Happy Belated 90th Birthday Alice Munro

Purchased in Toronto before I listened to her in person, October 21, 2009
Purchased in Toronto before I listened to her in person, October 21, 2009

Yesterday, July 10, Alice Munro, deemed Canada’s Chekhov, revered worldwide as the master of short stories on par with those of Tolstoy and Flaubert and the first Canadian woman to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature, turned 90. Expecting to read tributes to Alice in the weekend’s newspapers, I was saddened to find nothing in either The Globe and Mail or National Post. Neither did the CBC nor The New Yorker, which had first dibs on her stories for years, bother to acknowledge Alice. Although we had another story ready to post, enroute to the farmers’ market I had an idea. ”Do you have any nettles?” I asked Paul, one of our favourite vendors, thinking if I could quickly write a new post, I’d include a recipe in honour of Alice’s story of the same name.  When Paul said, “Last bag,” I knew what you’d be reading today.

Thank you Paul and Rebecca from Hannah Brook Farms for making this blog possible

A few years ago, I found an interview with Alice that I’d saved from Chatelaine magazine from August 1975, the paper faded to the colour of a stain on an old porcelain teacup. I had drawn a wavy black line under three words: “Recognition of yourself.”

It was Alice’s answer to the interviewer’s question, “What influence would you hope your books had on your readers?” Alice’s whole response goes like this:

Recognition of yourself—that’s the main thing. I don’t like to uplift anybody, or make their lives easy, or give them optimistic ideas, but I think it’s a great thing when someone comes up to me and says, “Yes, I really feel like that person in the book, and I can recognize it now, and it’s not so bad.

“The living writer most likely to be read in a hundred years.” The Atlantic

Electric is her writing, a powerful current, steady and sure. Then suddenly a sentence shocks you into a barrage of “recognition goose bumps.” Certain as daylight follows darkness, some element in every story in one of her fourteen collections will make you wonder: how-did-she-know-that-about-me?

“A Munro sentence, beguiling in its lucidity, compelling in its precision, seductive in its simplicity, offers constant enchantment,” writes Garan Holcombe.

In her gripping stories, narrative shifts. Memory unfolds. Perspective changes. Time swings back and forth. Twists surprise. Observations astound. Resolution flirts and you wonder, “what really happened here?” as once again, you are awestruck at the world Alice has created. The citation to Alice when she was awarded a doctorate of letters from Western University in 1976 describes her magic:

Here Mr. Chancellor, is an Alice who, from everyday experience, has created her own wonderland.

At one time in my life, I started writing a book about Alice, selecting ten of her stories to characterize the chronological arc of a woman’s life—daughter, girlfriend, first job, first sex, career, love, mother, friend, grandmother, widow—with a dinner menu to accompany each story. To that long-unopened folder on my computer I went after we returned from the market yesterday.

From the time she was eleven years old, Alice has been writing with knowingness, wit and compassion about ordinary girls and women exploring their worlds of possibilities. Her most autobiographical book, Lives of Girls and Women, contains some of her most poignant stories of what it means to be a daughter. This “whole book story sequence“ is set in the small town of Jubilee in Huron County, the geographical homeland of many of Alice’s stories that is very like Wingham, Ontario, where Alice Laidlaw grew up, which like the home of Del, the narrator, is on a “collapsing enterprise of a fox and mink farm, just beyond the most disreputable part of town.” From this book for my never-to-be-published file, I selected the story “Princess Ida.”

Its title comes from Tennyson’s “The Princess” in which the royal Ida attempts to educate and emancipate women, a poem written in response to the founding of Queen’s College, the first university for women. Intellectual development beyond the narrow roads of provincial life is also the goal of Del’s mother Addie who travels door-to-door selling encyclopedias and sends letters to the newspaper under the nom de plume Princess Ida. Although the story is set in the 1940s almost a century after Queen’s College was founded, a woman’s quest to improve her freedom through knowledge is still viewed as eccentric and highfalutin. Tennyson’s Princess Ida “flies too/ high, she flies too high! and yet/She asked but space and fairplay/ for her scheme.” Del’s Aunt Elspeth and Auntie Grace think the same of Addie: “Not much time for ironing,” they might continue compassionately, examining the sleeve of my blouse. Not much time for ironing when she has to go out on the road.” In this opening dialogue, Alice knowingly alludes to the consequences of a woman’s ambition, many that still need ironing out today.

Like the fictional Addie, Alice’s mother went on the road selling encyclopedias until her Parkinson’s disease made it impossible. After high school, Alice won a two-year scholarship to Western to study journalism where her first published story, “The Dimensions of a Shadow,” appeared in Folio, the student literary magazine, in 1950. When her scholarship ran out, she left university, not having the money to continue.

A year later she married Jim Munro and with much guilt about leaving her mother, she and Jim came west to Vancouver. (They lived for a time in our neighbourhood—my attempts to have a plaque erected in honour of her 80th birthday failed: Note to City Hall: I’m not done with this endeavour!)

Later they moved to Victoria and founded Munro’s Books. Raising three daughters, Shelia, Jenny and Andrea, Alice grasped at fragments of time to write between folding laundry and starting dinner; her first volume of short stories wasn’t published until 1968. Tom Vrera from Brick magazine says the real subject in Alice’s stories is time. “…no future escapes its past. For the real subject of these stories is not everyday people in everyday places. The real subject is time. Not time in the sense of a chronicle or a history. But time as a condition, a sentence to life.”

In time, 1973, Alice left Jim. She taught a summer course at Nelson and was writer-in-residence at Western. Alice reunited with Gerry Fremlin, a colleague at Western to whom she had submitted her first short story thinking he was Folio’s editor. (Gerry had written her a letter comparing her story to the work of Chekhov, and it was he who delivered the story to the magazine’s real editor.)  Having both grown up in Huron County, they settled together there in the town of Clinton, while also spending time in their home in Comox valley. Gerry passed away in 2013 and Alice, a private person, has been treated for cancer and a heart condition and is said to be living in Port Hope, Ontario, near one of her daughters.

For Chapter 2 of my non-book, to represent the girlfriend stage of a woman’s life I chose the story “Child’s Play,” one of Alice’s most haunting masterpieces that comes from her last book (2012), Dear Life. A single reading of this gothic story is like the memory of the most horrible thing you’ve ever done: it surfaces again and again, like a rock hidden beneath the waves until a low tide reveals its darkness.

The retrospective narrator says,

Every year when you’re a child, you become a different person. Generally, it’s in the fall, when you re-enter school, leave behind the muddle and lethargy of the summer vacation. That’s when you register the change most sharply. Afterwards you are not sure of the month or year but the changes go on, just the same. For a long while the past drops away from you easily and it would seem automatically, properly. Its scenes don’t vanish so much as become irrelevant. And then there’s a switchback, what’s been all over and done with sprouting up fresh, wanting attention, even wanting you to do something about it, though it’s plain there is not on this earth a thing to be done.

“She is the remote provider of intensely pleasurable private experiences.” Jonathan Franzen

“The Turkey Season,” which takes place in a turkey processing plant in a small Ontario town in the 1940s, was my choice for Chapter 3 to depict one’s first job. The story shines a light on Alice’s renowned ability to create “an awareness of the legendary quality of everyday life” as its characters orbit their own sexuality, more in touch with turkey innards than their own.

And how was it for you?

After anunpracticed counterfeit of passion,” Alice describes Rose’s first sexual experience in the story “The Beggar Maid,” my choice for Chapter 4:

…she was pleased when it was accomplished…. She thought of celebration.” Alice had no qualms about describing her personal feelings about sexual pleasure: “…obviously sex is the big thing, and the whole thing of emotions that radiate out from good sex, which seems to me so central in adult life, and so irreplaceable.

I won’t list the six other stories I chose, except for the one I chose to represent love.

Should I stay or should I go? The title of The Clash’s hit song is a question the many women in relationship dilemmas that Alice portrays frequently ask themselves. No Alice Munro story hauntingly reveals this quandary better than “Runaway” from her 2004 book of the same title (my favourite of all her stories). Your mind cannot run away from the psychological imagery in this story; it lingers around you like a low-lying fog on a cold winter’s night, its white luminescence edged with darkness.

“How can any one person know so much about the heads and hearts of so many different people? And how can she weave them together in stores that delight academics and ordinary readers alike, making each new Alice Munro book a literary event and a runaway best seller?’ Mona Simpson

Most of Alice’s stories jump around in time, reflecting the interrupted fragments of a woman’s life—aren’t we always in the middle of any number of shifting things?—and cannot be pigeon-holed into a single stage of a woman’s life.

About “Nettles:” “…what hurts profoundly in life and what is apparent vivid pain that can be overcome.” Christine Lorre-Johnston, Senior Lecturer in the Department of English at the Université Sorbonne Nouvelle, Paris

Take the story “Nettles,” another one I’m fond of.

Shifting in time, the narrator tries to revive a tender childhood friendship with a boy named Mike into an intimate adult relationship. This sentence foreshadows adulthood when she and Mike take cover during a storm in the rough of a golf course—in a patch of nettles it turns out.

In my feelings for Mike the localized demon was transformed into a diffuse excitement and tenderness spread everywhere under the skin, a pleasure of the eyes and ears and a tingling contentment, in the presence of the other person.

“Alice Munro brings as much depth, wisdom and precision to every story as most novelists bring to a lifetime of work.” Man Booker International Prize jury

Translated into more than twenty languages, the short-story collections of Alice Munro have been awarded the Man Booker International Prize, the Governor General’s Literary Award for fiction (three times) and a host of other prizes including the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction, the Commonwealth Writers Prize, The National Book Critics Circle Award, the O. Henry Award and the UK’s W. H. Smith Award. Alice has a stack of medals too, including the Lorne Pierce Medal from the Royal Society of Canada and a Medal of Honor for Literature from the US National Arts Club. She’s a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and a Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters, a title she probably finds amusing. Film adaptations of her short stories include Away From Her (Oscar nominee 2006) and Boys and Girls (Oscar winner 1986).

(Reading this, Magellan wonders why Alice Munro has not received the Order of Canada? She has two Queen Elizabeth Jubilee Awards from the Governor General but is not among the ~8,000 Canadians who have the Order of Canada! Mary Simon, there’s your first task.)

Wondrous accomplishments Alice.

And how is this a travel story? In 2009, I flew to Toronto for a night to witness Alice on stage, interviewed by Diana Athill, one of the most rewarding experiences of my life that you can share by clicking onto this YouTube recording of the event.

Alice, your short stories enable us to travel into the lives of girls and women, through, as Thomas Tausky says, your “remarkable powers of observation, unfailing ear for speech of all kinds, and capacity for the kind of wit which is unsentimental without deserting compassion.” Thank you for taking us places we can always return to on our bookshelves, for experiences that deepen with each re-reading.

I give you a recipe: Nettles Sformata.

Nettles Sformata: humble but royal, simple yet complex, delicious any time of day—symbolic of Alice’s short stories

Nettles Sformata

One of the most memorable things I’ve ever eaten is a nettles sformato. Spring green with a sturdy texture and hint of sweetness, like that of green peas, a sformato is similar to a soufflé but like an Alice Munro story, complex, not airy because of the greater proportion of vegetables and the density of ricotta cheese and wildly delicious. Humble in ingredients, royal in the finished product. Nettles are prickly; to avoid a nasty sting don‘t touch them—use tongs and/or rubber gloves to dump them into salted boiling water. If you can’t find nettles, maybe watercress or spinach will work. Like Alice Munro’s short stories, this sformata can be enjoyed any time of the day on its own or with any number of sides: cherry tomatoes, a salad, crudités, fresh or toasted bread…I’ve also made it in six ramekins as a starter course, in which case I reduce the cooking time a bit. Initially I made a recipe that included caramelized onions but I prefer this riff on one that was featured in The Telegraph, a recipe from Steve Parles that he learned from Ruth Rogers at the River Café in London.
Prep Time15 minutes
Cook Time30 minutes
Total Time45 minutes
Servings: 4
Author: Spice

Ingredients

  • 7 ounces 200 grams nettles
  • 1 cup ricotta cheese
  • 3 ounces 75 grams, about 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese, grated and divided in half
  • 3 eggs separated into 2 egg whites; and 2 egg yolks and 1 whole egg
  • Nutmeg nob
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • Freshly ground pepper
  • Butter for greasing the dish

Instructions

  • Bring a large saucepan of water to boil, salt and carefully add the nettles. (Use tongs or wear rubber gloves to avoid touching them.) Boil for 1 minute and drain in a colander, squeezing out as much of the water as you can with the back of a spoon.
  • When the nettles have cooled, transfer them to a food processor and process.
  • Beat 2 egg whites to the soft-peak stage. Set aside. In a separate bowl using the same beaters (less washing!), lightly beat the 2 egg yolks and whole egg.
  • To the nettles, add the egg yolk mixture, ricotta, 1/2 of the Parmesan, a good amount of freshly grated nutmeg, salt and pepper. Blend until smooth.
  • Fold in the beaten egg whites.
  • Butter, generously, a soufflé dish and pour in the mixture.
  • Sprinkle the remaining Parmesan on top.
  • Bake at 375° for 30 minutes.

Our dinner in honour of Alice Munro’s  birthday last night.

By the time we ate, I was ready for Magellan’s chosen accompaniment from Naramata: Nichol’s Pinto Gris 2020, an orange wine

Happy 90th birthday Alice Munro.

Navigation

Just google and you’ll find lots and lots about Alice. But for fun, here’s a good place to start, an article from 2017: 90 things to know about master short story writer Alice Munro.

Thackery, Robert. Alice Munro, Writing Her Lives. Toronto: Douglas Gibson Books, 2005.

“While this biography is a work of scholarship, it is clearly written for the intelligent book lover. As such, it deserves a place on the bookshelves of everyone who admires the work of the remarkable Alice Munro.” Back cover

4 Responses

  1. I will revert to my standard Art is often held in awe, by the eye of the beholder. Literature is in the same book, so to speak.
    We all favour our list of classic authors that feature subjects that are of interests to us, and possibly, to us only.
    Sounds like a interesting author, with many stories to relay, just not in my wheelhouse.
    Like the nettles, some things are better left at arms length, not eaten or touched, I have heard of nettles tea as well, for some reason my first reaction to the word nettles is the memories of swollen bumps on my arm, itchy as hell and not an experience to be forgotten. Again “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” nettles, ah, “No Thanks”, but you are welcome to my share.
    Nettles were a lesson for me, I will leave them right where I see them, not my cup of tea either.
    Cheers

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