“Dear Life” by Alice Munro

What I had been looking for in a novel, I found in a short personal reflection instead. I hadn’t seen Munro’s name in the table of contents of the September 19th New Yorker; I was flipping the page to skip over Shouts & Murmurs (which I almost never like), and her first paragraph snuck up on me and made my breath catch a little in my chest.

I lived when I was young at the end of a long road, or a road that seemed long to me. Behind me, as I walked home from primary school, and then from high school, was the real town with its activity and its sidewalks and its streetlights for after dark. Marking the end of town were two bridges over the Maitland River: one narrow iron bridge, where cars sometimes got into trouble over which one should pull off and wait for the other, and a wooden walkway, which occasionally had a plank missing, so that you could look right down into the bright, hurrying water. I liked that, but somebody always came and replaced the plank eventually.

The scene is straightforward, as is the language, but the pace willfully departs from the sharp clip of much contemporary writing. Munro makes the reader breathe a little slower and savor the childhood scene, pausing over the gap in the bridge that opened onto the water, mourning a little the loss of small wonders.

I have only read a little of Munro’s work before, but what I have read, I loved. I was halfway through Too Much Happiness when I forgot it on a plane; I bought a Kindle version so that I could keep reading right away. (I really hope someone picked up the book and enjoyed it.) What struck me in those stories, as in this piece, was the depth of the cruelty and the luminous beauty that Munro draws out. The feeling, for me, is not unlike looking at a perfectly exposed black and white photograph, with pockets of deep black and pure white calling attention to the full range of greys that fill the frame. The cruelty of the priest pronouncing satisfaction instead of a eulogy at the prostitute’s funeral; the absurdity of Mrs. Netterfield attacking the delivery boy with an axe over forgotten butter; the pain of watching a parent’s health deteriorate so completely surpassing the less-felt suffering of poverty. Munro narrates each of these moments with such specificity and care that the emotion of each resonates deeply with the reader, despite the unfamiliarity of the setting. I felt like I read the piece more with my breath than with my brain, which was a really wonderful feeling.

I’ve now added Runaway to my to-read list, too. If anyone reads this post and wants to read the book along with me, let me know–I’d love to eventually turn this blog into a little more of a dialogue so that I can hear how other people have read what I’m reading.

8 replies on ““Dear Life” by Alice Munro”

Hi, I think the image in that opening paragraph about how she liked it when a plank was missing from the bridge, so she could see the ‘bright hurrying water’ is also a description of what Munro does in her writing. It seems to me she likes to explore the way that the seemingly solid, routine and ordinary structure of people’s lives have gaps that allow you (and them, if they can handle it) to see the reality of ‘life’ (passion, love, the life force, fear) underneath. But most people quickly cover over these gaps with that other kind of more conventional and safer ‘life’.

So the story slowly builds up this picture of her mother, her mother’s preoccupation with her status in the world – the golf clubs, etc – with being better than other people, alienates her from her daughter, her husband, but then this edifice her mother has created and defended so relentlessly is challenged and finally defeated by her disease, and her final act is to run out into the street and be found by a stranger, just like Mrs. Nettlefield, the woman she so much feared, but who was in reality worthy of compassion, not fear.

The more I read Alice Munro, the more I see how complex her seemingly simple stories are. And she doesn’t have a personal agenda as an author, she wants to capture and convey the psychological reality and mysteriousness of life, which is a very delicate operation, it can’t be done crudely or the mystery is lost.

@Jane, what a great connection with that opening image and Munro’s writing. It does seem that there are two rhythms at work–the simplicity of the surface, and the complexity churning underneath in the motivations, emotions, and backstories of the characters.

Do you have any favorites among her stories? I’m eager for more.

I haven’t read them all, I find I don’t enjoy reading a lot of Munro at one time – sort of like fine champagne, you spoil the effect if you have too much. Usually after I come across a story I’ll be interested and read or re-read a couple more and then set her aside til the next time I come across something.

Love of a Good Woman was the first story I read that I felt in awe of, but it was just timing, I think. I had read her before and not been so impressed, but I hadn’t understood that sometimes she tells you what a character is thinking and feeling, but then, in some crucial passages, she doesn’t, and you have to do the heavy lifting yourself, and imagine how they must be feeling, or the story won’t make sense. Also that she may be seeming to report casually, even off-hand, on some event, or a character’s words/actions, but that there may be deep significance to it. You have to develop the same level of empathy and be as observant as she is.

I found this blog because I was googling the title of the latest memoir, her titles are always very significant and I haven’t quite figured out this one yet – a letter to life, a reference to hanging on for dear life?

Hola, quizás os interese saber que tenemos una colección que incluye el relato ‘The Progress of Love’ de Alice Munro en versión original conjuntamente con el relato ‘Death by Landscape’ de Margaret Atwood.

El formato de esta colección es innovador porque permite leer directamente la obra en inglés sin necesidad de usar el diccionario al integrarse un glosario en cada página.

Tenéis más info de este relato y de la colección Read&Listen

[…] After loving Alice Munro’s recent New Yorker piece (“Dear Life”), I felt that I wouldn’t be satisfied until I had more of her work in my hands. I chose Runaway more or less at random from among her collections, and wow. I am blown away by Munro’s incredible skill with characters. She creates an incredible emotional climate with each story, drawing the reader in to share each protagonist’s hope, fear, or betrayal. I simply love the intimacy of her stories and the subtle ways that she teases out the complexities of human interaction. […]

I loved your text, and your sensitivity. I’m looking forward to her new collection of short stories, entitled, precisely, “Dear Life”, which will be out in November in the US. As a Brazilian, and living in Brazil, I doubt if I’ll put my hands on it right away, but oh, how do I wish! Alice has been my favorite writer since I discovered her, and “Too much happiness” being my favorite as of yet. Long live the Great Dame of Canadian Letters!

Thanks for your kind words, and I’m glad to hear you love Munro’s work as much as I do. Hope you’re able to find a copy of the new collection without too much delay!

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