Alice Munro // Master of the Contemporary Short Story

The announcement that this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature has been awarded to Alice Munro probably strikes many readers and writers as deliriously incredible. Few contemporary writers are more admired, and with good reason. Everyone gets called “our Chekhov.” All you have to do nowadays is write a few half-decent stories and you are “our Chekhov.” But Alice Munro really is our Chekhov—which is to say, the English language’s Chekhov. (In Munro’s great story, “The Beggar Maid,” an ambitious man sees that a friend of the woman he is courting “mispronounced Metternich,” and says indignantly to her: “How can you be friends with people like that?” I’m put in mind of Chekhov’s story “The Russian Master,” which has a character who repeatedly torments a young teacher by asking him why he has “never read Lessing.”)

Yet many of Munro’s readers had sadly concluded that she was not, somehow, the kind of writer that the Nobel committee seemed to like; I had decided that she would join the list of noble non-Nobelists, a distinguished category that includes Tolstoy, Nabokov, Borges, Hrabal, Sebald, Bernhard, Ingmar Bergman—and Chekhov, as it happens.

Munro spent her early years within the small-town culture of western Ontario. She began writing in her teenage years and published her first story, “The Dimensions of a Shadow,” when she was 19. After meeting her first husband, James Munro, at the University of Western Ontario she moved with him to Vancouver after completing two years at Western. The 1963 move to Victoria resulted in the founding of the bookstore, Munro’s Books, and more importantly, the acclaimed appearance of Munro’s first collection of stories. Her work had previously appeared in Canadian literary journals (Tamarack Review; Canadian Forum) and on the CBC radio program Anthology, whose producer, Robert Weaver, played a major role in the acceptance of her early work. She has remarked in interviews that she focused on the short story early on simply because she was taking care of two daughters before the age of 30.

The end of Munro’s marriage in 1972 prompted her return to Ontario and eventually to the University of Western Ontario, this time as the writer-in-residence. She married Gerald Fremlin, whom she had known since her university years, in 1976 and the couple settled on a farm outside of Clinton. Her numerous and award-winning collections of short stories, set mostly in southern Ontario, have made the “Munro Tract” (bounded on the west and south by Lakes Huron and Erie, on the north by the town of Goderich, on the east by London) as resonant a country of the mind as William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County or Tolkien’s Middle Earth.
Critical Success
Numerous critical studies have acknowledged Munro’s mastery of the cultural and vocal tones of a region; her acuteness in delineating social class is now a critical commonplace. Munro often narrates her stories in a manner reflecting the outlooks of her relatively unsophisticated characters. They appear before us as if we had bumped into them at the mall or the hairdresser’s or the home and school meeting, relating their experiences in ways that the author then uses to reveal deeper meanings. Her amplitude of style and approach, it is often noted, give her short stories the moral density of lengthier novels. Munro’s craft exerts a radial power, in which a central motif or situation mutates or recurs throughout various contexts within a story, often concluding with a reflection upon experience that seems anything but definitive. Munro’s is the fiction for a culture in which the nostalgia for lost certainties seems as potent as the unshakeable realization of that loss. Written within the conventions of literary realism, her fiction reflects the preoccupations of figures who must remain satisfied with momentary illumination rather than life-changing revelations. Her international audience finds its own uncertainties and concerns paralleled in those that shape her characters’ experiences. Time spent in re-reading her stories is seldom wasted.

Two representative stories, “Meneseteung” (in Friend of My Youth)and the title story in The Love of a Good Woman, display Alice Munro’s skill at depicting, then questioning and redefining, the experiences of her characters. Both offer accounts of women engaged, however unwittingly, in processes of self-definition that can take the form of wary hesitation in the face of new prospects, a process concluding in understanding rather than happiness. Almeda Joynt Roth of “Meneseteung” – based remotely upon obscure 19th-century women writers in the Munro Tract – must shatter the mirror of her nostalgic historical poetry when faced with the hard facts of sex and blood. Jarvis Poulter, a commercial pillar of the town, has made some tentative gestures toward Almeda. Her distress at his casual disregard toward a lower-class female victim of male violence leads her to deflect his overtures. The story-within-the-story concludes with Almeda enduring the start of her menstrual period, under the influence of a pain-killer, reconciled to an unprotected, unmarried destiny that will not end well. The tale’s intrusive yet distant narrator makes the story’s meaning more complex with an admission of her own inability to grasp exactly what has taken place in Almeda’s sensibility.

Uncertainty also marks the conclusion of Munro’s “The Love of a Good Woman,” whose protagonist Enid lingers in suspense as the male who has attracted her interest approaches. Is he propelled by desire, or by malice? The story opens with the discovery of a local optometrist’s automobile, along with his body, sunk beneath the river. The reader – who already knows that someone donated the optometrist’s gear to the local museum – learns a version of what lies behind the death by water, and the effect of this knowledge upon Enid. Her role as caregiver for a dying “bad” woman, the unreliable tale-bearing of that dying woman, and the power this woman’s husband exerts over Enid’s refined sensibilities leads to the question that ends the story. Such a tale, with its unabashed usage of such formula-fictional devices as the mysterious death of one character, the reluctant romantic involvement of the nurse and the inscrutability of the male figure, displays Munro’s powers as a fiction writer. The story’s progression through layers of consciousness and association, alongside the delicate architecture of the story’s telling, demonstrates how Munro can net both literary and general readers within her audience.

From the mid-1970s, Munro began her long-standing relationship with The New Yorker magazine, substantially expanding her audience in North America and beyond. Her work has been translated into 20 languages and she has the distinction of having each new book sell better than the preceding one. While Munro announced her retirement after the publication of The View from Castle Rock in 2006, the books have continued to appear at roughly the same pace, with Too Much Happiness in 2009 and Dear Life in 2012. Munro’s second husband died in April of 2013 and she divides her time between Clinton, Ontario and Comox, British Columbia.

It is tempting for Canadian readers to focus upon Munro’s usage of specifically Canadian spaces and times. Munro’s soundest achievement as a fiction writer, however, lies in her power to express what her characters experience as a more or less permanent condition of uncertainty and ambivalence. Her skill lies in rendering these layers of consciousness in the idiom of her time and place, and conveying them in deceptively simple fashion.

Various adaptations of her stories have appeared on television: Away from Her (2006; dir. Sarah Polley) is a noteworthy film version of Munro’s “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” from her 2001 collection Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, and the short film of “Boys and Girls” won an Oscar in 1984. Robert Thacker’s literary biography Alice Munro: Writing Her Lives appeared in 2005.

Cuando Alice Munro publicó su primera colección de cuentos, Dance of the Happy Shades,en 1968, la literatura canadiense en lengua inglesa apenas existía. Algunos grandes clásicos —Robert Service, Stephen Leacock, Lucy Maude Montgomery, Mazo de la Roche— habían insinuado la posibilidad de una literatura propia de las ex-colonias de América del Norte, pero faltaba establecer una reconocible (y reconocida) identidad literaria.

Con perseverante determinación, algunos jóvenes escritores de lengua inglesa se lanzaron a la grandiosa empresa de fundar una literatura nacional. Los escritores de lengua francesa debieron sobrellevar obstáculos diferentes para llevar a cabo la misma empresa: el menoscabo de la dominante sociedad anglófona, el desprecio de laVieille France hacia la Nouvelle. Los anglófonos, en cambio, tuvieron que tratar de hacerse visibles a la sombra de dos avasalladores gigantes: Inglaterra y Estados Unidos. Tan menoscabada era su identidad nacional que hasta mediados de los años ochenta todo escritor publicado en inglés debía firmar un contrato en el cual el Canadá aparecía como un territorio perteneciente a uno u otro imperio literario.

Gracias a los esfuerzos de una pequeña banda de amigos —Margaret Atwood, Graeme Gibson, Denis Lee, Alice Munro y algunos pocos más— empezaron a aparecer librerías especializadas en la producción del país, editoriales nacionales como MacLelland & Stewart y Coach House Press, y la Unión de Escritores Canadienses, fundada en 1973. Para ofrecer una suerte de manual de identidad intelectual a sus conciudadanos, Atwood, bajo la influencia del gran crítico canadiense Norhrop Frye, publicó en 1972 Survival, explicando no solo el mito central de su país —el de la víctima que intenta sobrevivir en medio de una naturaleza inhóspita— sino también una guía práctica de lugares donde adquirir libros, películas y discos del Canadá. El grupo consiguió imponer un sistema de becas provinciales y federales, y un apoyo gubernamental a la difusión de obras canadienses.

El genio literario de Munro fue reconocido desde su primer libro, que obtuvo el mayor galardón literario del país, el Premio del Gobernador General.

La contribución de Alice Munro a esta empresa intelectual fue menos política y más literaria. Nacida en 1931 en el sudoeste de la Provincia de Ontario, se casó muy joven con un librero de la Columbia Británica, cuyo apellido siguió usando después de su divorcio en 1976. Durante su estadía en la costa oeste, ocupándose con su marido de la librería y de sus tres hijas, Munro empezó a escribir cuentos y a enviarlos a la CBC, la emisora de radio nacional donde, gracias a los esfuerzos de los jóvenes fundadores, se leían (y pagaban) los textos de escritores nacionales. El más dinámico promotor de esa generación fue Robert Weaver, quien difundió, aconsejó y apoyó la obra de muchos autores hoy célebres, entre ellos Munro.

El genio literario de Munro fue reconocido desde su primer libro, que obtuvo el mayor galardón literario del país, el Premio del Gobernador General. A partir de esa publicación inicial, todos sus libros, sin excepción, fueron aclamados por la crítica, tanto en Canadá como en el resto del mundo anglófono, y la prestigiosa e influyente revista norteamericana The New Yorker comenzó a publicar sus cuentos con asombrosa regularidad. Cynthia Ozick la calificó de “nuestro Chéjov”: la comparación es exacta, no solo por la destreza con la que Munro construye sus narraciones, sino también por que raramente busca un terreno de exploración más allá de su rincón natal.

Hay cuentistas magistrales (Hemingway, Kipling, Cortázar) cuyo campo de acción es la tierra entera; otros, en cambio (Chéjov, Rulfo, Flannery O’Connor) no buscan viajar más allá de su horizonte físico. A estos últimos, el rincón familiar les basta para analizar, describir y ensalzar la condición humana entera. Para Munro, si bien escribió algunos cuentos que ocurren en otras partes de Canadá, y alguno que otro en Estados Unidos, el mundo se resume a la región sudoeste de la provincia de Ontario, tierra agrícola de sus ancestros inmigrantes británicos y europeos, de un protestantismo duro, condicionado por la versión eclesiástica local llamada United Church of Canada, donde indudables valores morales como la honestidad, la modestia y la perseverancia se mezclan con una suerte de desdén por el éxito público, eso que el novelista Robertson Davies (otro gran escritor de la misma región) llamó Southern Ontario oafishness y que podría traducirse por “torpeza intelectual” de los habitantes de la zona.

Los hombres, mujeres y niños (pero sobre todo mujeres) del mundo literario de Alice Munro se afanan en los pequeños trajines de la vida cotidiana. Nacen, viven y mueren dentro de marcos previstos desde siempre, y si en estos irrumpen (como siempre lo hacen) las sorpresas del azar y de lo casi imposible, nunca sienten que sus tragedias puedan tener ecos universales. Es el lector quien entiende que en la desdicha de una pareja común y corriente se han deslizado las pasiones de Macbeth y de su reina, o los amores imposibles de Lancelote y Ginebra; que en la historia de una mujer al borde de la locura resuena la tragedia de Medea; que la crónica de una traición adolescente relata la misma que pudo sufrir Andrómaca o Ifigenia. No es que tales mitos sean jamás explícitos en los cuentos de Munro, quien rechaza enérgicamente la noción de símbolo o alegoría en su obra, pero hay en sus narraciones una suerte de intuición de algo mucho más antiguo que el trozo de provincia que elije describir. La minuciosa construcción de ese mundo —la exactitud de un gesto de despedida, de una palabra apenas pronunciada, de la forma de una taza o del color de un muro— parecería reivindicar un realismo documentario, una arqueología del presente. Sin embargo, es lo contrario: esa precisión encubre una generalidad ancestral, una verdad válida para todos, un secreto a voces. El lector nunca siente que se trata de un virtuosismo mimético, de color local. Sin duda, los personajes de Munro viven en un lugar y un tiempo precisos, pero también en todos los lugares y todos los tiempos.

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