Alice Munro, the Academy´s Choice

Entrance driveway.
The Swedish word for short story is novell. You see how one can go wrong in translation there? That is the worst trap of speaking a foreign language: when it has words that sound and look familiar to you, but has a whole different meaning. I know a real live person who once had an English girlfriend. He went to visit her and was picked up by her slightly suspicious father at the airport. Having spoken at length about the weather, he resorted to that other safe topic: traffic. "Are there any fart controls here?" he said. (Swedish fart = English speed) And there is a classic story about a Swedish road engineer at an international conference on traffic safety, who said in a discussion: "It´s not the fart that kills, it´s the smell." (Swedish smäll = English crash)


When Alice Munro had just been announced as the recipient of this year´s Nobel Prize in Literature (it bugs me when people say someone has won the Nobel Prize; it´s not a competition, it´s an award) the media was all over it, of course. Malin Ullenhag in Dagens Nyheter wrote a short piece about the short story vs the novel, where she argued (based on an essay by literature historian Andreas Gailus) that the short story is the genre of crisis, rather than psychological development. The short story maintains the protagonist´s lack of insight and in that regard, the short story is "stupider" and "more honest" than the novel. I thought that was an interesting point and something to keep in mind during the reading.

I have, in tandem with a friend, read Munro´s latest collection, "Dear Life" (Sw. "Brinnande livet"), and I suppose we chose that one because it was on the e-library. It is also her last collection, as she has announced her retirement.

It is made up of ten proper short stories and one separate collection of four auto-biographical stories, where she tries - I think - to explain how she became the person she is. It is really the story of her mother, a frustrated social climber who never got anywhere but instead was disliked by everyone for her delusions of grandure. In the end, she dies of a disease related to dementia. Munro doesn´t spare herself, she readily confesses that she didn´t visit and didn´t go to the funeral, and she also mentions her father´s new wife in such a way that I get the feeling they got on better. Munro leaves a lot of room for the reader to draw his or her own conclusions. It seems to me that Munro is a lot like her mother, and that she knows that too.

Munro is unsentimental and almost cruel in her candour, just as Ullenhag says that short story-writers are (or should be). And I suppost that is what I like about her the most, that she doesn´t avert her eye from the less savoury parts of human existence. In this collection (which is the only one I have read so far) some themes of the stories are
  • people just letting things happen to them. They are all frustratingly passive. Almost aggressively passive, which is not the same as passive-aggressive.
  • people believing that their imaginations are the truth. Many of her protagonists seem very deluded, perhaps psychotic. 
  • strategies for those left over. Those who live their lives on scraps from other people´s table, as it were. 
  • fear of community. Actually, community in a Munro story is mostly about oppression, and alone-ness is about freedom. Munro´s people find meaning in their work, for the most part; they seldom find it in each other. 
She has a bold way of adding seemingly irrelevant information to her sentences, information that doesn´t seem relevant to the story. But after a while I realized that she doesn´t write story in a classic way, it´s more like mini-portraits of psyches, and by making them more complex, she is also making them more real. Her characters have so many dimensions, sometimes contradictory, that you feel they just have to be real.

My reading partner was less enamoured with Munro. She found many of the characters irrational, illogical, unreal. When we discussed the first story, about a young mother who acts recklessly towards men, my friend found her unrealistic, while I thought that she acted exactly the way one acts in times of great distress. I thought about this when I walked home, and I think that Munro´s stories are like a dirge to the parts of me that are dead: from broken promises, abandoned hopes, crushed heart, shattered illusions. She offers no solace, but she says "I know", which is all one can do, really.

I really like Munro, reading her opened up some issues I have been struggling with in my own writing. I have already bought another of her collections, "The Moons of Jupiter" from 1982, partly because I want to see if her themes are consistent throughout her work or if they change from collection to collection. Also, I want to read her in her own language. I usually feel there is something missing from a translation. Not always, but sometimes.

This is a proper good read, and - it has been said - unlike many recipients of the Nobel Prize, an author that should be accessible to most readers. I´m not so sure. I think that to really appreciate her, you need to be a survivor; on the other hand, there are many of us out here.

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