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Who’s Afraid of Alice Munro?

A long-awaited biography gives the facts, but not the mystery, behind this writer’s genius

Magdalene Redekop

Alice Munro: Writing Her Lives

Robert Thacker

Douglas Gibson Books

613 pages, hardcover

On a sun-drenched day in the summer of 1999, I had the rare pleasure of lunching with Canada’s most beloved storyteller. The transcript of our conversation is listed in the bibliography of Robert Thacker’s long-awaited biography of Alice Munro and it is described as having taken place in Stratford, Ontario. This is a glitch in an admirably accurate biography. Because neither Alice nor I could drive, our respective husbands drove us to the place she suggested—the Little Inn in Bayfield, Ontario. My husband, killing time out on the street, was under orders from me not to take photographs, but when Alice emerged and walked to a telephone booth to phone for her ride, he could not resist.

When he showed me the picture afterward, I thought of the various sinister photographers in her fiction and reproached him. He was unrepentant and gleefully pointed to a billboard on the brick wall behind her that said: ONE OF A KIND. As if that made it all right. I still have this shot of a woman wearing long gauzy summer garments and a wide-brimmed hat, looking for all the world like Virginia Woolf. Perhaps her name is not Alice Munro. Perhaps it is Fame, a character in “The Progress of Love.”

Munro and I made arrangements to lunch again. Several times we planned to meet in Stratford, but each time she cancelled due to ill health. The Stratford/Bayfield substitution in Thacker’s book is telling in its own small way. It seems likely that Munro told her biographer that we met in Stratford. My own memory plays those kinds of tricks on me so often that I confess I am heartily sick of the phrase “senior moment.” As Munro herself ages, however, she only gets more dazzling in her ability to capture this kind of thing in her fiction. She told Peter Gzowski that she was trying, in Open Secrets, to put what actually happened on a level with what might have happened. Stratford is what might have happened and Bayfield is what did happen.

That is the sort of stuff that Munro’s fans love and literary critics love to analyze.

Munro herself, as Thacker puts it, “can be seen as always ‘writing her lives,’ the lives she has both lived and imagined.” A biographer, however, has to concentrate on keeping the facts straight and Robert Thacker does an admirable job of this. A professor of Canadian Studies at St. Lawrence University, Canton, New York, Thacker is eminently qualified for this project. He wrote his master’s thesis on Alice Munro and has devoted the major part of his career to publishing on her work.

The book follows a fairly straightforward chronology and the high points of Munro’s life will be familiar to many readers: her childhood lived on the margins of a small town in Ontario; her mother’s struggle with Parkinson’s disease; her mother’s death and her own subsequent struggle with guilt and grief; her close relationship with her father, also a writer, and her connection through him with the Scottish writer James Hogg; her marriage to James Munro and their life in British Columbia; the birth of four daughters, one of whom died in infancy; the break-up of her marriage and the return to Ontario; her life in Clinton with Gerald Fremlin. Through all this runs her fierce determination to write, Robert Weaver’s crucial early support for that writing and her steady rise to international fame.

The precision of Thacker’s method is everywhere apparent—a product of the effort to get it right that Munro herself writes about in stories like “Meneseteung.” When he wrote “The fact is the sweetest dream that labour knows,” Robert Frost was referring to mowing, but he might as well have been writing about the labour of biographers. Biography is a troubled dream, however, and the facts may lead into a swamp. Richard Holmes, author of Dr. Johnson and Mr. Savage, claims that it is the unholy alliance between fact and fiction that keeps biography “so alive, so adaptable, so dangerous for all concerned.” “Biography’s shamelessness,” claims Janet Malcolm, “is a fearful thing.” But nothing shameful appears to taint this biography of Munro. Indeed, words such as “decent” and “proper” come to mind.

Why do we read biographies? I asked a friend who happened to be walking out of Indigo with a copy of this biography and her answer was helpful. “To see what makes people tick,” she said. But why do we read the lives of great writers? That is a somewhat different question. When I look at my snapshot of Alice Munro crossing the street, I experience a kind of dissociation. It is quite simply hard to believe, hard to connect the very real woman with the person who wrote her stories. Perhaps the appetite for the lives of great writers is an expression of a desire to bridge this gap. The voyeur, however, is always lurking nearby because biography (as Freud pointed out) is a kind of hero worship. The lives of great writers—once divorced from the great books they have written—all too readily collapse onto a level with the lives of Hollywood celebrities. The fact that Alice Munro, in the inimitable words of Robert Weaver, is a “smashingly beautiful” woman is beside the point when you are writing literary criticism about her fiction, but of considerable importance for a biography.

Hero worship, alas, comes (as Richard Holmes notes) “with its concomitant but suppressed desire to devalue greatness, to find the feet of clay and the rattling skeleton in the cupboard.” Small wonder that famous writers often make efforts to pre-empt biographers, as Henry James did in The Aspern Papers. It is an obvious point but it needs to be made again and again: good writers do not write because they want you to ask them about their lives; they write because they want you to read what they have written. If many literary critics are still wary of biography, it is because we know, from teaching, how tempting it is to escape the complexities of a literary text by opting for a reductive biographical explanation. To look for the biographical origins of a work of art, Northrop Frye once said to a class, is like scraping the paint off a great work of art to see what the canvas looks like. Tennyson would have agreed. He authorized his son Hallam to write a biography “full enough to preclude the chance of further and unauthentic biographies.”

Alice Munro seems to have attempted something similar when she asked her daughter to write her biography. Catherine Ross’s excellent little biography (1992) had broken the ground but as Munro’s literary star rose, a longer scholarly biography was inevitable. In Lives of Mothers and Daughters: Growing Up with Alice Munro (2001) Sheila Munro explains why she could not write the biography her mother suggested and why she wrote a memoir instead.

Thacker registers Alice Munro’s profound reluctance to “being ‘biographied’” and reports that when he first approached Munro in the 1990s, she was not prepared to cooperate. In an earlier conversation, she had looked him “straight in the eye” and said, “I’m not dead yet.” Five years ago she changed her mind. She thought of it, she told Thacker, as “doing penance” for all those literary biographies she herself “devoured” over the years. Although she met with him three times for two-day sessions, Thacker describes this as “in no sense an ‘official’ biography.”

Those of us who have had the pleasure of conversing with her can testify to her astonishing openness. Thacker’s interviews will be a treasure trove for future scholars. His respect for facts is reflected in the sheer size of the volume and his accuracy is apparent—down to the number of cows on the farm when Munro was growing up. The most important question for a biographer, however, is what to do with the facts. Thacker’s chosen focus is simple and eloquently presented in the prologue. It is based on the idea that the body of Munro’s work is informed by the “author’s imaginative grappling with her ‘home place.’” He argues that Munro’s return to Ontario in 1973, after her time in British Columbia, is the defining move of her career—first, because it connected her to her “material” and, second, because it resulted in her making connections to the people who became central to her life: Gerald Fremlin, editor Douglas Gibson and agent Virginia Barber.

It is true, in a general sense, that all texts are products of particular material circumstances, but the subtext of this biography is the suggestion that if Robert Weaver had not coaxed and cajoled and if the New Yorker editors had not taught her how to shape her fiction and if Virginia Barber had not taught her the ways of the publishing world—in short, if all these factors had not been lined up just so, then Alice Munro’s fiction would not exist. This, to put it bluntly, is balderdash. There are simply too many times when Munro admits that she cannot live without writing, too many times when she plans to stop and cannot stop, too much evidence that she is driven to write by forces that are not easily stopped. Again and again we see from Thacker’s narrative the sacrifices that she has made and continues to make in order to keep writing. In other circumstances I think she would have found another Robert Weaver and another Virginia Barber. Not only is Munro driven to write, she is driven to revise and to write well. Thacker provides intriguing details of negotiations about revision with the editors of the New Yorker.

The ingredients all seem to be there for a successful biography, so why is it that the portrait of Munro that emerges from this biography is that of a nice but boring woman? Nothing could be further from the truth. What is missing from this picture? Humour, for one. For me, comedy is a bridge between the kind of fiction she writes and the kind of person she is. All you have to do is listen to the gales of laughter in any auditorium while she is reading. It also apparently fits with her own sense of herself. I treasure the memory of a conversation I had with her after the publication of my book. She had repeatedly said to me how especially pleased she was that I had written about her as a comedian and how she was “sick of being treated as a grim realist.” Finally I asked, “Do you think of yourself as a clown then, Alice?” To which she replied: “Always, Maggie. Always.”

An absence of the comic is not enough, by itself, to account for the flatness of this picture of Munro but the earnest tone does have something to do with that perception of grim realism. For as long as I can remember, there has been a curious defensiveness among Munro lovers that grows out of misunderstandings about her “realism” and worry that she will be misconstrued as old-fashioned. This worry has itself become old-fashioned but it is persistent in Munro studies and it infects this biography.

What contribution does Thacker make to this debate? To ask that question is to put a finger on a major fault line in this book. While his rhetoric repeatedly acknowledges the blurring of the boundary between art and life, Thacker’s working premise is that art is an imitation of life. This is precisely what the ordinary reader, and apparently many scholars, think of as the basis of realism. The flatness in this portrait of Munro is the result of a refusal to keep in mind the truth articulated so clearly by Oscar Wilde in “The Decay of Lying”: “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life.” Central to Munro’s art are her subtle explorations of the reversal at the heart of the crisis of representation. The strength of Sheila Munro’s memoir derives from her implicit recognition of this and her compelling honesty about the implications for her own story. “I know I am on dangerous ground here,” she writes.

Thacker’s declared method is to follow the “parallel tracks of Alice Munro’s life, Alice Munro’s texts”—connecting the dots and filling in blanks, but he is extremely cautious about venturing beyond the material of the texts to write about aspects of Alice Munro’s life that she herself does not fictionalize. Occasionally he indicates awareness of how constricting this is: “During 1975–76 there was much more to Munro’s life than writing” but for the most part he chooses not to talk about those things that Munro chooses not to write about. He comments, for example, that Munro has “largely left her siblings out of her fictionalized memories” but does not expand on his reasons for following her example. This book could be called The Lives of Alice Munro’s Texts.

Ultimately the parallel tracks—Munro’s life and Munro’s texts—separate. For the early years, details of Munro’s life are used to flesh out a person who does more than just write. For the later years, Munro’s life is more or less left behind as Thacker follows the progress of the texts to chart the rising trajectory of her star. Page follows page of rave reviews, some of them brilliant, some of them tiresome. In the meantime, the big fish gets clean away.

What kind of a person is driven to write the kind of stories that Munro writes? What drives her? This biography sidesteps that question by presenting material circumstances as causative and ignoring the psychological. The limitation is all the more conspicuous since Munro’s stories reflect a deep fascination with psychology and she presumably devours biographies herself partly for that reason.

When I now remember that sunny day in Bayfield, Ontario, I think of Munro’s reference to “sudden vanishings” and how they rearrange and falsify all our versions of the past. My husband, the photographer, died the following summer. At the time of our Little Inn lunch, my brother had just died. I remember that we talked about deathbed conversations and belief. How do you deal with the problem of not believing in heaven when the person dying desperately needs you to say that you do? I had the distinct impression that Alice Munro could not understand why I would not just have told my brother a lie, but she was far too kind to say so. Instead, she responded with her own memory of how her mother, when close to death, had talked about the comfort of her belief. “Soon I will see Alice.”

The typist who transcribed our conversation was a recluse who said she welcomed this chance to learn something about Canadian literature. When the typescript came back to me, I laughed hysterically when I discovered that she had typed: “Soon I will see Elvis.” Some time later, when I read the story “Soon,” I could not imagine having found this error funny.

Ah yes. Fame. Alice. Elvis. The names multiply all too easily—like Andy Warhol’s “Sixteen Jackies.” This easy slippage of great author into celebrity is a sign of our times. It may be that biography is our last stand in an irrepressible yearning for an essential autonomous self. If so, it is ironic that we search for it in the most unlikely place, in the multiplied images of the often shallow lives of celebrities.

If demons drive Alice Munro, if she is tortured by guilt and grief, if she has an ego that pushes her to seek fame even as a reticent nature makes her fear it, you wouldn’t know it from this book. The absence of shadows is most noticeable at the end of the book. In his epilogue, Thacker reiterates Roger Angell’s image of Alice Munro as always returning home “sad with the sadness of life,” but he presents this sadness as tinged with a sentimentality and nostalgia that are belied by the domestic horrors in Munro’s stories.

The genre of biography inevitably suggests a cradle-to-grave chronology. It is a comfort to know that Alice Munro is alive and well and writing more stories. The best thing about this biography is that it has bought her time and that maybe she will be left alone, at least for a while, to get on with the writing.

In her memoir, Sheila Munro quotes her mother as reflecting on a time when she “didn’t really have a self.” Sheila seems baffled by this but John Keats would have understood. It is what he referred to as “negative capability.”

A literary critic can simply admit defeat and opt for Keats’s explanation. It is enough for me that there are stories like “Soon.” I don’t care all that much about the mystery of where they come from. A biographer lacks that luxury. What people want to buy is the illusion of a living and breathing self. Park Honan concludes that “unless every chapter reflects an appropriate sense of the subject’s presence, the biography at best has value as an academic reference book.” This biography does not succeed in creating an illusion of Alice Munro’s presence, but it will certainly be an indispensable reference work. If you are a reader longing for a glimpse into the living, breathing life of Alice Munro, then wait for her forthcoming book: The View from Castle Rock. And while you are waiting, reread Sheila Munro’s Lives of Mothers and Daughters. I recognize the woman evoked in that book as the one I lunched with in Bayfield. Carol Gilligan argued that women’s selves appear in relation, not as autonomous. Alice Munro—as a self in relation—is present as a living, breathing, much-beloved woman on every page of her daughter’s book. And she is not the least bit boring.

Magdalene Redekop is a professor emerita in the Department of English at the University of Toronto and the author of numerous articles on Mennonite culture. She is writing a book entitled Making Believe: Mennonites and the Crisis of Representation.