By Alice MunroKnopf, 336 pages, $24.00
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.