Alice Munro's new collection of stories, Progress of Love, out next month from Knopf, appears four years after her previous book, The Moons of Jupiter. Each of her six collections has maintained this steady rhythm of three- or four-year intervals. The gap is agonizingly long for Munro's devoted fans, who can get periodic "fixes" in such magazines as the New Yorker, but the cumulative effect gives her work distinctive power. Few people writing today can bring a character, a mood or a scene to life with such economy. And she has an exhilarating ability to make the reader see the familiar and ordinary with fresh insight and compassion.
Progress of Love, like Munro's other works, is set largely in the towns of southern Ontario, a region akin to Middle America. Her characters may move west to Vancouver or depart for the larger cities of Toronto and Ottawa where they lead middle-class urban lives, but they are forged by their antecedents. In this collection, Munro has expanded her narrative range. Some of the new stories are compressed novels, effortlessly moving back and forth in time or changing point-of-view. In the hands of other writers, each story could be a saga, but Munro can convey everything a reader needs to know in a few pages.
Although she had struggled for years to write a novel, and thought of the short story as apprenticeship work, she now says, "I no longer feel attracted to the well-made novel. I want to write the story that will zero in and give you intense, but not connected, moments of experience. I guess that's the way I see life. People remake themselves bit by bit and do things they don't understand. The novel has to have a coherence which I don't see any more in the lives around me."
In the story "White Dump," which concludes Progress of Love, there are three generations who all spend part of their lives at a summer house by a lake. "I wanted not to integrate those versions but to make a mosaic," says Munro. Yet, with her skill and vision, there are no jagged edges and the story has a beautifully conveyed coherence.
It is surprising for someone living in Canada, who has read Munro's stories in literary magazines in the 1960s and 1970s, to hear her recall periods of profound frustration and discouragement. To the observer, she has been an established literary presence for more than 20 years. Her first collection, Dance of the Happy Shades, published by Ryerson Press in 1968, when she was 37, won Canada's prestigious literary prize, the Governor-General's Award. But the seemingly regular publication of stories and collections hid the shaky confidence Munro had in her growth as a writer.
"I became more and more fragile. When I was into my 30s I became increasingly depressed by rejection letters. I had had the feeling that by the time I was 30 I would be established. But I was not at all. By the time of Lives of Girls and Women, I was into my 40s and I had become more thin-skinned."
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Munro was bom in 1931 and grew up "in a fringe community of Wingham," which is itself a small town in southwestern Ontario. She attended the University of Western Ontario in nearby London, Ont., for two years before marrying Jim Munro in 1951 and moving with him to Vancouver. He worked for Eaton's department store, while she was at home with their two young daughters. She was writing all the time, discarding most of it, publishing occasionally; she thought of herself as "promising" for too long. Publicly, however, it was a traditional existence. "I was keeping up appearances as a housewife and mother," she says. "I was not at all a rebel. My energy was going into writing, but it was so often blocked."
Since Munro was supported by her husband, in turn she kept house—a fair trade in her view. "He always wanted a wife who ironed," she says, but he also valued her ambitions and gave her periods alone to "think" about her writing. She credits him and Robert Weaver, who bought her work for his now-defunct literary magazine. Tamarack Review, and for CBC Radio, with keeping her alive as a writer.
When Jim Munro wanted a business of his own, she suggested a bookstore where she could help him. In 1963, they found an opportunity in Victoria. For three years, she worked in the store every day and on Sundays scrubbed the floor. "In some ways they were the best times of my life," she says. "When we moved to Victoria the pressure was off. I was no longer working all day trying to write a novel. I was working in the bookstore and it was a wonderful relief. Also, I talked to people all day. God, the isolation of housewives in those days! I love mindless chatter."
In 1966, when she gave birth to their third daughter, Munro was at home again and resumed writing. Lives of Girls and Women, her most autobiographical book, was published in 1971. Comprised of linked stories, it is frequendy described a a novel. But after that, she feared she had exhausted her material.
"Lives is one of those books I should really have written when I was younger. It is the classic childhood, adolescence, breakthrough-into-maturity book. Every beginning writer has that material--and after that you're not sure what you can do. I went through a bleak period. And then I wrote the stories in the third book, Something I've Been Meaning to Tell You, almost desperately. I wasn't at all sure they worked."
The fact that Lives was winning readers in the U.S, where it was published by McGraw-Hill, doesn't seem to have made much difference to Munro. She recalls with amusement an event that occurred when the book appeared in the U.S. She had dashed to the grocery to buy potatoes for supper. Standing in the checkout line, leafing through Time magazine, ("trying to free read"), she spotted a review of Lives. "I had only enough money to buy either Time or the potatoes. I was so locked into domestic life that I bought the potatoes."
In 1973 she and Jim Munro separated and she returned to Ontario, where her life took two unexpected turns. After her third book, Something I've Been Meaning to Tell You, was published in Canada in 1974, she received a letter from U.S. literary agent Virginia Barber asking to represent her. Feeling that she did not have enough material to offer, Munro replied diffidently, but subsequendy she sent Barber some stories. The agent immediately sold two of them to the New Yorker, and made arrangements with Knopf to publish Munro's future works.
The other turning point presented itself when Munro encountered Gerald Fremlin again. He had been a young World War II veteran completing his studies at the University of Western Ontario when she was a freshman. She recalls writing a short story with the dual objective of getting published and of attracting his attention. By the time her story was published, he had graduated, but he did write her a first, perfect fan letter, comparing her to Chekhov. Thirty years later, when he contacted her during her brief post as writer-in-residence at Western, she was receptive.
In 1975, she moved with Fremlin, a retired cartographer, to Clinton, Ont., (pop. 3200) in Huron County, to the house where he was born. It is only a few miles from Wingham. "I never, never, never, never, never, never thought I would end up there," Munro laughs.
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Huron Country is of course, her terrain, fictionally and biographically. Her father, Robert Laidlaw, was a fox farmer and when that failed, he worked as a watchman at the stove foundry and switched to raising turkeys. Her mother, Anna Chamney, was a "school" teacher. "You say 'school' teacher when you mean a rural teacher. Do you notice that?" says Munro, with characteristic attention to the detail and texture of speech.
Munro, the oldest of three children, was 12 when her mother was stricken with Parkinson's Disease. As in her fiction, those facts shield a far more interesting and complex family. Her sister is an artist and her brother is a theoretical chemist. When he was in his 70s, her father wrote a novel of pioneer life tided The McGregors, which Macmillan of Canada published. Munro's eyes fill with tears as she describes his absorption in the revisions in the week prior to his death during cardiac surgery. "I couldn't believe the enormous leap he had made. There was this amazing dormant talent. He had natural skill, and he just knew the things you can't teach."
Munro, a warm, vibrant woman, speaks openly about herself, but she won't allow interviewers to come to her home. Her husband does not want his privacy invaded, but she also fears it would rob her of herself. Commenting on Canadian TV documentaries that show writers relaxing at home, she says, "I wonder how they could ever do those things again. It's as if they've started living their private life in public, and it would lose its authenticity in some way. It would begin to be a role."
What would a reporter see? "A very ordinary, nice, small town. A white wooden house where we live on the edge of town, with lots of trees--walnut and maple trees--and a big lawn--which I mow." She says it is a modest, comfortable house, with a dining room lined with bookshelves, and a kitchen furnished with a dresser and arm chair. On the second floor, Munro stripped off the wallpaper to reveal the cedar paneling. She uses one of the spare bedrooms as her office, writing at a table facing the wall, working on her first drafts in long-hand. "It's like being inside a warm wooden place," she says. Above all, its proportions suit her. "I've lived in a big showplace house and I never want to live again in a house that overshadows me."
For Munro, a story is like a house. When she reads a story she often starts at a point other than the beginning. "I go into it, and move back and forth and settle here and there, and stay in it for a while. It's more like a house," she wrote in an essay about her work. When she writes a story, she continued, "I've got to make, I've got to build up, a house, a story to fit around the indescribable 'feeling' that is like the soul of the story...."
Munro elaborates: "What is important to me about the story is not what happens... It's like a view of reality--a kind of reality that I can go into for a while, and I know right away if I can go into it [further] or not. Then, once I'm into it, I'll find out what happens. It's getting into it that's important, not caring what happens. A story is a spell, rather than a narrative."
Yet things do happen in Munro's stories, and there is pleasure in watching revelations and events unfold—never predictable, always inevitable. Those who have not yet read Munro's work are lucky. They now have six collections to discover—and savor.