Alice Munro

The short-story writer's prismatic final collection

Jane Mendelsohn
Photo by Reg Innell/Toronto Star via Getty Images

It is a privilege and a pleasure to write about Alice Munro. When I began this piece, before Munro had won the Nobel Prize, I was thrilled to have a chance to discuss her work and the book she has claimed will be its culmination, the extraordinary short-story collection Dear Life. Now that her literary importance has been so clearly recognized and rewarded, this essay feels less as if it should be a review, or even an appreciation, and more as though it deserves to be a celebration. Let the champagne flow, especially for those of us who have been reading, admiring, marveling at, and deeply moved by Munro’s stories these past few decades.

To begin with: the genius of Munro, and the reason legions of her fans were overjoyed when she won the Nobel, is that she has not, as so many writers, artists, and other people have, been striving for greatness. About ten or so years ago someone mentioned to me how impressed he was that a couple of mutual friends were “really going for it, really striving for greatness.” We were standing in the playground in Washington Square Park, and I was pushing my daughter on a swing. I nodded my head but vividly remember thinking, “Striving for greatness is a prescription for mediocrity.” (Or tragedy, I could have added.) I thought it because I had spent my life reading books by brilliant writers who had been delivering that message for centuries, but I believed it because I had been enjoying and learning from the stories of Alice Munro since I was a teenager.

Striving for greatness suggests a narcissism that is entirely absent from Munro’s work. She writes about narcissistic characters, the provincial mother with a grandiose self-image being the most frequent (and the most likely to use a phrase like “striving for greatness”), and she explores and exposes all kinds of self-absorption, small-mindedness, intentional and unintentional cruelties, and human failings in practically every one of her stories. She even describes in interviews, and reveals in the autobiographical air that emanates sometimes from the stories themselves, choices made in the struggles between marriage and self, motherhood and writing that could be described—that even she describes—as selfish. However, her sensibility, her unsparing and broad perspective, is not narcissistic. And selfishness of the kind she writes about is often the result of social, historical, and economic constraints that she also details with unerring precision. The vision of her work is outward-looking, generous, profoundly interested in existence. She has been pursuing this interest her whole career with steadfast focus. (In my mind she appears as a brave, beloved, and slightly, charmingly comic figure: an indefatigable sailor crossing an ocean alone, hand on the tiller, hair in the wind.) It is not that she hasn’t been writing great stories, or even trying to write great stories—she has—it’s that she has been concentrating on the task at hand, not on an image of herself or other people’s ideas about her or her work. At least that is the feeling, the open secret—one of her collections is titled Open Secrets—she consistently conveys.

So Alice Munro has become, for many writers and readers, a kind of hero, a female hero, or a heroine, whichever term you prefer, and this is fitting because female heroism, as it manifests itself in ordinary lives, is her great subject. Yes, she can certainly be considered one of those regional writers whose work extends to all humanity; she writes often about small towns in Ontario, where she grew up and later lived. But her stories also take place in major cities such as Toronto and Vancouver. Yes, she can be called a master of the short story; this is also true. But her gifts for structure, compression, language, observation, and playing with time make it possible for her to communicate a wisdom and vision without which all her knowledge of a region, all her artistry in describing it, would not be enough to make her the kind of writer she is, a writer whose close counterpart in my mind is not only Chekhov, to whom she is often compared, but George Eliot, with whose specificity and depth as well as perspective and subject matter she shares so much. Without Munro’s sensibility and subject matter, her radiant lack of narcissism and deep empathy and curiosity about the female hero living a so-called ordinary life, she would have been a remarkable shaper of stories, an outstanding literary practitioner, but not nearly so great a writer, not Alice Munro.

Striving for greatness suggests a narcissism that is entirely absent from Munro’s work.

Although my image of Munro casts her on a sailboat crossing the ocean, the quintessential Munro heroine is often to be found on a train or a bus, usually crossing some part of Canada, always in the midst of the journey of her life. Sometimes she is at the station. Sometimes she intends to be on a train or a bus or at the station but isn’t, and instead steps off or outside the route of life. In the often cited, luxuriant yet tightly plotted “Carried Away” from 1991, Louisa, the central character, comes to a new town, falls in love, lives her complex life filled with unexpected disappointments and happiness, and ends up, after a visit to a doctor about her heart trouble, moving on, but unsure of where to go or what to do. She finds herself, as the result of a name she read in a newspaper—coincidentally the same name as that of her long-dead first love—sitting in a park watching a local labor union ceremony at which the man with the same name, “Jack Agnew,” is supposed to speak. Louisa is overcome by agitation before the ceremony begins. When a stranger asks her if she is all right she answers, “I have to catch a bus.” She then decides: “She would just go and sit in the bus depot until it was time for her to go home.”

But she remembers that the bus depot is being rebuilt, and the train station had been removed during World War II. She knows she didn’t arrive by train or bus, but doesn’t seem to know how she came to the town or how she is getting home (presumably she is being picked up by her son or stepdaughter, but she doesn’t mention this). Louisa stops to get a Coke at a coffee shop. While there, she bumps into her lost love, the long-dead Jack Agnew, and they have a conversation, or so she thinks. As it turns out she has “gone under a wave”:

You could say anything you liked about what had happened but what it amounted to was going under a wave. She had gone under and through it and was left with a cold sheen on her skin, a beating in her ears, a cavity in her chest, and revolt in her stomach. It was anarchy she was up against—a devouring muddle. Sudden holes and impromptu tricks and radiant vanishing consolations.

This is a beautiful passage, both as a description of a heart-induced anxiety attack and also as a description of Louisa’s entire life—“sudden holes and impromptu tricks and radiant vanishing consolations”—and of almost any Alice Munro story. When a Munro heroine is not traveling on the train or bus of her life, she is apt to fall into these waters, or to notice them, these waves, this “anarchy she was up against.”

What helps Louisa steady herself is a group of Mennonites. They enter the coffee shop and Louisa thinks, “These Mennonite settlings are a blessing. The plop of behinds on chairs, the crackling of the candy bag, the meditative sucking and soft conversations.” It is as though she is welcomed back to the world of the senses, the everyday. Or is she? A Mennonite girl offers her a butterscotch mint, and Louisa “sucks on it as they do on theirs, and allows that taste to promise her some reasonable continuance.” This scene is written so that one can see in it a hint of Louisa’s death. Maybe she even has died as we were reading: “‘What place is this?’ she said to the woman beside her.” The paragraph ends there, and so does what we know of Louisa from that point in her life.

Most interpreters of Munro claim her as a staunch realist, but scenes such as these show that her work transcends such definitions. Even if this scene is meant to be strictly “realistic,” what it reveals are the immense depths of mystery and multiple angles of perception that exist in everyday reality.

Mennonites also figure in one of Munro’s new stories, a companion piece of sorts to “Carried Away”—and a powerful story in its own right—called, as if summing up the essential image of Munro’s work, “Train.” “Train” is unlike many of her stories in that it is told primarily from a man’s point of view. In this case, the man is Jackson, a soldier on his way home from the war who, instead of completing the journey and returning to his fiancée, jumps off the train and wanders off into a different life, another story. Jackson from “Train” could be Jack Agnew from “Carried Away” if, instead of returning to his fiancée (named Grace in “Carried Away,” Ileane in “Train”) and thereby breaking Louisa’s heart and later dying in a factory accident, he had never come back at all.

In “Train,” after Jackson jumps off the train he drifts into the world of Belle, whom he meets as she is “half coaxing, half scolding” a little jersey into the stable. It doesn’t take much scolding or coaxing to get Jackson to settle into Belle’s life, for the moment before he follows her into her house he hears the sound of Mennonites riding by: “For a while now he’d been hearing a peculiar sound. The road rose up a hill, and from over that hill came a clip-clop, clip-clop. Along with the clip-clop some little tinkle or whistling.”

The Mennonites are “all dressed in black, with proper black hats on their heads.” They seem to be for Munro a recurring image of death: “The sound was coming from them. It was singing. Discrete high-pitched little voices, as sweet as could be. They never looked at him as they went by. That chilled him. The buggy in the barn and the horse in the field were nothing in comparison.” Jackson chooses domesticity over the Mennonites. He is willing to jump off the train to avoid the life waiting for him at home, but he cannot face the people who “seemed quite cheerful” in “Carried Away” and whose singing is “as sweet as could be” in “Train.” Their cheery self-absorption, both calming and terrifying, is a complex death symbol, unthreatening but cold, sweet but black, steadily driving down the road at all times but something to be avoided, not succumbed to, until the end.

Jackson makes a life with Belle in her ramshackle house, and they become a kind of brother and sister pairing who function as an old married couple. Belle is sixteen years older than Jackson. They are even at one point mistaken for brother and sister Mennonites (they are neither) by a secondhand car dealer: “That shook Jackson up but at least it was better than husband and wife.” Jackson would rather be a husband than a Mennonite. He and Belle live together for years. Eventually, Belle gets cancer and Jackson accompanies her to the hospital in Toronto for an operation. Perhaps now he will have to face death or Mennonites, but as it turns out he doesn’t. Belle survives, and when Jackson comes to see her she asks him to get her a Coke (reminiscent of Louisa in the coffee shop), but it’s against orders for him to get her one. Belle tells Jackson she wants to escape.

“If you won’t I’ll do it myself. I’ll get to the train station myself.”

“There isn’t any passenger train that goes up our way anymore.”

She abruptly gives up on her plans for escape—no Coke, no train—and tells him she is going to leave him her house in her will.

But Belle still does not die. The second time Jackson visits her she is doped up, but has been reborn. She “looked a lot younger than the woman he had brought to the hospital.” She can’t concentrate on what he says because she “seemed to be in a state of amazement. Controlled amazement.” In this state, Belle opens up to him as she never has before and tells him the most significant story from her childhood, about her father seeing her naked when she was a teenager. Her mother had been a semi-invalid, and her father had come upon Belle by accident, but he hadn’t looked away: “My face looking into the mirror and him looking at me in the mirror and also what was behind me and I couldn’t see. It wasn’t in any sense a normal look.” When her father later apologized to her she could not forgive him right away. He left the house, and not long after, “I heard the train coming and all at once the commotion and the screeching which was the train brakes.” Her father had been run over by the train.

While Belle is recounting her story and her thoughts about it, the reader understands this: although “Train” has been told primarily from Jackson’s point of view it is Belle who is the hero of this story. In telling and reinterpreting the central story of her childhood she is able to forgive her father and herself. “Now I have got a real understanding of it and it was nobody’s fault. It was the fault of human sex in a tragic situation.” In facing death Belle has looked at life directly; she has gone on a journey and come out the other side. She says, “I feel so released. It’s not that I don’t feel the tragedy, but I have got outside the tragedy, is what I mean. It is just the mistakes of humanity. You mustn’t think because I’m smiling that I don’t have compassion. I have serious compassion. But I am relieved. I have to say I somehow feel happy.” Jackson listens, but he is glad when it is time to leave. “Just the mistakes of humanity” is not a phrase he is ready to understand.

The story does not end there. As in many Munro stories, it continues past the point at which other stories would long be over. Jackson never returns to Belle, but the story follows him as he drifts into another life in Toronto. In Munro’s universe the possibility is raised that maybe Jackson can’t understand Belle’s story or stay with her because he is a man, or because he has been a soldier and seen war, or both. He has seen death, maybe too much of it, but not, like Belle, faced death and come out the other side. He is still drifting, and cannot forgive himself for his past mistakes.

The quintessential Munro heroine is often to be found on a train or a bus, usually crossing some part of Canada, always in the midst of the journey of her life.

We drift with Jackson into his next job working as a janitor of a building. One day a woman comes looking for her daughter, who has run away, and Jackson realizes from the sound of the woman’s voice that it is Ileane, the girl he left waiting at the train station. The scene in which Jackson, unseen, overhears Ileane talk to her landlord about her missing daughter reads like a mirror image of the scene in “Carried Away” in which Louisa talks to Jack Agnew in the coffee shop. In “Train,” Jackson puts together Ileane’s life story from what he overhears, but he never reveals himself. The owner gestures for Jackson to come out of hiding but “Jackson shook his head violently.” He remains to Ileane as much a phantom as Jack Agnew is to Louisa. Ileane has a 7-Up, which the owner gets for her: “He might have thought that more ladylike than a Coke.” Again, the Coke. Louisa had a Coke. Belle in the hospital asks for a Coke. These Munro heroines want to taste the sweet but less ladylike “real” thing, as it used to be called in the advertisements.

The story flows on, much like “Carried Away,” to give us more information from before the beginning of the action, going farther back in time to when Jackson first met Ileane. We learn that he had a nasty stepmother, who seems to have acted on her sexual impulses toward him, unlike Belle’s father. We learn that this is why Jackson could not consummate his relationship with Ileane, either physically before he went to war or later, when he chose not to come home. “When he was as young as six or seven he had locked up his step-mother’s fooling, what she called her fooling or her teasing.” So Jackson had a secret just like Belle’s but worse. And more: “He had run out into the street after dark and she got him in but she saw there’d be some real running away if she didn’t stop so she stopped.” In other words, Jackson tried to leave, like Belle’s father, but he couldn’t get away. And unlike Belle he cannot forgive the mistakes of humanity, perhaps because in his case the mistake was not really a mistake, was closer to an intentional cruelty. He could possibly forgive himself, understand why he never returned to Ileane, but he seems too damaged for this revelation. Instead. Jackson spends his life running away.

The symmetry of this story, the mirroring of Belle’s and Jackson’s lives, their reflected stories, their opposite ways of handling conflict, and their movement in different directions, like trains pulling away from each other, is beautifully maintained. And beyond the symmetry within the story is the story’s symmetrical relationship to “Carried Away.” All this is captured in the central description of the mirror that Belle describes. “My face looking into the mirror and him looking at me in the mirror and also what was behind me and I couldn’t see.” Here Munro plays masterfully with perspective. This image describes what Munro is doing in the story, and prepares us for the epiphany that Belle has in the hospital, when she sees what she couldn’t see before. The tragedy of human sex. The mistakes of humanity. This is a mirror out of Velázquez or Manet. This is art. This is the real thing.

And to complete the symmetry: when Jackson leaves his job as a janitor, “he said that he had been called away, without indicating why or where to.” He empties his bank account and leaves late in the evening and gets on a train. “He slept on and off during the night and in one of those snatches he saw the little Mennonite boys go by in their cart. He heard their small voices singing.” Like Louisa toward the end of “Carried Away.” Jackson sees the Mennonites. But he doesn’t sit with them or face them. He gets off the train in a new town.

“Train” isn’t merely a mirror image of “Carried Away”; it is tilted at a slight angle, something like the mirror in Velázquez’s The Rokeby Venus or in Manet’s Bar at the Folies-Bergère. This tilting permits us to see the world from multiple angles. It also creates a feeling of deep space, and “Train” goes even farther (pun intended) than “Carried Away,” allowing Belle to have her realization, which is more complete than Louisa’s “wave” in “Carried Away.” Belle’s understanding is akin to Lily Briscoe’s moment at the end of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse: “She had had her vision.” But there is always more. In “Train” this is Jackson, his damage. Munro leaves it to the reader to see that Belle’s vision is not necessarily complete, but the story itself approaches a sublime completeness.

“Carried Away” is the work of a mature artist in full control; but the stories in Dear Life transcend even this. Aspects of these stories can be read as mirrors of the earlier stories, and all the stories explore the same themes Munro has examined over the years: marriage, motherhood, sex, accidents, sickness, small-town society. The new stories contain many of the same images and tropes: trains, buses, dangerous water, Mennonites, life-changing letters. But in Dear Life, Munro explores them in ways that feel effortless and deep: passages seem to be almost about nothing and then suddenly jolt the reader into a moment of emotional force. They are like very good, very old diamonds, so clear that they appear colorless and plain until they catch the light just so and refract every color all at once.

Toward the end of the first story in Dear Life, “To Leave Japan,” the main character, Greta, takes a train across Canada in an attempt to reconnect with a man she met briefly at a party. She is married, and her husband is away on work. She takes her daughter Katy with her, has a dalliance with a fellow traveler, and while doing so loses sight of Katy. It’s a storyline that has come up in Munro tales before: the unhappily wed or overwhelmed mother distracted and losing sight of her child, then feeling guilt-ridden (most notably in “Miles City, Montana,” from The Progress of Love, 1986). But the scene in which Greta searches for Katy has acquired new power. This is Greta looking for Katy:

A new fear then. Supposing Katy had made her way to one or other end of the car and had actually managed to get a door open. Or followed a person who had opened it ahead of her. Between the cars there was a short walkway where you were actually walking over the place where the cars joined up. There you could feel the train’s motion in a sudden and alarming way. A heavy door behind you and another in front, and on either side of the walkway clanging metal plates. These covered the steps that were let down when the train was stopped.

You always hurried through these passages, where the banging and swaying reminded you how things were put together in a way that seemed not so inevitable after all. Almost casual, yet in too much of a hurry, that banging and swaying.

The door at the end was heavy even for Greta. Or she was drained by her fear. She pushed mightily with her shoulder.

Greta finds Katy between the cars, “amazed and alone,” and the terror of the search inspires Greta to be a more attentive mother. But the fear and disorientation of the scene are not quickly forgotten. As I read through Dear Life I kept remembering that early scene, and in thinking about it, and about the predominance of trains in the book, I was reminded of the most famous of literary trains, the trains in Anna Karenina, beginning with the one on which Anna rides back home to Petersburg from Moscow, distracted by thoughts of Vronsky: “She kept having moments of doubt whether the carriage was moving forwards or backwards, or standing still”; “Anna felt as if she was falling through the floor.” When the train stops briefly at a station, she meets Vronsky on the platform, and he tells her that he has been following her, not unlike the way Katy explains she was looking for her mother.

But of course there is another train in Anna Karenina, the one that Anna throws herself under. It seemed to me as I was reading Dear Life that one of the main projects of Munro’s work has been to discover stories for women that do not require them to throw themselves under a train. Belle’s father is run over in “Train,” and Jackson jumps on and off trains his whole life. But Munro’s heroines ride the trains and take what the journey brings. They may have disappointments, affairs, struggles with motherhood, even be ostracized or cut off from money and society as a result, yet they almost always find some “reasonable continuance,” as Louisa does in “Carried Away.” Even if that continuance is death, it is not suicide. And even if it’s a bout with cancer and close to the end of life, it involves an awakening, an acceptance, an awareness of “just the mistakes of humanity.” It is as if Munro has been rewriting her own version of Anna Karenina, one in which Anna, in spite of her mistakes, is allowed to have Levin’s revelations and awakening. What a project, what a journey, what a great story.

One of the main projects of Munro’s work has been to discover stories for women that do not require them to throw themselves under a train.

Many essays could, and will, be written about Dear Life. The title alone is perfect. (It calls to mind another brilliant book title, Philip Roth’s Exit Ghost. There is a fascinating essay to be written on the relationship between Munro’s and Roth’s work, but that is another story.) The layers of meaning in the title—holding on to something or someone for dear life, writing a letter to life of gratitude and farewell, an everyday phrase—all these capture the essence of Munro’s work. But the most useful reading of the title can be found in the final four stories of the book, which Munro introduces thus: “The final four works in this book are not quite stories. They form a separate unit, one that is autobiographical in feeling, though not, sometimes, entirely in fact.” She adds, “I believe they are the first and last—and the closest—things I have to say about my own life.” In true Munro form she leaves us pondering every word. By closest does she mean truest to reality or closest to her heart? Has she been holding on to them all these years for dear life? And to what extent is she now letting them go?

These four extraordinary pieces are “The Eye,” “Night,” “Voices,” and “Dear Life.” They contain all the themes of Munro’s work. Everything is in them. I won’t spoil readers’ enjoyment by writing too much about them here. I have already given enough away. But I will say that they are compelling, moving, profound. And for longtime readers of Munro they are fascinating, showing us more than just glimmers of the girl and woman behind the stories, giving us insight and a sense of the origins of the characters and motifs we have been traveling with all these years. They are a generous gift from a great writer. In the not-quite-story “Dear Life,” Munro tells a tale about when she was a baby and her house was stalked, in a sense, by an old woman who had lived there as a child. Munro’s mother is frightened one day when the woman comes around the house, and she grabs Munro out of her baby carriage, “grabbed me up, as she said, for dear life.” Her mother goes from room to room holding the baby until she feels certain, almost, that the old woman, Mrs. Netterfield, has gone away.

The piece explores and raises many questions. It suggests the distinct possibility that Mrs. Netterfield wasn’t somebody to be frightened of at all. It implies in part that Munro’s mother was slightly paranoid, or at least somewhat grandiose in her telling of the story. It also reveals an intense bond between mother and child, between this specific mother and child, that is carried on throughout the book and throughout Munro’s work. Only here it is presented with such depth, forgiveness, understanding, and unsparing clarity of vision that it takes one’s breath away. It makes you want to hold on to this book for dear life, and it makes you understand why for so many readers Alice Munro is our hero.

Jane Mendelsohn is the author of four novels, most recently Burning Down the House.
Originally published:
April 1, 2014


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