One of the small, quiet, but deeply meaningful stories on Canada Day was the news in the New York Times that Alice Munro will write no more.
In a lovely, reflective article by Charles McGrath, who identifies himself as Munro’s first editor at the New Yorker Magazine in the 1970s, Munro confirms that a lifetime of short story writing has come to an end.
Turning 82 next week, having suffered from cancer, coronary bypass surgery, and the death this past spring of her husband, she no longer has the energy to add to her 14 story collections. Besides, she tells McGrath, her real interest these days is in meeting other people, no longer in crafting fictional characters for her readers.
It is astonishing, of course, to think of Alice Munro turning 82. Writing that endures seems to confer on the writer not just extended literary mortality but also an exemption from normal human passage. Most of us, I am sure, when we read favourite authors, tend to think of those authors as being the age they were when the work was written. It is a function of judging authors, for better or worse, by the age we were when we first began reading them.
The complement to Munro being an octogenarian is the realization that it means she has been turning out works of literary brilliance, cresting to genius, for 45 years. McGrath notes that she published her first collection at 37. By the conventions of literary journalism at least, that is considered quirkishly late—as though writers are contact sport athletes whose reflexes and knees are invariably shot by the time they turn 30.
In fact, between the publication of her first book and the sixth that she produced as she approached her 60s, Munro established her bona fides as one of the greatest short story writers of the 20th Century, and possibly in all of English literature. It is telling that in McGrath’s reportage for the New York Times, Munro is mentioned seamlessly in the same sentences as Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Margaret Drabble, Proust, Dickens, and Balzac. There is a reprise of Cynthia Ozick’s description of her as “our Chekhov” that is accepted as a matter of fact.
McGrath does us the greatest of favours in resisting the impulse to turn Munro’s farewell announcement into a lengthy career recapitulation. He concentrates on the extraordinary ordinariness of the life this quiet lioness of literature lived with her husband in a small Ontario town. There are lovely oddball details such as a bathtub painted like a Holstein cow in their back yard.
The house she lives in is the childhood home of her late husband, Gerald Fremlin, located 30 kilometres from where Munro herself grew up. The couple moved there to look after Fremlin’s elderly mother and saw no reason, ever after, to leave. It is, we are told, “a late 19th-Century bungalow on a dead-end street that backs down to some railroad tracks.”
McGrath describes the interior of Munro’s house in Chekhovian detail: a dictionary stand, bric-a-brac, a portrait of Queen Victoria in the dining room, all of it “comfortable but unfancy…almost defiantly unmodern.” He saves the best for last. His description of the place where great writing emerged reverberates like the pop of the champagne cork in Raymond Carver’s story about the death of Chekhov.
“Ms. Munro writes—or wrote—in a corner of the dining room, at a tiny desk facing a window that overlooks the driveway,” he writes.
There it is. A room. A desk. A window. The ultra-mundane.
We are given to think of creative work generally, and creative genius particularly, as requiring great swashes of noise and light, frantic running up and down, loud—frequently obnoxious—declamations, trampoline flips of celebrity acclaim and shame, crisis and catharsis. But no.
A room. A desk. A window. And the wisdom to put God’s gift to work until the moment arrives when the work is done.