Friday, February 14, 2014

Alice Munro

Wow, a Nobel Prize winner 
that many North Americans have read

Dexter with Carried Away
     Alice Munro was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature last fall and it took me by surprise because (1) I thought the Nobel committee seemed very antipathetic in 2008 to the U.S. and a lesser extent to the Americas, though it tried to rectify that
attitude in 2009; (2) Munro is a greatly talented popular writer, though neither political nor stylistically innovative; (3) Munro has concentrated almost exclusively on the short story and the Nobel seems to go to novelists (usually those that write serious national epics), poets (usually those that few know outside their country or language), and dramatists (though remarkably few that are seminal since 1950).  

Alice Munro
     Munro’s writing is like a favorite suit that still looks stylish years later, wears comfortably, and smacks of understated quality.  She’s been described as Chekhovian, i.e. short stories with indirect plots that focus on a character’s moment of revelation during the epiphany.  I disagree.  Although she does put character first, her stories have heft.  They’re more like novellas than short stories.  Many would be perfect foundations for full-length movies.  Sarah Polley adapted and directed “The Bear Came Over The Mountain” as the lovely Away From Her in 2006.  It was one of the best-acted movies of the past decade in an era of strong performances. Like much of Munro’s work, it was compelling while being experienced, but gains in stature in memory.   “Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage” has also been turned into a movie starring Kristen Wiig; it premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in September, but hasn’t been released yet.  

     Munro has had over a dozen collections published since 1968.  I’ve read a couple of them over the years, though it was the individual stories “How I Met My Husband” and “Red Dress” that first attracted me to her work.  When I was in college, short fiction of the ‘70s and ‘80s was spare – almost elemental in structure – and indirect emotionally.  Raymond Carver thought the short story was more like a poem.  Munro was revelatory because she wrote big in a limited amount of space.  Her characters wrestled with their childhoods while trying to make sense of their present circumstances.  Perfectly drawn memories would strike them in such a way that was either a key or a closing door.  Munro smartly shied away from psychologically explaining her characters.

     Just when I thought I knew what a Munro story was about, she mixed up things around the late ‘80s.  Rather than just presenting contemporary women coming to terms with themselves, though “Differently” does as much in exploring female friendship and the fallout from infidelity as Updike’s Couples, one of my favorite novels. With “Friend of My Youth” and “Meneseteung,” she broadened her reach with historically set plots that spanned decades, darkened her tone in stories like “Vandals” (extremely creepy) and “Runaway” (startlingly accurate in its portrait of an emotionally abused wife), and played with dream realism in “Carried Away.”

     A good place to start with Munro might be Carried Away:  A Selection of Stories (2006), wherein she chose some of her favorites during her career.  It features an intelligent, detailed introduction by fellow Canadian Margaret Atwood who, along with Don DeLillo and Joyce Carol Oates, would be my pick for the next Nobel laureate in Literature from North America.  Munro has published further collections since 2006 and she’s still trying out different constructions with the short story.  Bravo to Alice Munro for her career up to this point and to the Nobel Prize committee for getting it right this year!

I love to curl up with a great book…just like Eric! 

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