Book review: Alice Munro’s Dear Life

What is it about Canadians? They seem to be everywhere these days. Laurence Inman writes in praise of another one.

Autumn 1968. There I am, little Loz Inman, talking like Noddy Holder, getting on the train to Manchester, to University, to become a different person, and it started there, on the train, because when I got off it I was Laurence Inman, Philosophy student, poet, artist, thinker, and speaking like Brian Sewell (with perhaps a soupcon of Jonathan Miller.) Women (girls in those days) saw through me straightaway, so I went back to being myself.

I made the same kind of mistake thirty years later when I first got into comedy. Audiences know immediately if you’re not being yourself and it makes them uncomfortable. So I stopped trying to be a bit like Frank Skinner and let my own voice do the talking.

I should have read Carl Jung. He saw three stages in most people’s lives. First, we have to escape dependency, create our own identity. Then we reconcile ourselves to the reality of the world and other people. Finally we enter an end-phase, a lagoon of self-awareness, when solitude of mind becomes more desirable, essential even, if we are to be happy. You can see this in the careers of Henry James, Wordsworth, Beethoven, Yeats and Shakespeare.

Alice MunroI don’t feel uncomfortable in mentioning the name of Alice Munro in that company. Anton Chekhov didn’t live beyond phase two – she’s certainly in his category. She recently announced that she’s finished with writing, at the age of eighty-two, a year after the publication of her last collection of stories, Dear Life. She’s going to spend more time living.

Dear Life is a great way to go out. There are ten stories and a Finale, consisting of four pieces which she describes as ‘not quite stories’ and which are loosely autobiographical.

I think she has achieved what all great artists are striving for in the end: a completely transparent and natural voice, having nothing contrived or artificial about it, an art where you can see nothing of how it works, none of the distraction of hearing the wheels going round.

In ‘Amundsen’ a woman is given a glimpse of a future life, only to have it brutally snatched away. But the tiny flame of hope is never totally extinguished and it ends with the haunting sentence: ‘Nothing changes really about love.’ I challenge you to put those five words in a better order.

Life is a network of branches, possibilities, chances, doors never opened, sometimes never seen, or even known about. The other story I want to mention especially, ‘Train’, deals with this; it’s a superbly-structured and heart-breaking tale of damage and way it warps, first one life, and then others it has contact with.

I feel both grateful, for having been alive at the same time that this woman was producing her work, and sad, that we shall hear no more from the quiet corner of Canada where she will savour her final years.