My first encounter with Alice Munro’s writing was thanks to a class assignment. By then her first collection of stories was already a decade old and had won the Governor General’s Award for Fiction. I remember that the stories held my interest but also that they made me uncomfortable. I kept the book on my shelf after many others from that period had been given away, but I didn’t return to her writing until long after graduation when one of my favourite professors came for sherry. He’s a Southern gentleman of impeccable manners who will take a little sherry “to celebrate,” and in our broad-ranging conversation, he declared Munro the greatest Canadian writer. I still didn’t go back to that first book, Dance of the Happy Shades, but I have bought and devoured everything she’s written since.
When one reads Munro’s entire body of work, there is a seamlessness and a consistency to her writing that makes it seem as if she wrote them all at one time, at the top of her career. Early stories and the latest ones are all of a piece, to put it in Munro County language. No wonder she won the Man Booker International Prize in 2009 for her lifetime body of work, or that she is a three-time winner of our Governor General’s Award for Fiction. Wikipedia points out that she is a perennial contender for the Nobel Prize, and often called Canada’s Chekhov.
As consistently satisfying, discomfiting, and even addictive as Munro’s stories are across her large body of work, Dear Life contains a surprise. The final sixty-two pages form a separate unit, one Munro says is “autobiographical in feeling, though not, sometimes, entirely so in fact.” I was profoundly affected by the clear Munro voice, stopping readers in their tracks to mark a change and then continuing with a rather chilling, “I believe [these chapters] are the first and last—and the closest—things I have to say about my own life.” And it is, indeed, a more sophisticated, knowing voice that continues on for the remainder of the book.
I’ve been imagining Munro behind many of her characters for decades. In school we had to call the narrator of Munro’s stories the “putative Munro” to indicate we knew the teller wasn’t really the same as the author, but that in some writing there were reasons to think the narrator could be assumed to be giving personal information. For Munro to step out from behind her characters and actually speak to us momentarily took my breath away. And when an author changes voice like that, after so many years of doing otherwise, the experience for the reader changes too. In those sixty-two pages, I was simultaneously meeting Munro and constantly making an inventory of how her “dear life” had been portrayed in the hundreds of stories I have read. So her father really did roll his own cigarettes. So she really did have contempt for her mother’s judgemental views of others. The list went on, leading me to wonder if some of the other more disturbing incidents in her stories also came from real events.
But then, that’s what makes Alice Munro such a great writer. It’s also why from the very first story I experienced discomfort. Whether Alice Munro is being autobiographical is beside the point. What she is most certainly doing is showing us aspects of ourselves, reminding us of embarrassing encounters, judgement errors, deceits in our own lives. Also of touching moments and the infinite capacity of some people to express their humanity and to acknowledge yours.
Maybe it’s time to pull Dance of the Happy Shades off the shelf for another read?
- Reg Sauvages
Reginald Sauvages, PhD, is the nom de plume of a local bibliophile (read: bookworm) who goes on building bookshelves and buying paperbacks for the beach so sand doesn’t ruin favourite clothbound books, even while owning an e-reader.