Master of the Intricacies of the Human Heart
By Michiko Kakutani
Oct. 10, 2013
Alice Munro, named on Thursday as the winner of the 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature, once observed: “The complexity of things — the things within things — just seems to be endless. I mean nothing is easy, nothing is simple.”
That is also a perfect description of Ms. Munro’s quietly radiant short stories — stories that have established her as one of the foremost practitioners of the form. Set largely in small-town and rural Canada and often focused on the lives of girls and women, her tales have the swoop and density of big, intimate novels, mapping the crevices of characters’ hearts with cleareyed Chekhovian empathy and wisdom.
Fluent and deceptively artless on the page, these stories are actually amazingly intricate constructions that move back and forth in time, back and forth between reality and memory, opening out, magically, to disclose the long panoramic vistas in these people’s lives (the starts, stops and reversals that stand out as hinge moments in their personal histories) and the homely details of their day-to-day routines: the dull coping with “food and mess and houses” that can take up so much of their heroines’ time.
Ms. Munro’s stories possess an emotional amplitude and a psychological density. Her understanding of the music of domestic life, her ability to simultaneously detail her characters’ inner landscapes and their place in a meticulously observed community, and her talent for charting “the progress of love” as it morphs and mutates through time — these gifts have not only helped Ms. Munro redefine the contours of the contemporary short story, but have also made her one of today’s most influential writers.
In short fiction that spans four and a half decades, Ms. Munro has given us prismatic portraits of ordinary people that reveal their intelligence, toughness and capacity to dream, as well as their lies, blind spots and lapses of courage and good will. Such descriptions are delivered not with judgmental accountancy, but with the sort of “unsparing unsentimental love” harbored by a close friend or family member.
Like Ms. Munro, many of the women in these stories grew up in small towns in Canada and, at some point, faced a decision about whether to stay or to leave for the wider world. Their lifetimes often span decades of startling social change — from a time and place when tea parties and white gloves were de rigueur to the days of health food stores and stripper bars.
For that matter, Ms. Munro’s women often find themselves caught on the margins of shifting cultural mores and pulled between conflicting imperatives — between rootedness and escape, domesticity and freedom, between tending to familial responsibilities or following the urgent promptings of their own hearts.
In story after story, passion is the magnet or the motor that drives women’s choices. Love and sex, and marriage and adultery are often mirrors that reveal a Munro heroine’s expectations — her fondest dreams and cruel self-delusions, her sense of independence and need to belong.
Ms. Munro is adept at tracing the many configurations that intimacy can take over the years, showing how it can suffocate a marriage or inject it with a renewed sense of devotion. She shows how sexual ardor can turn into a “tidy pilot flame” and how an impulsive tryst can become a treasured memory, hoarded as a bulwark against the banalities of middle age.
Illness and death frequently intrude upon these stories, and the reader is constantly reminded of the precariousness of life — and the role that luck, chance and reckless, spur-of-the-moment choices can play. Some of Ms. Munro’s characters embrace change as a liberating force that will lift them out of their humdrum routines, or at least satisfy their avid curiosity about life. Others regard it with fearful dismay, worried that they will lose everything they hold dear — or at least everything familiar.