When I reach the Pearly Gates, I know that I have the perfect password to get in. Even if St. Peter is at his grumpy, bureaucratic worst – “So what have you ever done in your miserable, selfish life to deserve getting into Heaven?” – I can waltz in simply by saying, “I kept Alice Munro writing short stories.”
And he, if his English is any good, will rush to wave me through, maybe even making a saintly exclamation like “Holy smokes, Alice Munro!”
* * * * *
When people ask me what Alice Munro is really like, I try to deal with the two halves of the complete Alice. One is the frowning, concerned good citizen, determined to do The Right Thing, and worrying her way towards it. … Alice in person is also very good company, and it’s significant that in the fractious world of Canadian writing she has no enemies.
I never knew him as a teacher, but I know the type of teacher he must have been. The same well-stocked, allusive mind that saw connections everywhere and made him a great essayist – from Captain Bligh to Albert Schweitzer in two easy moves – must have made him a good, challenging and thought-provoking teacher for bright kids. It must also have made him the despair of lesser lights, who expected the course to follow the outline, for God’s sake, and failed to see what on earth the Mafia in Montreal could possibly have to do with Robert Browning. And Leonard Cohen, a great admirer, once told me of Hugh becoming so moved as he tried to describe the depth of James Joyce’s loneliness in exile that he stood lost in tears, while the awestruck class filed silently out of the room.
A final story about Morley Callaghan, which also tells us a lot about Alice Munro. She was once on the Toronto subway when she saw Morley, by then a widower, tottering aboard her car, looking old and frail and ill. She went over to him and reintroduced herself, and sure enough, Morley confessed that he was sick and was going to his doctor’s.
Alice was alarmed enough by Morley’s condition that she got off a stop early and took his arm to help him; and being Alice Munro, she admits that she did so with some awareness of her own kindness in the matter. And just as she was about to help the poor shuffling old man across the road, he pulled back his head, looked her in the eye, and said, “You know what’s the matter with your work, don’t you?” – and proceeded to tell her. He was a fine, feisty fellow.
The last time I saw him was on a cold October day in Calgary.
Opposite his house, in the park where we had once walked and talked about plot twists, the last cottonwood leaves were falling. Inside the house, a hospital bed was set up in the family room, where he received 24-hour-a-day care. Merna, Orm and Barbara had warned me that the morphine produced good days and bad days, but this was a good day, so he would recognize me.
To cover my predicted dismay at his appearance, I had prepared an opening joke: I praised Merna’s gallant reading of one of his stories at the previous night’s tribute, suggesting that all these years we had had the wrong member of the Mitchell family performing his work in public. He snorted at that, and we were briefly back to the affectionate insults that marked our relationship. He complained at one point, however, that the drugs were taking away his memory.
There was not much to say in response.
But like a great comedian, he had prepared his punch line. When I announced that it was time for me to go, the others tactfully disappeared. I stood by his bed saying my goodbyes, trying to tell him how much he had meant to me, and not doing a good job of it. Merna returned to say, “Bill, he really has to go now, the taxi’s here.” A few more words from me, then he turned, looked me in the eye, put out a hand to shake, and said, “Well … goodbye, Jimmy.”
To add to the portrait of the sportive Mavis, I should add that she has dropped tantalizing hints about her love of horse racing (I can imagine her, among the jockeys, in the background of a Degas racing scene at Longchamp) and her skillful betting on the sport of kings.
Peter Gzowski had the bright idea of inviting Mavis to watch the horses at Woodbine (naturally, she also spotted what was going on in his romantic life) during her time as Writer in Residence at Massey College in the University of Toronto in 1983-84. Her teaching time was not a total success, in that she did not (and does not) believe that writing can be taught. Her lessons, she claims, consisted of getting students to read good authors like Nabokov and E.M. Forster, and encouraging them to get on with writing.
Her spell in Toronto, however, allowed me to spend more time with her and to see how she terrified people. Even in the Gibson household, she took on the role of one of Bertie Wooster’s fierce aunts, teaching 14-year-old Katie Gibson the correct way to answer a telephone, for example, which Katie has never forgotten.
His success around the world has not, of course, changed Alistair one little bit. He is perhaps the most grounded man I know.
* * * * *
As soon as he appears on a platform to read (which he does far too often, in the eyes of an editor desperate to get him writing again), everyone in the room realizes that this not-completely-comfortable man is, above all, authentic, with no false airs. Humour and laughter, yes, to be sure, and solemnity when appropriate, but nothing false.
And when, after much throat-clearing, this shy man begins to read in what Elizabeth Waterston shrewdly calls an “incantatory” way, you realize – along with neighbours who have never heard the words “oral tradition” – that you are in the presence of a great artist.
It is true that “All of us are better when we’re loved.” What is also true – and people seem to sense this – is that all of us are better for being in Alistair MacLeod’s presence. Even a phone conversation with him will leave me feeling that the world is a better place, after he has talked about his family, and I have told him about the latest deeds of my tiny grandchildren, Lindsay and Alistair.
Excerpted from the book Stories About Storytellers: Publishing Alice Munro, Robertson Davies, Alistair MacLeod, Pierre Trudeau, and Others.
By Douglas Gibson with illustrations by Anthony Jenkins. Copyright © Douglas Gibson, 2011. Published by ECW Press.