Alice Munro obituary

Few writers have possessed the short-story format as thoroughly as the Canadian author and Nobel laureate Alice Munro, who has died aged 92.

Although her early years as a writer were clouded by the feeling, partly the result of pressure from her publishers, that she should concentrate on producing a novel, she never embraced that genre.

Her one attempt, Lives of Girls and Women (1971), is more accurately described as a collection of interlinking tales. Throughout her career, she developed this method of cross-referencing stories and continuing themes and characters across a collection, most notably in The Beggar Maid (published in Canada as Who Do You Think You Are?), which was nominated for the Booker prize in 1980, and in the Juliet stories of the epiphanic collection Runaway (2004).

For Munro, short stories were the result of practical considerations, rather than choice. As Alice Laidlaw, she had won a scholarship to the University of Western Ontario, but left after two years to marry James Munro at the age of 20; she gave birth to her first child at 22 and later played an important role in running a bookstore in Victoria, British Columbia, with her husband.

Trying simultaneously to establish herself as a writer (she had her first story published in an undergraduate magazine in 1950 and sold a piece to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in 1951), she had no time for novel-writing. The short story it had to be.

Routinely likened to Chekhov and Guy de Maupassant, Munro was more radical than the comparison implies. AS Byatt, a longstanding admirer, described how reading Munro made her want to try short fiction herself. Munro stretched and challenged the genre. Not only does she consistently wrongfoot the reader, overturning our expectations of characters and their actions, but she melds several narrative strands together, bringing into one tale several plots.

Jakarta (from The Love of a Good Woman, 1998) is a good example of this method, which has prompted the frequent observation that Munro’s short stories are novels in miniature. Jakarta starts with Kath and Sonje on the beach with Kath’s baby, trying to avoid the disapproving eyes of a group of overly domesticated mothers they have nicknamed the Monicas. Kath and Sonje, in contrast, discuss DH Lawrence and their own lives; clearly these two independent-minded women want more from life than marriage and motherhood seem to offer.

This was familiar ground for Munro, who wrote extensively and sensitively of women’s sexual awakening, escape from dull and politically incompatible husbands, and excruciating separation from children.

The surprise of Jakarta comes when Munro moves forward in time to visit Sonje as she is now, widowed and about to sell her Oregon dance school. It is not Kath who drops in on her inspirational friend, but Kent, Kath’s long divorced and boorish husband, taking with him wife No 3. The story then turns back to cover Kath’s mental disentanglement from her marriage, as well as Sonje’s own travails.

Elsewhere, Munro’s narrative shocks lie in cunning juxtaposition and scandalous honesty. In Five Points (in Friend of My Youth, 1990), Maria, a lonely schoolgirl, bankrupts her immigrant family by using the profits from their shop to pay local boys for sexual favours. Her story is recounted by Neil, the “boyish man beginning to age”, with whom married Brenda has been enjoying an affair. As Neil recalls Maria, Brenda and he stumble into their first argument and their own relationship moves to another, more complex, level. The story recalls the brutal realism of Raymond Carver as much as the American gothic of Carson McCullers.

Like Five Points, the magnificent title story of Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage (2001) is an exercise in what could be termed Canadian gothic.

The apparently dull-witted heroine, Johanna Parry (“No beauty queen, ever”), appears for much of the story to be heading for tragedy. She leaves her position as a housekeeper, tricked into believing she has an offer of marriage by the malicious letter writing of two schoolgirls. But the force of her delusion, not to mention her personality, makes that marriage come about, and life with her husband, once a drunken bankrupt, a success.

At the close of the story it is Edith, one of the letter writers, who feels foolish and confused, and Johanna who has transcended expectations. Munro’s penultimate and bleakest work, Too Much Happiness (2009), sees characters facing infanticide, cancer and sexual perversion, with Munro working against anticipated outcomes in much the same way.

Munro said of her fiction: “There is always a starting point in reality.” Her own starting point was the town of Wingham, Huron County, Ontario, where she was born, to Anne (nee Chamney), a former schoolteacher, and Robert Laidlaw, a fox farmer. They are frequent presences in her stories, as is the town, which appears variously renamed as Jubilee, Dalgleish, Hanratty, Logan, Carstairs and Walley.

Much of her fiction is closely tied to the smalltown farming communities of the area with whom she identified (she once described herself as “educated to be a farmer’s wife”).

On her marriage to James in 1951, Munro moved away, first to Vancouver, but after her divorce in 1972 she returned to Ontario, eventually settling with her second husband, the geographer Gerald Fremlin, whom she married in 1976, in Clinton, only about 20 miles from Wingham.

The View from Castle Rock (2006) contains some of Munro’s most personal stories, drawing on pieces she had been working on for years about her family history. It is an account of the pioneers from whose stock she came (her ancestors, the Scottish Presbyterian Laidlaws and the Irish Anglican Chamneys, were among the first settlers in Upper Canada in the early 19th century). But it is also something of a love letter to Ontario, a record of disappearing towns and a disappearing way of life.

A writer’s writer, Munro reached international critical attention when her work began to feature in the New Yorker, from 1977, and she continued to be feted: her last work, Dear Life (2012), published when she was 81, was as strongly received as any other. Indeed, the near tragedy of the opening story, To Reach Japan, and the frank reflections on death and dementia in Dolly and In Sight of the Lake suggest a writer undiminished by age. But she shunned the literary limelight, claiming that she knew of her shortlisting for the Nobel, awarded in 2013, only the day before the prize was announced.

View image in fullscreen Alice Munro in Goderich, Ontario, in 2006. Photograph: Zuma Press, Inc/Alamy

The esteem in which she was held was evident in the genuine, warm response from writers around the world, including her compatriot Margaret Atwood, who described Munro’s win as a “magnificent occasion”. Munro’s own reaction was self-effacing. In a statement issued through her publishers, she said: “I am particularly glad that winning this award will please so many Canadians. I am happy too that this will bring more attention to Canadian writing.” She also noted that the prize was “a wonderful thing for the short story”.

Munro constantly distanced her life from her fiction. “Some of these stories are closer to my own life than others are, but not one of them is as close as people seem to think,” she wrote in the introduction to The Moons of Jupiter (1982).

It is easy to see why the two can become confused, however. Castle Rock reveals the roots of several of her fictions, such as A Wilderness Station (Open Secrets, 1994), which takes as its starting point the death of one of her ancestors, felled by a tree. Later she would describe the four final stories of Dear Life as “the closest things I have to say about my own life”. Interestingly, the focus of this raw quartet is childhood trauma and the mother figure. Her own mother died in 1959 after 20 years of Parkinson’s disease.

An interview with Alice Munro when she won the Nobel prize, in 2013

Munro’s approach to writing meant that any basis in reality was distorted in the long process of refining and rewriting her work (her manuscripts, she said, were long, loose screeds). Who Do You Think You Are? was pulled from the press at the author’s insistence (and her own expense) one month before publication, and half the book reorganised and rewritten.

Munro had constantly experimented with first- and third-person narratives during its creation, and worried whether the real focus of her writing was Rose (the subject of many stories) or another character, Janet. Her perfectionism paid off: like her first publication, Dance of the Happy Shades (1968), and The Progress of Love (1986), Who Do You Think You Are? won the governor general’s award for fiction in Canada. In 2009, unusually for a short story writer, she won the Man Booker International prize for her overall contribution to fiction.

Her sparkling intelligence, sly humour and sense of narrative marked her out as one of the outstanding authors of her generation. Her long service to the short story made Munro important, and this was recognised in reviews of Lying Under the Apple Tree (2011), a selection of her stories. Writers seldom really change the direction of a genre: she did.

Fremlin died in 2013. With her first husband she had four daughters, one of whom, Catherine, died shortly after birth. Munro is survived by her daughters Sheila, Jenny and Andrea.

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