Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Thinking about Alice

I can remember the first time I heard the name Alice Munro.

It was 1980, and we (my partner, our two-year-old and me) had spent a week driving through British Columbia to Banff. We'd skipped stones on enormous glassy lakes surrounded by fir trees, eaten at diners where there were pick-ups with guns and dead deer in the back, stayed in strange little cabins, given a lift to a hitch-hiker who told us about bears, and stopped off at a little town covered in deep snow where we bought a little soapstone carving of a beaver.

Almost back to Vancouver again, afternoon sunshine coming through the windows, the radio had a story about this Canadian writer. I knew at once (it was falling in love at first mention) that I would love her writing, and after dropping off our hire car (our 'little red sporty car', the newest car we'd ever driven) I walked into the first likely-looking bookshop (smallish, independent) and asked if they had any books by Alice Munro.

---Ah, our Alice, said the assistant.

 I bought all the titles they had and posted them home, later buying others when we went to the UK.

My favourite is The Beggar Maid (and see how worn, how well-thumbed, how faded it has become.)

From a page taken at random:

She grew tired, irritable, sleepless. She tried to think admiringly of Patrick. His lean, fair-skinned face was really very handsome. He must know a number of things. He graded papers, presided at examinations, he was finishing his thesis. There was a small of pipe tobacco and rough wool about him, that she liked. He was twenty-four. No other girl she knew, who had a boyfriend, had one as old as that.

Then without warning she thought of him saying, "I suppose I don't seem very manly." She thought of him saying, "Do you love me? Do you really love me?" He would look at her in a scared and threatening way. Then when she said yes he said how lucky he was, how lucky they were, he mentioned friends of his and their girls, comparing their love affairs unfavourably to his and Rose's. Rose would shiver with irritation and misery. She was sick of herself as much as him, she was sick of the picture they made at this moment, walking across a snowy downtown park, her bare hand snuggled in Patrick's, in his pocket. Some outrageous and cruel things were being shouted, inside her. She had to do something, to keep them from getting out. She started tickling and teasing him.
Rose comes from a small town; she's a scholarship girl. Patrick is rich and snobbish. They marry. It doesn't last.

I'm seldom try to analyse why I like particular writing; I simply like to read and absorb.

But to attempt to explain my lasting love for Alice Munro:

No one writes about women like she does, with such tight, interesting, honest writing. There is not one boring sentence. She writes about people in small towns, people who clean motels or farm, or make jam - as well as about academics and women who often have an artistic bent. You come away feeling that all lives are interesting, all people important. (There are no dull people, only dull writing.) And like all my favourite people, she is often funny.

I don't think I've mentioned that she writes short stories, not novels, but you probably know that. The Beggar Maid is a series of linked stores, about Rose, and her stepmother Flo.

Each of her stories has extraordinary depth. She builds the story like someone constructing an arch, with blocks of narrative going back and forth in time. Right at the end there is often the brick in the centre of the arch - the telling scene or detail - that holds the whole thing together and makes it work.

I think that perhaps, when I started writing a few years after discovering her, her example gave me the courage to write about the people in the small towns and rural places where I live.

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