DEAR LIFE : Alice Munro
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It is marvellous that winning the Nobel prize spreads the word about Alice Munro. Her talent is formidable but she has never been self-seeking: her short stories have a subtle, unshowy, covert brilliance. This 2012 collection, reissued in celebration, ends with autobiographical pieces: "I believe they are the first and last – and the closest – things I have to say about my own life."
She was born in 1931. She describes a handsome, aspirational, unfulfilled mother, and a father with whom she had more rapport but who beat her with a belt, "not an uncommon punishment at the time". At one point, she describes a neighbour's house in rural Ontario "… that we would never visit or know and that was to me like a dwarf's house in a story. But we knew the man who lived there… Roly Grain his name was, and he does not have any further part in what I'm writing now, in spite of his troll's name, because this is not a story, only life."
One is stopped short by "only life" with its implication that fiction can be – and do – more. Roly Grain reminds us how Munro's short stories work. She has a gift for introducing characters who seem walk-on parts but who redirect and transform narrative. In "Train", a drifter – an ex-soldier – shelters on a farm with a woman and stays on. In "Dolly", a door-to-door seller of cosmetics makes friends with a woman and turns out to be an old flame of the woman's husband. And in the masterly "In Sight of the Lake", about a woman afraid of losing her memory, a stranger, randomly encountered in his garden, becomes almost an intimate. The casual is critical. And Munro is acute about the way people disrupt one another. If Roly Grain had not been inconveniently real, she would have handed him a story and let him run with it.
What's more, she would have caught his character in a line. Take this extraordinarily concise description from "Pride": "There was still that strange hesitation and lightness about her, as if she was waiting for her life to begin." Munro's stories sometimes finish with a comparably expectant lightness: endings as beginnings – perfectly judged. "To Reach Japan" ends: "She just stood waiting for whatever had to come next." And you are glad not to know more, to let time stand still.