A Book Review, over Thirty Years Too Late

Reviewed by Robert Thacker

Anyone who has spent time editing book reviews for a journal knows that it’s easy to miss publications which, subsequently, prove to have been significant. In the same way, critics look back at the books they’ve reviewed over the years to see that there are those on their shelves that, for one reason or another, they should’ve done, but didn’t. During the late 1980s, I started reviewing critical books on a well-established but then still emerging Alice Munro and, probably owing to the timing of its publication, missed taking up the first real critical monograph on her art, W. R. Martin’s Alice Munro: Paradox and Parallel (1987) (see Thacker, Reading). For its part, Canadian Literature missed it too. While I have certainly drawn on it since in other contexts, I recently returned to the book and read it cover to cover; this was something, I admit, I’d not done before. I discovered in it a revelation: Martin seems to define just where Munro’s art was then as it continued to gain complexity but, more significant, he foresaw just where she was heading. The whole book read, and since I knew Martin a bit from the mid-1970s—when I did my first work on Munro as a graduate student and he was teaching in the English Department at the University of Waterloo—I thought I would write him an appreciatory note. I was aware that he had fled apartheid in his native South Africa during the early 1960s and joined the faculty of what was then a fledgling university. Before and after his book he published important essays on Munro as well, and he generously aided me when I was researching Alice Munro: Writing Her Lives: A Biography (2005, 2011). Sadly, I found that he had passed away in 2015, just one day shy of his ninety-fifth birthday. So I have decided to write this note instead: something of the book review I never managed, but more of a tribute, really.

Beyond any personal connection, the striking thing about Alice Munro: Paradox and Parallel is that Martin did his work and wrote at a key moment about halfway through Munro’s career, just as she was really emerging as the significant writer she became. His treatment of her work is thorough and detailed up to The Moons of Jupiter (1982) but then, owing to timing, Martin could only consider five of the latest stories in their magazine versions (four in the New Yorker and another in GQ—Gentlemen’s Quarterly) that he knew were to be collected in The Progress of Love (1986). He also discusses four then-fugitive stories, two of which have never been included in a collection (“Characters” [1978] and “The Ferguson Girls Must Never Marry” [1982]), and two which ultimately were (“Home” [1974, 2006] and “Wood” [1980, 2009]). Left as he was with Munro writing on, Martin did his best with what was in print then.

The published reviews of Alice Munro: Paradox and Parallel were very much of their time (see, for example, Stone, Warwick, York), and they presaged the outpouring of critical attention Munro’s work was about to get—eleven monographs and a series biography by 1998, to say nothing of other, shorter pieces. They offer praise but are not very complimentary overall; the reviewers clearly saw Martin as a stodgy, evaluative, old-school critic, one skeptical of theory, especially the feminist variety. That’s fair enough, of course. But at the same time, it’s possible to argue Martin’s prescience: that he saw, and detailed, just what Munro the artist was doing in the 1980s, and how her most recent stories suggested the myriad complexities to come. Thus Martin, whose own specialty was British modernism, writes this passage as he concludes his discussion of the story “The Progress of Love” (1985):

Like D. H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow, but in a much smaller scale, with remarkable artistic compression, the story is a history of society in the twentieth century. Without any feminist rancour, and with admirable detachment, Alice Munro depicts the social changes of our time, and the dynamics that bring them about. What we must admire is the cubic capacity and the architectural richness of her modest-seeming edifice. (179)

This is an indicative comment, for he writes very well. Martin’s final assertion about this just published but quite evidently singular story, one that seen now foretells what has been asserted as “late Munro,” is, as I have said, prescient. The collection that the story titles and begins—one which ends with a similarly complex story, “White Dump” (1986), itself thought by Munro for a time to be destined to title the book—abounds in a created world of intergenerational connection that captures being itself. Just what it feels like to be a human being. Each story creates and gets to the very heart of existence itself. Munro’s themes are, Martin later asserts in a precise and compelling concluding chapter, “in Aristotle’s sense of the word, philosophical and universal” (205). So writing, Martin foresees the historical depth that came to characterize late Munro (in stories like “Meneseteung” [1988], “The Love of a Good Woman” [1996], “Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage” [2001], “Chance” [2004], “Wenlock Edge” [2005], and “Too Much Happiness” [2009]).

A critic of his time, Martin is keen to connect Munro’s art to the acknowledged greats—Blake, James, Yeats, Joyce, and others are mentioned, and James gets considered comparative discussion. But Martin follows Munro’s acknowledgements to see her most influenced by Eudora Welty’s vision and techniques, asserting that both writers “are historians of the working of the human imagination, and both are celebrants of strangeness and mystery, and ‘all the opposites on earth’” (204). Along with Welty—to whom Munro would publish a tribute essay in 1999—Martin is among the first to also point to the influence of William Maxwell, citing a November 1985 interview on CBC Radio in which she mentioned his work. Munro published a tribute to Maxwell too, in 1988. She allowed it to be republished in 2000 when he died, and then published an expanded revision in 2004. Maxwell’s family history, Ancestors (1971), was a model for Munro’s own family history collection, The View from Castle Rock (2006) (see Thacker, “Stabbed” and Thacker, “‘As Truthful’”).

Two more passages from Martin’s excellent book bear quoting here. Citing an 1895 entry from Henry James’ Notebooks where he wrote of “‘the sacred mystery of structure,’” Martin connects this to Munro’s key early story “Material” (1973), quoting from it, and writing that “By all the ‘lovely tricks, honest tricks’ that can be played with words, images and dramatic patterns, Alice Munro shocks, horrifies, and finally delights us with the truth that is the product of ‘special, unsparing, unsentimental love’” (205). Continuing, Martin also writes that “It is ironical, but significant, that this very Canadian writer has achieved what she has without striving self-consciously to be ‘Canadian.’ . . . She is more than a Canadian writer, or a writer for Canadians. By seizing on the significant touches of nature in our small world she makes the whole world kin” (205-06). With this last allusion to Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, he asserts the heady heights at which he sees Munro’s art.

As Del Jordan had it in the final sentence of Munro’s crucial Lives of Girls and Women (1971), and as Martin well knew, “‘Yes,’ I said, instead of thank you” (254): “[S]he makes the whole world kin.” While it is exaggeration to claim that in Alice Munro: Paradox and Parallel Martin foresaw, in the mid-1980s, that Munro was a writer headed for the great international acclaim she reached with the Nobel and other prizes, it is clear in his book that he found in her work a most singular greatness that could only be compared with the very greatest authors who have lived. That he did so in the middle of her publishing career, just as considerable critical attention was beginning to burgeon, and when the sustained complexity of late Munro was emerging, shows a singular critical acuity. As Martin wrote, Munro is “more than a Canadian writer, or a writer for Canadians.” She is that certainly, but as Martin was among the very first to detail, Munro’s vision of Huron County, Ontario, and of the world has made her work among the very greatest ever written.

Works Cited

Martin, W. R. Alice Munro: Paradox and Parallel. U of Alberta P, 1987.

Munro, Alice. Lives of Girls and Women. McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1971.

Stone, William B. Review of Alice Munro: Paradox and Parallel, by W. R. Martin. Studies in Short Fiction, vol. 25, no. 1, Winter 1988, pp. 95-96.

Thacker, Robert. Alice Munro: Writing Her Lives: A Biography. Revised ed., Emblem, 2011.

—. “‘As Truthful as Our Notion of the Past Can Ever Be’: William Maxwell, his Ancestors, and Alice Munro’s The View from Castle Rock.” Authorship, June 2021. Forthcoming.

—. Reading Alice Munro, 1973-2013. U of Calgary P, 2016.

—. “‘Stabbed to the Heart . . . by the Beauty of Our Lives Streaming By’: Munro’s ‘Finale.’” Alice Munro Everlasting: Essays on Her Works II, edited by J. R. (Tim) Struthers, Guernica, 2020, pp. 409-42.

Warwick, Susan J. Review of Alice Munro: Paradox and Parallel, by W. R. Martin. ESC: English Studies in Canada, vol. 14, no. 4, 1988, pp. 281-86.

York, Lorraine M. “Sipping Munro.” Review of Alice Munro: Paradox and Parallel, by W. R. Martin. Essays on Canadian Writing, no. 39, Fall 1989, pp. 139-43.

This review “A Book Review, over Thirty Years Too Late” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 19 Mar. 2021. Web.

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