Reading Alice Munro
Written by: David Staines
David Staines, author of The Cambridge Companion to Alice Munro, sheds light on how the Nobel Prize winner views her work
On June 9, 1976, Brandon Conron of the Department of English at the University of Western Ontario introduced Alice Munro for an honorary doctor of letters: “Here, Mr Chancellor, is an Alice who, from everyday experience, has created her own Wonderland, making of it a looking glass through which we begin to identify vital aspects of our world and of ourselves.” The degree, which she accepted because she had never received an undergraduate degree, is her sole honorary degree. “What good is an honorary degree?” she wonders aloud to anyone who raises the subject. She does not seek out the recognition or the awards. In her own way, her primary commitment is to art itself.
Alice Munro is a remarkable writer, always paying allegiance, first of all, to the beauty and the power of the written word. From her earliest writings of her high school years down to her last volume, Dear Life (2012), she has always been true to the written word. When asked why she has such deep trust in it, she explains that the experience of literature is a bond between the reader and the printed text; there should be no one, not even the author, interfering with this bond. For this reason, she rarely gives readings, the reading itself interfering with the direct relationship of reader and story.
To a young graduate student at the University of New Brunswick in 1973, she reflected on what she does in her fiction:
“The adult narrator has the ability to detect and talk about the confusion. I don’t feel that the confusion is ever resolved. And there is some kind of central mystery, as in ‘Walker Brothers Cowboy’, that is there for the adult narrator as well as it was for the child. I feel that all life becomes even more mysterious and difficult. And the whole act of writing is more than an attempt at recognition than of understanding, because I don’t understand many things. I feel a kind of satisfaction in just approaching something that is mysterious and important. Then writing is the act of approach and recognition. I believe that we don’t solve these things – in fact our explanations take us further away.”
This is precisely what Munro has done and continues to do in her writing: the act of recognition rather than the act of explanation. She seeks to approach the “mysterious and difficult” and recognize the complexity of the human condition. To offer explanations is beyond the realm of her art; “in fact our explanations take us further away.” And what she shows in her fiction is the irresolvability and yet the sustainability of life itself.