Alice Munro is one of Canada’s leading writers. Her work is popular throughout North America, she is a regular contributor to the New Yorker, has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize and compared – favourably – with Henry James and Proust. It would be reasonable to expect such a woman to display more than a hint of self-satisfaction, even bumptiousness. She does not. Alice Munro is an old-fashioned girl who sits up straight when spoken to, does not laugh too loudly and has a demure, benign expression. She is slight and pretty, with a pleasing air of rueful modesty. She describes herself as ‘quite well known, in Canada’ and seems astonished by my suggestion that she might be deemed a celebrity in her home town of Clinton, Ontario, population 3,000. Such diffidence is, perhaps, attributable to the relative lateness of her success: her first collection of short stories was accepted only when she was 37, after several years of demoralising rejection slips. Dance of the Happy Shades promptly won a prestigious Canadian literary award – in the intervening twenty years she has published five more books, most recently The Progress of Love (Chatto & Windus, £9.95).
She has written throughout her adult life, performing, in common with many women writers, a juggling act between the demands of her imagination and those of a family: she was married at twenty and has three daughters. In Canada, as in Britain, the short story has only recently emerged from the dark winter of publishers’ disdain, a fact which initially led Munro into difficulties over natural length:
For a long time I was very discouraged. I kept trying to write novels – I’d get an idea and try to pad it out, see how soggy I could bake it. And then I would get terribly bored! So eventually I just started doing stories anyway, because I like to have it all in my mind and then pare it down, take things away. Really what I like are longish stories of between ten and twenty thousand words. But most magazines won’t publish things so long and they’re nowhere near book length. It’s about the most awkward length you could choose!
Munro works on only one story at a time and makes many drafts of each: ‘sometimes only half a dozen or so, usually a lot more.’ Her gestation period is slow, too; The Progress of Love contains ideas and images that have taken 15 or 20 years to germinate. Such painstaking means that a collection will take, on average, four years to complete. Happily for her by then desperate readers, the results are worth waiting for.
The eleven stories in the current volume are all set in the rural Ontario where she was born and to which, with her second husband, she has now returned. Her characters, like her settings, are parochial; ordinary people to whom ordinary things happen. But, in Munro’s hands, these quotidian lives are charged with undercurrents of yearning, pride and bittersweet memories. She has the ability to make the reader see the familiar with fresh in sight and compassion. Thus, a couple’s small talk on a long car journey depicts all the tenderness and exasperation of marriage; while the residual, if reluctant, affection of old lovers is revealed in a single, clumsy embrace in a hospital corridor. Munro is interested in the social changes of the last twenty years and is adept at illustrating them through the things people own, or the way they decorate their houses. The title story, for example, uses the changing contents of a house to mirror the development of its inhabitants. Elsewhere, a man revisiting old friends who run a country store expects to find: ‘a clutter of groceries, a stale smell, maybe faded tinsel ropes, old overlooked Christmas decorations. Instead, he found a place mostly taken up with video games. The store was full of jittery electronic noise and flashing light and menacing, modern-day, oddly shaved and painted children.’
People of my age have lived through very violent social change. We grew up in a lingering Victorian age, and there’s been such upheaval… But change is slower in rural areas. Most of the people I went to school with are still married to the men they married at eighteen. They go to church… it’s a very traditional life. There’s an enormous, unquestioning acceptance of materialism. There’s still a huge reliance on buying things, both as a measure of success and happiness. I write about it because I feel it’s a society that I very deeply know, though oddly enough I’ve never felt really at home in this community. As a child, an adolescent, I always felt very cut off; that the things I valued were not valued by anyone else, and I couldn’t reveal them to anybody. Most writers feel like this, I think. Writers often tend to be outsiders.
Munro has returned to the place of her fiction because it is her husband’s home: ‘I want to be with rum very much and that’s the important thing. I wouldn’t live there alone – I’d be gone in five minutes! But I would have the same burden of things that I have to turn into fiction, wherever I lived.’
This sense of the burden of memory is a recurring theme of the present collection. In the finest of the stories, Munro introduces more than one narrative thread, allowing the same events to be recalled in subtly different ways. The technique is at its bet in ‘White Dump’, which concludes the book and which is, incidentally, Alice Munro’s own favourite of the collection. A family holiday is shown through the eyes of the three women present: a caustic and bohemian grandmother; a wife, who, tired of existing solely as emotional ballast to her husband, enters into a first adulterous affair, and her nervous daughter, the unwitting catalyst of the piece. The remarkable depth and texture achieved through this triple perspective is characteristic of Munro’s eye for the telling detail, her ear for innuendo.
It is this full, condensed quality which attracts Munro to the short story form both as a writer and a reader. She ad mires the work of Angela Carter, William Trevor and the American writer Alice Adams for this reason. ‘Books of stories are very rich, compared to novels’, says Munro, ‘that’s why it’s so easy to overdose on them. Alice Adams is like that, I think Ellen Gilchrist is like that too and I certainly am! You should never read a collection in a gulp, all at once.’ Advice which is easier said than done, when reading stories as good as hers.
One of the stories, called ‘Miles City, Montana’, describes a marriage in which a wife does battle with her conflicting desire for private reflection and public, model housekeeping; ‘the inflated irony of the professional mothers who wrote for magazines.’ Munro concedes that the story is autobiographical (‘Most of the stories are not as autobiographical as people think, but that one is.’), yet she considers that being a housewife is a good second job for a writer:
Teaching in an English department of a university uses exactly the same sources that you need for your writing. If you’re a housewife your mind is, to a certain extent, free. In a way I have escaped the responsibility of declaring myself a writer and I’ve hidden behind being a woman, a housewife.
She is still reluctant to declare herself a writer and admits to being uneasy with the public side of her success. In the story mentioned above the heroine realises that she is happiest when able to be ‘A watcher, not a keeper’: ‘I wanted to hide’, says the character, ‘so that I could get busy at my real work, which was a sort of wooing of distant parts of myself.’ Does this sum up Alice Munro’s own feelings? ‘Yes. Oh yes. All l want to do’, she smiles, ‘is write stories and see them published.’