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The Lamp in the Mausoleum

In the imagination of most Americans, Canada is a blur. It contains a lot of pine trees, moose, and Mounties; its population is relatively small, its politics relatively polite. Canadians are honest and serious but slightly dull. Some of us may pity or scorn them for not having joined the revolution of 1776: in this view, they are like the goody-goody siblings who never rebelled against their parents.

On the other hand, we also admit Canada’s virtues, including a working national health care system, the acceptance of draft protesters during the Vietnam War, and the possession of many of the most brilliant and original writers in North America. It has sometimes taken us a while to notice these writers, of course. Alice Munro, for instance, had published three brilliant and strikingly original collections of stories and won the Governor General’s Prize before her work first appeared here in The New Yorker. It is only recently that she has been recognized as one of the world’s greatest short story writers.1

It is perhaps not only Munro’s Canadian origin that has delayed this recognition. Her stories also avoid the subjects that today most often guarantee popular success in America: money, fame, power, and the exploitation of dramatic news events. In her fiction, history usually takes place offstage, and is accepted like other acts of God: fire, flood, crop failure, the loss of family and friends in accidents and foreign wars. Moreover, most of her characters are not rich and glamorous: they are ordinary working-class men and—especially—women, the sort of people that much popular fiction pretends do not exist. If they were criminals or victims, their stories might have greater appeal—but nothing very dramatic usually happens to them. There are violent acts in Munro’s fiction, including murder and rape, but they usually take place offstage.

According to Alice Munro’s biographer, Robert Thacker, the source of her literary power is grounded in a deep family connection to southwest Ontario, where she was born in 1931 to a farmer called Robert Laidlaw and his wife Anne. The family lived in rural Huron County on the wrong side of a small town called Wingham—photographs of four of its depressing public buildings are included in Thacker’s lavishly illustrated biography, as well as a shot of Munro’s rather bleak childhood home.

Alice Munro: Writing Her Lives is a thoughtful, carefully researched biography. It is very good on the relationship between Munro’s work and its sources; and exhaustive—sometimes exhausting—in its account of her publication history, her dealings with editors and agents, and the reviews and awards she has received. Thacker is also admirably discreet about Munro’s private life and rarely speculates on her motives or feelings. He has worked hard to identify the places, people, and events that may have suggested her stories. From a scholarly point of view this is interesting, but it is not the main point. We remember Emma Bovary, Sherlock Holmes, and Huckleberry Finn, not the actual persons on whom they have been discovered to have been based. In the same way, the characters Alice Munro has created will always be larger than their possible originals.

Munro’s late flowering as an author, for Robert Thacker, is largely the result of her return to Ontario in 1973 after the breakup of her first marriage and over twenty years of “exile” in British Columbia. Until then, he feels, she was “stymied by her own circumstances and mostly unable to write.” It is true that the work for which Munro is now most famous was composed after she moved back east, but before she did she had published four fine books, including Lives of Girls and Women and Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You. Many of her early stories, however, take place in small towns and on farms in what is clearly southern Ontario. They are not literally true, but as Munro has said, “There is always a starting point in reality.” “It is not too much to say,” she wrote earlier, to the editor of Lives of Girls and Women, “that every block in that town has some sort of emotional atmosphere for me, and from the pressure of this atmosphere came at last the fictional place Jubilee.”

One of Alice Munro’s great achievements has been to look with care and concern at her chosen world, and at what some readers would consider uninteresting persons: a sulky little girl, a small-town elementary school teacher, a retired salesman of farm chemicals. Munro takes these people seriously. As she says in the epilogue to Lives of Girls and Women, “People’s lives, in Jubilee as elsewhere, were dull, simple, amazing and unfathomable—deep caves paved with kitchen linoleum.”

Huron County, according to Thacker, “was populated mostly by people for whom virtue came from hard work… who were quick to remember a slight but would seldom recall a compliment.” In Alice Munro’s world, physical labor is a test of worth. As a young woman she weeded tobacco and worked as a waitress and a live-in maid. In her early childhood the family was marginally secure: her father raised mink and silver foxes, with over two hundred animals at a time in pens on the property. They had horses, a cow, sheep, chickens, and a big vegetable garden, but they had no electricity, running water, or indoor plumbing until Alice Munro was in her early teens. As she writes in an early semi-autobiographical story, “The Ottawa Valley,” “It was a poor man’s house, always, with the stairs going up between the walls.” The house was heated with sawdust, “which was the cheapest fuel you could buy. A horrible smell, but it was cheaper than wood, so we did that. I never had a boughten dress.”

During World War II the fur farm business gradually failed. Munro’s father tried raising turkeys, but this did not pay as well, and he had to take a job as a night watchman in a foundry. At the same time his wife was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, and became slowly incapacitated. From the age of twelve on Alice Munro did more and more of the housework and farm labor; she was often unable to visit friends or go to parties because of her obligations at home, and did not date boys.

When she was a high school senior, Munro won a two-year scholarship to the University of Western Ontario, but after that there was no money for her to continue. As she told an interviewer later, “I could either stay in Wingham or get married.” She chose the second alternative: at the end of 1951, aged twenty, she married her first boyfriend, a well-to-do young man called Jim Munro who already had a job in a department store in British Columbia. Over the next fifteen years, they had three daughters. Alice Munro kept house, looked after the children, worked in the bookstore her husband founded in Victoria, and tried to write.

By the mid-1970s the marriage was over, and Munro had moved back to Ontario with the children. Not long after this, she began living with and later married the geographer Gerry Fremlin. Like her, he was born on a farm in western Ontario and, according to her biographer, shared her deep interest in Huron County.

A more personal version of Alice Munro’s history has been provided by her daughter Sheila. In Lives of Mothers and Daughters: Growing Up with Alice Munro, Anne Laidlaw (Munro’s mother) appears as a frustrated former schoolteacher who desperately wanted to join the middle class, but failed, and gradually became embittered by her long illness. She had a “violent, almost pathological hatred of sex” and “believed that the only way a woman could have her own life, her own autonomy, was to reject sex completely. Giving in to desire meant sacrificing your self and all your prospects.” (Alice Munro’s fiction sometimes suggests that marriage is a trap for women; but unlike her mother she recognizes and celebrates the sudden, irrational power of passion. In her stories a look or a touch from a near stranger can sometimes make a woman or girl forget everything else.) Sheila Munro sees her mother’s father, Robert Laidlaw, as an intelligent and thoughtful but frustrated man who was overworked all his life and overwhelmed by his wife’s illness. But he managed to read books, and in the last year of his life he wrote a historical novel, The McGregors, based on the experiences of his Scottish immigrant ancestors. (It was published in 1979, three years after his death.)

In her memoir Sheila Munro contrasts her own upbringing with that of her mother, pointing out both its disadvantages and its advantages:

My mother’s poor background shielded her from the cult of femininity that was so ingrained in middle-class popular culture…. She never bought into the…ideas about women being naturally submissive, dependent beings who must sublimate their own ambitions into those of husband and children….

Sheila Munro reports that though she had a happy childhood, her mother found British Columbia oppressive. She disliked the large and impressive house her husband bought for her:

…She always had a strange feeling about the dense bushes and shrubs around the house and the Douglas-fir trees looming behind it, as if the forest were pressing on her. It was a very unfamiliar kind of landscape…after the wide-open spaces of rural Ontario, the brightness of snow-covered fields in winter. The bushes and trees seemed to have some kind of malevolent presence, as if something was lurking in them.

During this period Alice Munro had trouble finding time to work, and her stories were often rejected. Editors pressured her to write a novel, which she found impossible. Her daughter says that “after a time she stopped writing altogether” and developed an anxiety disorder that did not disappear until she left British Columbia.

According to Sheila Munro, her father and his family never quite accepted her mother’s origins:

There was an underlying rejection of [her] class and her background as something shameful. He corrected her Huron County accent and he treated the Wingham relatives who came to visit with scorn and even refused to speak to them on occasion.

Though she reports that she has always been close to her mother, Sheila Munro has found her fame difficult at times. “So unassailable is the truth of her fiction that sometimes I even feel as though I’m living inside an Alice Munro story,” she writes. She sees her mother as a kind of mystery figure:

She has spoken often of her art for dissembling, for concealment…. The appearance of being an ordinary wife and mother meant that people left her alone while she got on with her work.

At one point, Munro told her daughter that she “didn’t have a self.”2

Class has been an important theme in Alice Munro’s work, and her take on it often seems Canadian rather than American. In American fiction, wealth usually trumps origin: the important distinction is between those who have a lot of money and those who don’t: Edith Wharton’s Lily Bart is well born, but she is scorned by wealthy vulgarians; Fitzgerald’s Daisy Buchanan admires Gatsby once he has become very rich, rather than looking down on him. Here the self-made man or woman is respected, while those who have failed professionally and economically in spite of an expensive upbringing get little esteem no matter how refined their manners or exclusive their education. Rather they are condemned because even with a head start they have come to nothing. Canada, however, seems to be more like Britain in valuing the outward signs of an upper-class origin even in the unsuccessful, while recognizing and resenting upper-class prejudices.

  1. 1

    For example by Lorrie Moore in these pages. See The New York Review, January 17, 2002.

  2. 2

    This may seem an odd remark for a brilliant and distinctive writer, but Anthony Powell, whose low-key prose and inspired recreation of specific places and times in the past has something in common with Munro’s work, once said exactly the same thing to me.

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