I am reading Alice Munro all the time, really: whole stories, or whole collections, or just bits of stories, for the pure pleasure of the fragment. It’s not extraordinary, then, that I was sharing some of her writing – the title story of her 2001 collection Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage – in a seminar with students just a couple of days before the news came of her death, with all the accompanying sadness of the loss of her. That story, about a strong plain solitary woman seeking out marriage with an improbable man she hardly knows, deceived by a mean trick played on her by a couple of teenagers, is so apparently straightforward, so out in the open, that just at first there doesn’t seem much to say about it except: look how good it is, look how like life it is. How fascinating, that such adventures might befall such individuals! I remember reading about a poetry seminar with Elizabeth Bishop where all she wanted to say about a poem she loved was: yes, those trees look just like that, a road winding away gives just that effect. There’s nothing to compare to that satisfaction for a reader: reading as assent, when words close on their matter with such precision, such clean truth. Only if you’ve tried to write can you know how difficult it is to achieve that transparency and wholeness. 


In the Munro story, Johanna is buying a dress to get married and the saleswoman’s tact and inspiration would have been just like that; and then there’s Johanna’s paying for a train ticket, and rubbing the maple wood furniture with lemon polish, and airing the sick man’s bedsheet until it smells of wind and grass, just as she would have. Lesser writing seems performative beside it. That baldness and transparency belong particularly to Munro’s writing in the last decades of her career. In the writing of the seventies and eighties there’s the same unfailing clear sight, but her narration is characteristically thickened with equivocation, it’s more wary. Who says it was like this? Can I be sure I’m telling you how it was? How can we know what’s really true for ourselves, let alone for other people? Out of that equivocation she wins the austerity of the later storytelling; some of the narrative complexity seems to fall away, leaving the story bare. 

I was taken aback by some of these later collections when they first came out. They seemed bare rock in place of the complex landscape, luxuriant with thought and doubt, that I had loved Munro for. I had to learn, over time – the way one does with any writing that’s genuinely new – how to read them. Sustaining the apparent plainness of ‘Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage’, what consummate assurance in handling her narrative, her perspective, the structure of her story, the deliciously intricate knot of its plot! And its finale – where one of the wicked teenagers disclaims, even to herself, all responsibility for the consequences of her trick, writing fake love letters to Johanna – is a bravura piece of improvisation, like a flare of the earlier Munro, showing that as well as producing miracles of sheer happening (including a baby called Omar!) a story is able to meditate richly on free will, meaning, the treachery of writing, the forbiddenness of knowing – all in one paragraph. Glorious.


But it isn’t that story I wanted to talk about just now. I’ve always had this slight obsession with a story called ‘Powers’, in Munro’s 2004 collection Runaway. It’s an odd, long story, beginning with passages of lovely ventriloquism from a girl’s diary in the 1920s: ‘I think she does lead them on a bit… I just scurried out of there with my tail between my legs.’ Munro wrote more, I think, about the past-before-her-own-past, as she grew older. Cheery, shrewd, conscientious Nancy (‘a bit too prodigal,’ someone thinks, ‘with the sunshine of her personality’) has an eccentric friend from school with psychic powers: Tessa can find lost things, see into people’s pockets. It’s a small gift, but a real one. Nancy introduces her to Ollie, a charmer and chancer, and he runs off with Tessa – first to have her gift investigated by experts in ESP, and then, as the years pass and the Depression hits, performing mind-reading acts in travelling shows, ‘sharing the stage with the hypnotists and snake ladies and dirty monologists and strippers in feathers’. Tessa loses her powers, they mostly resort to tricks, and, depressed and null without them, she becomes a burden: Ollie puts her in a home, where they treat her with electric shocks. In the 1960s, Nancy finds her there. 

The story winds and folds against itself through time and there’s a characteristic Munro opacity about exactly what happened between Ollie and Tessa. How could we finally ever know? Well, in the final pages, Nancy dreams it. She seems to become in her dream first Ollie and then Tessa, and she sees a tawdry hotel room, Tessa dressed up in a yellow satin skirt and a black shawl patterned with roses for that evening’s performance, the papers for Tessa’s committal in Ollie’s pocket. Tessa thinks her gift has gone but then to her delight she finds that, without looking, she knows there’s an odd pyramidal heap of dead flies hidden behind the dresser, on the windowsill. She moves the dresser and, triumphant, finds the flies. She’s still got her gift, she can still do it! Even though nothing could be more pointless than finding a heap of flies. Vindicated, happy, she lies down against Ollie on the bed, rests her head against his chest. Of course, when she hears the papers crackling in his pocket, she ought to be able to know what those are too. But she chooses not to. 

I’ve always thought that in this story Munro was writing in a glancing, teasing, ironic way about her own gift, that gift of realism, her power to make the reader feel it’s just like that. No amount of hard labour or literary know-how or intellectual ambition or perseverance will substitute for the sheer magic, the power to do what Nancy just did, close her eyes and conjure the whole convincing scene in her mind’s eye: the décor of the room, the clothes, the weather, the words the characters speak, their tortuous relationship, the hovering hope and the doom. And the absurd improbable clinching detail of that pyramid of dead flies on the windowsill – which must be real because who would ever, according to any logical schema, make it up? ‘Somebody who was in this room recently has passed the time killing these flies, and has then collected all the little bodies and found this place to hide them in.’ 

This gift of literary realism, this smoke and mirrors of verisimilitude, this effort to make words on a page feel as accidental and arbitrary as life itself, has its aspect as precarious, trivial, a bag of tricks, pointless. Or it might be a kind of possession, uneasy and uncanny. It might be dangerous or overweening, falsifying: there’s dread news on the papers in that pocket. But the gift is also enchanting, it’s a dream-promise of transcendence, it changes us, it makes us love life more. ‘The sense of being reprieved lights all the air.’ The writer can’t count on it or force it, it only comes by grace – and in fact she’s handed it over, inside this story, to Nancy, who isn’t a writer at all. Ordinary and mysterious at once, this realism is no doubt connected in some deep place to our capacity for empathy, to the possibility and the risk of imagining what others see and feel, through which we just about manage to live together. As Nancy arouses from her dream, it ‘begins to crumble behind her, to crumble and darken tenderly into something like soot and soft ash’. We mourn the passing of Munro’s beautiful gift.