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Jane Smiley: A thank you to Alice Munro

Jane Smiley: A thank you to Alice Munro

A speech delivered in honour of the winner of the Man Booker International Prize at Trinity College Dublin on May 27, 2009

The brow of Castlerock, with a view across the Atlantic Ocean, in Edinburgh, in 1818. The mountains of northern Victoria State, in Australia of the 1870s. The desert of Bahia State, in Brazil, in 1898. The Tunnel of Love at Coney Island, 1910. A village shop near Port of Spain, Trinidad, 1930. A middle class neighborhood in Kansas City, Missouri, 1935.  A bed in a room at Theresienstadt Concentration Camp in northeastern Czechoslovakia, 1944. A vast river valley in East Africa, 1955. A working class tenement in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1957. A darkened movie theater in Hollywood, California, in 1959. A café on a crowded street in Lisbon, 1970. A tiny village in Bihar, India, 1975. A house by the shore of the Black Sea, 1977. A university classroom in Amsterdam, at the beginning of the 21st century. Fiction, as Cervantes would have been happy to tell you, is and must be geographical. The eyes of a character look out upon the world at hand, and it is a world that lives and compels because the character must soon make his or her way through it. It is a world that must have difficulties to resolve or succumb to, must offer pleasures that make the journey necessary or desirable, must contain mysteries that change the character’s sense of himself or herself.  The history of the novel form since Don Quixote is a history of geographic dispersal—authors in ever-more far flung spots take up the task of regarding themselves and those around them, and readers travel from that pinprick on the map where they first learned to read to all those grander spots revealed by those authors. Thus is it entirely appropriate that the literary prize we are celebrating tonight makes us think of the world, and aims to be a prize that celebrates the writing of fiction as a world-wide phenomenon. For my fellow jurors, Amit Chaudhuri and Andrey Kurkov, and myself, this last eighteen months of reading has been a gift of the world, or of worlds, that we had not experienced before.

We all three made new friends—Andrey, astonishing to me, found a couple of Kansas City, Missouri, Republicans, exotic. Amit revisited India afresh in the mind of an Italian writer obsessed with a Portuguese poet. I loved the experience of contemplating my own past through the eyes of a Croatian woman who is almost exactly my age. When we came to making our choices, our judgment was clouded—it was clouded by infatuation, enthusiasm, discovery, pleasure, longstanding affection. When it came time to choose, there was no idea of consulting scholars or authorities. We are fiction-writers—we consulted our passions. Because we loved our shortlist, because after we chose it, we high-fived one another all the way down the grand staircase of the New York Public Library, I would like to read that list again: Peter Carey, Evan S. Connell, Mahasweta Devi, E.L. Doctorow, James Kelman, Mario Vargas Llosa, Arnost Lustig, Alice Munro, V.S. Naipaul, Joyce Carol Oates, Antonio Tabucchi, Ngugi Wa Thiongo, Dubravka Ugresic, and Lyudmila Ulitskaya. They were all different from one another, fourteen points on a star that appeared to have no center, no place of compromise. Carey offered a kind of overwhelming richness, Connell, an incisive perceptiveness, Devi, the pleasures of discovering both her work and her subject matter, the lives of the tribal peoples of India. E.L. Doctorow offered the thrill of endless inventiveness, James Kelman the originality that comes of the closest possible observation of the familiar. Mario Vargas Llosa seemed always to see more completely and wisely than could be possible for a single author, while Arnost Lustig understood events and feelings that no one else has excavated so precisely. V.S. Naipaul offered us the English language as it had never been used before, Joyce Carol Oates a super-human galaxy of lives. In Tabucchi, we found mystery and seduction, and in Wa Thiongo an essential understanding of modern history. We loved Ugresic for her honesty and Ulitskaya for her generosity. We finished our reading with regret—I think we were all ready for more, so that is a compliment to all of our authors.

But our choice for the Man Booker International Prize had to be Alice Munro. Yes, we discussed. Yes, there were other candidates. But as with many things that look like choices ahead of time, in retrospect, the result seems inevitable. I would like to digress here and point out that my own greatest act of heroism and self control in this process was not, in fact, reading a certain 900 page fictional anatomy of the post-modern American malaise in four days. Rather, it was resisting the temptation to run down to William Hill, once I saw the odds on the shortlist, and redeem all my bad bets over the years on longshots at the racetrack with one sizable flutter on Alice Munro, who went to the post at 16/1.

            Alice Munro has published sixteen volumes of fiction in the last forty-one years. She has not, on the surface, seemed as ambitious or been as prolific as some of her contemporaries. She has, on the surface, adhered to a realist voice and a particular form, the form of the short story. In an era of literary experimentation and of adventurous and sometimes disorienting voices, both male and female, she has written stories that are both understandable and self-effacing. So, what does she have? How is it that she is one author whose every work I have read? How is it that the announcement of her award was greeted in the press with almost universal celebration? It is because we all know that the surface of Alice Munro’s works, its simplicity and quiet appearance, is a deceptive thing, that beneath that surface is a store of insight, a body of observation, and a world of wisdom that is close to addictive, a set of thoughts that we do not want to miss about characters and events that we feel a need to understand.

            Millions of readers pick up an Alice Munro story and react with a kind of galvanized self-recognition. For me, the first time this occurred was when I read “Miles City, Montana,” which appeared in the collection, The Progress of Love, published in 1986. In 1986, Alice Munro’s older daughters were in their thirties, but I didn’t know that. My daughters were eight and four, and I was all too familiar with that sense of being in the car with two little girls on a long trip, of listening to the differences between them define themselves in the back seat in a sometimes alluring and often unpleasant manner. You are trapped, and yet deliciously so. Something desired has been attained, and, perhaps to your chagrin, you are still learning from it. The small family stops in Montana and the girls get to swim in a municipal pool that is not really open for business. Things are fine, and then they are not, because the younger girl vanishes. As in life, in literature—I nearly had a heart attack. Now, as I think of that incident, I can’t remember whether it happened to me or not. The face I see on that child is the face of my own younger daughter, the relief I remember feeling is the relief Alice Munro describes as the story ends. The genius of that story is the characteristic genius of Alice Munro—that moments and observations and feelings that many other authors might forget or consider too trivial to contemplate, she excavates and reveals for what they are, moments where the meaning of life, but not only that, the FEELING of life is laid bare, and not only understood, but relived. That is one aspect of our love for the work of Alice Munro.

            It took me longer to appreciate the stories that Munro has set in the past. Here again was the quiet voice, the meticulous attention to every word, but wasn’t history supposed to be grander than this, more dramatic? In “A Wilderness Station,” two brothers take possession of a property in the wilderness of Ontario. One of them would like a wife, not a beauty, not someone to love, honor, cherish, and support, but someone to do the inside work. A girl is sent from an orphanage, and, not long after she comes, her husband is killed by a falling tree branch. This event is set into the letters and reminiscences of the people around them—the recollections of the younger brother, letters between clergymen, remarks of a friend who happened to drive the young woman, now old, out to visit the family. It is dramatic how a mystery is revealed, and for me as a writer, exciting to be taken by surprise, but more importantly, the folding of all of these lives into the origami of a 33 page long short story is thrilling—Alice Munro has substituted insight and care and economy for length, and when I am finished reading “A Wilderness Station,” I find it has had the impact of a novel.

            And it is this very thing that, apparently, put the odds on Alice Munro at 16/1 rather than 2/1 or 6/1—she writes short stories. Ah, I would have said while placing my bet, “little do you know.”

            We members of the Man Booker International Prize jury are under no illusions that we are somehow introducing Ms. Munro to a larger audience. As her Canadian editor pointed out when interviewed after the announcement of the award, Alice Munro doesn’t need this—she is lauded and celebrated and studied. She has won the respect of multitudes. But the Man Booker International Prize is not entirely about bringing a writer who lives at the periphery of the English-speaking world to the center of that world. In my view, that is the job of the shortlist. As Andrey, Amit, and I said while we were choosing our shortlist, more more more books ought to translated into English, and more more more English-speaking readers should read such novels as Petals of Blood, Medea and her Children, The War of the End of the World, Pereira Declares, The Ministry of Pain, Mother of 1084, and Lovely Green Eyes. These novels are utterly compelling and entirely distinct from one another in their themes, plots, settings, and styles. They do not suffer in translation, as far as we could tell. They should be taught in schools, and discussed at parties, and written about on blogs and in the press. I do not see how we can fruitfully ponder the world we live in without understanding the cruelty of colonialism from the African perspective, the history of the Soviet Union from the Russian perspective, the allure and tragedy of millennial movements, the process by which a modest, well-meaning man converts from accepting fascism to rejecting it, the inner life of an exile from a country that no longer exists, the feelings of a mother whose child has been killed by the government, and the perspective of a teen-aged girl who is exploited for sexual release by Nazi officers.

            But the purpose of the prize itself, we thought, was somewhat different. The purpose of the prize was to celebrate great writing above all—to recognize the mastery of someone who has entered a pre-existing literary form and changed it utterly, put it to uses that no one had thought of before, made it live freshly for readers. The purpose of the prize was to recognize that art is both illuminating and delightful, and to honor a writer who embodies these two qualities in all her books.

            Last fall, Margaret Atwood reflected, in the Guardian, on Alice Munro’s home geography and its relationship to her work. Munro has explored this landscape—one of flat fields, working farms, isolated towns, long winters—over and over in the last forty years, saying that the region fascinated her: “What I wanted was every last thing, every layer of speech and thought, stroke of light on bark or walls, every smell, pothole, pain, crack, delusion, held still and held together - radiant, everlasting." What Atwood identified as equally characteristic of the region is a deeper geography: “repressed emotions, respectable fronts, hidden sexual excesses, outbreaks of violence, lurid crimes, long-held grudges, strange rumours - these are never far away in Munro's Sowesto, partly because all have been provided by the real life of the region.” Munro’s genius has been to focus so particularly—to eschew, in some sense, the larger world in favor of a world that appears to be smaller and more limited. Our discovery as readers who hail from some pinprick on the map that may be thousands of miles from Sowesto, is that the forms and habits and passions and defenses of the humans we know are also revealed by Alice Munro’s literary scalpel--repressed emotions, respectable fronts, hidden sexual excesses, long held grudges are the way the world works, no matter where you are.

            And no matter who you are. I suppose it hasn’t escaped the attention of anyone in this room that Alice Munro is a woman who has made it her business to write about “The Lives of Girls and Women.” There have been many women fiction writers over the years, and some of them are among the most popular writers ever—like Jane Austen. But when those lists of greatest novels get made, the lives of girls and women are given short shrift—there is something about them that is too humble or too quotidian for greatness. Since the largest audience for fiction is in fact made up of girls and women, those lists must become a kind of propaganda from the list-makers to the readers—this is what you should be reading, even though it may have little bearing on what you do or how you think. Without being overtly political, Alice Munro challenges that presumption. It is with the utmost care that she ponders the inner lives and the aspirations of  characters, such as Del in The Lives of Girls and Women, who stand in for her own point of view. From that place of seriousness, she ponders the lives of the women who are not like her—Flo, in some of the early stories, Fiona, in “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” Carla, in “Runaway,” Annie, in “A Wilderness Station,” Johanna, in “Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage.” No woman in an Alice Munro story is ever less than an agent of her own existence, no matter how impoverished or powerless her circumstances, and no woman’s circumstances, in an Alice Munro story, are seen to be trivial. Alice Munro understands, and communicates, that a moral life full of drama can be lived by any woman, in fact, must be lived by every woman. To read her work is to see lives from the inside that in another author’s work might appear meaningless and unimportant—such is her capacity for empathy. Munro is often alleged to be an unpolitical writer, but expanding the realm of what the culture takes seriously is always a political act. There is no universal point of view, no unbiased art. As one larger goal of our prize is to broaden our knowledge of the world geographically and politically, so another goal is to deepen our knowledge of the lives around us, to teach us not to slight or overlook what we see everyday. The celebration of Alice Munro that I have seen in the press since the announcement of this award is in part the joy of writers who have taken Alice Munro’s care and seriousness as a model and learned how to improve their own vision and their own work.

            I believe that the Man Booker International Prize is an important one. It offers a vantage point from which English language readers and publishers may survey the world, and it invites publishers and writers and readers from outside the English language to offer their work for translation. My greatest wish is that the members of the next jury, for the 2011 award, will be overwhelmed with reading and endlessly frustrated by the requirement that they must choose one out of so many as “the best.” I wish to curse them with an abundance of great books to read and choose among. But my curse will be a blessing—because as a reader, I do not finish my eighteen month long task with relief. I finish it with a shelf of books that I am eager to get started upon, books by our authors that Amit or Andrey got to read and I did not, or books that shaped our authors.  I would like to thank Ion Trewin and Fiammetta Rocco, whose organizational skills made our job both doable and enjoyable. I would like to thank the Man Group for blessing the sometimes lonely and overlooked literary life with both glamour and funds. I would like to thank our authors for giving us such wonderful books to read, and I would like to thank Amit and Andrey for reading them. Most of all, I would like for Alice Munro to receive this prize as gratitude, our gratitude, for her work. Thank you.