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for Books and Writers
by Bamber Gascoigne

Alice Munro (b. 1931)


Canadian short story writer and novelist, who received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2013. Alice Munro has been characterized as a Canadian Chekhov, though her characters are not Chekhovian in the sense that they were passive and powerless to change their lives. Munro describes sensitively the lifestyles, customs, and values of ordinary people, often revealing in the process hidden meanings and personal tragedies. Many of her stories deal with the lives of women, but her stance is not explicitly feminist.

"The street is shaded, is some places, by maple trees whose roots have cracked and heaved the sidewalk and spread out like crocodiles into the bare yards. People are sitting out, men in shirt-sleeves and undershirts and women in aprons - not people we know but if anybody looks ready to nod and say, "Warm night," my father will nod and say something the same." (from 'Walker Brothers Cowboy,' in Dance of the Happy Shades, 1968, p. 1)

Alice Munro was born Alice Laidlaw in Wingham, Ontario, where she grew up on a farm with her sister and brother. Her ancestors – the Scots Presbyterian Laidlaws and the Irish Anglican Chamneys – had arrived in Upper Canada after the end of the Napoleonic wars. Among the Laidlaw relatives left behind in Scotland was the poet and prose writer James Hogg (1770-1835), a friend of Byron, Wordsworth, and Southey. Before taking up farming, Munro's father, Robert Eric Laidlaw, had raised foxes and minks and worked as a watch-man. Anne Clarke Laidlaw (née Chamney), Munro's mother, had been a teacher. She suffered from Parkinson's disease and died in 1959. Robert Laidlaw died in 1976; his novel The McGregors: a Novel of an Ontaria Pioneer Family, came out posthumously.

Munro was expected to continue the farming business, but when she was 12, she decided to become a writer – "my oddity just shone out of me," she once said. Munro read Lucy Maud Montgomery for the first time when she was nine or then years old; especially Emily of the New Moon (1923) had a strong emotional effect on her. In her early teens, she found Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights (1847). "I think I probably read it thereafter constantly for four or five years. I was really reading it all the time." (The Cambridge Companion to Alice Munro, edited by David Staines, 2016, p. 11)

At school Munro was a good student. She attended Lower Town School Wingham (1937-9), Wingham Public School (1939-44), and Wingham and District High School, graduating in 1949. After winning a scholarship to the University of Western Ontario, she first studied journalism, and then changed her major to English. In 1951 she married a fellow student, James Munro, and settled with him in Vancouver, British Columbia. In the early 1960s, the family moved to Victoria, where Munro founded with her husband a successful bookstore.

"I never intended to be a short-story writer," Munro once said. 'The Dimensions of a Shadow' (1950), Munro's first story, came out in the April 1950 issue of Folio, the university's undergraduate literary magazine. The CBSB bought and broadcast 'The Strangers' in October 1951. Her early fiction appeared in such magazines as Mayfair, the Canadian Forum, Queen's Quarterly, Chatelaine, and the Tamarack Review, but it was not until 1968, when her stories were collected in book form and published under the title Dance of the Happy Shades by Ryerson Press. The book was awarded Canada's prestigious Governor General's Award. Several of the stories drew on Munro's own childhood experience. "The short story is alive and well in Canada," said the writer and critic Martin Levin, "where most of the 15 tales originate like a fresh winds from the North." (The New York Times, September 23, 1973)

Lives of Girls and Women: A Novel (1971), Munro's second book, was a cycle of interlocked stories about the childhood of a young woman, Del Jordan, who is beginning her journey into literature. To write the book, dedicated to Jim, Munro converted her laundry room into a place of her own, in which she could work undisturbed.

The portrait of the artist as a young girl gained international attention and was also made in 1996 into a television movie, starring Tanya Allen. Munro's daughter Sheila has recognized much of herself in the character of Del Jordan. In her book of memoir, Lives of Mothers & Daughters: Growing Up with Alice Munro (2001), she said: "So much of what I think I know  . . . is refracted through the prism of her writing. So unassailable is the truth of her fiction that sometimes I feel as though I'm living inside an Alice Munro story." (Ibid., p. 11)

Munro marriage broke down in 1972. She returned to southern Ontario, and married Gerald Fremlin, a geographer, whom she had known as a student.  They moved into a white frame house, with nasturtiums, raspberry canes, a birdbath, and trees in the backyard. Referring to Flaubert she once said, "Live an orderly way like a bourgeois so that you can be violent and original in your work." Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You from 1974 collected together pieces published in magazines such as the New Yorker, Viva and Redbook. The author was first unhappy with the book, and pulled it from the presses for restructuring. In Britain it was published as a novel. Munro's third collection, however, contains some of her finest stories, including 'Wild Swans,' 'Mischief,' and 'Simon's Luck.' Also in Who Do You Think You Are? (1978), which followed the lives of two women, Rose and Flo, her stepmother, the tales were interlinked. Rose leaves the small town of Hanratty in Ontario, marries well, and becomes a successful television actress, but eventually she returns to take care of Flo, who has always been comfortable with her place in the world.

From the beginning, Munro has been true to her own literary style and voice. The prose is down to earth, but though on a surface level Munro relays on reality-based facts, and draws bits of her stories from experiences of her own or others, her writing has the depth of psychoanalytic understanding of the mind: defence mechanisms prevent her charcters from having an accurate perception of the world, traumatic experiences affect thoughts and behavior patterns,dreams reveal hidden truths. As the narrative unfolds, the seemingly ordinary characters turn out to be quite different than expected.

"Alice Munro has a strong claim to being the best fiction writer now working in North America," said Jonathan Franzen in his review of Munro's Runaway (2004), "but outside Canada, where her books are No. 1 best sellers, she has never had a large readership." ('Runaway': Alice's Wonderland,' The New York Times, 14.11.2004) Generally Munro's stories are set in small towns in southern Ontario and British Columbia. It is the landscape she loves and has meaning to her, but for a long time her home town had a predominantly negative attitude towards her literary vocation. The local newspaper Wingham Advance Times published an editorial calling her a "warped personality."  (The Cambridge Companion to Alice Munro, edited by David Staines, 2016, p. 8) Along with Munro's growing success criticism changed into appreciation, and in 2002 the town opened the Alice Munro Literary Garden.

Munro's style has been described as beautifully transparent; it is unsentimental and detailed as in a photograph, much is left unsaid, but at the same time the undercurrents are oddly poignant and disturbing. The past is always present in the here and now. "The complexity of things -- the things within things -- just seems to be endless," Munro has said. "I mean nothing is easy, nothing is simple." As a rule, Munro's characters are people we meet every day, but their choices are not obvious. Sometimes a small incident changes the course of their lives, gives it a new perspective, or provides a key piece to the story.

Munro has received the Governor General's Award for Fiction three times. The short film adaptation of her story 'Boys and Girls' won an Oscar in 1984. Munro received in 1990 the Canada Council Molson Prize for lifetime contributions to her country's cultural life. In 2009, she won the £60,000 Man Booker International prize. After winning the Trillium Book Award (2013), Munro told in an interview that she's probably not going to write anymore.

For further reading: Probable Fictions: Alice Munro's Narrative Acts, ed. by Louis K. Mackendrick ( 1981); Controlling the Uncontrollable: The Fiction of Alice Munro by Ildiko De Papp Carrington (1989); Dance of the Sexes: Art and Gender in the Fiction of Alice Munro by Beverly Rasporich (1990); Alice Munro: A Double Life by Catherine Ross (1992); The Tumble of Reason: Alice Munro's Discourse of Absence by Ajay Heble (1994); The Influence of Painting on Five Canadian Writers by John Cooke (1996); Alice Munro by Coral Ann Howells (1998); The Rest of the Story: Critical Essays on Alice Munro, ed. by Robert Thacker (1999); Lives of Mothers and Daughters: Growing up With Alice Munro by Sheila Munro (2001); Reading in: Alice Munro's Archives by Joann McCaig (2002); Alice Munro: Writing Her Lives: A Biography by Robert Thacker (2005); Alice Munro's Narrative Art by Isla Duncan (2011); Reading Alice Munro, 1973-2013 by Robert Thacker (2016); The Cambridge Companion to Alice Munro, edited by David Staines (2016); Alice Munro Everlasting: Essays on Her Works I-II, edited by J.R. (Tim) Struthers (2020); New Realism in Alice Munro's Fiction by Li-Ping Geng (2022)  

Selected works:

  • Dance of the Happy Shades: Stories by Alice Munro, 1968 (foreword by Hugh Garner)
  • Lives of Girls and Women: A Novel, 1971
    - TV  movie 1996, directed by Ronald Wilson, starring Tanya  Allen (Del Jordan), Wendy Crewson, Peter MacNeill, Amos Crawley, Dean McDermott, Liisa Repo-Martell
  • Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You, 1974
  • Who Do You Think You Are?: Stories, 1978 (UK and US The Beggar Maid: Stories of Flo and Rose, 1979)
    - Kerjäläistyttö: tarinoita Flosta ja Rosesta (suom. Kristiina Rikman, 1985)
  • The Moons of Jupiter: Stories, 1982
  • The Progress of Love, 1986
    - Valkoinen tunkio: kertomuksia (suom. Kristiina Rikman, 1987)
  • Friend of My Youth: Stories, 1990
    - Nuoruudenystävä (suom. Kristiina Rikman, 2015)
  • Open Secrets, 1994
    - Julkisia salaisuuksia: kertomuksia (suom. Kristiina Rikman, 1995)
    - film: Edge of Madness (2002), dir. by Anne Wheeler, starring Brendan Fehr, Caroline Dhavernas, and Corey Sevier, based on the story 'A Wilderness Station'
  • Selected Stories, 1996
  • The Love of a Good Woman: Stories, 1998
    - Hyvän naisen rakkaus: kertomuksia (suom. Kristiina Rikman, 2000)
  • Queenie: A Story, 1999
  • Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage: Stories, 2001
    - Viha, ystävyys, rakkaus: kertomuksia (suom. Kristiina Rikman, 2002)
    - films: Away From Her (2006), dir. by Sarah Polley, starring Julie Christie, Gordon Pinset, Michael Murphy, based on the story 'The Bear Came Over the Mountain'; Hateship, Loveship (2013), dir. by Liza Johnson, starring Kristen Wiig,  Guy Pearce,  Hailee Steinfeld, based on the story 'Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage' 
  • Vintage Munro, 2004
  • Runaway: Stories, 2004
    - Karkulainen (suom. Kristiina Rikman, 2005)
    - film: Julieta (2016), dir. by Pedro Almodóvar, starring Emma Suárez, Adriana Ugarte, Daniel Grao, Inma Cuesta, based on the stories 'Chance', 'Soon', and 'Silence'
  • Carried Away: A Selection of Stories, 2006 (with an introduction by Margaret Atwood)
  • The View from the Castle Rock: Stories, 2006
    - Sanansaattaja: kertomuksia (suom. Kristiina Rikman, 2008)
  • Away from Her, 2007  (preface by Sarah Polley)
  • Too Much Happiness: Stories, 2009
    - Liian paljon onnea (suom. Kristiina Rikman, 2010)
  • New Selected Stories, 2011
  • Dear Life: Stories, 2012
  • Vintage Munro, 2014
  • Family Furnishings: Selected Stories, 1995-2014, 2014 (foreword by Jane Smiley)
  • Julieta, 2016

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