Not long ago, I was discussing, with a college literature class, the connection between reading literature and pleasure: the way that connection is forged in childhood and then all too frequently is broken by an educational system that – unintentionally, even necessarily – transforms an enjoyable activity into a source of stress and obligation. That part was easy; my students instantly understood what I meant. The more difficult challenge was describing exactly what great literature is, and what the pleasure of reading it involves. The chance to enter into the mind of an author, I said. The opportunity to travel through time and cross continents without leaving one's chair. The ability to experience the beauty of language when it is used with precision, accuracy and grace. It all sounded a little formulaic, a little flat, and ultimately I wound up quoting U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's often-cited definition of pornography: I know it when I see it.
Alice Munro's new collection, Dear Life, proves yet again that she is a very great writer indeed, and that to enter the world of her fiction is an immensely pleasurable experience. Beginning the first story, To Reach Japan, we watch a woman and her small daughter boarding a train; her husband remains on the station platform, seeing them off, smiling and waving. The language could hardly be simpler, more straightforward or less dramatic. "Once Peter had brought her suitcase on board the train he seemed eager to get himself out of the way. But not to leave. He explained to her that he was just uneasy that the train should start to move." Yet the calm authority of the writing, and the way in which the slightly anxious, conventional character of the husband is conveyed in just a few words, makes us feel as if we too are starting out on a slightly perilous journey.
We intuit that we are about to be a told a story in which something life-changing will occur. With the subtlest of touches – the "determination" of the husband's smile, the suggestion that any mention of that determination would have been dismissed as ridiculous, since "it was unnatural for people who saw each other daily, constantly, to have to go through explanations of any kind" – we are made to realize that the marriage is on shakier ground than either the wife or her husband yet understand. And we read on, holding our breath, eager to see how soon, and in what way, that unsteady ground will give way beneath them.
Most of the stories in Dear Life could be called love stories, which is only to say that love – romantic, familial, often "inappropriate" – is one of the engines that drive the plots. Though many of them take place in what her publishers call "Alice Munro country" – rural or small-town Ontario, places in which the community and the past weigh heavily on the individual and the present – each is very different from the others; to paraphrase Tolstoy, every unhappy love story is unhappy in its own way.
Alice Munro has always been the poet of the unexpected passion that comes seemingly out nowhere and changes a character's life. She understands that love can begin and end for mysterious reasons – as a consequence of chance, proximity, loneliness, curiosity – or of something even less tangible. In Amundsen, a young teacher at a rural tuberculosis sanitarium falls unwisely in love with the hospital doctor. In Corrie, a crippled woman discovers a disturbing secret about her married lover. In Leaving Maverley, a happily married policeman finds himself attracted to the shy girl he has been enlisted to walk home from her job at a movie theatre.
One advantage to having had a long career, as has Alice Munro (she has published more than a dozen books and been awarded three Governor-General's Awards, two Giller Prizes and the Man Booker International Prize for Lifetime Achievement), is that she has lived through a series of rather drastic cultural and historical shifts. And she has often written about the moments when these seismic social changes destabilize her characters' most basic assumptions.
In Gravel, a woman's decision to leave her husband for a man she meets in the local theatrical group is signalled by a telltale alteration in her fashion sense: "She'd begun to dress like an actress too, in shawls and long skirts and dangling necklaces. She'd let her hair go wild and stopped wearing makeup." Haven is set in a country town, to which a 13-year-old girl goes to stay with her conservative uncle and aunt while her own more progressive parents travel in Africa, and where, she discovers, the radical effects of the 1970s have been slower to make themselves felt. "In that town and other small towns like it, the seventies were not as we picture them now, or as I had known them even in Vancouver. The boys' hair was longer than it had been, but not straggling down their backs, and there didn't seem to be an unusual amount of liberation or defiance in the air."
Many of the changes that these stories track have to do with religion – not so much with belief as with the mores and manners of country church-going; skeptical freethinkers are often thrown into contact with the members of traditional congregations and with people who have been raised in sects, or in what one character terms "freak religions."
The last section of the book, which contains four brief sections of memoir, represents a departure for Munro. "They form a separate unit," she tells us, "one that is autobiographical in feeling, though not, sometimes, entirely so in fact." Dear Life, a complex and beautiful portrait of Munro's mother, culminates in a terrifying visit from a crazy woman, a neighbour who comes to call, armed with a hatchet. In Night, Munro recalls the late-night walks she took as a child, wanderings inspired by the fear that she would murder her younger sister as she lay asleep in bed.
It is the highest compliment to say these autobiographical segments seem very much like Alice Munro stories: understated, intense, resonant, nuanced and profound. She is, and has been for decades, one of our most important writers, one whose work represents all the most essential and pleasurable aspects of literature, and which reminds us of what great literature is: You know it when you see it.
U.S. writer Francine Prose has written many volumes of fiction, including three short-story collections, and non-fiction. She is the president of PEN American Center and a visiting professor of literature at Bard College.