BOOKS

Merciful light

Alice Munro’s new stories are luminous

JUDITH TIMSON May 7 1990
BOOKS

Merciful light

Alice Munro’s new stories are luminous

JUDITH TIMSON May 7 1990

Merciful light

BOOKS

Alice Munro’s new stories are luminous

After a writer has been ranked with Chekhov, accused of perfection and called one of the greatest short-story writers in the world, it can be an intimidating task to write again. But, for Alice Munro, apparently nothing has changed. “I write the way I always have,” she says. “I sit in a corner of the chesterfield and stare at the wall, and I keep getting it, and getting it, and when I’ve got it enough in my mind, I start to write. And then, of course, I don’t really have it at all.” Munro’s fans, and the growing recognition and superlatives that her work receives internationally, belie such modesty, bred in the bone of the small-town Ontario native. The publication this spring of her newest collection, Friend of My Youth, was an instant literary event not only in Canada but also in the United States, where the writer and her work have garnered rave reviews. Prominent American author Cynthia Ozick hit the high note on the new book’s dust jacket, declaring, “She is our Chekhov.” But Munro tempers that praise by noting, “Entertainment Today called it ‘Sex lives of Canadians.’ ”

Munro’s stories, most of them intensely personal accounts of the lives of women of her generation, bom in the 1930s and 1940s, have captivated readers around the

world. There is now an identifiable Munro country, powerfully mapped out by such earlier collections as Lives of Girls and Women, The Moons of Jupiter and The Progress of Love (which won Munro her third Governor General’s Award, in 1986). For 13 years, her work has appeared regularly in The New Yorker, and her editor there, Daniel Menaker, describes her as “a kind of trail blazer, structurally and esthetically.” An Alice Munro story zooms effortlessly through time zones, spans generations and offers up more detail and description than do many full-length contemporary novels. It also offers a kind of emotional honesty, said Menaker, which suggests that “the author, along with her characters, has gone through a very painful and disciplined examination of self.”

On a recent visit to Toronto to launch her seventh book, Munro appeared to be flourishing as much as her reputation, wearing a pink top with a long scarf of pinks and reds. At 58, she is a writer who is still exploring new ways to do what she does so well, and still surprising even herself with the results. In a story called “Meneseteung,” she tells the tale of Almeda Roth, a Victorian-age poet in small-town Ontario, an unmarried woman who, through her flowery poetry, tries to deny the primitive

quality of the life around her. It is a tricky work because parts of it, including excerpts from Roth’s book of poetry and her obituary, suggest that she was a real person, brought to life from some dusty newspaper clippings. But, in fact, the whole thing, including the poetry, is out of Alice Munro via the chesterfield. And the author recalled that, when she finished the story, “I was excited—I thought it was good.”

The remark was followed by a whooping laugh—self-congratulation was practically a capital offence in southwestern Ontario, where Munro grew up and where many of her stories are set. “The worst thing you could ever do was to make a fool of yourself,” she said, “and any kind of self-promotion or self-exposure runs this risk.”

By now, Munro has become used to the risks of self-exposure, and she has no need of selfpromotion. She adamantly refused to do the usually requisite cross-country book tour, and instead would submit to only five media interviews. In an age in which even celebrated authors have to peddle themselves and thenwork as talk-show curiosities, Munro’s decision to firmly close the door on a certain kind of literary celebrity is notable. She describes her last book tour as “too physically debilitating—I never slept.” It was not that she hated the attention. “It’s a terrific ego trip and it really gets me high,” she said. “But I get used to shooting my mouth off and then I go home and how do I get into that other life, that other person? I feel that whatever it is that is the private person gets drowned.”

The private person lives quietly in Clinton, Ont., 35 km from Wingham, where she was the first of three children bom to turkey and fox farmer Robert Laidlaw and his wife, Anne. Munro shares a modest house with her second

husband, Gerald Fremlin, a retired cartographer. In an earlier life, while living on the West Coast with her bookseller husband James Munro, she raised three daughters.

She recalls that she had to learn how to write short stories between getting apple juice, answering the phone and letting the cat in. “It nearly drove me crazy,” she admitted. Munro expresses no regrets about how she brought up her children—“I loved being a mother, I wasn’t a monster to them.” But one of her most persistent fantasies, she said, is to return to early motherhood “and just enjoy it,” free from what her publisher and longtime friend, Douglas Gibson of McClelland and Stewart, describes as “an almost puritanical discipline surrounding her work.” Now, she preserves her writing time and energy “with a great deal of guilt and misery,” she said.

Munro’s guilt illuminates the difference be-

tween male and female writers of a certain age: it centres on the personal obligations that have gone unfulfilled. “From the age of 11, art was my religion,” she said. “Nothing in my life seemed more important to me.” She worries about not having been there when certain people needed her: “This question comes up, especially for a woman of my age. It’s spending time with people when I know it would make a difference to them. It’s writing the letter, making the hospital visit.” She added: “This is what women have always done. They’ve kept the human warmth of life going. Well, twice in my life I had a chance to do something, to nurse my mother and my mother-in-law, but I didn’t give myself over to it because I wanted to write. Of course, no male writer in middle age would even have considered doing it.” Munro’s regrets, however, have nothing to do with the demands of the outside world. In contrast to other high-profile writers, including Margaret Atwood and Pierre Berton, who spearhead political causes and act on behalf of the writing community, she easily turns down

almost all requests to do so. “I can slough off that duty quite easily,” she said. “These people are asking me to do something because I am a writer. If I do it, I will no longer be a writer.” It is possible to read an Alice Munro story and never quite know why a simple observation, or an unassuming sentence, placed at a certain point, adds up to genius and revelation. It simply does. In the title story of her new book, the narrator examines her feelings for her dead mother while telling the tale of two sisters who love the same man. She describes an old farmhouse in the Ottawa Valley, “a torrent of unmerciful light pouring through the window.” But the light that Alice Munro sheds on her characters is more forgiving, filled with compassion and humor. In the story “Wigtime,” her central character, Margot, is almost pathetic as she dresses up in a wig and dark sunglasses and goes off in a rented van to catch her husband in the throes of a weekend liaison with their teenage babysitter. The point of the story, however, is more than dread and betrayal. It is getting what you want: Margot not only manages to keep her husband in the marriage, but blackmails him into buying her the house of her dreams, complete with an almond-colored kitchen and “swooping pale green figured curtains.” Said Munro: “Everyone has such contempt for the suburban housewife and her acquisitions, but I wanted to glorify her.”

Munro’s characters are, g for the most part, ordinary í small-town people—school^ teachers, housewives, applied ance-store salesmen, retired §§ ministers—who circle back £ relentlessly to various pivotal " events in their lives, as if to finally learn their lessons. Most of them have some sort of subversive quality about them. Half the stories in Friend of My Youth deal with adultery, and few writers portray the female adulterer better than Munro. “This might be a problem in Huron County,” said the author, recalling at least one editorial directed against her in The Wingham Advance-Times. She captures her female protagonists, like Brenda in the story “Five Points,” wearing tight white pants and too much perfume, poised to sin. Brenda, walking down a country road to meet her lover, is wearing high heels “just for this walk, just for this moment of crossing the road with his eyes on her, that extra bit of pelvic movement and leg length they give her.” Munro acknowledges that she has a fascination with adultery and the “double life it creates, especially for a married wife and mother who is expected to live her life for other people. Instead, she can be living this secret, exploratory life.” Her female characters often use adultery as a way to escape their lives and are unabashedly, in the way they view men, part of

an earlier generation. “I don’t understand the emotional lives of women under 35,” said Munro. She questioned the impact that AIDS is having on the pursuit of romance. “Surely,” she said, “it’s an interesting thing if passion, which all through literature has been celebrated as a thing that cannot be gainsaid, can be changed through fear of illness and death. I feel, as a writer, I should know about this.”

Friend of My Youth is more sombre than Munro’s previous books, and her heroines are not as full of high hopes and the certainty that their lives will be transformed by fame and passion. Munro acknowledged that the buoyancy “may have gone down a bit,” but she does not link the change in mood to her age or her feelings about her own life. “I think I’m an extraordinarily lucky person,” she said. “I was bom poor in what is perceived to be a backwater. I don’t have a lot of strength of character. To be able to do what I want has been extraordinary luck. I just feel something in my life has gone terribly right.”

Munro had originally planned to make Friend of My Youth her last collection of short stories, after which she would write an autobiography. “That hasn’t worked out—yet,” she said. “I can’t seem to control what interests me.” What interests Munro still is stories, and more stories. And, if she remains true to her pattem, in four years there will be another collection—another torrent of merciful light.

JUDITH TIMSON