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An Appreciation of Alice Munro, 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature Recipient

I like good short stories. I have written previously in Hollywood Progressive about those of Edith Pearlman and, lengthily and briefly elsewhere, on one of the great masters of the genre, Anton Chekhov. Recently I happened to pick up Alice Munro’s 2009 collection, Too Much Happiness. It was at one of those library used book sales. But why you may ask, of all the books available, choose her stories.

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Two answers. One, I have previously read from some of this Canadian writer’s other earlier collections and liked them. Two, last year she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. At times the Nobel selection committee has been accused of awarding the prize more for political than literary reasons, but it is difficult to see how this could have been the case with Munro, whose stories hardly strike one as political in any conventional sense.

Although I enjoyed many of her earlier stories, I really liked most of the ten (averaging about 30 pages each) that appear in Too Much Happiness. And you too can enjoy many of them—even if you don’t have a library card or wish to part with the money to buy the book—by clicking the links provided here. The main way they seemed different to me than the earlier Munro stories I had read—an admittedly small sample of her large output—was that they were more suspenseful, many of them real page-turners that I felt compelled to finish as soon as possible.

Her first story, “Dimensions,” gets the collection off to a rousing start. We learn in the first several paragraphs that Doree, the heroine of the story, is a chambermaid at an inn. “She liked the work. . . . She didn’t want to talk to people. . . . Her picture had been in the paper—they’d used the photo he took of her with all three kids, the new baby, Dimitri, in her arms, and Barbara Ann and Sasha on either side.” In the first few pages, we also learn that she is only twenty-three, and now living alone. Exactly what happened to her husband and three children will not become clear until about half way through the story. And although Munro has prepared us well for it, it still comes as a shocker. The last few pages of the tale also strike us forcefully—and pleasantly—with a climax that is surprising but believable.

Before we get there, however, we come to feel deeply for Doree, who, like too many young women, marries a domineering, macho guy (Lloyd) and then suffers for it. But he has his insights. From prison, he writes to Doree:

People are looking all over for the solution. Their minds are sore (from looking). So many things jostling around and hurting them. You can see in their faces all their bruises and pains. They are troubled. They rush around. They have to shop and go to the laundromat and get their hair cut and earn a living or pick up their welfare checks. The poor ones have to do that and the rich ones have to look hard for the best ways to spend their money. That is work too. They have to build the best houses with gold faucets for their hot and cold water. And their Audis and magical toothbrushes and all possible contraptions and then burglar alarms to protect against slaughter and . . . neither rich nor poor have any peace in their souls.

Lloyd also observes that “people who rain down bombs or burn cities or starve and murder hundreds of thousands of people are not generally considered Monsters but are showered with medals and honors, only acts against small numbers being considered shocking and evil.”

The second story, “Fiction,” is also a powerful one. It is mainly about Joyce, who marries Jon.

They “had met at an urban high school in a factory city in Ontario. Joyce had the second highest IQ in their class, and Jon had the highest IQ in the school and probably in that city.” But “in their first year at college they dropped out of their classes and ran away together.” When the story begins Jon is a carpenter and woodworker and Joyce teaches music. Jon has an apprentice named Edie, whom Joyce had talked him into hiring. In her interview for the job Edie states: “I belong to AA and I am a recovering alcoholic. . . . I have a nine-year-old daughter and she was born without a father so she is my total responsibility and I mean to bring her up right. My ambition is to learn woodworking so I can provide for myself and my child.” Munro describes her as “a short sturdy young woman who did not look old enough or damaged enough to have much of a career of dissipation behind her. Broad shoulders, thick bangs, tight ponytail, no possibility of a smile.” And Edie is opinionated and forthright, even to the point of revealing her many tattoos:

She unbuttoned and removed her long-sleeved blouse. She was wearing an undershirt. Both arms, her upper chest, and—when she turned around—her upper back were decorated with tattoos. It was as if her skin had become a garment, or perhaps a comic book of faces both leering and tender, beset by dragons, whales, flames, too intricate or maybe too horrid to be comprehended.

The first thing you had to wonder was whether her whole body had been transformed in the same way.

The remainder of the story deals primarily with Joyce, whose future life is strongly affected by the relationship that develops between Jon and Edie.

About a third of the way into the story it skips ahead to decades later, as Joyce’s second husband, Matt, is celebrating his sixty-fifth birthday. Munro gradually fills in the details of what had happened to Joyce since Jon had left her.

The title, “Fiction,” relates to a book of short stories that Joyce reads soon after Matt’s birthday party. One of the women at the celebration wrote it, and in it Joyce recognizes a fictional portrait of herself. As Munro reveals what is in this piece of fiction, we learn more about Joyce, both as a teacher and in her relationship with Jon and Edie, decades earlier. The story ends with Joyce having the book of stories being signed by the author, who turns out to be one of her former pupils but who fails to recognize Joyce.

The third story in Munro’s collection, “Wenlock Edge,” is narrated by a female college student who tells us of some of the strange people she encountered while living at a rooming house. One of them, Nina, is auditing courses and being provided for by an older, wealthy man, Mr. Purvis, with whom she has had a relationship. Like the earlier two stories, this one has its surprises.

None is more dramatic than when the narrator goes to have dinner with Mr. Purvis and is told by one of his staff, Mrs. Winners, to take all her clothes off—which she does before sitting down to their meal together. After dinner, with her still naked, he takes her into his library and asks her to read from A. E. Housman’s poetry collection A Shropshire Lad. One of the poems begins “On Wenlock Edge the wood’s in trouble.”

The story’s title and her reading of the poem in her undressed condition reflect her character. She is majoring in “Honors English and Philosophy,” and much of what she knows about life comes from literature, but she is eager to experience more—and not just in books. She explains to herself that she complied with the directive to take her clothes off because she took it “as a dare” and “going along with it finally had more to do with pride or some shaky recklessness than with anything else.” And she wished to demonstrate that she was not just a “bookworm,” as Mrs. Winners had accused her of being when she first hesitated to undress after being told to do so.

The next two stories, “Deep-Holes” and “Free Radicals,” deal with widows. In the first, Sally’s husband dies about half way through the story. In the second, Nita’s husband has just died when the story begins.

After Sally’s husband dies, the focus of the story shifts to Sally’s relationship with her grown son Kent, whom she meets up with many years after he separated himself from his family. During the separation period before his father died he wrote to his parents:

“It seems so ridiculous to me,” he said, “that a person should be expected to lock themselves into a suit of clothes. I mean, like the suit of clothes of an engineer or doctor or geologist, and then the skin grows over it, over the clothes, I mean, and that person can’t ever get them off. When we are given a chance to explore the whole world of inner and outer reality and to live in a way that takes in the spiritual and the physical and the whole range of the beautiful and the terrible available to mankind, that is pain as well as joy and turmoil. This way of expressing myself may seem over-blown to you, but one thing I have learned to give up is intellectual pridefulness—”

Years later when the widowed Sally happens to discover where Kent is, she goes to the condemned building in Toronto where he is living with others who keep alive by recycling things they find, doing a bit more “here and there,” and begging. He tells her he has been living in this manner for nine years. And what else he tells her makes it clear he is alienated from “the system,” from private ownership and all that entails.

On parting she is unsure whether she’ll ever be able to see Kent again. The story ends with a description of her feelings and thoughts about her encounter with him. Munro is an empathetic writer and she leads us to feel the pain that Sally must feel over the great emotional distance that separates her from Kent.

In “Free Radicals” we empathize with Nita from the start. Not only has her husband just died—we feel her pain as she moves about her now husbandless house—but she has liver cancer. But the story is not so much about her emotional pain and poor health, but more about a confrontation she has with a young man who comes to her door and says “I’m supposed to look at your fuse box. If you could tell me where it is.” Although most of us readers probably think “No, don’t let him in,” she does just that. As we suspect, he is up to no good. And the rest of the story relates her dealings with the young man. Again, Munro has a surprise for us, and Nita emerges from the encounter better off than we had feared.

On the first page of the sixth story, “Face,” a father discovers his new-born son has a big purple birthmark on one side of his face; and his response, according to the mother, was “What a chunk of chopped liver. . . . You don’t need to think you’re going to bring that into the house.” But, of course, the son is brought home and is the narrator of the story. According to him, his “father’s most vivid quality was a capacity for hating and despising.”

As usual, Munro provides us with telling insights about human life. For example, “In all my years in our town, I encountered no one who was divorced, so it may be taken for granted that there were other couples [besides his parents] living separate lives in one house, other men and women who had accepted the fact that there were words or acts that could never be forgiven, barriers between them never to be washed away.”

But the story’s central events involve the narrator and a childhood playmate named Nancy, and they both involve a face, his with his birthmark and hers, which she cuts with a razor blade. The narrator discovers Nancy’s self-mutilation only many years after it occurs, when his mother tells him, “There’s something I think you ought to know.” The narrator’s reaction is, “These may be among the most unpleasant words that a person ever has to hear.”

As in “Wenlock Edge” some poetry reading is significant in the story, especially one by Walter de la Mare entitled “Away.

In the seventh story, “Some Women,”a stepmother, aided by her female masseuse, Roxanne, ally against her stepson’s wife, Sylvia. He, “Young Mr. Crozier,” is dying of leukemia, and the battle is for his affection. The narrator, a woman, recalls the story’s events that occurred when she was thirteen and assisting the family to care for the bedridden man. The story begins with a strong paragraph.

I am amazed sometimes to think how old I am. I can remember when the streets of the town I lived in were sprinkled with water to lay the dust in summer, and when girls wore waist cinches and crinolines that could stand up by themselves, and when there was nothing much to be done about things like polio and leukemia. Some people who got polio got better, crippled or not, but people with leukemia went to bed, and after some weeks’ or months’ decline in a tragic atmosphere, they died.

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Many of the people in the small Canadian town where the story is set were critical of Sylvia for going off to teach at a college about forty miles away. They said “that she could have stayed home and looked after him now, as promised in the marriage ceremony.” But the narrator’s mother thought that “people were just down on her because she had got an education” and

“defended her, saying it was only two afternoons a week and she had to keep up her profession, seeing she would be on her own soon enough.”

As usual in Munro’s stories, there is an excellent depiction of characters and passages that encourage reflection. At one point she says about Mr. Crozier: “He had developed greater patience and courtesy than she was perhaps aware of. With inferior people—Roxanne was surely an inferior person—he had made himself tolerant, gentle. When all he must want to do was lie there and meditate on the pathways of his life and gear up for his future.” Near the end, Munro writes, “I understood pretty well the winning and losing that had taken place, between Sylvia and Roxanne, but it was strange to think of the almost obliterated prize, Mr. Crozier—and to think that he could have had the will to make a decision, even to deprive himself, so late in his life. The carnality at death’s door—or the true love, for that matter—were things I had to shake off with shivers down my spine.”

As often occurs in her stories, there is some mention of literature. Here it is of I Promissi Sposi (The Betrothed),the Italian classic sometimes compared to War and Peace. In this book a key is hidden at a crucial time, and I was left guessing why Munro chose to mention this historical novel as opposed to some other book.

“Child’s Play,” the eighth story, is narrated by a retired woman, Marlene, recalling a period of her girlhood, especially one summer at a camp. The first lines are “I suppose there was talk in our house, afterwards. How sad, how awful (My mother.) There should have been supervision. Where were the Counselors? (My father.)” But it is not until a few pages before the story’s end that we realize what event the parents are talking about—and it is indeed sad and awful. Before we get there, however, Munro’s characters keep our attention riveted on them, especially the narrator telling us about her past. And as usual, there are Munro’s astute observations about how people interact with one another.

Marlene tells us about Verna, a disabled girl (exactly how she is “special” remains unclear) whom she did not like. Marlene’s mother asks her, “How can you blame a person for the way she was born? How is it her fault?" But Marlene tells us, “I certainly did blame her. I did not question that it was somehow her fault. And in this, whatever my mother might say, I was in tune to some degree with an unspoken verdict of the time and place I lived in [a small Canadian town]. Even grown-ups smiled in a certain way, there was some irrepressible gratification and taken-for-granted superiority that I could see, in the way they mentioned people who were simple, or a few bricks short of a load. And I believed my mother must be really like this, underneath.”

Munro’s ninth story, “Wood,”contains the suspense element that we have seen in many of the previous stories. This time, the main character, Roy, has an accident while in a forested area where he has gone to collect wood.

What happens to Roy now is the most ordinary and yet the most unbelievable thing. It is what might happen to any stupid daydreamer walking in the bush, to any holidayer gawking around at nature, to somebody who thought the bush was a kind of park to stroll in. Somebody who wore light shoes instead of boots and didn’t bother to keep an eye on the ground. It has never happened to Roy before in hundreds of times of walking in the bush, it has never once come near to happening.

For several pages after his accident, as he tries to crawl back to his truck, we wonder whether he will make it or not.

But there is much more to the story than just the accident. Roy and his wife, Lea, are well-drawn characters who awaken our empathy. He often feels out of place when her numerous relatives come to visit them.

These relatives of hers . . . used to be around the house a lot, or else Lea wanted to be at one of their houses. It was a clan that didn’t always enjoy one another’s company but who made sure they got plenty of it. . . . Roy likes to watch television and he likes to talk and he likes to eat, but not any two at the same time and certainly not all three. So when they chose to gather in his house on a Sunday, he got into the habit of getting up and going out to the shed. . . . [where] he always kept a bottle of rye. He had rye in the house as well, and he was not stingy about offering it to his company, but the drink he poured when he was alone in the shed tasted better. 

His going off on his own like that didn’t cause trouble. The relatives didn’t feel slighted—they had a limited interest in people like Roy who had just married into the family, and not even contributed any children to it, and who were not like themselves. They were large, expansive, talkative. He was short, compact, quiet. His wife was an easygoing woman generally and she liked Roy the way he was, so she didn’t reproach or apologize for him.

Our sympathy for the couple is especially intensified after “her strength had taken a slump that she could not recover from. . . . Roy misses the wife he was used to, with her jokes and energy. He wants her back, but there’s nothing he can do, except be patient with this grave, listless woman.” He finds it more difficult to communicate with her. “He tells Lea the story he has heard. He still tells her things—it’s a habit—but he is so used to her now not paying any real attention that he hardly notices whether there is an answer or not.” But then Munro adds a few lines that many of us couples who have been married for decades recognize as all too true: “That’s what he would have expected, whether she was well or not. Missing the point. But isn’t that what wives do—and husbands probably the same—around fifty percent of the time?”

Munro’s last and longest story, which is titled the same as the whole collection, is based on a short span of events in the life of an actual Russian woman, Sophia (or Sonya) Kovalevsky. I was especially happy to discover this story because I was familiar with this fascinating nineteenth-century woman, even once having written a few lines about her in my A History of Russia: she “studied in Germany and later became a professor of mathematics at the University of Stockholm. Her work on motion won her recognition from the Academy of Paris in 1888.” In an acknowledgement at the end of her collection, Munro mentions her debt to Don H. Kennedy, author of Little Sparrow: A Portrait of Sophia Kovalevsky, and his wife, Nina, “a collateral descendent of Sophia’s, who provided quantities of texts translated from the Russian, including portions of Sophia’s diaries, letters and numerous other writings.”

Because the short story is set in Europe in 1891—although there are numerous flashbacks—it is quite different than the previous nine stories, and yet it has some similarity to Munro’s first story, “Dimension.” In each story the main female character’s attraction to a dominating man is significant.

Only the main man in Sophia’s life is a much more imposing and significant figure, Maxsim Kovalevsky, who happened to have the same name as his distant relative who had earlier (before his suicide) been Sophia’s husband. Munro tells us that Maxsim “had been forbidden to hold an academic post in Russia, because of being a Liberal,” but from other sources we know that earlier at Moscow University he had been a professor of law and comparative legal history. Here is one of Munro’s descriptions of Maxsim and Sophia:

He had felt himself ignored. A man who was not used to being ignored, who had probably never been in any salon, at any reception, since he was a grown man, where that had been the case. And it wasn’t so much the case in Paris either. It wasn’t that he was invisible there, in Sonya’s limelight, as that he was the usual. A man of solid worth and negotiable reputation, with a certain bulk of frame and intellect, together with a lightness of wit, an adroit masculine charm. While she was an utter novelty, a delightful freak, the woman of mathematical gifts and female timidity, quite charming, yet with a mind most unconventionally furnished, under her curls.

He wrote his cold and sulky apologies from Beaulieu [on the French Riviera], refusing her offer to visit once her flurry was over. He had a lady staying with him, he said, whom he could not possibly present to her. This lady was in distress and needed his attention at the moment. Sonya should make her way back to Sweden, he said; she should be happy where her friends were waiting for her. Her students would have need of her and so would her little daughter. (A jab there, a suggestion familiar to her, of faulty motherhood?)

And at the end of his letter one terrible sentence.

“If I loved you I would have written differently.”

Later on Munro says that Sophia knew that Maxsim “was not a man for . . . jealous fits, for female tears and scoldings. He had pointed out on that earlier occasion that she had no rights, no hold on him.”

Munro makes it clear that Sophia is an exceptional woman—not only a brilliant mathematician, but also a writer of novels—who battles against all the bias and discrimination of the time. In order to study abroad, something unpermitted by the Russian government without parental or a husband’s approval, she had entered a marriage of convenience with a liberal young man (he later commits suicide) who permitted her to go off to Germany to continue her education. But years later she still feels the need of a strong man in her life.

She imagines her head lying comfortably on his [Maxsim’s] broad shoulder—though the truth is he would not care for that, in public. His coat of rich expensive cloth, its smell of money and comfort. Good things he believes he has a right to expect and a duty to maintain, even though he is a Liberal unwelcome in his own country. That marvellous assurance he has, that her father had, you can feel it when you are a little girl snuggled up in their arms and you want it all your life. More delightful of course if they love you.

The main suspense in the story is how Sophia’s love for Maxsim will end. Early in the story, while visiting a cemetery, she says “One of us will die this year.” So we are also left wondering, almost until the story’s end, whether this prediction will come true.

Because of my interest in Russian history, I was especially mindful of the setting of the novel. And I found that Munro captured well the feel of the period. She mentions Dostoevsky’s interest in Sophia’s sister—and indeed Sophia knew well both Dostoevsky and another great Russian novelist, Turgenev. Sophia also wrote a novel about a nihilist girl that Chekhov later mentioned he had read (see here for my book dealing with Dostoevsky, Turgenev, nihilists, and other individuals during the reign of Alexander II). Chekhov also later became a friend of Maxsim and in an 1897 letter from Nice described him as follows: “A tall, fat, lively, utterly good-natured man. He eats a lot, jokes a lot, and works an awful lot—and I feel cheerful and lighthearted with him.” After Chekhov’s early death, his friend remembered him fondly.

I found this coincidence especially appealing because Munro once stated that Chekhov “was terribly important” to her, and in The New Yorker (Oct. 2013) critic James Woods referred to Munro as “our Chekhov.”

As my previous words indicate, I am no expert on literature, and many others (like James Woods) have written more insightfully about Munro’s talents as a writer. In addition to appreciating the page-turning plotting of the stories reviewed here, it is her humanism, with all that implies, that most appeals to me. As the presenter of the Nobel Prize to her declared in December 2013, “Munro writes about what are usually called ordinary people, but her intelligence, compassion and astonishing power of perception enable her to give their lives a remarkable dignity – indeed redemption.”

Although Munro has declared that she is retiring from her writing career, most of us who appreciate her writings still have many unread ones to savor. A quick glance at Amazon’s page on her reveals numerous books containing many stories that most of us have never read. And The New Yorker, where many of her stories were first published, has posted a site with links to many of them, including one of her best (according to James Woods), “The Bear Came Over the Mountain.” Enjoy!

walter moss

Walter G. Moss