Alice Munro: She’s ours and she’s great
Munro beat the odds, and not the Nobel odds either. All you need to win the Nobel Prize in literature is to write brilliantly for a lifetime.
Who does she think she is?
Well, she’s ours, she’s our great and glorious Alice, our local hero, our gleaming woman of letters, put out more flags, Canadians are fit to burst.
Finally the question that Canadians have asked since Confederation with their Scottish Presbyterian tendency to slice down their tall poppies, their national habit of saving their dishes and linens for a special occasion that never arrives, has been answered.
We are the home of Alice Munro, writer of stories so surgically powerful that loud skeptics asking if anything interesting could come out of small-town southwestern Ontario—Sowesto, as the painter Greg Curnoe called it—read one story, just one, and put the book down in shock and silence.
Munro beat the odds, and not the Nobel odds either. All you need to win the Nobel Prize in literature is to write brilliantly for a lifetime. Many do. But the odds against Munro doing so were Rocky Mountain-high. All the cultural forces gathered against Munro hit her when she was young and at her most porous.
She was born in 1931, a child of the Depression, and worse, a girl, which meant she was in her twenties in the 1950s when women were still considered rubbish. Her life unrolled as it should. There was Munro, a Vancouver housewife having given birth to three children, reading frantically and desperate to write. Her first book, a collection of 15 stories, appeared in 1968, a time when there was no still no such real thing as Canadian literature.
They have never faltered in quality, not since, not now, and the woman is 82.
Here is what Munro does. She studies her fellow humans with an almost indescribable intensity. Brain science is so exciting and excitable now—look, that bit lights up when you have your morning coffee!—but Munro has been doing this in prose for a lifetime.
All people are deeply strange. They have secrets and when you peel them, those secrets come out. I am convinced of this but will never make my case. I don’t need to because Munro has done it already.
Munro thinks you are interesting. You are, maybe not in ways that flatter you, but the Munro scalpel poking inside your silent history will come up with extraordinary things. “A big part of serious fiction’s purpose,” the American novelist David Foster Wallace once said, “is to give the reader, who like all of us is marooned in her own skull, to give her imaginative access to other selves.” Nobody survives a Munro excavation intact.
The great thing about Munro is her allergy to dullness. Give her the most unpromising materials: rural Canada, stomped-on women, pompous men, hard winters, emotional flatness, lives of quiet moneyless desperation, the plainest of foods and no loud talk, a massive “dreariness of spirit.” Munro spins it into gold.
She does not judge, and that’s Munro’s genius. She tunnels into people with the flatness of tone that is her greatest weapon and maps them and the reader is stunned. You, yes you, small Canadian idiot, are interesting. In fact, you should be arrested, prosecuted and jailed for how interesting you are and if there’s a god ruling this earth you will be.
That’s the tone of her landscapes and it provides a bleak hilarity (always the best kind.). As Margaret Atwood has written, “Her acute consciousness of social class, and of the minutiae and sneers separating one level from the next, is honestly come by, as is her characters’ habit of rigorously examining their own deeds, emotions, motives and consciences, and finding them wanting.”
Atwood becomes even more doom-laden and accurate. “Forgiveness is not easily come by, punishments are frequent and harsh, potential humiliation and shame lurk around every corner, and nobody gets away with much.”
She’s talking about you, you little hussy, you jumped-up big city nobody with your shiny subways and your fancy liquors, I’ll teach you. That’s the authentic Canadian voice of disapproval, that’s Harper, that’s Ford, that’s a little voice in all of us.
Munro has heard that voice. She has spent her life laughing at it, recording it for centuries to come, and in the lives of girls and women, silencing it.
“Alice, come out from behind the tool shed and pick up the phone,” tweeted Margaret Atwood on being told that the Nobel Committee had had the most difficult time getting ahold of Munro very early this morning to tell her the news.
How wonderful. That’s Munro dialogue. Who do you think you are, Alice, sleeping off a party while perfectly nice Swedes are trying to give you a million dollars and some bubbly champagne nonsense. Answer the phone, Alice. That’s a nation crying out to you. Take that call.