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November 19, 2013

Congratulations to Alice Munro

The Canadian Charger

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I have been reading/writing with Alice Munro for a long time. At first, I was simply fascinated by her characters, people like me, people I knew, as Hugh Garner said, "ordinary people."

Then I watched her language closely, seeing its chasms and echoes and doubleness, "Isn't it nice that your mother can sell encyclopedias?" said the aunts, when they meant exactly the opposite. Like Del, I was learning that strange and complex language of southwestern Ontario, and Munro was showing me how it worked.

My approach to Munro’s stories was shaped by several critical approaches. 

Formalism taught me to watch closely the shapes of sentences and structures. Feminism made me interested in what she had to say about the lives of women and girls. Dialogism alerted me to the many languages of these pieces, to how the exchanges worked, between the characters in a story and with the reader. Neo-historicism reminded me that these stories happen in times and places which affect language and attitudes, sometimes close to my own, sometimes distant.

Most telling of all, Munro taught me how to read this work. Glimpses of her attitudes to story and its making were offered in occasional interviews. However, the stories themselves were the best instructors, through their pacing, the metafiction which comments on them as they unfold, and the epilogues which conclude them.

I spent some time lost in Munro’s sentences, in their parallelisms and sudden stops, breaks in the pattern.

Then I began to notice how the stories eddied around gaps, gaps in a sentence, in a story, in the text itself, so that filling in those empty places made reading a Munro story seem like reading a novel.

Then the imagery. The houses, the rooms, the furniture, the smells, the looking out through pieces of coloured glass, glass that focused the seeing into a small place, a picture, just as The Photographer at the end of Lives of Girls and Women focused attention, distorting reality as he practised his art.

And then the structures, the way of bits and pieces, shifting kaleidoscope bits which tumbled and rearranged into wider and wider story.

The mystery, the silences, the things not-said. At first, I had thought her brave to "Say the Unsayable," but I began to notice the not-said, the silences, and how full they were. It was astonishing to me to discover that these silences were taught, that they had form and shape, passed on from generation to generation.

Always, I was aware that I did not experience these stories as Object, as something "etherized upon a table," probed and investigated from a safe distance. These were live and dangerous, challenging, instructional, warning. I lived within these stories, during the time of reading with them and long after, as they echoed and reverberated into my way of knowing this southwestern Ontario, this living, this telling.

Above all, perhaps, I am grateful to Munro for the integrity of her ways of seeing and exploring, and for her courage in insisting on her way of being and doing. In an age where writers (and everybody else) sometimes seems to be grasping for attention, for recognition,

Alice Munro has resisted all attempts to make a “star.” She has kept the focus on her writing, not on becoming a Personality.

The world’s Nobel Prize for Literature honours Munro, but she honours the world of literature through the ages--and its writers.

Judith Maclean Miller

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