Jonathan Franzen (on Alice Munro)

“Reading Munro puts me in that state of quiet reflection in which I think about my own life: about the decisions I’ve made, the things I’ve done and haven’t done, the kind of person I am, the prospect of death. She is one of the handful of writers, some living, most dead, whom I have in mind when I say that fiction is my religion. For as long as I’m immersed in a Munro story, I am according to an entirely make-believe character the kind of solemn respect and quiet rooting interest that I accord myself in my better moments as a human being.”

Jonathan Franzen is the great American novellist (The Corrections, Freedom, and a brilliant non-fiction collection called How To Be Alone, among others). He paid the most breathtakingly erudite tribute to Ms. Munro in a 2004 New York Times review of her collection Runaway. This remarkable piece lauds the greatness of Alice Munro, and criticizes literary fashion and our culture’s blindness, in one restless, contrarian, impassioned and unpredictable essay.

Alice Munro (fiction and parental fears)

Don’t be fooled: her writing isn’t dainty, but perfectly dangerous.

Well, you all know that the Canadian short story writer Alice Munro, 82 years young, won the Nobel Prize for Literature this year after a career of writing nothing but short stories.

Or maybe you didn’t. Short story: she’s magnificent, and I blushed at how long it’s been since I have read her. When the Nobel news came there was only one thing at hand for me to read: “Miles City, Montana”, from a paperback Canadiana collection that I picked up somewhere, my Can-Lit homework for this fifth China year.

It’s typically homely, but danger lurks. A couple and their two small girls travel by car from British Columbia to southern Ontario, mostly via the United States. I won’t go on, but simple events and the hauntings of memory make us feel that we have known the narrator from the inside. Here’s the quote.

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What Difference Does It Make?

You may have noticed the scarcity of posts over the past couple of weeks, all because of a family trip to Guadeloupe. Computer access was scarce, and there was lots to see. So you can look, over the next week or so, for a flood of reflections on that fine adventure and other things I’ve been meaning to tell you.

The trip has me asking one positively nagging question of myself. It’s another round of a skullbound parlour game that I’ve played many times over the years. I’m getting to be good at it. I’m learning to take the most sneering or self-righteous dismissal, the verbal brutality of a nasty rhetorical question, turn it inside out and tame it. I make it do what I want. Wanna play?

Here’s a question covered in thorns. Who do you think you ARE? Alice Munro made it the title of a short story collection, and she showed the essence of that all too prevalent Canadian attitude: a prim, haughty disapproval of ambition or boldness or extraordinary achievement. I hear that voice in my head, still, almost every time I try to step out of my comfortable furrow. Now, though, I can often turn it around, asking the question sincerely rather than for the sake of making a harsh judgement. When I ask it in that tone of voice, I use it to gently challenge myself or someone else to consider first principles of identity, to get a little more self-aware. Okay, who or what IS a human being, and what does that all mean for me right now? How do you see yourself?

Another of my favourite turnarounds, in the same vein, begins with the incredulous What do you think you’re DOING? We generally use this when we catch someone doing something that we don’t approve of or understand. (My students and my children have heard this blurt more often than I’d like.) However, I like to play Socrates a little – or maybe just fumble about like rerun TV’s detective Columbo. I grind off the sharp critical edge and make the question into a sincere probe. How do you understand your behaviour and the attitude behind it? Do they show some sense of purpose, some higher commitment? Do they help you get where you’d like to go? The examined life is no picnic, but it’s worth living, as the real Socrates said.

Guadeloupe, warm and bright and new to us, suddenly seems distant on a minus-30 northern morning. My tan is already fading. Listen: if you take a trip but there are no lasting results, did it actually happen? I started to wonder, in our last days there and on Air Canada homeward, so what difference did this make? When I was a kid, this question had a bitter, defiant edge. Whatsa DIFF? we would say pugnaciously. It was meant to shut down an argument, and our antagonist, snottily “proving” that his actions and words weren’t worth a damn. (Sometimes, it had a more discouraged feel to it; nothing that I do is going to matter, so why bother?)

So, again, I found myself extracting the poison from a toxic question. What difference does it make became a personal challenge to nurture whatever seeds of usefulness and joy we had planted. There are new friendships to develop, fine memories and educative bits that we can treasure and build on, and the chance to reflect on our work and life back home. (There were times I hated to be away from my work table, but I’m so lucky and glad that I was. I like it here better today than I have for awhile.) My bride and I travelled with our six-year-old, and that furious learning and those wide-open eyes are a spur and an admonition. We’ll see what the difference is. I’ll try to make sure there IS one.