Winner's words

Winner's words

Alice Munro’s short stories are abundant in emotions and revolve around women who find themselves amid complexities of day-to-day life, writes Michiko Katutani .

Alice Munro, named as the winner of the 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature, once observed: “The complexity of things — the things within things — just seems to be endless. I mean nothing is easy, nothing is simple.”

That is also a perfect description of Munro’s quietly radiant short stories — stories that have established her as one of the foremost practitioners of the form. Set largely in small-town and rural Canada and often focused on the lives of girls and women, her tales have the swoop and density of big, intimate novels, mapping the crevices of characters’ hearts with clear-eyed Chekhovian empathy and wisdom.

Fluent and deceptively artless on the page, these stories are actually amazingly intricate constructions that move back and forth in time, back and forth between reality and memory, opening out, magically, to disclose the long panoramic vistas in these people’s lives and the homely details of their day-to-day routines: The dull coping with “food and mess and houses” that can take up so much of their heroines’ time.

Definitive writer

There is an emotional amplitude and psychological density to Munro’s stories that stands in sharp contrast to the minimalistic work of Raymond Carver, and to Donald Barthelme’s playful, postmodernist tales.

Her understanding of the music of domestic life, her ability to simultaneously detail her characters’ inner landscapes and their place in a meticulously observed community, and her talent for charting ‘the progress of love’ as it morphs and mutates through time — these gifts have not only helped Munro redefine the contours of the contemporary short story, but have also made her one of today’s most influential writers, celebrated by authors as disparate as Lorrie Moore, Jonathan Franzen, Deborah Eisenberg and Mona Simpson.

In short fiction that spans four and a half decades — beginning with the collection Dance of the Happy Shades (1968), through classic volumes like The Moons of Jupiter (1982), The Progress of Love (1986), Friend of My Youth (1990) and Open Secrets (1994), up to Dear Life (2012), which she has said will be her last — Munro has given us prismatic portraits of ordinary people that reveal their intelligence, toughness and capacity to dream, as well as their lies, blind spots and lapses of courage and good will. Such descriptions are delivered not with judgmental accountancy, but with the sort of ‘unsparing unsentimental love’ harboured by a close friend or family member.

There is always an awareness in her fiction of the subjectivity of perception, and the kaleidoscopic permutations that memory can work on reality. In Friend of My Youth, the story of a twice-jilted woman named Flora is remembered by a friend, and that friend’s account, in turn, is framed by her daughter’s thoughts on the subject, turning Flora’s sad tale into a kind of Rorschach test for the pair of them.

Her characters

Like Munro, many of the women in these stories grew up in small towns in Canada and, at some point, faced a decision about whether to stay or to leave for the wider world. Their lifetimes often span decades of startling social change — from a time and place when tea parties and white gloves were de rigueur to the days of health food stores and stripper bars.

For that matter, Munro’s women, much like John Updike’s men, often find themselves caught on the margins of shifting cultural mores and pulled between conflicting imperatives — between rootedness and escape, domesticity and freedom, between tending to familial responsibilities or following the urgent promptings of their own hearts.

The narrator of Miles City, Montana craves “a place to hide” from the demands of running a household; she wants to “get busy at my real work, which was a sort of wooing of distant parts of myself,” only to realise, after a swimming pool accident, that her self-pre-occupation has endangered her daughter. In Family Furnishings, the heroine doesn’t stay home to take care of her ailing mother, but wins a college scholarship, moves away to the big city and sets about becoming a writer.

In story after story, passion is the magnet or the motor that drives women’s choices. Love and sex, and marriage and adultery are often mirrors that reveal a Munro heroine’s expectations — her fondest dreams and cruel self-delusions, her sense of independence and need to belong.

Munro is adept at tracing the many configurations that intimacy can take over the years, showing how it can suffocate a marriage or inject it with a renewed sense of devotion. She shows how sexual ardour can turn into a ‘tidy pilot flame’, and how an impulsive tryst can become a treasured memory, hoarded as a bulwark against the banalities of middle age.

Some of Munro’s more recent tales have exchanged the elliptical narratives she pioneered years ago for a more old-fashioned, stage-managed approach. Compared to her earlier work, many of the stories in Dear Life feature tightly plotted — even contrived — narratives and more closure than in the past.

The highlights of that volume were four final entries, which she described as “the first and last — and the closest — things I have to say about my own life” — a comment that cannot help but remind the reader of how closely many of Munro’s stories have followed the general contours of her own life: from a hardscrabble childhood in an Ontario farming community, to early marriage and a move to British Columbia, followed by divorce, a new marriage and a move back to rural Ontario.

In the last paragraph of the last of those semi-autobiographical pieces, Munro writes, “I did not go home for my mother’s last illness or for her funeral. I had two small children and nobody in Vancouver to leave them with. We could barely have afforded the trip, and my husband had a contempt for formal behaviour, but why blame it on him? I felt the same. We say of some things that they can’t be forgiven, or that we will never forgive ourselves. But we do — we do it all the time.”

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