Alice has not left the building
September 16th, 2012
Most artists end up imitating themselves. Their art degenerates into a copy of a copy of a copy. Alice Munro has remained a great artist for five decades because her stories are propelled by curiosity. Human nature (not moralism), is always the catalyst, and human nature has endless variations.
Life in Alice Munro’s fiction is frequently painful and disappointing—but the reflex of humour can be a crucial antidote, as W.P. Kinsella touches upon in his review ["Everything is Funny"].
Now 78, Alice Munro raised her three daughters mostly in West Vancouver and Victoria, where her first husband Jim Munro, father of her children, still owns and operates Munro’s Books. She remains more of a West Coaster than most of her readers realize.
“I like the West Coast attitudes,” she told CBC Radio in 2004, “Winters [in B.C.] to me are sort of like a holiday. People are thinking about themselves. The way I grew up [in Ontario], people were thinking about duty.”
She has always been a writer. During her acceptance of Man Booker International Prize at Trinity College in Dublin, Munro recalled being seven years old, pacing in her backyard, trying to find a way to make Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid have a happy ending.
Her new collection of stories is called Too Much Happiness (Douglas Gibson Books, M&S). Simultaneously, there is a new edition of My Best Stories (Penguin), with an introduction by Margaret Atwood.
Alice Munro was born Alice Laidlaw in Wingham, Ontario on July 31, 1931. Her father was a farmer; her mother, a former teacher. When her mother developed Parkinson’s disease, Alice Laidlaw handled the brunt of domestic duties but nursed ambitions to become a writer.
“I think choosing to be a writer was a very reckless thing to do,” she told CBC’s Shelagh Rogers in 2004, “although I didn’t realize it. I was planning an historical novel in grade seven. It gave way to a Wuthering Heights novel I was writing all the way through high school.”
During her two years at the University of Western Ontario, she published her first short story in Folio, an undergraduate literary magazine, and met fellow student Jim Munro. They married in December of 1951 and moved to Vancouver where their two eldest daughters were born. Another daughter died of kidney failure on the day she was born.
In Vancouver Alice Munro befriended Margaret Laurence, another housewife who was learning to write, and she was inspired by the success of local novelist Ethel Wilson.
In Victoria, where a fourth daughter was born in 1966, she helped operate Munro’s Books (est. 1963), considered one of the finest independent bookstores in Canada.
In all, Alice Munro resided in Vancouver and Victoria for 22 years before her first marriage ended and she moved back to Ontario.
After separating from her husband in 1973, Munro became writer-in-residence at the University of Western Ontario in 1974. In 1975, she moved to Clinton, Ontario, in Huron County, with a former university friend, Gerald Fremlin, a geographer, partially in order to help look after his mother. Clinton is located approximately 35 kilometres from Wingham where she grew up. (The issue of Folio in which she had first published a short story also contained a story by Fremlin, who is slightly older than she.)
Alice Munro married Fremlin after she was divorced in 1976, the year she received her first honorary doctorate (having been unable to finish university due to lack of funds). They now divide their time between residences in Clinton in Ontario and Comox on Vancouver Island.
Encouraged by CBC Radio’s Robert Weaver since 1951, Alice Munro sold her first short story to Mayfair magazine in 1953. She has suggested she might have opted for the short story approach to fiction because she was balancing her duties as the mother of three children, but she also spent many of her formative years as writer trying to write a novel without success.
Alice Munro’s first short story collection, Dance of the Happy Shades (1968), received the Governor General’s Award for Fiction. Lives of Girls and Women (1971), which was marketed as a novel and received the Canadian Booksellers Award, was the basis for a Canadian movie of the same name that featured her daughter Jenny Munro as the heroine Del Jordan.
Recently Sarah Polley’s superb cinematic adaptation of Alice Munro’s story The Bear Came Over the Mountain, renamed Away from Her and starring Julie Christie and Gordon Pinsent, was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.
A frequent contributor to the New Yorker since 1976, Alice Munro became the eleventh recipient of the George Woodcock Lifetime Achievement Award for B.C. writing in 2005. She accepted the award, accompanied by her daughter, BCBW contributor Sheila Munro, at the Vancouver Public Library, where she once worked.
Alice Munro is only the third recipient of the new Man Booker International Prize. Part of her appeal is that her work is distinctly Canadian in a classic ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ mold. Typically, she told her Man Booker audience in Ireland that writing, for her, has amounted to “…always fooling around with what you find. . . . This is what you want to do with your time—and people give you a prize for it.”
In one of several brilliant stories in Too Much Happiness, one entitled “Fiction,” a graduate of the UBC Creative Writing program has published her first collection of stories called How Are We To Live. The protagonist, Joyce, is an older woman who once gave this girl music lessons as a child. She has realized this up-’n’-coming writer is the daughter of the woman to whom she lost her first husband when they were all living at a place called Rough River, decades before.
Curiosity sends Joyce to the author’s book launch at a North Vancouver bookstore. Classically Canadian, Munro writes, “Joyce has never understood this business of lining up to get a glimpse of the author and then going away with a stranger’s name written in your book.”
The self-confident young author [possibly a self-parody of Munro as a young writer?] has written a story that completely documents the domestic complications she witnessed, the intrigues that led to Joyce’s divorce, and yet she does not recognize her former music teacher in the flesh. There is a poster of self-centred first-time author wearing a little black jacket, tailored, severe, very low in the neck and, Munro adds, “Though she has practically nothing there to show off.”
The inexperienced writer has simply reiterated reality without going to the trouble of fictionalizing it, adding nuances of her own. This writer “…sits there and writes her name as if that is all the writing she could be responsible for in this world.” This is as scathing as Alice Munro gets.
Then there is a reprieve for the reader, a line break. The once-jilted Joyce, who has since remarried to a 65-year-old neuropsychologist, leaves the book launch. Alice Munro adds her final paragraph. “Walking up Lonsdale Avenue, walking uphill, she gradually regains her composure. This might even turn into a funny story that she would tell some day. She wouldn’t be surprised.”
Munro doesn’t write whodunnits like Agatha Christie but she does reveal the mysteries of behaviour. Conventional thinking is never enough.
Essay Date: 2009