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“I thought of you,” a friend called to say.
“When I heard the news about Alice Munro.”
A strange stirring went across my body. It was not elation, but something deeper; a sense of being known. For, if you can summarize me in one sentence, it would be to say that I am a devotee of Alice Munro.
Even though this devotion has been going on for thirty years, I have always thought of it as my little secret. For whenever I tell people that she is my favorite author, they always ask, “Who?” When I explain that she is a Canadian author of short stories about passionate, untraditional women, their faces go blanker, as if it could never be a worthy literary topic. Even after the announcement of this year’s Nobel Prize, I suspect most people do not know who Alice Munro is.
Without the New Yorker magazine, I, too, would never have become aware of the existence of Alice Munro. The first story of hers that the magazine published was titled “Royal Beatings,” about a girl’s complicated relationship with her stepmother. The decision to publish was controversial because never before had a story about what we now call “child abuse” appeared in its pages. “Royal Beatings” and “The Albanian Virgin” just about cover the range of Munro’s work. If I could ask one question of Alice Munro, it would be, “How did you conceive the tale of the Albanian Virgin?”
“Inimitable” is an adjective often used to describe writers. But it falls far short of Munro’s ability. Try as I may, I cannot explain the structure of her stories or why they work. They do not follow the usual arc teachers are always proselytizing about; nor are her characters particularly sympathetic. She breaks all the rules and still comes away with such astonishing creations that whole lifetimes are condensed into one of her stories.
If I close my eyes and think of Alice Munro, the one story that jumps into my mind is titled “The Jack Randa Hotel,” about a Canadian woman Gail whose lover leaves her to move to Australia with another woman. On a whim, Gail takes a plane Down Under, colors her hair, tracks her man to a street in Brisbane, and steals his mail. Posing as a distant relative, she begins to correspond with him. The reason I love the tale is because many women long to engage in adventures like this but never have the guts to do so. Or perhaps I like it because I did once follow my love Down Under.
What is astonishing about Munro is not only her technique but also her idiosyncratic characters. They don’t wait for their men to show up; they literally follow them to the ends of the earth. Even though her heroines have artistic interests, their zest for love dominates everything. What is astonishing is that in a subtly feminist way her women do get what they want, and more.
In a story titled “Simon’s Luck,” she describes a woman running away from the desperation of love. “She had driven all night until the sun came up behind her and she felt calm and clearheaded, as you do at such times. She went into the café and ordered coffee and fried eggs. She sat at the counter looking at the usual things there are behind café counters-the coffeepots and the bright, probably stale, pieces of lemon and raspberry pie, the thick glass dishes they put ice cream or Jell-O in. It was those dishes that told her of her changed state. She could not have said she found them shapely, or eloquent, without mis-stating the case. All she could have said was that she saw them in a way that wouldn’t be possible to a person in any stage of love. She felt their solidity with a convalescent gratitude whose weight settled comfortably into her brains and feet. She realized then that she had come into this café without the least far-fetched idea of Simon, so it seemed the world had stopped being a stage where she might meet him, and gone back to being itself.” Never have I seen a woman’s inner landscape painted as beautifully as in this passage. The story has stayed with me, partly because we discover at the end that Simon did not leave the narrator, but failed to show up for their rendezvous because he was dead.
Women all over the world should be shouting out Munro’s Nobel victory from the rooftops. Women writers are so underrated that it seems a miracle that an understated, un-hyped writer like Munro managed to win such a prestigious award. Her thumbnail sketches of complicated women often take my breath away. Take this passage from a story titled “Dulse.” “She had noticed something about herself on this trip to the Maritimes. It was that people were no longer interested in getting to know her. It wasn’t that she had created a stir before, but something had been there that she could rely on. She was forty-five and had been divorced for nine years. …… She hadn’t got fatter or thinner, her looks had not deteriorated in any alarming way, but nevertheless she had stopped being one sort of woman and had become another.”
Alice Munro’s Nobel win is important because it has finally put the inner lives of women center-stage. The world has long last acknowledged that we do not have to read about women from much-hyped male authors like Jonathan Franzen and John Updike. That literature does not have to be about male wars and male deaths; it can and should be about what keeps women’s psyches alive.
Over the decades, Munro’s stories have ventured from the familiar terrain of rural Ontario and its common people to riskier areas, like the portrayal of a young woman who witnesses the killing of her children at the hands of her controlling husband or the feminist tale of the nineteenth century Russian mathematician Sofia Kovalevskaya. Munro has honed her craft; and like aged wine, her portraits of women have matured.
Shortly before the Nobel announcement, Munro announced her decision to stop writing and start living. I beg her to change her mind. I believe Munro owes us many more journeys into the inner continents of women like the French scientist Marie Curie, the Polish revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg, and the biophysicist Rosalind Franklin, whose discovery of the structure of the DNA was never credited in her lifetime.
A win for Alice Munro is not just a win for Canadian literature, it is a victory for women, their lives, and the literature they are capable of producing.
Sarita Sarvate (www.saritasarvate.com) has published commentaries for New America Media, KQED FM, San Jose Mercury News, the Oakland Tribune, and many nationwide publications.