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‘I loved Alice Munro’s stories more than any I have ever read’

Eilís Ní Dhuibhne celebrates the magic of the Nobel laureate author, who has died, aged 92

Of course I can believe that Alice Munro is dead. She was born in 1931. For some years I have expected that she might die. She has lived for a long time, and she has not written – or at least published – a short story for quite a while, much to my dismay, as a reader who always awaited her stories with eager, bated breath. I loved her stories more than any I have ever read.

Why? What is her magic?

The best fiction is always about depth, psychological and emotional, rather than about breadth, and Alice Munro knew this from the word go. She is a realistic writer. She can cover a lot of time in a long short story, but she delves deep into specific moments rather than galloping along documenting events. For instance, a story like Nettles spans maybe 40 or 50 years in the life of the protagonist. But it focuses on two events, her meeting with a boy when she is eight, and her new encounter with him when she is let’s say 45.

Against a backdrop of landscape, geology, friendships, family life, marriage, divorce, she homes in on two half hours in this relationship – which never comes to anything big – and tells us all about it. In reporting what happens, in subtle descriptions, and in metaphors and symbols.

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I like her because she writes simple and beautiful prose. She doesn’t show off, she avoids linguistic flashiness – which is so often, although not invariably, superficial, masking lack of original thinking or analysis. But she deploys symbol and metaphor subtly and skilfully and modestly. She has an intimate storyteller’s voice which draws the reader in. And I always feel she’s writing about real truths, things that really matter, that she is showing us what life is like, for the cast of characters she writes about i.e. working and middle class white Canadians. She writes about the people she knows. This may be seen as a limitation but it is her strength. She doesn’t risk writing about what she knows nothing about. That can work but often it has the ring of falseness - which one senses, quickly, as a reader, and which is off-putting. Alice Munro’s writing always has the ring of truth.

In addition, and it’s not a small addition, she is a witty and humorous writer. Tragic stories – such as Silence, one of her great late stories – are told with a light and humorous touch, in the dialogue, in the observations of human foibles.

I first read her when I came across a second-hand copy of The Moons of Jupiter in one of the old Chapters shops, on Lincoln Place. I had never heard of her but on the Dart home from Westland Row I began to read her and could not believe how good the stories were. Why had I not heard of her? This was perhaps 1988. Soon I found out that others had heard of her – Caroline Walsh, then literary editor of The Irish Times, was a big fan. I got everything by Munro that existed, and from then on waited eagerly for new stories, in the New Yorker, and in collections.

Sometime during the 1990s, when I was chairperson of the Irish Writers’ Union, I invited her to Dublin to do a reading, with the support of the director of the Irish Writers’ Centre, Peter Sirr. To my surprise and gratification she accepted, and read to a big audience in Trinity College. She read half of The Jack Randa Tree (her stories are too long to fit a reading). She didn’t want to take questions from the audience (she was very smart!). But at a dinner afterwards in Chapter One, somewhat impromptu (thank you, Peter Sirr!) she was happy to chat about life and short stories. One of the things she said was that she loved Edna O’Brien’s stories and would give anything to have written The Rug (a great story by O’Brien). Munro visited Ireland on a number of occasions, apart from that.

I didn’t know Alice had suffered from dementia over the past few years. Some of her late stories dealt with the topic - The Bear Came Over the Mountain, which was the basis of the film Away From Her; Beside the Lake, among them.

Do I have favourite stories or collections? Yes, of course. I think her mid-life collections, Lives of Girls and Women, The Beggar Maid, Something I’ve been Meaning to Tell You, Friend of my Youth, Love of a Good Woman, are the best. The latest ones, The View from Castle Rock, Dear Life, are of course fantastic, but not as wonderful as those I named. The writing became ever so slightly thinner, although the wisdom and psychological depth remained. As for my favourite stories, they certainly include Nettles, Soon, Mischief, Bardon Bus, Hold Me Fast, Don’t Let Me Pass, Love of a Good Woman, Family Furnishings, The Children Stay.

Was she the Canadian Chekhov? That comparison always makes me want to strangle the speaker, because it is such a cliche. (One should always ask, what story or stories by Chekhov remind you of Alice Munro stories? ) Like the cliche that “she wrote about ordinary people”. Yeah, right, what short story writer, or novelist, does not? But, patience. They mean well and are just trying to say that she was a great writer, who, like Chekhov, wrote short stories (and plays – not like Munro). Alice Munro was the Canadian Alice Munro. She was one of the best short story writers of all time.

Éilís Ní Dhuibhne is the author of seven short story collections, most recently Little Red and Other Stories (2020)