Review: Dear Life
Eilís Ní Dhuibhne reviews most recent collection, Dear Life
By Alice Munro, Chatto and Windus, 319pp, £18.99, Chatto and Windus, 319pp, £18.99
‘Who can ever say the perfect thing to the poet about his poetry? And not too much and not too little, just enough?”
“The perfect thing” is what reviewers strive to say about Alice Munro’s short stories as they strive to articulate the most fitting accolades for this most beloved of writers. “The best fiction writer now working in North America.” “Her name is spoken in hushed tones.” “A sort of magic.” Jonathan Franzen, in his review of Runaway, the collection published in 2004, famously refused to review the new work at all, but instead “circled around her latest marvel of a book” and offered eight reasons why “her excellence so dismayingly exceeds her fame”. She is too entertaining. Her fiction does not show off. She writes short stories. She doesn’t look like the anguished artist. And so on.
By now she has gained worldwide recognition and many awards, including the Man Booker International Prize. She was the bookies’ favourite for the Nobel this year, although unfortunately she did not get it. Maybe she does wear her genius too lightly (for the Swedish crowd).
Often richly metaphorical, her work is so beguiling at the level of story that it’s only on a third or fourth reading you begin to notice subtextual layers, the poetic subsoil. This is perhaps what readers sense when they fall back on those rather lazy words “magic”, “mystery” and “alchemy”. Is the magic in the metaphors that affect the readers without their knowing it? Yes. And it’s also in the compelling rhythm of Munro’s prose, as she leads you along a winding woodland path into the depths of the human psyche. And it’s in her humour, her intelligence, her knack for storytelling. What is “magic” in literature if it is not a weaving together of many strong and subtle threads to form a perfect tapestry, the impact of which leaves one speechless? Like the effect of an autumn tree, or the light of evening. This is what her stories do. These stories, and almost all her stories.
Dear Life is Munro’s 13th collection. It includes 10 stories and four autobiographical sketches. Favourite Munrovian themes are explored: “the persistence of desire” (to use John Updike’s pithy term); the conflict between the impulse to self-fulfilment and parental, mostly maternal, duty; the challenging love lives of the physically or psychologically damaged.
The settings are familiar: Toronto and Vancouver, small towns in Ontario, the trans-Canadian train. Character types we have met in other books recur, like old acquaintances whose faces we half-recognise: one is the reliable husband, with his crew-cut hair and neatly trimmed opinions, who, against all good sense, cannot compete with the attractions of a more complex, riskier lover. We met him first in The Beggar Maid, as Patrick. This time, Peter is his name. He has had others.
There is also the baby-faced, disingenuous siren, whose childish beauty men cannot resist. (Leah here. Queenie? And Nina.) And the self-contained, authoritative, intermittently attainable lover also looks familiar. Did I last bump into him in Simon’s Luck or Hold Me Fast, Don’t Let Me Pass? Sometimes he is an airman – Munro has talked about this favourite metaphor, inspired to some extent by a childhood crush. In What Is Remembered, he was a doctor who flew a plane (and crashed). This time he’s a surgeon in a TB sanatorium, Alister “Reddy” Fox, irresistible precisely because of his capacity not to give all the heart (or, finally, any of it): “This is the longest drive we have taken and I am aroused by his male unawareness of me – which I know now can quickly shift to its opposite – and his casual skill as a driver.”
The character of the man may be vaguelly familiar. But he has some new traits, and is placed in a new plot, another time and place. Above all, he is viewed from a new angle. Although he retains his lifelong attractiveness to the narrator (“Nothing changes really about love”), he has qualities in common with his four-footed namesake, and not just the colour of his hair.
Other stories in this collection deal with characters who turn out to be far from what they seem – notably Corrie’s lover, in the story of that name, who behaves with a cunning that most would find intolerable. But not Corrie. Her big epiphany does not actually change anything in her life, apart from her understanding of it – and our epiphany is to see that that is enough. Insight. She sees. She forgives. She survives.
“Honest” is an adjective often applied to Munro’s fiction. To be honest is to be moral. The other great morality of her fiction is that it is compassionate and nonjudgmental – more than ever, now that she is an octogenerian. Not that she has ever been bitter or angry. But she is far from evasive. Frank reflection on the politics of gender, of reproduction (including abortion), of religion (including fundamentalism and atheism) and, above all, of class informs her writing. This has been achieved so gently, in such engaging stories, that it can go unnoticed. In this collection, too, her abiding concerns with class, gender and religion continue to find expression. “Then you would have to explain that feminism was not even a word people used. Then you would get all tied up saying that having any serious idea, let alone ambition, or maybe even reading a real book, could be seen as suspect, having something to do with your child’s getting pneumonia . . .”
As her moral vision has matured, so has the prose: it has lost the flamboyance, the glittering comedy so vivid in, say, Lives of Girls and Women or The Beggar Maid or The Moons of Jupiter. When you’re as good – and as successful – as Munro, you don’t need to dance on the tightrope in a sequined dress, as younger writers must do, partly because they are energetic and just want to romp, but also to attract attention. All that look-at-me writing, and hers was great, is finished. For a long time she has written in a calm tone, using a quiet palette, although the humour is still there. It is a delight to observe this development, towards as much wisdom as anyone can hope for, to a kind of literary serenity, which accepts even what is most unacceptable to all of us.
Her circus animals have not deserted Alice Munro, and there is a new one in the ring. One story in this collection seems to me completely new: Train. Unusually, though not uniquely, it is told from the point of view of a man, Jackson. In her train stories, a man often gets off and we remain on board with the woman. But in this one we jump the train with Jackson, the competent self-reliant type, a former soldier with whom women fall in love. But a rolling stone, unable to root or connect. It is one of the best, most understated, stories of child abuse ever – though it deals with many other aspects of life.
This is a fresh masterpiece, surrounded by stories that are simultaneously old and new. Implicit in this volume is an invitation to view Munro’s life work as a unity, an evolving work, almost like one very long novel. The epicurean pleasure of revisiting certain situations and characters is enhanced by her inclusion, at the close of the book, of four sketches. Heartbreakingly, they are entitled Finale. “They form a separate unit, one that is autobiographical in feeling, though not, sometimes, entirely so in fact. I believe they are the first and the last – and the closest – things I have to say about my own life.”
These sketches seem less fictional than the stories that appeared in her previous “sort of memoir”, A View from Castle Rock. In them she shares her earliest memories, of life on the family farm in Wingham, of the birth of her siblings, of her adored, if disturblingly disciplinarian, father, her brilliant, chronically ill, mother. We Munrovians recognise the raw material of countless stories – and what we learn is how artfully the “truth” was sculpted into fiction. At the hand of the master baker, the raw ingredients, the eggs and the flour, became perfect cakes.
To read these relatively unshaped pieces, and compare them with the stories they begot, is as good a lesson in creative writing as anyone will ever get. It was wonderfully generous of Munro to provide us with this snippet of autobiography. (The same openness and generosity was shown by John McGahern when, late in life, he wrote his memoir, and by Edna O’Brien, in those sections of her recent memoir that deal with her childhood.) And, like many generous gifts, this one rewards the giver. The “final” sketches reveal not just the sources but also the extent of Munro’s art. From very simple stuff she has created very great literature. Maybe, after all, the perfect word, the only word that says just enough about the writer and her stories, is that last resort of the speechless: magic.