A Quiet Genius

Alice Munro is the living writer most likely to be read in a hundred years
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Most living writers are not, most of the time, reading one another's work. They are reconsidering the classics. They are consuming cookbooks, comics, self-help manuals, mysteries, pornography, Martha Stewart (a variety of pornography for women). They are skimming biographies, dabbling in dictionaries. Writers are watching The Sopranos or learning, late in life, to play tennis. They are obsessing about their love affairs, their disappointing careers, their children.

Every once in a while, though, a rumor burns through the tentative, decentralized community of American writers that a certain book must be owned. Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, a new collection by Alice Munro, her tenth, has already incited writers to call one another on the telephone, to send e-mail exhortations, and—in the extreme (writers are not profligate)—to pay retail for more than one copy in order to give the book away.

Every artist, brilliant, pretty good, or aspiring, has the same wish—to make something beautiful and lasting—and the concomitant capacity for awe in the presence of the "serene achievement" (as Conrad called Henry James's New York Editions). The highest compliment a critic can pay a short-story writer is to say that he or she is our Chekhov. More than one writer has made that claim for Alice Munro.

Her genius, like Chekhov's, is quiet and particularly hard to describe, because it has the simplicity of the best naturalism, in that it seems not translated from life but, rather, like life itself. In analyzing another Russian writer's transparent straightforwardness, James Wood described the critic's frustration: "Why are his characters so real? Because they are so individual. Why does his world feel so true? Because it is so real. And so on."

It may be instructive, in trying to account for Munro's disproportionate power, to consider "Lady With Lapdog," arguably Chekhov's most famous and beloved story. Even after dozens of readings (in several translations) I still find it exceedingly difficult to pinpoint how the story works as deeply as it does. One might seize on the regular use of incongruities: the cynical philanderer's thoughts of a young woman's slender neck and beautiful eyes, followed by his impression that she is pathetic; the roué cutting a watermelon and eating it silently for a half hour while the woman sobs, thinking herself fallen after their first tryst; the open ending. Chekhov properly placed all statements about beauty, eternity, and falling in love right next to comic, breezy, urbane sentences, lending the impression that this young married woman and her older Muscovite lover, although particular to us, are not out of the human ordinary.

Yet I could think of half a dozen stories to which one could fairly ascribe these same techniques of juxtaposition and tonal incongruity but which nonetheless lack this story's power. Likewise, I could strain to name a few writers who possess an immense lyric gift, in whose work a poet's compression punctuates a novelist's love of leisured complication, of time; yet their stories register altogether differently from Munro's. Ann Close, Munro's American editor since The Beggar Maid (1978), has described the experience of going back to a place in a story where she remembered a particular passage and finding that it had never been there. "More than with other writers," Close said, "with Alice, there's a huge amount between the lines." At the heart of all great naturalism is mystery, an emotional sum greater than its technical parts.

I am not a sophisticated chronicler of literary reputation. I don't really know how famous Munro is. And perhaps with our particular favorites there is a tendency to downplay their popularity. No one likes to think his or her taste is common. More than one high school girl has been dismayed to learn that the one boy she personally, idiosyncratically found "cute" is a general heartthrob. In the early eighties I asked friends who were traveling north of the border to find me anything they could by Alice Munro, and my copies of her first three books are Canadian paperbacks. In 1986, when The Progress of Love was published, she read to a full house in a large NYU auditorium (New Yorkers are prescient, and by then she'd been publishing stories in their namesake magazine for almost ten years). I have a sense that whatever Munro's reputation is (and it is lofty among writers, of that I am sure), it is not yet exactly what it should be. And the ways in which it is not quite what it should be are somehow murky and would seem to have little to do with literature. Lorrie Moore hinted at this recently in The Paris Review: "I don't believe any serious reader would call her provincial," Moore said, "but I also don't think it is often emphasized how she is the opposite."

I can think of no better illustration of the universality of Alice Munro's work than the memory of reading it in my twenties. I lived in a fifteenth-floor apartment in New York City, worked as an editor at The Paris Review, took the crosstown bus dressed in the city uniform of black stockings, skirts, and pumps bought on sale. My love affairs tended to be of the wistful variety—from afar if not altogether imaginary.

Yet I read Alice Munro's stories of adulterous wives, and country girls gutting turkeys, with the page-turning avidity of someone discovering her own true future. The managing editor, Jeanne McCulloch, did the same. We read them deeply personally, to learn how to live. Without really garnering the permission of our boss, George Plimpton, we planned to interview Munro for The Paris Review. We hoped by this to achieve for her a kind of canonization.

No writer in his right mind would have wanted canonization to depend on us. Though we read the stories over and over, we were also terribly busy, figuring out not only the craft of writing rejection letters but also the tricks of making a living in New York City. We met Alice Munro and her editor at the Chelsea brownstone of her agent, Virginia Barber, where the three women seemed occupied and prosperous, in the middle of life. They talked about shopping with the exhilaration of serious women who don't often shop. We started the interview, and in the fashion typical of The Paris Review (often edited by would-be writers in their twenties), it languished for seven years.

Making a case for Alice Munro in 2001 is not what making a case for Herman Melville would have been in the 1880s, or for Henry James at the time of the New York Editions, early in the 1900s. Since The Beggar Maid most reviews have been stellar; Munro has received all the major Canadian literary prizes and our National Book Critics Circle Award. (As a Canadian, she is not eligible for our National Book Award or Pulitzer Prize; Her last five books have not been short-listed for the Booker Prize, because the Booker no longer considers short-story collections.) So splitting hairs about precisely to which tier of the pantheon she belongs can feel a bit like carping that Proust, Joyce, and Kafka never won the Nobel Prize. But when educated general readers talk about the great living fiction writers, Munro isn't consistently mentioned with Saul Bellow, Toni Morrison, Philip Roth, and John Updike.

Three reasons come to mind. First, Munro writes about the "lives of girls and women," to quote the title of her one novel, their conflicts, comedy, milestones, irony, and domestic detail, vacuuming and all. We are still, despite thirty years of feminism, a culture that considers the word "domestic" when applied to fiction to mean "tamer" and even "less." Munro's reach has become vast in recent collections, but her stories about the western expansion, about North American history, and even about murder are centered on a credible female character. Second, she, like the great majority of writers, has claimed a specific fictional geography, and hers—midwestern rural Canada—does not have any particular edge or sexiness. Third, she writes short stories. The roughly contemporary writers most akin to her in sensibility, the late Illinoisan William Maxwell and the Irish William Trevor (both writers of exquisite short stories and also novels), share her relative obscurity. They, like Grace Paley, Isaac Babel, and Marilynne Robinson, are sometimes said to be "writers' writers," meaning that most people haven't ever heard of them.

Munro's first three books, Dance of the Happy Shades (1968), Lives of Girls and Women (1971), and Something I've Been Meaning to Tell You (1974), introduced her great themes—shame and its connection to poverty, how class monkeys with sexual desire, the problems of a female artist in functioning satisfactorily as an artist or a female—and also some of her leitmotifs: the glamour of airplanes, the changes in domestic life brought about by electrification and indoor plumbing, the recurring figure of a half-decrepit grandmother who is still an actor, however minor, in the household drama.

An archetypal family emerges. The mother, refined and particular, strives for elegance even as her health is declining. She has a wealth of aunts and perhaps considers herself a little above her husband's family. The father remains upright and honorable, with necessary privacies; he is often a trapper of sorts (fox, mink, muskrat, marten), comfortable with a rougher male world outside, in possession of raucous relatives and perhaps a randy past. The father's family is apt to play practical jokes, put uncooked beans in the soup, and throw forks and dishrags at one another. ("A bad thing in that family was to have them say you were sensitive, as they did of my mother.") In "Walker Brothers Cowboy," the first story in Munro's first collection, the mother takes the Depression personally.

Though casual readers may derive a sense that Munro's characters come from the wrong side of the tracks, it seems to me that she writes about the construction of class not only in broad, upstairs-downstairs extremes (the husband rich, the wife a scholarship student) but also within families and communities whose differences appear invisible from the outside. She chronicles the nuances, snubs, and unsent invitations on which we build class and maintain it.

I'm not sure whether country girls still sleep with rich boys who come to the Canadian lakes for the summer, as they do in "Thanks for the Ride." But what lingers, memorably, is the conundrum of why they ever did. It wasn't for money, or the hope of marriage. The old grandma, hovering in the living room, knows better than that. It seems to have been its own rough convention, the trophy of a certain glamour—the glamour of just that night.

Munro also returns again and again to the Jamesian subject of the artist. In her work, though, the artist is a woman in a small town, without the complications of recognition. There is a "poetess" in the wilds of nineteenth-century frontier Canada ("Meneseteung"), a violinist in the 1940s who dreams of leaving her baby outside to die ("My Mother's Dream"), and an aging piano teacher, Miss Marsalles, whose popularity is waning ("Dance of the Happy Shades"):

Mary Lambert's girl no longer takes; neither does Joan Crimble's ... Piano lessons are not so important now as they once were; everybody knows that. Dancing is believed to be more favourable to the development of the whole child.

Munro writes here as if she were inside a chorus of suburban mothers (we feel their discomfort as they consider decamping to ballet while listening to a child—not theirs—perform). Yet for her, the deities are the otherworldly eccentrics, the artists. The piano teacher's poverty, increasingly revealed, embarrasses the conventional mothers. To make things worse, Miss Marsalles insists on giving her pupils end-of-the-year gifts, odd books that she clearly can't afford.

As at any piano recital anywhere, the children play and parents, mostly mothers, clap with relief. Finally, more students arrive with a uniformed woman from a "special" school. Unlike all the others, one of these children can truly play.

We are accustomed to notice performances, at Miss Marsalles' parties, but it cannot be said that anyone has ever expected music ... that carries with it the freedom of a great unemotional happiness ... The music is in the room and then it is gone and naturally enough no one knows what to say. For the moment she is finished it is plain that she is just the same as before, a girl from Greenhill School. Yet the music was not imaginary. The facts are not to be reconciled.

This is as good a description of art as any. Absolute, undeniable, but useless in the world—not about to change the girl's prognosis for becoming one of the busy, successful mothers.

No doubt dissertations are being written about sexuality in Alice Munro's middle work. She has done for female sexuality what Philip Roth did for male sexuality, covering much the same historical period (though it would seem they knew vastly different women).

Allan Gurganus has written,

The besieged young mothers of Alice Munro resemble Chekhov's dreamy swains or Lewis Carroll's girlchildren. At any moment they're apt to fall through the ordinary into a realm too heightened and meaningful to quite endure. Adultery in Munro is chaotic but usually worth it. I've come to consider Munro our greatest and most subtle surrealist. The plainest of surfaces ignite with the fugitive erotic undertow. After sex, even a ready-made supermarket lemon cake can feel like a miracle.

In Munro's world it is the women who stray. (Is it sex or is it love? Whatever it is, it is necessary, the velocity of these stories insists.) The shock and credibility of the sexuality (alluded to more than rendered) derives—like Chekhov's—from its absurd, yet dead serious, collisions with the mundane, tactile elements of her characters' lives.

Certain notions kept banging about in her head. Lawyer. Divorce. Punishment ... the boys had summer jobs, Debbie was about to have a minor operation on her ear ... A man was coming to look at the drains. ("Wigtime")

In "Five Points" a man tells his married lover a story from his childhood about a heavy immigrant girl who paid suburban boys to have sex with her. His lover guesses that he was one of the boys paid, and with his admission their affair enters new depths, becoming more like a marriage. In "Wild Swans" a girl on a train, fondled by a minister, feels disgusted but also hugely curious. Munro describes—as I've never seen anyone else do—how people put erotic memories, not always pleasant ones, to use over and over in their lives.

Munro's women are not terribly sentimental about marriage. Divorce is less a tragedy than a developmental milestone: "Gail considers the fierce glitter of diamond rings as Phyllis pulls her hand away. Wives have diamond rings and headaches, Gail thinks. They still do. The truly successful ones do." ("The Jack Randa Hotel")

And they still do. One of the good fortunes of living at the same time as a great artist is the privilege of reading your own world. Alice Munro, who is seventy, is the age of my parents. Some of the world she represents ("Mrs. Peebles said she couldn't make pie crust, the most amazing thing I ever heard a woman admit") seems as historical as the horse-drawn carriages that characters in Tolstoy hail like taxis. Often Munro is historical and modern simultaneously, as in her depiction of the doctor who treats the nineteenth-century frontier "poetess": "He believes that her troubles would clear up if she got married. He believes this in spite of the fact that most of his nerve medicine is prescribed for married women."

By the time of The Beggar Maid the grandmother in the kitchen, so prevalent before, lives in the county home. These stories follow a crude, Falstaffian stepmother and a smart scholarship student through the girl's childhood, triumphant engagement at college to a West Coast millionaire, marriage, almost affair, and divorce.

This collection made Munro's name. It also gave the impression that she was an autobiographical writer, because of the consistent character of a smart girl from the poorer side of town making her way into the world with gumption. But there are problems with an easy assumption of autobiography. At the simplest level, there are, for example, two vastly different, even contradictory mothers: a refined, fragile mother who sometimes dies, recurring in many stories, and a tough, ill-educated woman, full of crude, vital energy, who feels eternal. "The material about my mother is my central material in life," Munro said in our interview with her, "and it always comes the most readily to me. If I just relax, that's what will come up."

She said of the stepmother in The Beggar Maid, "But Flo wasn't a real person," only adding to our sense of mystery.

We asked what would impel such different approaches leading to the same credible character. Munro said, "I'm doing less personal writing now than I used to for a very simple, obvious reason. You use up your childhood, unless you're able, like William Maxwell, to keep going back and finding wonderful new levels in it. The deep, personal material of the latter half of your life is your children. You can write about your parents when they're gone, but your children are still going to be here, and you're going to want them to come and visit you in the nursing home."

By the summer of 1993, when Jeanne and I traveled to Canada to finish our Paris Review interview, we were no longer in our twenties. Neither of us still worked at the Review. I was pregnant; Jeanne was soon to be married. In the scorching Canadian summer we didn't wear black.

The Ontario landscape, modest and rolling like that of the American Midwest, was transformed for us by Munro's stories. Our un-air-conditioned room in the Hotel Bedford, in Goderich, across the square from the nineteenth-century courthouse, felt improved by our conviction that we had checked into the hotel in "Carried Away," where the librarian lost her virginity to a traveling salesman who didn't know that was what was happening.

It's hard to capture the quality of Alice Munro in person. For a writer who has written an inordinate amount about old maids (she told us she'd always known at heart that she was an aging spinster), she is beautiful, with hair like Virginia Woolf's. Her manner was offhand and modest as we crudely probed the mysteries of the stories we loved so much. She answered us plainly, always citing a simple cause for an amazing effect. Asked about the story in which the country girls sleep with the summer boys, she said, "Oh, that one came from a friend of my husband, who was visiting and told us about going to the country and meeting a girl ..."

Munro had none of the bravura or bluster of a great writer, and it was easy to forget that she was one. Speaking of her stories, she made what she did sound not exactly easy but possible, as if anyone could do it if she only worked.

There seemed to be nothing edited or exaggerated for our benefit. Among the writers she considered early influences Munro included Tolstoy, Chekhov, Proust, and James, but also Erica Jong. From our work at the Review we remembered that some writers would send in increasingly detailed answers, right up to printing day, for addition to their Writers-at-Work interviews. Not Munro. Indeed, she seemed to talk down our awe, to shoo off reverence, to eagerly explain away her own genius. She never forgot that she was talking to two younger writers. She told us she admired our friendship, something that in the clutter of our twenties we'd never thought much about before. She was generously thinking of us, not "canonization."

Like the highest practitioners of any craft, Alice Munro seems, in her four most recent collections, to have left old forms behind, or to have broken them open, so that she is now writing not short stories or novellas but something altogether new. The nine tales in Hateship, Friendship feel symphonic, large, architecturally gorgeous. Despite their complexity, they wield the power of urgently felt material, and in each of their many rooms they seem intimate. But it is difficult to locate the author here. In Munro's earlier work, even in the third person, we felt the authorial presence in spots of density, concentrations of heat. Here even the three first-person stories seem composed by a fair, high visionary, the Beethoven of the late quartets, everywhere and nowhere in the work. The earlier collections often contained more stories told in the first person. But the shift goes deeper. Munro's sympathies now seem to fall absolutely evenly.

"I am in awe of how she operates in the third person," Richard Ford told me recently. "She manages to make that third person do more than anybody I've ever seen in my life. When I do it I feel like I'm pushing a shopping cart from the front backwards. She has it not both ways but all ways. It accounts for the rich density of her stories and makes the reading experience without equal. It is greater than life."

Like the astonishing title story of Munro's previous collection, The Love of a Good Woman, the title story of Hateship, Friendship contains more range, drama, and tonal echoes than most contemporary novels. It is, among other things, a love story, perhaps the hardest spell to cast in 2001.

A large spinster of amazing strength and stamina works as the improbable romantic heroine. Johanna has been loved so far by one person, an old woman (now dead) whom she was paid to take care of, but she reciprocated that love and doesn't feel cheated. She still wears the dead woman's good coat. No one sees her as sexual; no one really sees her at all, for that matter, except when a chore needs doing. Ken Boudreau is a dissolute, ill, weak man we first witness in the sordid bedroom of a ramshackle hotel he has won on a bet. Clanging in his feverish memory are the accusing echoes of two women who claim to be in love with him. Another of Munro's smart girls from the wrong side of the tracks—this time a shoemaker's daughter who reads Dickens—writes letters to Johanna and signs them with Boudreau's name, in a prank that is part girlish fun, part cruel hoax. We meet Johanna after she has been taken in. In the town's fine clothing store, Milady's, she is trying to buy the first frivolous clothing of her life, except that for her it is not frivolous. She expects to wear the suit she sees in the window on her wedding day.

The scene contains elements of a fairy tale: the saleswoman is dressing Cinderella for her assignation with the prince, who has no idea at all that she is coming. Our spinster intends to buy her own glass slipper and pay cash. As Chekhov did, Munro here sets a fragile, perhaps pathetic act of hope next to a contemporary reflection. When the suit from the window proves a flop on our large heroine, the saleswoman drops her façade: "She stopped smiling. She looked disappointed and tired, but kinder." No longer a fairy godmother, now just a woman who owns a high-end clothing store that is threatened by a highway mall, she says, "You have large bones and what's the matter with that? Dinky little velvet-covered buttons are not for you. Don't bother with it anymore. Just take it off."

The novella endeavors to show how a love story could also be true, to take into account the pranks, deceptions, deflations, luck, moral qualms, expensive flattering plain brown dresses, and hard work that go into the backstage mechanics of romance. It is as if Munro has set for herself the challenge of writing credible love stories for a culture that usually satisfies its romantic cravings at the movies and turns to fiction for the hard, ugly truth about marriage. At once wildly romantic and ruefully modern, she renders characters who are middle-class, middle-aged or older, and living in small Canadian towns, yet whose lives yield a drama worthy of Shakespeare's princes and kings.

Why do we, in jaded, post-industrial America, buy it—the handsome ne'er-do-well with the plain, hardworking spinster? Much has to do with vantage; the tight lines of the story offer only a few managed close-ups of the characters' crucial decisions. We watch him check the balance in her savings book; we feel him sink back and allow her to take over. We understand his feeling of relief and the improbable tremor of renewed hope. We are not asked to consider the man's sensations as he first unhooks the spinster's bra. It may also have something to do with those haranguing voices of the women who claim to love Boudreau. From our distance they seem ridiculous, the suffering an extravagant waste. We see outlines of essential needs that fit, and those needs are not sentimental. Like the stored furniture from his riotous first marriage, Boudreau possesses an inherent elegance, a glamour that Johanna will cherish and forgive; and she has a bank account and a canny ability to use it generously and well. Together they make a life—a life first conjured by a bored smart girl, a reader, in a small town, biding her time until she can get out.

Other love stories in the collection also introduce unlikely protagonists: a long-married couple endures the onset of a wife's memory loss, and her husband, a chronic womanizer, uses his charm for a selfless, sexual act of love ("A Bear Came Over the Mountain"). A cancer patient suffers her husband's latest obsessive crush while waiting in an uncomfortably hot car ("Floating Bridge"). One of Munro's most challenging husbands to date seems to be suspended in a kaleidoscope—by the end of the story we view him in a kinder configuration, in one of those miraculous shifts in point of view so necessary to a long marriage.

Munro's men and women, even dangerous men and reckless women, are now seen from the perspective of an adult watching the doings of kindergarten children. She is far beyond taking sides. In "What Is Remembered," one of my favorite stories, she writes,

Young husbands were stern, in those days. Just a short time before, they had been suitors, almost figures of fun, knock-kneed and desperate in their sexual agonies. Now, bedded down, they turned resolute and disapproving. Off to work every morning, clean shaven, youthful necks in knotted ties, days spent in unknown labors, home again at suppertime to take a critical glance at the evening meal and to shake out the newspaper, hold it up between themselves and the muddle of the kitchen, the ailments and emotions, the babies. What a lot they had to learn, so quickly. How to kowtow to bosses and how to manage wives. How to be authoritative about mortgages, retaining walls, lawn grass, drains, politics, as well as about the jobs that had to maintain their families for the next quarter of a century. It was the women, then, who could slip back—during the daytime hours, and always allowing for the stunning responsibility that had been landed on them, in the matter of the children—into a kind of second adolescence. A lightening of spirits when the husbands departed. Dreamy rebellion, subversive get-togethers, laughing fits that were a throwback to high school, mushrooming between the walls that the husband was paying for, in the hours when he wasn't there.

The husband and wife here stay within their mythic traditional parade, but Munro gives them the dignity of the procession's end while also including two counterpoints to the march: one of frivolity, in the wife's youthful glamour, her linen dress and white gloves, her knowledge of fashion trivia (Balmain's exhortation to wear white gloves); the other the fugitive melody of an erotic betrayal, wound deeply and perhaps productively into this marriage.

There is something I always hope for in fiction that has no literary term. It's best explained by analogy. In a certain painting by Degas a woman dries herself after a bath, one foot up on the rim of the tub, her whole body leaning over. Seeing that image, one might recognize a human position common in life but never before seen through the bending lens of representation. The same thing could be said for a shade of red in Mondrian. Munro gives us such recognitions. Her emotional palette is vast.

Here is a portrait of a young woman, from "Family Furnishings": After a lunch with the aunt she once idolized, full of country food, full also of emotion, from secrets revealed with their attendant burdens of guilt and sorrow, the young woman walks alone through the city. Her friends are away. Her fiancé (who "admired" Hamlet but "had no time for tragedy—for the squalor of tragedy—in ordinary life") is visiting his "good-looking" parents. She walks and walks, and then slips into a drugstore coffee shop, where the bitter black coffee tastes "medicinal." She feels full not only of food but of people, of life. What soothes her as much as the coffee is the solitude, the urban anonymity: "such happiness, to be alone."

I've never before seen the artist's need for solitude as alleviation of fullness, an overload of life.

There is a long line of idolized women in Munro's stories, usually independent and childless, living emotionally extravagant, artistic lives, admired by shyer, more cautious, and often younger women. The very real suffering and squalor endured by these idols is sometimes glimpsed in flashes, with the troubling suggestion that their more colorful ways may not all have been a matter of choice. But usually the younger woman is too much in the thick of her own life to pause long to consider the implications of these hardships for herself or her future.

In real life, when Jeanne and I met her in Canada, Alice Munro lived in the two-story wooden house in which her second husband was born. She told us (a cautionary tale) that she'd never had a house she really loved. She worked in the dining room, at a small table that held a manual typewriter. She said she often stood up before her dictionary, and spent hours there daydreamily composing.

There were moments when we felt our generational difference: her two years "at university" were the only time in her life when she didn't have to do housework (we hoped there wasn't too too much housework looming in our futures). When her daughters were very small, she worked during their naps. (This particularly consoled me. I intended to put down my future son for three or four naps daily.) There were silent spots in the interview, points too private and difficult to pursue, which seemed to have to do with prices paid for needing work while having children. We shook our heads; somehow it would be different for us. At moments even Munro's casual conversation had the cadences of poetry, as in her description of a suburb in western Canada where she once lived: "I was with the wives of the climbing men." But iambic or not, the suburbs, with their wives, were not where we hoped to live.

She made it all seem not easy but possible. Later we sensed a vast gulf between the woman telling us how she made the thing and the thing itself, a gulf still containing the enormous mystery.

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