Reflections on the Nobel Prize-winner’s stories, from the Dance of the Happy Shades collection to the View from Castle Rock.
I’m bad at picking favourites, so I’ll talk about my earliest encounter with Alice’s stories. I read her first collection,Dance of the Happy Shades, in 1968, in freezing cold Edmonton, curled up beside a bar heater. The title story knocked me out. “This is the real thing,” I thought. “Wow.” I later taught this story in a course I invented called “Southern Ontario Gothic.” Two elderly piano teachers with red eyes and witchy noses welcome children into their cottage for a recital. But an unexpected group arrives, from what used to be called “an institution.” One girl plays beautifully: the “The Dance of the Happy Shades” has transformed her! But no, because afterwards she’s the same damaged child as before. Nonetheless she lives partly in another country, the one with the music in it. Like many of Munro’s stories, this one concerns the enchantments of art: are they real or are they a lie? Both at once, it seems: the magic is in how you do it. So there it is. The magic is in how she does it. You have to listen.
Author, The Orenda
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Alice Munro is the bane of every creative writing teacher’s existence. Allow me to explain. I used to urge my students to learn the rules of writing short stories, rules like “Don’t rely on a lot of exposition, a lot of telling in your stories. Short stories demand a singular protagonist’s point of view, not an omniscient one. Keep stories to less than 6,000 words or else you’ll have real difficulty publishing them.” And then along comes Alice Munro, gleefully smashing every one of those rules, and many others, the end result being some of the most brilliant fiction I’ve ever read. Because of the genius of Alice Munro, these last years I’ve changed my teaching mantra to “Please learn the rules of fiction before you decide to break them. And if you’re going to try to mimic Alice Munro, good luck.”
Alice Munro sends her female characters into the world armed with a desire for escape — sometimes through the rewards of higher education, or, say, the security of a good marriage. But her female characters are not always good. They are often derailed by errant and powerful female desire. The main character in “Wenlock Edge” (one of my favourite Munro stories because it is so sinister, subversive and eye-poppingly creepy) says about herself at the beginning of this brilliantly torqued story: “I had a mean tongue. But I meant no harm. Or hardly any harm.” What a narrative hook, dropped so casually in the second paragraph. A character who hints that harm is coming, at least some harm, and maybe a whole lot that wasn’t even intended! This young college girl will end up stripping for an elderly, extremely wealthy stranger who sits at the other end of a long, formal table laden with delicacies under silver domes. She will be asked to read poetry. She will do it because she feels dared to do so, because of a “pride or some shaky recklessness.” She will get undressed and get a dressing down, all because of her ungovernable desire. A desire to know what will unfold. And she will learn, and continue learning.
Author, Fugitive Pieces
One of my favourite stories is “The Moons of Jupiter,” which I heard Alice Munro read almost 30 years ago. Her reading held something extraordinary that night; as if she were taking in the truth of it herself for the first time. An Alice Munro story always seems to be an intimacy shared. She reveals the mystery of a situation or experience, holds out to us the profound value of what is almost always overlooked. She observes as if she simply cannot get enough of this extraordinary, ordinary world; with a hunger for the common intricacies of our lives. And all is expressed with an abiding compassion. “The Moons of Jupiter,” in a few short pages, expresses such a penetrating portrait of what it means to be a daughter and the mother of daughters, what it means to be a father, what it means to accept the most common facts of love: we lose what we love most — to age, to death — and the only way to defy this is to love even more. The last lines of the story underline what Alice Munro wants us never to forget: the most profound moments of our lives are the most common. This is her great theme. In Alice Munro’s hands, a short story contains the span of a life.
Author, The Stone Carvers
I have just finished re-reading “The Albanian Virgin” from Open Secrets and, as always, I am delighted and amazed by how much exquisite literary pleasure a much-visited Alice Munro story can bring to an otherwise ordinary afternoon. “The Albanian Virgin” is rife with everything we have come to expect from Munro; a woman at a cross-road, a look at the new, uncertain life (she becomes a bookseller) she has chosen for herself. But, as is often the wonderful case with Munro, there is something else running alongside. Set in Albania in the early decades of the last century, the parallel narrative involves a kidnapped woman from a Canadian small town, banditry, blood feuds, and a primitive custom that allows a woman to declare herself a “virgin,” in order to become — almost — a man. Only a writer of Munro’s genius could make this brutally strange world so palpably familiar to us. In the end, we feel we have been intimate with it all our lives.
Author, The Crooked Maid.
I first read “Dulse” over lunch. Pumpkin soup, I believe. It was winter and I was cold; home alone, picking a book off the shelf almost at random. To keep me company, I suppose.
This is how I know it is good. The soup grew cold. I had things to do and didn’t. And I woke up with them the next morning, with Munro’s world and Munro’s people, and a sad sort of yearning for the taste of seaweed for which the story is named.
Compositionally, it’s not her most elegant story; is messy and indiscreet. I like this: it infuses something generous into the story, an openness to life, and tempers its unflinching clarity of vision.
It’s the ending that gets me, the sudden, painful shift away from the protagonist, at whose shoulder we have stood for 20-odd pages and whom we now behold at a distance, sensing her fate and future with glum certainty. And our sadness resides precisely in this sudden distance as we mourn the intimacy we have traded for knowledge, without tallying the cost.
Author, The Massey Murder
I arrived at the cottage for Thanksgiving, still exhilarated by the Munro win. I knew there would be an early Munro there — swollen after too many damp winters, but still on a prominent bookshelf. Yes, The Moons of Jupiter was waiting for me, filled with Alice Munro’s awkward, sensitive heroines groping their way towards autonomy. I sat down to choose my favourite story — but it was impossible. Those looping narratives … the ordinary made extraordinary … the conversations that flow so naturally, and yet take surprising turns.
Reading the first sentence in each story is like listening to the opening bars of a favourite symphony. I’ve read these 12 stories many times. Each seems effortlessly straightforward, yet radiates a painful intensity. (Rule 1 for a Munro piece: never think you’ve got it if you’ve only read it once.) In the title story, which is ostensibly about a woman writer visiting her father in hospital, parental relationships are sketched with devastating economy. The father is dying; the daughter tries to reassure him while feeling abandoned by her daughter. The old man resists any impulse to express pride in his daughter’s successes. “The message I got from him was simple: Fame must be striven for, then apologized for.”
Alice: Don’t apologize. You deserve the Nobel Prize.
Author, The Demonologist
When I was 19 years old and a waiter in Stratford, Ontario, I served Alice Munro dinner. It was the only contact with a celebrity I’ve ever had that left me nervous and tongue-tied, so that when, at the end of the meal, I ventured to compliment her on her latest collection, The Progress of Love, I barely managed to get the words out. “It’s your best yet,” I stammered idiotically. But she smiled and told me she was so glad to hear me say that. “It’s important to know you’re getting better,” she said. I’ve thought about that moment — and that book — many times over the years since. And now, as a writer moving into mid-career myself, I know what she said and how she responded to my comment was genuine. Because not only is it important to believe you’re getting better, it’s even more important to hear a living, breathing reader — a stranger connected not to you but to the work — tell you.
Indigo Books and Music founder
I could talk about what Alice Munro means to me as a book seller, but I’d much rather talk about her from my perspective as a booklover. I fell in love with Alice Munro decades ago and remain a committed fan. For me, she is all about her characters. There is an essential truth at the core of each character she shapes that makes them endure.Lives of Girls and Women is now over 40 years old, but Del and Addie’s relationship — that mother-daughter struggle — is as raw and relevant today as it was when first written. And it is this incredible ability to create insanely compelling, timeless characters that makes Munro so great. Every time I read one of her stories I feel my life is touched by living, breathing people.
City Librarian, Toronto Public Library
Being from Southwestern Ontario and with Scottish roots, the stories in The View from Castle Rock speak right to my heart. In particular, the way Munro captures the stoicism and self-denial and nuanced judgments of what is appropriate behaviour in that particular time and place. The young girl in “Lying under the Apple Tree” who is on the edge of her own life and the shape it will take, already knowing that she needs to escape — for me, this is one of her most beautiful and classic stories. And of course, what Munro explores in story after story is that we never really leave behind where we began.
Janet E. Cameron
Author, Cinnamon Toast and the End of the World
When I think of what Alice Munro’s writing has meant to me over the years, one scene comes to mind. I was 22, reading in a cabin with a candle for light, in perfect silence. The book was Who Do You Think You Are? and I was deep into the chapter called “The Beggar Maid,” where Rose is about to make the disastrous decision to marry her rich boyfriend, Patrick. “No, she can’t do that,” I said — out loud, to the empty cabin. I’d forgotten where I was. I’d forgotten that this was a story I was reading. Later I lent the book to my boyfriend and he said the same thing had happened to him. “But she can’t. . . ,” he’d said — out loud on the bus. How could we both have felt so connected to a fictional character? This is more than good writing. It’s really something of a miracle.
Author, Natural Order.
One of my favourite Munro stories is “Carried Away,” from Open Secrets. The story has everything you want and expect from Munro: a lonely librarian, misguided love, lost virginity, London’s Victoria Park, Tolpuddle Martyrs and a beheading (don’t assume her stories can’t be gruesome at times). But it’s also the detail through which Munro paints her canvas that brings the story to life. The smell of oilcloth covering a restaurant table. Water drops sizzling on a radiator. Sawdust soaking up blood. “Carried Away” is dense and heartbreaking and comes full circle at the end in a way that continues to take my breath away, even after all my repeated readings. Munro makes us realize how many unfulfilled dreams we harbour inside, even if we sometimes forget they were ever there in the first place.
Author, 50 Canadians Who Changed the World
In Scotland, we drove north out of Robbie Burns country and then made a detour to visit the graves of the paternal ancestors of Alice Munro. In The View From Castle Rock, Munro had written of visiting these graves in a churchyard 80 kilometres south of Edinburgh. We followed a winding, one-lane road through rolling hills and sheep-dotted fields into the Ettrick Valley, and then took direction from the locals. One of Munro’s relatives is related to James Hogg, an early friend of Walter Scott. Hogg remains famous throughout Scotland as the “Ettrick shepherd.” In The View from Castle Rock, Munro relates how, as a young man, he introduced Scott to his mother. Later, in a collection of ballads, Scott included several of that woman’s contributions. Published in 2007, and more overtly autobiographical than most of her works, Castle Rock is not Munro’s best book. But I vividly remember reading gravestones in that Ettrick churchyard, knowing that the author had done the same not long before, and that experience makes this book my favorite.
Author, Good to a Fault
Like all the other women writers I know, I have watched the progress of Alice Munro’s writing all my life, not only for pleasure but as something to measure my own against. Her sustained diligence is remarkable; but it’s the subversive, elusive, mercurial beauty of the work that makes us all so joyful at the awarding of the Nobel Prize. Only the 13th woman to be named in a 100 years — what a steady genius it takes, as a woman writer, to be so utterly undeniable. Munro is sometimes spoken of as a writer with a small canvas, but I’ve never seen that: to me the shock of her gift is the breadth and scale of it — into a small cup she compacts worlds of experience; into the possibly pallid form of the short story she packs the bravest, most perturbing emotional investigation. The most astonishing thing is how Munro has continued to grow bolder and more demanding of her form and herself, into what is now the most graceful old age.
Author, Oh My Darling
When I heard the news that Alice Munro had won the Nobel Prize, I felt delight of course, but I also felt a pull at my heart (oh God — now I’m really going to have to share her). I felt possessive, because my relationship to Munro’s writing has always been so personal. I think lots of readers and writers carry ‘a personal Alice’ inside: she is so emotionally brave, so truthful about our lives. But for short-story writers she is like a North Star. Her stories, by their intellectual brilliance, their ability to reveal the mystery of human behaviour, have given me something to aspire to. And she herself, with her lack of pomposity and bombast, has a talismanic force to her — standing for true modesty in the face of pursing a complex craft. She is the sort of writer other writers carry in their hearts. I know I carry her in mine.
Author, The Eliot Girls
When I was about 20 years old, I read Alice Munro for the first time. It was a Friday night, that opportunity for most university students to release the week’s stresses in a frenzy of drunken socializing. I was at home with “Who Do You Think You Are?”, following Rose from her royal beatings and the thin-walled bathroom in the corner of her Hanratty kitchen to her marriage to the nervously pompous birthmarked Patrick and their later divorce. What piercing wit in those stories, provided with perfect understatement, as an incidental joy. I’d never read anything that felt real to me in quite that way — the cruelties, the erotic longings, the ambitions, the pretensions, the shifting secrets of whole lives. Even now her stories occupy a place in me as important as my own experiences. That Friday night, I was reading Alice Munro, and I was not lonely anymore.