• Tag Archives Alice Munro
  • Claude Simon: We missed his centenary — don’t miss his books!

    imageOn October 10, 2013, the very day Alice Munro was busy winning the Nobel Prize, an altogether different kind of author was busy accruing general obscurity. Eight years after his death, in spite of being one of world literature’s dark giants, in spite of a Nobel of his own, and in spite of it being his centenary, readers of literary fiction everywhere were, quite vigorously, not talking about Claude Simon.

    What notice might have come to him on the occasion of his 100th was thwarted by the day’s main event; Canadian letters and the modern short story were finally getting their dues. Hard to say what Claude Simon would have made of Munro’s short, elusive epics. The frailties and vanities we sling against our mortality leap into her narrative net like fish on the far side of Peter’s boat. By contrast, Simon set himself the task of evoking the net of time itself, which holds our mortality, and against which it becomes as piffling a thing as our frailties and vanities. In Munro, the effect is one of piercing intimacy (not to be mistaken for warmth), as if the reader himself had been caught in flagrante delicto, and, rather than being either judged or forgiven, is delivered a parable. In Simon the effect is one of distance and grandeur (often mistaken for coldness), which we read in the way one might take in the paintings on the walls of the caves at Altamira, uncomprehending, yet alerted by rising neck hairs that something approaching the elemental has been uttered.

    Munro’s popularity has been like a long-held, well maintained financial portfolio, a steadily rising line over time, weathering the dips and flights of the literary marketplace. No modernist repudiations of the medium for her, nor post-modern repudiations of the reader. She writes as if words can and and do mean something, provided you write about what can be said, which turns out to be quite a lot. This is not to disregard her remarkable innovations of form and her starkly modern view of men and women. But she is the great exponent of the transparent surface. No sentence is either notably long or dryly clipped. No one would call her an adjective whore, but neither are her sentences self-consciously barren. A Munro story is written so that as you’re reading it you have only a shadowy awareness that you are doing so.

    By contrast, reading is often all you can be said to be doing with a text by Claude Simon. This is because he was a writer whose aim was to extend the parameters of writing itself, a dubious undertaking for those who hold to a certain literary prudery. His sentences, elastic with parenthesis and parenthesis within parenthesis, can stretch across many pages, and if you allow your attention to be held, you will be frequently baffled to discover where he’s lead you, and if, rather than being put off, you are fascinated then you may be compelled to backtrack down the narrow path you’ve just cut through the wilderness of often lyric prose in a search for the origins of the narrative present. If you find yourself doing so, in spite of how bewildered you might feel, then you have understood Simon perfectly; his great subject, more than the constants of aging and death, more than the gross and subtitle impact of war, more than the eternal return, is the question: from whence arrives the present?

    If, if, and if. It’s no surprise, really, that Simon’s popularity has, from the get go, been a non-starter. When he won the 1985 Nobel Prize, journalists were hard pressed to find any information about him. Calvin Trillin cagily noted, “Susan Sontag better have heard of this guy or there’ll be trouble.” Those few who did know his work were divided as to its merit. Even in his native France, one prominent critic speculated, half in jest and full earnest, whether the Nobel committee, by honoring Simon, had moved “to confirm that the novel has definitely died,” (an arrow Simon himself unfeathered by quoting in his Nobel lecture).

    imageSimon is most commonly linked with a group of mid-20th century French writers known as the nouveaux romanciers, a group which included, most prominently, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Nathalie Sarraute, and Michel Butor. Marguerite Duras is also sometimes included, though she resisted the label. The aim of these experimental writers was to evolve a “new novel” which would subverted most of the tenets of the form as it had been received via the 19th century, including plot, character, motivation, and setting, aspects which, to most writers and readers, seemed no less fundamental than the paper on which a book is printed. Simon, like Duras, protested the association, feeling the term itself was misleading. In a rare interview for the Paris Review, he clarified his position: “Since the majority of professional critics do not read the books of which they speak, mountains of nonsense have been spoken and written about the nouveau roman. The name refers to a group of several French writers who find the conventional and academic forms of the novel insupportable, just as Proust and Joyce did long before them. Apart from this common refusal, each of us has worked through his own voice; the voices are very different, but this does not prevent us from having mutual esteem and a feeling of solidarity with one another.”

    Simon’s reservations notwithstanding, his literary experiments are consistent with the nouveau roman movement. Take, for example, his refusal to analyze causality. His novels are not plotless, as some have suggested, but neither are they linear. Rather than events birthing subsequent events, what happens in a Simon novel emerges, like the constellations, from collections of closely observed tableaux, or from repetitions of an image. For example, in La Routes des Flandres, the image of a horse recurs in many settings. There are the horses mounted by a small unit soldiers, fatally anachronistic in the mechanized theater of the Second World War. There are racehorses, one in particular ridden by Colonel de Reixach, the officer who would later lead this doomed unit and whose young wife is having an affair, or had one, with a jockey who works in his stables and who will later accompany him into battle, riding a horse just behind him. There is a dying horse in the stable where three of the soldiers wait out the night. Most abstractly, there is the recurring image of a dead horse, paradoxically covered in mud despite dry whether. Its first appearance, early in the novel, provides Simon with an opportunity to articulate his whole approach to the novel. The following passage I necessarily quote at some length:

    and that must have been where I saw it for the first time, a little before or a little after we stopped to drink, discovering it, staring at it through that kind of half-sleep, that kind of brownish mud in which I was somehow caught, and maybe we had to make a detour to avoid it, and actually sensing it more than seeing it: I mean (like everything lying along the road: the trucks, the cars, the suitcases, the corpses) something unexpected, unreal, hybrid, so that what had been a horse (that is, what you knew, what you could recognize as having been a horse) was no longer anything now but a vague heap of limbs, of dead meat, of skin and sticky hair, three-quarters-covered with mud — Georges wondering without exactly finding an answer, in other words realizing with that kind of calm rather deadened astonishment, exhausted and even almost completely atrophied by these last ten days during which he had gradually stopped being surprised, had abandoned once and for all the posture of the mind which consists of seeking a cause or logical explanation for what you see or for what happens to you: so not wondering how, merely realizing that although it hadn’t rained for a long time — at least so far as he knew — the horse or rather what had been a horse was almost completely covered — as if it had been dipped in café au lait and then taken out — with a liquid grey-brown mud already half absorbed apparently by the earth, as though the latter had stealthily begun to take back what had come from it,

    By “not wondering how, merely realizing that”, Simon refuses the softening effect of analysis, leaving this grisly vision hard, relentlessly material. And as the vision repeats throughout the book, we begin to see, glinting off its surface, Simon’s true subject — war. More, the cosmology of one who has survived it: we are all on our way to a vague heap of limbs, dead meat, skin and sticky hair, something like, but inexplicably other than what we are, and nailing down whether an object as incidental as a horse’s corpse, or as universal, was discovered a little before stopping to drink or a little after makes not one wit of difference. In fact one’s wits are notable only for their uselessness, at least when directed toward understanding. One senses rather than sees. The reader’s own wits are further beggared by the change from first person to third midway through this passage. So quickly are we shunted out of Georges’s consciousness and into the author’s that we, like Wily Coyote chasing Road Runner several feet beyond the edge of the cliff, may read along for several lines without quite realizing what has happened. This is Simon’s mimesis; life entails nothing so much as moments just like this. Don’t look down.

    The three novels I have so far read by Simon, The Trolley, The Flanders Road, and The Grass, are either about war or indelibly touched by war. War touched Simon early. World War I had been grinding up the young men of Europe for over two months when he was born on October 10, 1913 in Tananarive (now Antananarivo), Madagascar, and before he was a year old his father, a career cavalry officer, became one of them. His mother brought the family to the home of a relative in Perpignan, a city not far from the Spanish border near the Mediterranean Sea. He was eleven when his mother died of cancer, leaving him in the care of his aunt. He credited the strict Catholic boarding school in Paris to which she sent him with definitively destroying his belief in God. Memories of those earliest years reemerged eight decades later in his final novel Le Tramway (The Trolley).

    And it was the same the following summer, except that Maman was no longer there and during the month of October I no longer had to run to catch that four o’clock trolley, having already returned to my school in Paris, which freed me from participating in the traditional autumn move which brought my family to town and from having to listen to the traditional lamentations of my aunt whom this annual return plunged into an ostentatious collapse renewed each year when after four months in the country she found herself back in what she called her “tomb,” i.e. the huge apartment which, though overlooking spacious courtyards and a spacious garden, was, it is true, darkened by the branches of a huge acacia tree;

    In 1940, after The Battle of the Meuse, Simon was taken prisoner by the Germans. He managed to escape and joined the the resistance movement.

    His first direct involvement with armed conflict came in 1936 when his sympathies with the Spanish Republicans drew him into the Spanish Civil War. But it was with the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 that he had his most dramatic experience of war’s absurdity. Like his father, he was drafted into a cavalry regiment, the 31st Dragoons. In a further mirroring of the past, the regiment was sent to the exact same area of the front where his father had been killed twenty six years earlier. One can only speculate that the resonance between his father’s experience and his own launched in young Claude a search for meaning which he finally had to abandon in favor of “not wondering how, merely realizing that”. This kind of repetition, of scene and circumstance across generations, was to become a hallmark of his writing. These recurrences cannot properly be called coincidences, at least not in the Dickensian sense of expediting the plot. But neither are they spiritualized “synchronicities”. Rather, they are treated more in the manner of a painterly motif, the way, say, expanding orders of triangles recur in a painting by Paul Klee. Often he allows a measure of ambiguity as to which iteration of a repeated event is under discussion.

    Simon got the starkest imaginable lesson, not only in life’s extreme fragility, but it’s sheer improbability when, at the River Meuse, the 31st Dragoons, picturesquely armed with sabers and rifles and mounted on horseback, were charged with trying to stop German tanks. That his unit would be decimated was a foregone conclusion. That he would survive was not. That he did netted him a formidable, decidedly 20th century vision –of war, of human suffering, of love, and the impossibility of knowing much of anything for certain. Twenty years later he would draw directly from his wartime experience to produce  La Routes des Flandres, which would become his most famous novel.

    A professor friend once told me, with a campy sneer, that “no one bothers with F. Scott Fitzgerald anymore.” I didn’t believe him then any more than I do now, but his surety (and his unwarranted happiness in delivering it) did raise the problem that, when trying to account for the changing positions of writers in the literary firmament, our logic remains hopelessly Ptolemaic. The eclipse of certain writers – Patrick White, for example – baffles me and I’d love to have someone patiently lay out for me the physical laws, the cycles and epicycles, behind it. On the other hand, that Alice Munro has remained sun-side for so many years seems easy to explain, almost Copernican; she’s a great writer who addresses head on the pain felt in a world whose understanding of gender has undergone major upheavals which the family unit, comprised of the gendered, has often failed to weather. She’s nothing if not perennially relevant.

    Claude Simon’s eclipse is perhaps equally understandable, if undeserved. For one thing, the whole nouveau roman project feels dated to us now. Like Schoenberg’s twelve-tone row, it constituted a brilliant, necessary, perhaps even inevitable departure from the way things had been done before, but, while its influence has been widespread and long-lasting, the movement itself was unsustainable. Just as Pierrot Lunaire, glorious listening to the initiated, is unhearable to most, so very few find Robbe-Grillet worth the effort. Simon is a difficult writer, slippery to anyone white-knuckled to the so-called virtue of clarity. But this is no reason not to read him. Difficult, yes, but never unintelligible, and readers who are up on their Faulkner will find nothing in him to deter them. Like Schoenberg, he was an uncompromising artist with an encompassing mind. A careful reading of him not only yields a potent, austere beauty, but, as with the greatest writers, expands forever one’s understanding of just what the art can do.

    Claude Simon, 1913 – 2005

  • Alice Munro has Won the 2013 Nobel Prize —Its been time for a long time

    munro.thumbnail And so its happened this year. Alice Munro has won the Nobel Prize. I think all of us who have been reading her for years have wondered if the Swedish Academy would ever get it together. She is regularly described as one of the greatest living short story writers, one of the greatest Canadian writers, one of the greatest writers in English. Time to drop the qualifiers. She is simply one of the greatest writers. No writer I know can use the smooth, flat surface of words in less adorned sentences to convey more densely layered information. As you read the excerpt below, the opening passage to the story “Floating Bridge” in Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, let yourself stop for a moment after each sentence to consider what you’ve just been handed. Hold how it ramifies that “One time she left him.” One time? If you allow it – and this is why she is, for all her surface accessibility, a mighty and difficult artist – you will find that by the end, your heart is in shards around your feet and you have been all but tricked into becoming, at least for a moment, a fuller, kinder, sadder, richer, human being.

    One time she left him. The immediate reason was fairly trivial. He had joined a couple of the Young Offenders (Yo-yos was what he called them) in gobbling up a gingerbread cake she had just made and intended to serve after a meeting that evening. Unobserved—at least by Neal and the Yo-yos—she had left the house and gone to sit in a three-sided shelter on the main street, where the city bus stopped twice a day. She had never been in their before, and she had a couple of hours to wait. She sat and read everything that had been written on or cut into those wooden walls. Various initials loved each other 4 ever. Laurie G. sucked cock. Dunk Cultis was a fag. So was Mr. Garner (Math).

    Eat Shit H.W. Gange rules. Skate or Die. God hates filth. Kevin S. is Dead Meat. Amanda W. is beautiful and sweet and I wish they did not put her in jail because I miss her with all my heart. I want to fuck V.P. Ladies have to sit here and read this disgusting dirty things what you write.

    Looking at this barrage of human messages—and puzzleing in particular over the heartfelt, very neatly written sentence concerning Amanda W., Jinny wondered if people were alone when they wrote such things. And she went on to imagine herself sitting here or in some similar place, waiting for a bus, alone, as she would surely be if she went ahead with the plan she was set on now. Would she be compelled to make statements on public walls?

    She felt herself connected at present with the way people felt when they had to write certain things down—she was connected by her feelings of anger, of petty outrage (perhaps it was petty?), and her excitement at what she was doing to Neal, to pay him back. But the life she was carrying herself into might not give her anybody to be angry at, or anybody who owed her anything, anybody who could possibly be rewarded or punished or truly affected by what she might do. Her feelings might become of no importance to anybody but herself, and yet they would be bulging up inside her, squeezing her heart and breath.

    She was not, after all, somebody people flocked to in the world. And yet she was choosy, in her own way.

    The bus was still not in sight when she got up and walked home.

    Neal was not there. He was returning the boys to the school, and by the time he got back somebody had already arrived, early for the meeting. She told him what she’d done when she was well over it and it could be turned into a joke. In fact, it became a joke she told in company—leaving out or just describing in a general way the things she’d read on the walls—many times.

    “Would you ever have thought to come after me?” she said to Neal.

    “Of course. Given time.”

    from: “Floating Bridge”


    I would congratulate you, Ms. Munro, if I didn’t feel a heartfelt Thank You wasn’t more in order.

  • 2012 Nobel Prize for Literature – My Personal Shortlist

    Strange. I can’t shake the feeling that when the Nobel literature committee sends white smoke up its chimney on Thursday, it will smell like pepernoten and Cees Nooteboom will have a very busy day. While not my first choice, this Dutch author, widely known in Europe for his poetry and travel writing, and in the United States for the few of his short, brilliant, philosophically disarming novels available in English, would cut a distinguished, charming, and very apt figure on Stockholm’s stage, come December. His win would also net The Netherlands its first Nobel laurels for literature.

    Unless, that is, the committee decides its time to bring another non-European into the fold. China’s Mo Yan, perhaps. What a delight it would be if they pulled a fast one and gave it to Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, Russia’s wicked wise novelist, short story writer, playwright, and cabaret artist. Amos Oz will almost certainly have to wait for some other October to arrive with his moment, unless Stockholm wishes to make overt its often implicit, always coyly denied political motivations. And is it just me, or does the neglect of Chinua Achebe seem unwarranted? I read in David Marr’s biography of Patrick White that the ground-breaking Nigerian writer was on the shortlist as far back as 1973. What happened there? Ladbrokes, Britain’s famous betting company, has Haruki Murakami as the favorite. I don’t see it myself. Perhaps another year. And that Bob Dylan buisness? Cute, but really, that’s enough of that.

    So, here is my personal short list: Normally I could yap away all day long about these writers. But My partner, Sam – who seduced me, in part, with books – is gravely ill and in the hospital. Which means I have had neither the time nor the reserves to write cogently the rationale behind my choices. So these five magnificent writers will have to speak for themselves – better, by far, it turns out, than I ever could.

    5.  Cees Nooteboom (Holland)

    Once, and then for good, the spell had been broken. As the chalice was being lifted to where, high above the church, the sun would soon trace its course, the old man suddenly began to tremble. Inni would never forget the scream that followed, never. The raised hands let go of the chalice. The wine, the blood, poured all over his chasuble, and the cloth was torn from the alter in one haul by the monk’s clawing hands, dragging candles, host, and paten with it. A scream as of a huge wounded animal bounced back from the stone walls. The man tugged at his chasuble as though he was trying to tear it asunder, and then, still screaming, he slowly began to fall. His head hit the chalice and started to bleed. When he was already dead, he still went on bleeding, red and red mingled on the islands of shiny silk amid the gold brocade, and it was no longer clear which was which — the wine had become blood, the blood wine.

    – from Rituals

    4.  Ismail Kadare (Albania)

    It must have been snowing…there…. Then he stopped writing, snatching away the pen as if afraid it might be held to the paper by magic. It was with an effort that he went on to record, in the succinct style used in the rest of the rest of the Chronicle, the death of Kurt and his own appointment as head of the Palace of Dreams. Then his pen was still again, and he thought of the distant ancestor called Gjon who on a winter’s day several centuries before had built a bridge and at the same time edified his name. The patronymic bore within it, like a secret message, the destiny of the Quprilis for generation after generation. And so that the bridge might endure, a man was sacrificed in its building, walled up in its foundations. And although so much time had gone by since, the traces of his blood had come down to the present generation. So that the Quprilis might endure…

    Perhaps that was why — like the ancient Greeks, cutting off their hair at a funeral so that the angry soul of the departed wouldn’t be able to recognize them and do them harm — perhaps that was why the Quprilis had changed their name to Köprülü: to avoid being identified with the bridge.

    Mark-Alem knew all this, but remembered how on the fateful night he had longed to throw off the protective mask, the Islamic half-shield of “Alem,” and adopt one of those ancient names that attract danger and were marked by fate.

    – from The Palace of Dreams


    3.  Milan Kundera (France/Czech Republic)

    What remains of the dying population of Cambodia?

    One large photograph of an American actress holding an Asian child in her arms.

    What remains of Tomas?

    An inscription reading HE WANTED THE KINGDOM OF GOD ON EARTH.

    What remains of Beethoven?

    A frown, and improbable mane, and a somber voice intoning “Es muss sein!”

    What remains of Franz?

    An inscription reading A RETURN AFTER LONG WANDERINGS.

    And so on and so forth. Before we are forgotten, we will be turned into kitsch. Kitsch is the stopover between being and oblivion.

    – from The Unbearable Lightness of Being


    2.  Alice Munro (Canada)

    Savanna has fallen asleep, her lips slack around the nipple. With the boys out of the way, it’s easier to detach her. Sally can burp her, settle her on her blanket, without worrying about an exposed breast. If Alex finds the sight distasteful — she knows he does, he dislikes the whole conjunction of sex and nourishment, his wife’s breast turned into udders — he can look away, and he does.

    As she buttons herself up there comes a cry, not sharp but lost, diminishing, and Alex is on his feet before she is, running along the path. Then a louder cry getting closer. It’s Peter.

    “Kent falled in. Kent falled in.”

    His father yells, “I’m coming.”

    Sally will always believe that she knew at once, even before she heard Peter’s voice she knew what had happened. If any accident happened it would not be to her six-year-old who was brave but not inventive, not a show-off. It would be to Kent. She could see exactly how. Peeing into the hole, balancing on the rim, teasing Peter, teasing himself.

    – from Deep-Holes, collected in Too Much Happiness


    1.  Philip Roth (United States)

    What happens when people die, my mother explained, is that they go up to the sky and live on forever as gleaming stars….

    That explanation made sense then and, of all things, it made sense again on the night when, wide awake from the stimulus of all that narrative engorgement, I lay out of doors till dawn, thinking that Ira was dead, that Eve was dead, that with the exception perhaps of Sylphid off in her villa on the French Riviera, a rich old woman of seventy-two, all the people with a role in Murray’s account of the Iron Man’s unmaking were now no longer impaled on their moment but dead and free of the traps set for them by their era. Neither the ideas of their era nor the expectations of our species were determining destiny: hydrogen alone was determining destiny. There are no longer mistakes for Eve or Ira to make. There is no betrayal. There is no idealism. There are no falsehoods. There is no class struggle. There is no discrimination or lynching or Jim Crow, nor has there ever been. There is no injustice, nor is there justice. There are no utopias. There are no shovels. Contrary to the folklore, except for the constellation Lyra —which happened to perch high in the eastern sky a little west of the Milky Way and southeast of the two Dippers — there are no harps. There is just the furnace of Ira and the furnace of Eve burning at twenty million degrees.

    from I Married a Communist

    Well then, until tomorrow…

  • The 2011 Nobel Prize for Literature: My Short List

    Out of the twenty writers named in my last post, here, in ascending order, are my top five choices for the 2011 Nobel Prize in Literature:


    5.  Tom Stoppard

    From Great Britain comes one of the world’s greatest living playwrights.  His work is characterized by extreme erudition, almost miraculous wordplay, and tremendous philosophical and moral depth.  Every Good Boy Deserves Favor, Rosencrantz and Gildenstern are Dead, and the epic The Coast of Utopia, are three of his most famous plays, but my personal favorite is The Invention of Love, about the poet A. E. Houseman, about his unspoken life-long love for a handsome young athlete, and by extension, about silences, the silence of lost classical texts, about the silence of what cannot be communicated through translation, both literal and figurative.  Here is part of a monologue spoken by one of Houseman’s associates, Walter Pater, the great critic, essayist and scholar.

    PATER: … The Renaissance teaches us that the book of knowledge is not to be learned by rote but is to be written anew in the ecstasy of living each moment for the moment’s sake.  Success in life is to maintain this ecstasy, to burn always with this hard gem-like flame. Failure is to form habits. To burn with a gem-like flame is to capture the awareness of each moment; and for that moment only. To form habits is to be absent from those moments. How may we always be present for them? — to garner not the fruits of experience but experience itself?—

    (At a distance, getting no closer, Jackson [the object of Houseman’s love] is seen as a runner running towards us.)

    …to catch at the exquisite passion, the strange flower, or art – or the face of one’s friend? For, not to do so in our short day of frost and sun is to sleep before evening. The conventional morality which requires of us the sacrifice of any one of those moments has no real claim on us. The love of art for art’s sake seeks to nothing in return except the highest quality to the moments of your life, and simply for those moment’s sake.

    JOWETT (Benjamin Jowett, Master of Balliol)  Mr. Pater, can you spare a moment?

    PATER:  Certainly! As many as you like!


    4.  Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

    I learned about this astounding writer from Russia a couple of years ago through an article by Jane Smiley in the New York Times Book Review.  She mentioned a book of stories called There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby: Scary Fairy Tales. It is, as the title would indicate, a collection like no other, a book of “nekyia” or “night journeys”, descents into the underworld, literal or social, in which one is never sure which reality is the more “real”. Last month, I read her short novel The Time: Night, published in the waning days of the Soviet Union, in which, through the voice of a woman on the edge, a poet trying to hold together her disintegrating family in one hand and her sanity in the other, she lays bare a desperation as harrowing as any I have read.  In addition to being one of the most preeminent authors and playwrights in Russia, she is also a popular cabaret artist. May all good things come to this over-the-top genius.  Here is the first paragraph of her story The Arm.

    During the war, a colonel received a letter from his wife.  She misses him very much, it said, and won’t he come visit because she’s worried she’ll die without having seen him.  The colonel applied for leave right away, and as it happened that just a few days earlier he’d been awarded a medal, he was granted three days. He got a plane home, but just an hour before his arrival his wife died. He wept, buried his wife, and got on a train back to his base – and suddenly discovered he had lost his Party card. He dug through all his things, returned to the train station – all with great difficulty – but couldn’t find it. Finally he just went home. There he fell asleep and dreamed that he saw his wife, who said that his Party card was in her coffin – it had fallen out when the colonel bent over to kiss her during the funeral. In this dream his wife also told the colonel not to lift the veil from her face.


    3.  Alice Munro

    What this great Canadian dredges up from somewhere near the sewer system of her character’s souls, and how she does it – by sticking unflinchingly to the apparent surface of things – makes her, to my mind, an unqualified genius. Her metier may be the declasse short story,  but she has so exploded that form, and in such an organic, un-showy way, that she sits comfortably along side any of the great innovators of fiction at work today. Then there is the service she does for her region, bringing Southwestern Ontario into international consciousness for the first time, as surely as Pearl Buck brought China to the West. Only, Munro has a far superior linguistic apparatus with which she does this. I don’t know anyone who packs so many layers of information into such short, unadorned sentences.

    In this passage, from the story The Bear Came Over the Mountain, a man, Grant, unable to care for his wife, Fiona, who has Alzheimer’s disease, has put her a nursing home, where, forgetting their long happy marriage, she falls in love with a fellow patient, Aubrey.  Aubrey’s wife has decided to remove her husband from the nursing home and care for him at home.  Grant sees his wife’s suffering and takes action:

    Then he took the plunge, going on to make the request he’d come to make. Could she consider taking Aubrey back to Meadowlake maybe just one day a week, for a visit? It was only a drive of a few miles, surely it wouldn’t prove too difficult. Or if she’d like to take the time off – Grant hadn’t thought of this before and was rather dismayed to hear himself suggest it – then he himself could take Aubrey out there, he wouldn’t mind at all. He was sure he could manage it. And she could use a break.

    While he talked she moved her closed lips and her hidden tongue as if she was trying to identify a dubious flavor. She brought milk for his coffee, and a plate of ginger cookies.

    “Homemade,” she said as she set the plate down. There was challenge rather than hospitality in her tone. She said nothing more until she had sat down, poured milk into her coffee and stirred it.


    2.  Philip Roth

    Yes.  I know: Sex. Frantic masculinity. A little misogyny, anyone? Endless rants.  But really, who in America writes like this? Sam and I frequently discuss him.  Sam’s concern is that Roth belongs to the “sex-as-salvation” family of narcissistic straight white male writers.  I contend that, to the contrary, his best work lays bare the sheer benightedness of such a theology. And not just sex, but all the signifiers of the “American Dream” – power, wealth, social acceptance – you name it, he gives the lie to it.  Far from being adolescent in his sensibility, as he is often accused, he takes down our adolescent country in prose as energetic and beautiful as any being written. Here, from one of my favorite American novels, The Human Stain, is what I mean:

    It was the summer in America when the nausea returned, when the joking didn’t stop, when the speculation and the theorizing and the hyperbole didn’t stop, when the moral obligation to explain to one’s children about adult life was abrogated in favor of maintaining in them every illusion about adult life, when the smallness of people was simply crushing, when some kind of demon had been unleashed in the nation and, on both sides, people wondered “Why are we so crazy?”, when men and women alike, upon awakening in the morning, discovering that during the night, in a state of sleep that transported them beyond envy or loathing, they had dreamed of the brazenness of Bill Clinton. I myself dreamed of a mammoth banner, draped dadaistically like a Christo wrapping from one end of the White House to the other and bearing a legend A HUMAN BEING LIVES HERE. It was the summer when – for the billionth time – the jumble, the mayhem, the mess proved itself more subtle than this one’s ideology and that one’s morality. It was the summer when a president’s penis was on everyone’s mind, and life, in all its shameless impurity, once again confounded America.


    1. Tomas Tranströmer

    Here is an example to illustrate why, to my mind, there is no greater living poet than this man from Sweden.


    2 A.M.: moonlight. The train has stopped
    out in a field. Far-off sparks of light from the town,
    flickering coldly on the horizon.

    As when a man goes so deep into his dream
    he will never remember that he was there
    when he returns to his room.

    Or when a person goes so deep into a sickness
    that his days all become some flickering sparks, a swarm,
    feeble and cold on the horizon.

    The train is entirely motionless.
    2 o’clock: strong moonlight, few stars.


    The award is scheduled to be announced this Thursday, October 6th. Until then, let the speculations fly. Who would it just make your week to see honored this year, and why?