The prodigy who fades is an old story. But the prodigy who sets a high mark when young and then hits that mark, or exceeds it, over and over again, for a full lifespan, is truly remarkable, and worth celebrating.
Alice Munro of Clinton, Ont., wrote the marvellous short story Thanks for the Ride when she was 22, and included it in her first collection, Dance of the Happy Shades, which won the 1968 Governor-General’s Award for fiction. The review two weeks ago of her latest book, Dear Life, in the New York Times Book Review, began like this: “That Alice Munro, now 81, is one of the great short story writers not just of our time but of any time ought to go without saying by now.”
If anyone thinks writing at that level comes easy, they’re wrong. Ms. Munro has said she spends six to eight months on a story. To keep up that intensity of labour for six decades is an amazing feat. Wayne Gretzky scored 50 goals in 39 games when he was 20. Ms. Munro has done the literary equivalent, over and over again.
No wonder she declared in an essay in 2006 that she was giving up writing. “I do stop, for some strange notion of being ‘more normal,’ taking things easy,” she explained to the New Yorker 10 days ago. “Then some poking idea comes.” Oh, those poking ideas, bane of the writer’s existence.
Philip Roth of Newark, N.J., who wrote Goodbye Columbus at 26 and in his late 70s produced a well-received quartet of short novels known as Nemeses, has announced that he will write fiction no more. There is something terrible in this, as if he had just said he is ready to die. For a chunk of his career he kept to a brutal regimen of writing, seven or eight hours a day, usually standing, alone in his Connecticut farmhouse. Perhaps like Ms. Munro, he wonders if a “normal” life awaits.
It is not easy to believe he will stop. Herman Wouk, author of very good and very enjoyable 1950s novels The Caine Mutiny and Marjorie Morningstar, has just produced his latest at 97 – The Lawgiver. Our society celebrates youth, as it should. But for the writer who never rests, and for whom normal life cannot suffice, awe may be the only fitting response.