Almost 20 years ago, Alice Munro, the Canadian genius of the short story, was interviewed by the Paris Review. She recalled a time when she was having trouble with her writing, and found herself looking round the ‘great literature’ on the shelves of the bookshop she was then running with her first husband as if seeking help. All she could think was: ‘You fool. What are you doing here?’
She was admired then, but has gone on to huge acclaim. There was some early rudeness from nervous local newspapers in small- town Ontario, where she grew up and where her fiction is rooted, but nowadays, and for a long time, the waves of praise come steadily and grow with every new book.
Awed comparisons with Chekhov are routine. She has won many awards including, in 2009, the Man Booker International Prize. She is 81 and has had cancer, and has wondered if her creative energies would flag as she grew old. The answer is no. This new collection is as marvellous as ever. She is one of the very few contemporary writers whose work certainly belongs on the great literature shelf.
Although there has never been any doubt that all her work has had strong autobiographical elements, being concerned as it mostly is with the lives of women and children, usually daughters, often living hard lives in small rural communities as she did as a child, this time she has made the connection explicit. Of the 14 stories, the final four, she writes
form a separate unit, one that is autobiographical in feeling though not, sometimes, entirely so in fact. I believe they are the first and last — and the closest — things I have to say about my own life.
This delicate, enigmatic statement both opens and closes a door and will tease academics and biographers as they try to disentangle literal from imaginative truth, as they inevitably will; but for most of us, reading her for the pleasure of her beautiful prose and her clear perception of human drama and emotion, the distinction matters little.
As ever, Munro manages to combine the local and specific, the detailed presentation of particular lives and events in the recent past of her characters in Ontario with quietly stunning insights into universal experience and emotion. In the first story here, ‘To Reach Japan’, a woman on a train journey towards a new life of art and love falls into passionate sex with a handsome boy and puts her small daughter at risk. All ends well, but nothing will be really safe again. As she says at the end of another story, with a less happy ending, ‘Nothing really changes about love.’
Munro writes about passion without fireworks, but she knows all about it. She knows all about marriage, too, and about how oppressive male behaviour can derive from deep male vulnerability, as in ‘Haven’, where a spirited niece contends with 1970s marital expectations.
The stories as presented here do show a shift of emphasis towards the exploration of ageing and mortality. ‘In Sight of the Lake’ is an unnerving glimpse inside the mind of a woman fighting mental confusion, an overture to the story adapted for the 2006 film Away From Her, in which Julie Christie was overtaken by Alzheimer’s. In ‘Dolly’ a couple in their seventies contemplating how to take control of their own deaths are jolted back to life’s potential by the reappearance of his old flame. Even at her most sombre, there is never anything depressing about Munro’s vision.
The last four pieces take us back to a childhood she has described: her striving schoolteacher mother, her father’s failing mink farm, her discovery of sex and death. In ‘The Eye’ Sadie, who helps with the children and likes to go dancing, is run down by a car; the mother, jealous of her daughter’s love for the girl, makes her view the corpse, which leaves the child convinced that Sadie was not really dead. In ‘Night’, an operation to remove a tumour leads to terrible nightmares, ended by the father’s kind common sense. The first line of the last of what she calls ‘not quite stories’ reads: ‘I lived when I was young at the end of a long road, or a road that seemed long to me.’ We are lucky to be able to travel Alice Munro’s road, which is also our own road, with her.