Alice Munro’s Nobel Material

As has been widely reported, Alice Munro has been awarded the 2013 Nobel Prize for Literature, in recognition of a body of work that now includes 14 short story collections. Munro has been so consistently good for so long that it’s been easy to take her for granted; hopefully this announcement will have a lot of readers running back to her fierce, singular body of work. (Just FYI, the St. Louis Public Library has four copies of her Selected Stories in circulation.)

One Munro story I’ve had the pleasure of discovering recently is the early story “Material” from 1973. It is a tough, unsentimental story about gender and the joys and costs of making art, narrated by the ex-girlfriend of a macho literary writer (and the mother of one of his six children). It’s an early example of the kind of voice Munro does so well, decorous and well-behaved on the surface, but with a hidden stinger. Here’s the masterful first paragraph of “Material”:

I don’t keep up with Hugo’s writing. Sometimes I see his name, in the library, on the cover of some literary journal that I don’t open–I haven’t opened a literary journal in a dozen years, praise God. Or I read in the paper or see on a poster–this would be in the library too, or in a bookstore–an announcement of a panel discussion at the university, with Hugo flown in to discuss the state of the novel today, or the contemporary short story, or the new nationalism in our literature. Then I think, will people really go, will people who could be swimming or drinking or going for a walk really take themselves out to the campus to find the room and sit in rows listening to those vain quarrelsome men? Bloated, opinionated, untidy men, that is how I see them, cosseted by the academic life, the literary life, by women. People will go to hear them say that such and such a writer is not worth reading anymore, and that some writer must be read; to hear them dismiss and glorify and argue and chuckle and shock. People, I say, but I mean women, middle-aged women like me, alert and trembling, hoping to ask intelligent questions and not be ridiculous; soft-haired young girls awash in adoration, hoping to lock eyes with one of the men on the platform. Girls, and women too, fall in love with such men; they imagine there is power in them.

The event that sets “Material” in motion is the narrator finding a story of Hugo’s in a literary journal, a story that narrates an event from their time together many years before. While it’s obvious that the narrator has blistering verbal skills, it’s implied that she has never gone on to publish any work — instead, she has raised Hugo’s child — while Hugo has been collecting the accolades that he lists in his hilarious and dead-on author biography (Munro’s deconstruction of this author bio is absolutely delightful; I’d quote from it but you really just need to go find this story, it’s in Selected Stories).


(Illustration by Andreas Vartdal)

The story goes on to narrate the experience that is the basis of Hugo’s story (and the narrator’s story too, of course, unwritten until now). In other words, life’s raw “material.” The experience, dating back to the time when the narrator and Hugo were a young artsy couple, involves a dingy apartment building, a loud water pump, and a woman named Dotty, the landlord’s daughter, who lives in the basement and turns tricks to pay her rent, earning her the nickname “harlot-in-residence.” Without giving too much away, Hugo commits a morally shady act that later provides the basis for his short story. We expect the narrator, who has been so unsparing of Hugo to this point, to condemn the short story as well, but here “Material” takes another unexpected turn:

That doesn’t matter. What does matter is that this story of Hugo’s is a very good story, as far as I can tell, and I think I can tell. How honest this is and how lovely, I had to say as I read. I had to admit. I was moved by Hugo’s story; I was, I am, glad of it, and I am not moved by tricks. Or if I am, they have to be good tricks. Lovely tricks, honest tricks. There is Dotty, lifted out of life and held in light, suspended in the marvelous clear jelly that Hugo has spent all his life learning how to make. It is an act of magic, there is no getting around it; it is an act, you might say, of a special, unsparing, unsentimental love.

That’s not the end, either: nothing is that simple in Munro. But it doubles as a pretty good description of what a Munro story does (I didn’t notice until just now how the phrase “turning tricks” resonates in that paragraph). No question that Alice Munro’s tricks are good ones. Her sleight-of-hand is never showy, just as quiet as her response to the award, but no less amazing.  There are very few writers who have managed to smuggle as much of the material of life onto the page. But it’s the magic of Munro’s language, that “marvelous clear jelly” (!), that has scribblers everywhere celebrating her recognition today.

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