1307 Alice Munro & the short story
Ginny Ratsoy reviews two books:
Lives of Girls and Women
by Alice Munro
Toronto: Penguin Modern Classics, 2021 (first published by McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1971)
$19.95 / 9780735234659
Who Do You Think You Are?
Toronto: Penguin Modern Classics, 2021 (first published by Macmillan of Canada, 1978)
$13.99 / 9780143181170
Joyce, protagonist of “Fiction” in Alice Munro’s 2009 collection Too Much Happiness, purchases the first book of a younger woman she recently met and to whom she had an instant aversion. Joyce’s disdain increases when she learns of the book’s genre: “A collection of short stories, not a novel. This in itself is a disappointment. It seems to diminish the book’s authority, making the author seem like somebody who is just hanging on to the gates of Literature, rather than safely settled inside” (pp. 49-50).
While Joyce, with her attitude that the short story is lesser, still has real-life counterparts, I wager they are far fewer than they were fifty years ago, and it is to her creator whom much of the credit for elevating the short story to its proper station must go. Alice Munro — considering she is not only a writer exclusively of short stories but also a woman and a Canadian — spent surprisingly little time on the outside, and her work is now decidedly inside those hallowed gates.
Winner of over twenty awards — including three Governor-General’s Awards (the first in 1968 for her first collection) as well as the Man Booker International Prize and the Nobel Prize for Literature (both awarded for a body of work) — Munro has arguably done more than any other single writer to dispel hollow notions of genre hierarchies.
Re-viewing her second and fourth collections, originally published in 1971 and 1978 respectively, daunts me because of her lofty stature and for two additional reasons. First, neither collection comes with an introduction, afterword or similar literary apparatus that I expect in re-issues; thus, there is nothing new for a reviewer to go on, and one might wonder what literary purpose a re-issue serves. In addition, one would be hard pressed to say anything new about stories that have been exhaustively examined. A cursory internet search reveals reviews of these works starting shortly after publication and as recently as 2015 in publications as diverse as the Guardian and Goodreads. That is in addition to, of course, innumerable scholarly studies continuing into 2021 by academics from around the world who take impressively diverse approaches to her work — from examining Irish influences on her writing and comparing her narrative techniques to Hemingway’s to analyzing representations of ageing and reading her work geologically. Penguin would not seem to be hasty in their judgment that these works are classics.
More constructive than a conventional review, I trust, will be a brief plot encapsulation of the three stories with BC settings followed by a fast-forward (a technique Munro stories are known for) for a short update on various things Munro.
Munro writes story cycles — linked short stories that can be read wholly individually, but gain added resonance when read together – the majority of which are set in small-town southwestern Ontario. In Who Do You Think You Are?, a Bildungsroman narrated in the third-person , protagonist Rose escapes the ennui and poverty of her rural Ontario existence through a move to British Columbia in “The Beggar Maid,” “Mischief,” and “Providence.” The trio can be read, for the most part, chronologically, and in sequence.
In “The Beggar Maid,” Rose, a scholarship student at a university close to home, meets wealthy Patrick, a grad student in history, who wishes to whisk her away to west coast marriage and prosperity. There is a decided damsel-in-distress-rescued- by-charming-prince motif – at least as Patrick views the relationship, particularly after he meets stepmother Flo in the humble farmhouse of Rose’s youth. Adding to the romance in his mind is the layer of his family’s disapproval for marrying socially beneath him. Rose, enchanted but uncomfortable after they visit the family estate near Sidney, accepts his proposal, and, despite great hesitancy on her part and cruelty on both of their parts, they wed. However, to Rose the marriage is more about escaping from than escaping to, and there is very little of the fairy tale in their reality. The story then jumps ahead to, first, their break-up and, then, almost a decade after their divorce, (when Rose is a well-known television personality) a chance airport encounter, where Patrick meets Rose’s eye with revulsion.
“Mischief,” fills in the details between the marriage’s start and termination. They live a typical-for-the-time middle-class life in Vancouver, where Patrick, no longer the family rebel, is ensconced in the family business, and Rose is unhappy in the role of housewife and mother of Anna. Rose seeks escape and excitement again — this time through an affair with her friend Jocelyn’s musician husband, Clifford, whom she sees as all that Patrick is not. However, what she took very seriously, Clifford saw only as “mischief,” and he is ultimately unwilling to gamble his marriage. Moving considerably ahead in time, Rose somehow remains friends with the couple, and when the three find themselves in different circumstances in Ontario, participates in a ménage á trois with them.
“Providence” fills in some of the intervening years before the Ontario reunion: Rose tells Patrick of the affair with Clifford (even embellishing it) and leaves Patrick and young Anna to move to a Kootenay town to work at a radio station. Her Kootenay life eventually for a short time includes Anna, as well as an ill-fated long-distance romance with a married Calgary man that, somewhat comically, never really develops: family and weather circumstances repeatedly dash their planned trysts. By the story’s end, Patrick has remarried, and Anna has chosen to live with him and his new wife.
Munro is known for elevating seemingly quotidian circumstances to the extraordinary, and she certainly succeeds in doing so with this triptych, which is representative Munro in all but setting. Even after having re-read them numerous times over the decades, I was struck again by their candour, depth, and power: the casualness of cruelty, the shocking human thought and behaviour in the ordinary.
I was also struck by how well these stories, written almost fifty years ago and set in even earlier times, held up. From the perspective of gender and class readings, they resonate in 2021. Yes, women today have greater opportunities than they did last century, but, as the pandemic has highlighted, gender equality is still an aspiration, and, if anything, class discrepancies have increased. Perhaps even more to the point, Munro’s ability to both reveal and conceal cements these stories in the category of classics.
While enduring, Munro’s apparently simple stories are also elusive — what makes them tick can be hard to pin down — and their creator, despite her work being solidly within Literature’s hallowed gates, is, similarly, somewhat enigmatic. Rarely granting interviews, even less frequently delivering public readings, and eschewing a personal website even in her younger days, Munro has kept a low profile throughout her career. When she won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2013 (at the age of 82) the 13th woman and only the second Canadian (if we count Saul Bellow as Canadian) to do so, the traditional Nobel Lecture in Literature became a recorded video conversation. When, in 2019, locals caught wind of the fact that her home in Clinton, ON had recently been sold, reporter Daniel Caudle, of the Clinton News Record, learned that she and her family had been approached more than once about the home being turned into a museum, but to no avail.
Despite Munro’s low profile, the popular and academic authority of her oeuvre (which, according to a CBC article, novelists Jane Urquhart and Miriam Toews encapsulated as “exquisite” and “devastating,” respectively) appears guaranteed, as the aforementioned honours and studies attest. Closer to home, in what is now known as Alice Munro country, a monument to the writer and her achievements graces the outside of the Clinton library, and an established festival that takes her name is devoted to short story writers. Decidedly authoritative and anything but disappointing, Lives of Girls and Women and Who Do You Think You Are? — along with the dozen or so other collections that constitute Alice Munro’s body of work — are testaments to the power of the short story.
Ginny Ratsoy is Professor Emerita at Thompson Rivers University. Her publications (co-authored and edited and co-edited books and numerous peer-reviewed articles) have focused on Canadian fiction, theatre, small cities, third-age learning, and the scholarship of teaching and learning. Her recent focus has been on maintaining a growth mindset and promoting third-age learning as a corrective to societal ageism. In the winter of 2022, she is teaching a course on Alice Munro for the Kamloops Adult Learners Society. Editor’s note: Ginny Ratsoy has recently reviewed books by R.M. Greenaway, Barbara Black, J.G. Toews, Iona Whishaw, Wayne Grady, Angie Abdou, Josephine Boxwell, and Caroline Adderson.
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