How’s this for a scenario; an artistic projectory: shy student marries as soon as she graduates, scared that she is old-maid material; wants to write novels but has children instead; still wants to write novels but time is limited so writes short stories while the babies are napping; when they reach school age has more time to write but has to stop writing mid-afternoon to do housewife and mother duties before family gets home; keeps writing short stories until she’s 82; wins Nobel Prize for Literature.
When told of her win, “It just seems impossible,” she said.
She is the 13th woman to win the Literature Prize and the second Canadian (after Saul Bellow), and therefore the first Canadian woman.
She writes about the internal drama of relationships usually from the female point of view; about simple country people, but also academics. She is often called ‘the modern Chekhov’ which is not entirely true: Chekhov is more interested in behaviour, Munro in the thoughts behind behaviour.
This collection, The Moons of Jupiter, came out in 1982. It contains eleven stories. One of them, Barton Bus, written in the first person describes a brief love affair in Australia but all the other scenes, like scenes from a bus window that pass you by, describe what it might be like if she, the narrator, bumps into the once brief lover. What will she say? What will she do? She doesn’t use his name only a letter;
“I call him X, as if he were a character in an old fashioned novel, that pretends to be true. X is a letter in his name, but I chose it also because it seems to suit him. The letter X seems to me expansive and secretive.”
In the brief final scene a female friend, Kay, describes to the narrator a man who is a friend of her husband’s and after dinner he sighed and laid his head in Kay’s lap. She thought it was a ‘nice simple’ thing to do. She mentions his name. I gasped! It was him! and the narrator does not say a word.
I’ve probably spoiled this story for you but when you read it, it will undoubtedly mean something different to you as meaning is always in the mind of the reader.
In Visitors a couple welcome the husband’s brother, his wife, and her sister to stay in their house which is so small that no room can accommodate them all at once. If the fifth person enters someone has to stand in the doorway. Sleeping arrangements are a bit like camping. They go for a drive – they can all fit in the car … just. They talk, they drive, they look for the site of the birth-house of one of them. It’s no longer there, but they imagine it. The talk is simple, personal, clichéd like small-talk. The three visitors finally go back home, a very long way away. The couple are back in their own small bed and Mildred realises Wilfred is crying: he will never see his brother again. They could visit. Will they? Probably not but she says ‘maybe’ and he says ‘not next week’.
I was left with a feeling of regret, mixed with helplessness wound around with sorrow leaving these two people in their cramped space forced to cling to each other as some sort of protection from the miseries of the world.
“When I write about something happening in this setting, I don’t think that I’m choosing to be confined. Quite the opposite. I don’t think I’m writing just about this life. I hope to be writing about and through it.”
All her stories are set in the country to the east of Lake Huron, Canada because she loves it; she understands the people, she likes its climate, its falling down barns, its “occasional farms that have swimming pools and airplanes.” She speaks the language.
Alice Munro, who doesn’t write any more (there are many published collections), reads and sometimes she doesn’t start to read a story from the beginning. She starts anywhere and reads forward a bit and sometimes goes back a bit. To her a story
“is not like a road to follow, it’s more like a house. You go inside and stay there for a while, wandering back and forth and settling where you like and discovering how the rooms and corridors relate to each other, how the world outside is altered by being viewed from these windows … and you can go back again and again, and the house, the story, always contains more than you saw last time.”
Having a volume of Alice Munro short stories by your bed is comforting as well as enlightening and entertaining no matter how many times you read one.