Alice Munro (1931-2024): Tiller of the human heart

The Nobel-winning author understood reality better than any other writer—that it is a puzzle that cannot be definitively solved or pinned down.

Published : May 16, 2024 12:58 IST - 4 MINS READ

Alice Munro on June 25, 2009, in Dublin.

Alice Munro on June 25, 2009, in Dublin. | Photo Credit: PETER MUHLY/ AFP

If there is such a person in this world as a writerly writer, surely that must be Alice Munro, queen of short stories. Her passing feels like a personal loss to so many of us, her readers, simply because it is. With her gone, who will help us unravel the mystery that is a human being?

Reading a Munro story is an act of deep intimacy. It calls for slow time and close reading. Munro is the kind of writer whose books you keep beside you always just so that you can continue to wonder at the mysteries inside them. The field she ploughs is the human heart and all the evil and the goodness and the downright strangeness it is capable of.  With her, there is never a single story. Each story of hers sets readers off in a thousand contrary directions until they stumble slowly upon whatever it is she has been trying to get them to see or feel.

Discocvering Munro

I discovered Munro rather late in life as a lonely writer-in-residence at the University of Stirling, Scotland. Braving the cold, damp weather, I would trudge across the university campus to the library and head to the Munro shelf. The first Munro short story I read was the absolutely stunning “The Progress of Love”, a non-linear story about three generations of women and the fragmented, tricky nature of memory, a story designed a bit like an onion. It had backstories nestling within backstories until you realised that the story itself was not so much about the progress of love as about the progress of something resembling hatred. I remember trying to teach this story to my fiction class students later but with little luck. For, how do you teach a story that makes you feel an experience?

Many of Munro’s stories are set in her native small-town Ontario, a setting which lulls you into believing that you are about to read a story about ordinary lives performed in the quiet theatre of domestic spaces. Except that, before you know it, you have tumbled headlong into a strange psychological vortex. Munro understood better than any other writer that reality is a puzzle with missing pieces, that there is no solving it, no nailing it down. As she famously told The Associated Press, “I have all these disconnected realities in my own life, and I see them in other people’s lives. That was one of the problems, why I couldn’t write novels. I never saw things hanging together too well.”

Munro’s puzzle-magic

Munro’s stories are never conclusive. They continue to work their peculiar puzzle-magic in us long after we think we are done reading them. And that is precisely what Munro intended to happen. She did not want us to ever put the story away.

Jenny Munro, daughter of Alice Munro, collects the Nobel Prize in Literature on behalf of her mother, from Sweden’s King Carl Gustaf, during the 2013 Nobel Prize award ceremony in Stockholm on December 10, 2013.

Jenny Munro, daughter of Alice Munro, collects the Nobel Prize in Literature on behalf of her mother, from Sweden’s King Carl Gustaf, during the 2013 Nobel Prize award ceremony in Stockholm on December 10, 2013. | Photo Credit: Claudio Bresciani/ REUTERS

We all know the story of Munro’s life–that she grew up in Wingham, rural Ontario, that her father was a fox and mink farmer and her mother a school teacher, that she had been writing since she was in Grade VII but that it was not until she was 36 that her first book length collection of short stories came out, that she went on to publish numerous short story collections, that she won both the Man Booker International and the Nobel Prize for Literature, that she married young, had three babies one of whom died the day she was born, that she and her first husband set up a bookstore in Victoria, and that she was keen on writing better books than the “crappy” ones in the store, that she divorced her first husband and married again. What we may not know quite as well are her struggles to keep the writing life going through her pregnancies and through her various household duties. In an interview with TheParis Review, she said:  

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“When the kids were little, my time was as soon as they left for school. So I worked very hard in those years. My husband and I owned a bookstore, and even when I was working there, I stayed at home until noon. I was supposed to be doing housework, and I would also do my writing then. Later on, when I wasn’t working everyday in the store, I would write until everybody came home for lunch and then after they went back, probably till about two-thirty, and then I would have a quick cup of coffee and start doing the housework, trying to get it all done before late afternoon.”

What struck me most about this interview is Munro’s statement that she never made a decision keeping her writing in mind and yet it never crossed her mind to abandon writing. It was only when she was publicly defined as a writer and given an office in which to sit and write that she felt blocked.

In another life, I would like, very much, to be Alice Munro. May she continue to whisper to us from beyond the grave her searing, entangled, nuanced truths.

K. Srilata is a writer, poet, and academic. Her recent books include This Kind of Child: The ‘Disability’ Story (Westland) and an anthology of poetry, Three Women in a Single-Room House (Sahitya Akademi).

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