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Not Quite Stories—Alice Munro’s Almost Autobiography

LAST WEEK, Salon reported that Philip Roth is retiring from writing fiction by translating an interview from a French magazine. Roth’s publisher confirmed the author’s statement, but if they had not, it would not have been the first time that an author sighed loudly, expressed ennui, and led his attentive fans astray.

On June 20 2006, the Winnipeg Free Press announced: “Literary Icon Alice Munro Expected to Retire Tonight.” The newspaper had taken note of an essay Munro had written for PEN Canada—titled “Writing Or, Giving Up Writing”—and it had assumed that the organization’s gala would provide a venue to announce her retirement. At the conclusion of her speech, Munro addressed the matter: “I wrote this essay about six months ago. At the time, I thought it to be true.” Such false alarms are not unprecedented for Munro. As her long-time agent, Virginia Barber, put it: “nearly every time Alice completes a book she opines that it will be her last. She used up all of her materials; she has nothing to say.” It’s a familiar pattern to any writer: the well runs dry until it doesn’t.

Despite her periodic fatigue, Munro’s well runs prolifically. Since the book that was “supposed” to be her last, The View From Castle Rock (2006), Munro has produced two more collections, Too Much Happiness (2009) and now, Dear Life; in total, she has published 14 sizeable books. But if reports of her retirement have been greatly exaggerated, the fact of her age remains. Munro is 81, and her health is fragile. Recently, she cancelled a rare public appearance; her editor stated that she was too frail for the event. Critical assessment can become adjective-laden hyperventilation when reviewers approach Alice Munro. At the prospect of her ill health, I will just say: I hope she lives and writes for many more years. In Dear Life, she shows no sign of running out of material nor any sloppiness toward the form she has so gracefully deployed for almost half a century. The book is more, however, than just the latest evidence of her excellence. Munro offers something striking in Dear Life: a distinct turn to autobiography and a revealing window into the workings of her mind.

For much of her career, Munro has stubbornly established the distance between her experience and her stories. “Some of these stories are closer to my own life than others are,” she wrote in the introduction to The Moons of Jupiter (1985), “but not one of them is as close as people seem to think.” She has held back some of her most personal work from her book-length collections, including: “Home” (1974), which depicts her father and stepmother; “Working for a Living” (1981), a memoir about her father; and “What Do You Want to Know For?” (1994), another story about her father. Munro, according to her biographer, did not think that they fit “the collection then at hand.” (Much has been written about Munro’s mastery of the short story, and probably too little about her craft of the short story collection.) When she finally included these three stories in The View From Castle Rock, she acknowledged that this “special set of stories” was “closer to my own life than the other stories I had written.” But she retained an adamant assertion: “These are stories.” The emphasis is hers, the single sentence comprising its own defiant paragraph.

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In Dear Life, Munro has altered her stance. “The final four works in this book,” she writes in the brief foreword to what she calls the “Finale,” “are not quite stories.” Given the assertive deflection that Munro has until now brandished, this is—to borrow her adjective—quite a concession. “I believe they are the first and last—and the closest—things I have to say about my own life.”

But if you want to know the basic contours of Munro’s life, I would not suggest this volume. These stories are brief and direct—less structurally complex than famous earlier work like “Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage” or “The Beggar Maid.” But more relevant to the matter of Munro’s biography, the stories that make up this final section contain more mystery than fact. Yes, there are broad strokes of the “times have changed” variety: “Suffering meant something different in those days”; “After dinner, which was the noon meal …”; “Did more appendixes have to be taken out then? … as I remember it was a kind of rite.” But the “not quite stories” are more like meditations on memory and analyses of the act of storytelling than biographical sketches. Reading these stories will tell you something about Alice Munro’s life, but it will tell you more about Alice Munro’s mind—and, not entirely surprisingly, this proves to be even more compelling.

In “The Eye,” for instance, the story that opens this final section, the recollection of a wake becomes an occasion to explain how a young mind crystallizes surreal experiences and the adult mind dismantles them. A young Alice is brought to view the body of her dead babysitter, who was hit by a car as she walked home from a dance. Looking at the babysitter, she sees—or thinks she sees—the dead girl move her eyelid. Before Alice hits her teens, she does not interrogate this recollection: “I just believed it easily, the way you might believe and in fact remember that you once had another set of teeth, now vanished but real in spite of that.” But the memory does not keep: eventually, she knows “with a dim sort of hole in my insides that now I didn’t believe it anymore.” This is vintage Munro, making elusive sensation concrete without draining it of mystery: childhood belief and its disassembly are the tiny, hard nuggets of lost baby teeth and a hollowness that can not be filled.

“Voices,” is similarly more like a chapter from a meta-bio of Munro’s mind than a straightforward scene from her childhood. In this story, the mother of the ten-year-old protagonist takes her daughter to a dance where they encounter a local prostitute. The mother is flustered; they plan to depart, but before they do, the girl must climb over a crying girl sitting on the stairs in order to retrieve her coat. The girl is being comforted by two soldiers, and their lust-tinged attention leaves Alice with a sense of erotic potential that goes far beyond the garish lesson imparted by the prostitute’s appearance: “For I don’t know how long, I thought of [the soldiers]. … Their hands blessed my own skinny thighs and their voices assured me that I, too, was worthy of love.” Here, again, is Munro on memory—in this case, the way that the drama of obvious events can pale when quiet suffering on the periphery unexpectedly intrudes.

These stories are even more like essays on Munro’s intellect when she explicitly comments on the act of writing memoir versus fiction. The mother in “Voices” is awkward and affected: “She sounded as if she had grown up in some strange family who always talked that way. And she hadn’t. They didn’t.” But Munro displays a self-conscious twitch whenever she suspects that she may be taking this characterization too far. Her mother gives off an “ominous smell,” she writes, then questions: “Why do I say ominous? I didn’t feel frightened,” as though sheepish about the act of elaboration. “Am I sure that she said that—mouthwatering?” she wonders when trying to convey an overeager turn of phrase.

Fidelity to reality can impose its own problems. When truth is stranger than fiction, how should the writer preserve her subtlety? “If I was writing fiction instead of remembering something that happened,” Munro writes, in her description of the prostitute from “Voices,” “I would never have given her that dress. A kind of advertisement she didn’t need.” The prostitute wore “golden-orange taffeta”; Munro the fiction-writer would have had her in olive silk. In another story, the collective failings and misfortunes of her hapless father seem too woeful to be credible: “You would think that this was just too much. The business gone, my mother’s health going. It wouldn’t do in fiction.” Even when she is hewing close to personal history, she is conscious of the particular kind of truth required by fiction—perfect pitch and proportion, and perhaps less verisimilitude.

Munro, it seems, cannot escape the exacting demands of fiction. “Night,” a story Munro tells about her midnight urge to kill her sister—her eerie Gothic touch, slithering in—reads like a meditation on the origins of fiction. Lying in her bed, the young Alice cannot escape this morbid fantasy: “The more I chased the thought away, the more it came back. … It might be saying why not. Why not try the worst?” If one part of fiction-writing is attending to proportion and pitch, another is surely this: letting yourself consider the inconsiderable—the evil, terrifying, and heartbreaking. I cannot remember where I heard this piece of writing advice, but it has stuck with me: Think of the thing that scares you the most, then write about it.

Focusing on these last chapters does not do full service to Dear Life. Ten of the fourteen stories are not directly autobiographical, and these stories display Munro’s characteristic compression: complex plots and a charged emotional hit every thirty-odd pages. But if the majority of the book resembles her earlier non-autobiographical work, I cannot help but think that Munro has put a certain weight on the autobiographical portion. The protagonists of the three (non-memoir) stories that lead up to the “Finale” are, for most of the time, elderly; with this three-in-a-row line-up, it is as though she wants to set the stage for her truth-bound reminiscence. This emphasis is there in the adjectives of the foreword as well: these are the “last” and “closest” things she will write about herself.

If Dear Life is part of a kind of coda on her career, what message does it dispatch? First and foremost, it must be said, there is the unquestionable evidence of her unfaded abilities. Then, in the “Finale,” there is a unique autobiography told in snatches of a mind at work: Munro is a writer who cannot tell her life story without concern for the art of the story. For a writer of her ability, this seems a fitting mode. This autobiographical impulse is echoed in the wonderful double meaning of the title. Dear Life can read as the opening of a letter—a missive from the eighty-plus-year-old Alice Munro to the experiences that have made her who she is: Dear Life, I’m writing to tell you what I have to say. But it can also read as a description of her sensibility: life is dear, live every day with a dose of awe and a sense of the story.

Chloe Schama is the Executive Editor of  THE BOOK.