Remembering and Reading the Everyday Fiction of Alice Munro

“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 room and corridors relate to each other, how the world outside is altered by being viewed from these windows. And you, the visitor, the reader, are altered as well by being in this enclosed space, whether it is ample and easy or full of crooked turns, or sparsely or opulently furnished. You can go back again and again, and the house, the story, always contains more than you saw the last time. It also has a sturdy sense of itself of being built out of necessity, not just to shelter on beguile you.”

— Alice Munro (1931-2024)

Alice Munro—the veritable Canadian author and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2013—passed away on Monday, May 13, at her home in Port Hope, Ontario, at the age of 92. Throughout her nearly half-a-century-long literary career, she wrote fourteen collections of short stories, most of them about the rich interior lives of women — about the emotional depths and subterranean secrets, desires, and discontent of their seemingly ordinary lives often lived in the margins of Canadian society. Munro was one of those rare writers—like Anton Chekhov, Raymond Carver, and Katherine Anne Porter —who stretched and challenged the limits of the incredibly difficult short fiction form, one luminous story at a time. In announcing her 2013 Nobel Prize win, the Swedish Academy commended her ability to “accommodate the entire epic complexity of the novel in just a few short pages,” calling her a “master of the contemporary short story.”

Yet, in her own words, Munro “never intended to be a short-story writer.” Short stories were something she chose out of practical considerations as a young woman raising children and running a bookstore in 1960s suburban Canada. She turned to short stories because the demands of motherhood did not give her the time to take on longer works.

“I started writing them (short stories) because I didn’t have time to write anything else — I had three children. And then I got used to writing stories, so I saw my material that way, and now I don’t think I’ll ever write a novel,” Munro told The New York Times in a 1986 interview after the publication of The Progress of Love, a collection of eleven short stories in which Munro’s late style—characterised by longer stories with fragmented timelines and seamless shifts in perspective—came into its own. In these stories about the different forms and degrees of love—platonic, sexual, filial, parental, and imagined—in the lives of ordinary men and particularly women, Munro got even closer to her stated goal of making the reader “feel something is astonishing — not the ‘what happens’ but the way everything happens.”

In The Progress of Love, the titular story of the collection, Munro embraced an intricate and complex structure. She explored– through stories and counter-stories, and memories and counter-memories– the weight of the past, of love, and of the discontent that comes to rest on a woman later in her life, looking back at her relationship with her now-deceased parents and the forms of love that may remain between them. In a similar vein, the most powerful stories in The Progress of Love take on, unsparingly and without sentiment, the themes of love, self-delusion, and astonishment over the inexplicable ways people deceive themselves in the name of love.

“Self-deception seems almost like something that’s a big mistake, that we should learn not to do,” Munro told The New York Times in 1986, “But I’m not so sure if we can. Everybody’s doing their own novel of their own lives. The novel changes—at first we have a romance, a very satisfying novel that has a rather simple technique, and then we grow out of that and we end up with a very discontinuous, discordant, very contemporary kind of novel. I think that what happens to a lot of us in middle age is that we can’t really hang on to our fiction any more.”

Many of her stories deal with this kind of self-deception—about the lies we tell ourselves about who we are—but they also confront the utter subjectivity of truth, of our inability to see things through others’ eyes, and how memory is the way we keep telling ourselves our stories — and telling other people a somewhat different version of our stories. “We can hardly manage our lives without a powerful ongoing narrative,” Munro said in an interview in 2010. “And underneath all these edited, inspired, self-serving stories there is, we suppose, some big bulging awful mysterious entity called the truth, which our fictional stories are supposed to be poking at and grabbing pieces of. What would be more interesting as a life’s occupation? One of the ways we do this, I think, is by trying to look at what memory does (different tricks at different stages of our lives) and at the way people’s different memories deal with the same (shared) experience. The more disconcerting the differences are, the more the writer in me feels an odd exhilaration.”

Alice Munro was born Alice Ann Laidlaw in Wingham, Ontario, in Canada’s Huron County, in 1931. Her father was a fox and mink farmer, and her mother was a schoolteacher. In an interview to The Guardian after her Nobel Prize win in 2013, Munro said, “To live in a place like Wingham you have a very narrow opportunity to get out. If you wait until you are 30 you become too timid and know too little about the world and it never happens. So I got out.”

She was only 20 years old when she left college and married her first husband, James Munro, in 1951, and the couple had their first child—a daughter—when she was 22. And even though she wrote and published her first short story The Dimensions of a Shadow at the age of 19 in 1950, it wasn’t until 1968 that her first collection of short stories Dance of the Happy Shades was published. The collection earned her the Governor General’s Award—Canada’s highest literary prize—and announced her arrival as a major short story writer. Success followed with Lives of Girls and Women (1971), a collection of interlinked stories marketed as a composite novel, and Who Do You Think You Are? (1978), which earned her a second Governor General’s Award and was short-listed for the Booker Prize for Fiction in 1980 under its international title, The Beggar Maid.

Munro populated her stories with characters much like herself, as well as the individuals she met and knew intimately in her personal life in Wingham, Victoria, and Ontario — in small towns and suburbs, on farms, and in the swamps, trailer parks, and old churches of rural Canada. “I am intoxicated by this landscape,” she wrote in the introduction to Selected Stories (1996), “by the almost flat fields, the swamps, the hardwood bush, by the continental climate with its extravagant winters. I am at home with the brick houses, the falling-down barns, the occasional farms that have swimming pools and airplanes, the trailer parks, burdensome old churches, Walmart, and Canadian Tire. I speak the language.”

Her keen eye and deep understanding of the rhythm of domestic life, her ability to detail her characters’ interior lives and place within a meticulously crafted world that is both unlike and quite like our own, and her talent for charting the course of a life that metamorphoses through time, allowed her to redefine the contours of the contemporary short story and cemented her reputation as one of the most influential writers of her time. In the 1986 interview with The New York Times, Munro said, “Everybody in the community is on stage for all other people. There’s a constant awareness of people watching and listening… the less you reveal, the more highly thought of you are.”

This opacity coloured her later body of work. While her early writing was dazzling and luminous and full of literary fireworks, her later writing became distinctly sparse and deceptively artless — she had style, of course, but she was more concerned with the theme and the structure of a story as opposed to its language. This was a conscious choice on her part. “In my earlier days I was prone to a lot of flowery prose,” she said in an interview with The Journal of Wild Culture, “and I gradually learned to take a lot of that out. So you just go on thinking about it and finding out more and more what the story was about, which you thought you understood in the beginning, but you actually had a lot more to learn.” 

This is perhaps most apparent in Munro’s later collections like Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage (2001), Runaway (2004), and Dear Life (2012). In what is possibly her most famous story, The Bear Came Over the Mountain, first published in The New Yorker in 1999 and later collected in Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, the narrative revolves around the life of a woman named Fiona. The story begins with the broad strokes of Fiona’s childhood—the big, bay-windowed house where she grew up, her far-left-leaning Icelandic mother, “a powerful woman with a froth of white hair,” and her father, “an important cardiologist, revered around the hospital but happily subservient at home,” her “own little car” and her “pile of cashmere sweaters”—before revealing that Fiona is now 70 years old and beginning to forget things, losing her way home from stores she’s driven to a thousand times. Before long, Grant, her husband, moves her to an assisted living facility called Meadowlake. Only, much to Grant’s surprise, Fiona thrives at Meadowlake. Soon, she finds a boyfriend there, and Grant finds himself remembering, with jealousy, regret, and appreciation, his own past infidelities.

A sort of inversion of this story takes shape in Silence, originally published in The New Yorker and later collected in Runaway, which revolves around a somewhat popular former TV host Juliet and her 20-year-old daughter, Penelope. The story begins as Juliet arrives at some religious silent retreat to pick up Penelope, only to discover that she isn’t there, and that Juliet will never see her again. It is implied that Juliet is to blame for Penelope’s decision to disappear from her mother’s life, but Munro never reveals what exactly Juliet did to deserve this silence and estrangement from her daughter. Instead, Penelope becomes a sort of absence in Juliet’s life who goes on to have relationships with men who’d never know about Penelope’s existence. Silence cap-ends a cycle of three short stories about three important episodes in Juliet’s life, and here again, we see Munro’s tendency to return to the same, or similar, semi-autobiographical details and incidents. Her, dare I say, fixation with the shapes of memory and counter-memory, and how inevitable it is that two people will have two different points of view on any given event, as well as how these two points of view of the same event may occasionally compete, and how, sometimes, while someone may know one of them to be true, they may, in fact, choose to believe in the other version as if it were more true.

This examination and re-examination of memory finds a disconcerting, Kafkaesque strangeness in In Sight of Lake—first published in Granta 118: Exit Strategies and later included in Dear Life, Munro’s last collection of short stories published when she was 81. Here an elderly woman, introduced at first, simply as “a woman,” who goes to her doctor to have her prescription renewed, only to find that the doctor is not there. “In fact, the woman has got the day wrong, she has mixed up Monday and Tuesday,” Munro writes. “This is the very thing she wanted to talk to the doctor about, as well as renewing the prescription. She has wondered if her mind is slipping a bit.” A day later, the doctor’s assistant calls her to say that the prescription is ready and that an appointment has been made for the woman—who is finally named (Jean in Granta, and Nancy in Dear Life)—to be examined by a specialist. The story continues as the woman/Jean/Nancy travels to a nearby town to meet the specialist and ends when the truth, or a version of it, is revealed. But even this revelation feels immaterial somehow, placed against the tone, the texture, and the almost hallucinatory imagery that shapes this story. As is often the case with Munro, it’s not the ‘what happens’, but the way it happens that’s important. In Sight of Lake, a Munro story unlike any other Munro story, encapsulates this perfectly.

Much like the woman/Jean/Nancy in In Sight of Lake, Munro, too, experienced a slipping of the mind in her later life and retired from the public eye in 2013 after a decades-long literary career that saw writers and readers across the world celebrate her as the ‘Anton Chekhov of English literature’. She suffered from dementia in the last years of her life, and passed away at her home in Ontario on Monday, May 13, at the age of 92. She is survived by her daughters Sheila, Jenny, and Andrea, and her fourteen collections of short stories.

Kunzum is glad to have a variety of Alice Munro’s short story collections, namely her Love of a Good Woman, Lives of Girls and Women, Lying Under the Apple Tree, Who Do You Think You Are?, Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Dear Life, Friend of My Youth, Too Much Happiness, The Progress of Love, Open Secrets as well as Runaway.

Pick up any of Alice Munro’s 11 Short Story Collections from any Kunzum store or WhatsApp +91.8800200280 to order. Buy the book(s) and the coffee’s on us.

Drishya Maity

About the Reviewer:

Drishya (he/him ⸱ b. 1997) is a writer + artist based in Kolkata, India. He was shortlisted for the Mogford Prize for Food & Drink Writing, nominated for the BBA Photography Prize – One Shot Award in 2022, and selected for the ICA Long Form Food Writing Mentorship in 2024. He is @drishyadotxyz on Instagram and X.

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