by Peter Byrne
(Swans - October 21, 2013) The fresh news is that Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize for Literature on Thursday, October 9, and that the OPCW, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, received the Nobel Peace Prize the next day. The old news is that both awards are highly political, based on the pressure of geopolitical power blocks, petty nationalism, and the huckstering of publishers. Nevertheless, Munro is an admirable writer whom I awarded my personal prize years ago with thanks for dispelling my nightmare about Ontario.
I had lived in and traveled among the small towns she finally fleshed out for me in her collection Dance of the Happy Shades in 1968. Until then they were blanks populated only by memories of desperation. There was always a big ugly church at the top of a hill whose sight couldn't be avoided even in a blizzard. The few citizens I spoke to were always out to prove how law abiding they were. The proof consisted of a lethal blast of morality from their well-scrubbed faces if I broke the local consensus on where to spit peanut shells or how to park my bike.
It was enough to drive me to drink. But bottle goods could only be had in government shops from frowning warders. Sin came with it in the brown paper bag, corking the wine. Non-sociopathic imbibers slunk into places that were quaintly referred to as "beer parlors." These were not to be confused with the taverns or pubs of mellower climes. There was, for instance, a special entrance for women on their own, creatures whose morality wasn't vouched safe by being leashed to a male. Guilt flooded the premises like the shadows from a forty-watt bulb. Dionysus himself would have gone limp among the hard chairs and dirty plastic.
Alice Munro's first collection dispelled this superficial experience and the stereotypes it engendered. She filled in the blanks. The people who lived in these little towns were not all at home nights watching TV from over the border, tut-tutting at each American extravagance, living dangerously at a distance. Canada wasn't "the big empty" of legend. These towns were full of people living their own peculiar conflicts of class and family, of stagnation and escape.
The title story of Dance of the Happy Shades confronts a middle-class woman with a scene she can only look away from, a troupe of retarded children and their shabby, age-ravaged music teacher. Think of vacationers on a Mediterranean beach preferring not to see the bodies of migrants in the surf. But Munro gives the screw another turn. The humanity of the old teacher, enhanced by her respect for beauty, reveals a world of values that puts in relief the narrowness of the well-dressed matron. For this year at least the Royal Swedish Academy of Science in Stockholm has lived up to its rhetoric and given the prize to "the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction."
Munro's "realism" that put Ontario on the map offers the occasion to reconsider the form of the short story. She has always worked in the noble tradition of Tolstoy, Chekhov, Maupassant, and Flaubert. Of course no writer can give us the real world, but only their own world. What we call a "realist," for want of a better term, makes references to places and people conceived of as subject to time and the laws of nature as we recognize them in our daily life. There are, however, short story writers who won't be bound by these conventions. Authors like Donald Barthelme and more recently George Saunders take the genre into freewheeling fantasy. They manage to shed much light on our current predicaments. They could not, though, implant small-town Canada in anyone's mind.
The new Nobel laureate has reminded us that the short story can be a vehicle for great art. Readers have to decide if her way of writing it still has validity. She herself has her doubts. In her first remarks on receiving the prize she said our lives now are different from those she wrote about. The close texture of living she observed so punctiliously has gone. This sounds very much like "experience as it once was" that the journalist Roger Cohen goes on about: "Everything [now] seems filtered, monitored, marshaled, ameliorated, graded and app-ready — made into a kind of branded facsimile of experience for easier absorption." The distinction is surely worth a debate.
Alice Munro deserves honors if only because she puts but a brake on the growing wave of 1968 deniers. She insists that the 1960s were "wonderful" years and that she has dear memories her first miniskirt. She's eighty-two. Someone should give her yet another prize for her teasing of us in The Guardian in February:
After I wrote the last book, I thought I wouldn't write any more, because I had the idea that I was going to become a real woman at last, having a lot of people to dinner. I would be a regular nice person. The first thing I did was redecorate the condo where we live, and I enjoyed that but here I am, drifting into writing things again, and wondering, is this the right thing to do at my age?
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