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Posts Tagged ‘Alice Munro’

In honor of Alice Munro winning the Nobel Prize in Literature, I’m reposting “Terms of endearment,” which I wrote last year upon the publication of her last book.

Alice-Munro1I always read the cartoons in The New Yorker first, except when there’s a short story by Alice Munro. She comes first, always. But as I noted in a 2001 column for the Sentinel, “Let us now praise Alice Munro,” I’m running out of ways to do so without repeating myself.

In 1990, I called her “the most generous of storytellers. She can capture an entire life within a few pages, and many of her stories open to encompass more stories, other lives.” Four years and another collection later, I noted that “love and loss, fate and choice are the seeds with which she sows a rich harvest.” Her 1996 Selected Stories was “a cause for celebration,” as were subsequent collections by this “Canadian Chekhov.” I rather regret that last rave because really there’s no comparing Munro to anyone but herself.

Her new collection, Dear Life (Knopf, digital galley via edelweiss), is everything I’ve come to expect from Munro and more. This time, the remarkable stories of seemingly unremarkable lives that suddenly turn on a dime — “Amundsen,” “Haven,” “Train” — are followed by a section dubbed “Finale.” Munro explains, “The final four works in this book are not quite stories. They form a separate unit, 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.”

Well! Because Munro’s stories often deal with the memory of events in small-town and rural Ontario where she grew up, I’ve often wondered how autobiographical they might be.  Munro, however, has always said she makes things up, although she did draw on her family’s Scottish immigrant history in writing The View from Castle Rock.  Still, it’s interesting to read the pieces in Dear Life as both story and memoir, trying to discern the difference.

Really, I can’t tell. The lives of Munro’s characters are rarely tidy, emotions are always mixed. She’s expert at mining “the truth in fiction.” Her narrators can be unreliable, although, as a writer, she is essentially astute. So, does it really matter that the young schoolteacher in “Amundsen,” who is courted and then jilted by a doctor, is wholly invented, or that the girl in the last story is Alice recalling an incident told by her mother? Both have the quality of lived experience.

“We say of some things that they cannot be forgiven, or that we will never forgive ourselves. But we do — we do it all the time.”

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DearI always read the cartoons in The New Yorker first, except when there’s a short story by Alice Munro. She comes first, always. But as I noted in a 2001 column for the Sentinel, “Let us now praise Alice Munro,” I’m running out of ways to do so without repeating myself.

In 1990, I called her “the most generous of storytellers. She can capture an entire life within a few pages, and many of her stories open to encompass more stories, other lives.” Four years and another collection later, I noted that “love and loss, fate and choice are the seeds with which she sows a rich harvest.” Her 1996 Selected Stories was “a cause for celebration,” as were subsequent collections by this “Canadian Chekhov.” I rather regret that last rave because really there’s no comparing Munro to anyone but herself.

Her new collection, Dear Life (Knopf, digital galley via edelweiss), is everything I’ve come to expect from Munro and more. This time, the remarkable stories of seemingly unremarkable lives that suddenly turn on a dime — “Amundsen,” “Haven,” “Train” — are followed by a section dubbed “Finale.” Munro explains, “The final four works in this book are not quite stories. They form a separate unit, 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.”

Well! Because Munro’s stories often deal with the memory of events in small-town and rural Ontario where she grew up, I’ve often wondered how autobiographical they might be.  Munro, however, has always said she makes things up, although she did draw on her family’s Scottish immigrant history in writing The View from Castle Rock.  Still, it’s interesting to read the pieces in Dear Life as both story and memoir, trying to discern the difference.

Really, I can’t tell. The lives of Munro’s characters are rarely tidy, emotions are always mixed. She’s expert at mining “the truth in fiction.” Her narrators can be unreliable, although, as a writer, she is essentially astute. So, does it really matter that the young schoolteacher in “Amundsen,” who is courted and then jilted by a doctor, is wholly invented, or that the girl in the last story is Alice recalling an incident told by her mother? Both have the quality of lived experience.

“We say of some things that they cannot be forgiven, or that we will never forgive ourselves. But we do — we do it all the time.”

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NBC has been filling up empty airtime around the Olympics with stories on all things Canadian: Royal Mounties, beer, cuisine, fashion, wildlife, actors and so on. As far as I know — I haven’t been glued to the set — we’ve seen nothing yet on Canadian writers, and I think I know why. They’re very much part of our  own  literary landscape. Only rarely do you hear the word “Canadian” in front of short-story virtuoso Alice Munro, novelist Margaret Atwood or beloved children’s author L.M. Montgomery. The late, great Robertson Davies was invariably identified as “Canada’s literary lion,” but I’d forgotten — if I ever knew –that  Douglas Coupland, W.P. Kinsella  and Nick Bantock are Canadians all. And more confusing, Carol Shields, winner of the 1993 Pulitzer for The Stone Diaries, had dual citizenship. She was born in Chicago but moved to Canada in 1957 when she married.

How much of a role Canada itself plays in their books varys from one author to the next, and sometimes from book to book.  It’s impossible to disassociate Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables stories from Prince Edward Island, and Atwood drew on a 19th-century Canadian crime in Alias Grace. But Atwood’s dystopias of The Handmaid’s Tale or The Year of the Flood are hardly Canada — or Earth — as we know it, and crime novelist Peter Robinson, who lives in Canada, has as his series protagonst a detective in Yorkshire, England.

That’s not the case with Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, star of Louise Penny’s series of award-winning crime novels set in the quaint Quebec village of Three Pines.  The Brutal Telling, the fifth and finest so far, was published last fall to deserved acclaim. Sins of the past resurface, and the murder mystery stretches across the continent to British Columbia before Gamache makes an arrest. Setting and character matter very much in these well-crafted tales, in which Penny blends the conventions of the traditional village mystery of Agatha Christie with the psychological insight of Ruth Rendell. (Christie and Rendell, of course, are Brits, which just goes to show you that categorizing by nationality is beside the point.)

Margaret Atwood, who resists labels of all kinds, told me as much in an interview some years ago:

“I’m addressing the country of readers. That is the real divide — not between genders or nationalities. It’s not a matter of locale. It’s between those who read and those who don’t.”

I pledge allegiance to the country of readers…

Open Book: I own several editions of Montgomery’s books, and the  publisher of The Brutal Telling (St. Martin’s/Minotaur) sent me an ARC (advance reading copy) last fall.

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