Alice Munro was born on this day in 1931. In her most recent interviews, Munro has reiterated that Dear Life (2012), her fourteenth story collection, will be her last. If so, would-be biographers will be combing “Finale,” the quartet of bio-stories that conclude Dear Life,for clues:
The final four works in this book are not quite stories. They form a separate unit, one that is autobiographical in feeling, though not, sometimes, entirely so in fact. I believe they are the first and last — and the closest — things I have to say about my own life.
Far from offering a clear historical record or definitive self-reflection, “Finale” is tentative and unfinal in the familiar Munro manner. If this manner is like Chekhov’s — “She is our Chekhov, and is going to outlast most of her contemporaries,” Cynthia Ozick famously predicted a quarter century ago — it is worth noting that Munro admires Chekhov’s style precisely because there is “no striving in it, no personality.”
There is certainly a Cherry Orchard tone to Munro’s own stylistic ideal, which aims for a story in which everything “seems to bloom of its own accord” and in which the reader, as if in some commodious but fated country estate, might roam at will:
A story is not like a road to follow.… it’s more like a house. You go inside and stay there for a while, wandering back and forth and settling where you like and discovering how the room and corridors relate to each other, how the world outside is altered by being viewed from these windows. And you, the visitor, the reader, are altered as well by being in this enclosed space, whether it is ample and easy or full of crooked turns, or sparsely or opulently furnished. You can go back again and again, and the house, the story, always contains more than you saw the last time. It also has a sturdy sense of itself of being built out of its own necessity, not just to shelter or beguile you.
In “Finale,” Munro wanders the literal farmhouse of her southern Ontario childhood, poking around the scenes and shifting narratives of her past, adding herself to a long list of characters for whom dear life is both precious and hard won.
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.