter, who finally sees the value of a piece made early on, either for its bluntness or because the writer’s instincts were developed even then. Writers can do whatever they think they can get away with, and since Munro has said more than once “this is the last of it,” one somehow imagines that this is the last of what she’d had in the drawer, with a few new ones thrown in because she couldn’t help herself.

Now that she is recognized with a Nobel, one wonders if she won’t just scribble along just as always, for posterity’s sake. Unless, and I guess some writers feel this way, it was always difficult to write, bleeding like that onto the page, imagining someone else’s life, but doing it under compulsion. Perhaps she’s been saying she is no longer feeling that compulsion, and is happy to allow her legacy to speak for itself. Fair enough.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores


  1. Oh. Irene Ogrizek sent me a link to her exegesis of several Munro stories and since my thoughts above do not nearly touch the heart of Munro's talent, merely talk around it, you must have a look at what Irene has written. At the end you will have a richer, by far, read of Munro. Thanks to Irene for her thoughts and her link!

  2. The link given above has been changed. Try this one instead:
    It is well worth taking a look at Ogrizek's analysis.