Reading the wrong way.

It’s an address I wouldn’t want to move to, and I didn’t enjoy my recent visit. But the impulse to say that makes me wonder whether I’m some sort of big city chauvinist, or a misogynist, or autistic, or a decadent reader deaf to the charms of simple sentences, perfectly polished (‘Alice Munro excites the writer in me,’ A.S. Byatt says, ‘there is something new to learn from her in every sentence’) and perfectly humourless. Reading ten of her collections in a row has induced in me not a glow of admiration but a state of mental torpor that spread into the rest of my life. I became sad, like her characters, and like them I got sadder. I grew attuned to the ways life is shabby or grubby, words that come up all the time in her stories, as well as to people’s residential and familial histories, details she never leaves out. How many rooms are in the house, and what sort of furniture and who used to own it and what is everybody wearing? To ask these questions is to live your life like a work of realism. I saw everyone heading towards cancer, or a case of dementia that would rob them of the memories of the little adulteries they’d probably committed and must have spent their whole lives thinking about. ‘You’re reading them the wrong way,’ someone told me. This too ought to go without saying. Munro’s stories suffer when they’re collected because the right way to read them is in a magazine, where they can be tucked between, say, a report on the war in Syria and a reconsideration of Stefan Zweig to provide a rural interlude between current atrocities and past masterpieces, or profiles of celebrities or sophisticated entrepreneurs. A slice of sad life in the sticks, filtered through an enlightened eye and most likely set ‘in the old days’, as the first line of one of the stories in her new collection, Dear Life, puts it. It’s perhaps her consistency that her admirers cherish: ‘like butterscotch pudding on the boil’.

Christian Lorentzen on Dear Life and Alice Munro in general. [via LRB]



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