Moving encounter with master storyteller

Alice Munro

Alice Munro

Fri, Jun 26, 2009, 01:00

RARELY IN its long, glorious history has the elegant Examination Hall of Trinity College Dublin seemed quite as relaxed a place as it was yesterday morning. The great Canadian writer Alice Munro arrived for a press conference marking her victory over an impressive shortlist of major novelists. It proved unexpectedly moving probably because the small, ladylike, white-haired Munro is direct, quick-witted and businesslike.

She doesn’t deal in mystery, there was no artistic torment and she gives the impression of being able, within minutes, of describing everyone in the room. Looking at her were admirers who could smile at each other and claim to have read all of her stories. She is that kind of writer. Read one Munro story and you will continue to read them.

She also belongs to one of the most gifted literary tribes in the world; while their US counterparts can look to eastern Europe, many of Canada’s writers, including Munro, draw on a different heritage – that of Scotland and Ireland. When Munro mentioned that being praised in Canada often led to uneasy sensations of doubt, Irish members of the audience sighed in sympathy.

Writing about the ordinary brings its problems, particularly if it happens to be in your own town. Munro made it quite clear that instead of being overly popular at home, she knew what it was like to anger people through her stories.

Lives, her own and others, are her material.

Previously won by the Albanian Ismail Kadare and Nigeria’s Chinua Achebe, the International Man Booker Prize, worth £60,000, is based on a body of work. Munro’s Canadian editor famously said on hearing the news that Alice Munro didn’t need to win it. She doesn’t – Munro has one of the most loyal followings enjoyed by any writer. Fellow writers also revere her.

As early as the late 1980s, Munro’s name was mentioned by critics alongside masters of the short story such as Cheever, Updike, Pritchett and Trevor. The truth is a great short story can say far more than a novel.

No interviews were being granted; in fact it was not even possible to greet her personally, which is a shame as Munro’s genius lies in bringing a reader into the world of her fiction, so her admirers responded by asking a question, framed within offering congratulations on the prize. “I write stories,” she said, “to find out what happens to the characters placed in human, real life situations.”

She likes connections and seeing where a story will go, there are no tricks. She grew up in a small rural community. On marrying at 20 she had become a mother within a year. Suddenly she was living a suburb in British Columbia, in Vancouver. Reading was important to her and she read Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty and Carson McCullers, all Americans.

The photographers worked on, taking pictures from all different angles, the sunlight shone in the long windows and Munro, who will be 78 on July 10th, listened to the questions, often replying with an anecdote. She remembered one headline, announcing “Housewife finds time to write story”, and paused to add, “I wonder were they asking if I was a good housewife?”

She has won many prizes and has also judged many prizes. Since her International Man Booker win was announced – and this award is really a salute to a life’s work – observers have consistently praised Munro.

It is as if the prize is really an excuse for discussing her work.

The real victor is the short story form. Munro yesterday admitted to the difficulty of pursuing a proposed novel beyond “page 30”. Of her one novel to date, Lives of Girls and Women, which was published in 1971 and followed her debut collection Dance of the Happy Shades, winner of the Governor General’s Award, she said, “If you look at that novel it is really a series of stories.”

Her stories are long, but never too long. Yet somehow she always seems to say more than most novelists writing at 10 times the length.

It is about art and wisdom, the life experience, as Munro pointed out: “I look back on stories I wrote a long time ago and I know I’m not the person I was then.” Sometimes they go wrong.

Munro recalled that a story she wrote while staying in Ireland for four or five months, some 15 years ago, went very wrong. She threw it out.

It all comes back to place. And place is vital to Munro. Her first marriage ended after 20 years and she returned to her native Ontario. It is the place she knows and has watched over the years.

Munro is interested in the layers that make up a life.

Describing her new book as the bleakest stories she has ever written, Munro seemed pleased.

For all the perfection of her art she has often experimented.

Munro, who has made a study of the lives of women, has above all, in her adroitly apolitical way, proved herself to be consummately political.

Later, novelist Colm Tóibín pressed the panel for why it had chosen Alice Munro. The discussion, dominated by US novelist Jane Smiley, took reading as a theme. Smiley spoke about how the initial list was reached and how it slowly became smaller.

Referring to herself and her fellow judges, Indian novelist Amit Chaudhuri and Russian satirist Andrey Kurkov as “writers and readers, not critics and scholars” – overlooking perhaps that Chaudhuri is an outstanding critic – the stage was set for a wonderful discussion as to how Alice Munro was chosen from a field that included James Kelman and Antonio Tabucchi. Chaudhuri, who has explored the several literatures of India, referred to how writers on the edge tend to come to the centre. He has many interesting things to say, but didn’t get the chance.

It soon became evident that the real story was how this panel ever reached an agreement. Tóibín looked on with gentle resignation.

Audible gasps met the panel’s agreement that the short story is an endangered form.

No chance, not as long as Alice Munro’s stories are read.

In her long citation Jane Smiley praised Munro, the writer whose engagement with the private is also universal.

Trinity College choristers singing Palestrina, part of a Hassler Mass and Gaudeamus Igitur, an early 18th-century celebratory song in Latin, escorted Alice Munro into a banquet worthy of a winner.