Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage: Stories

In "Wild Swans" a girl on a train, fondled by a minister, feels disgusted but also hugely curious. Munro describes — as I\'ve never seen anyone else do — how people put erotic memories, not always pleasant ones, to use over and over in their lives.

1. This paper reports that Rose is sitting on a train ride during which a self-described minister gropes her throughout the ride. She cannot take a stand against him, because she knows that the abuse is hidden and that her outcry will be deafened by an indifferent society.

Most living writers are not, most of the time, reading one another\'s work. They are reconsidering the classics. They are consuming cookbooks, comics, self-help manuals, mysteries, pornography, Martha Stewart (a variety of pornography for women). They are skimming biographies, dabbling in dictionaries. Writers are watching The Sopranos or learning, late in life, to play tennis. They are obsessing about their love affairs, their disappointing careers, their children.

Every once in a while, though, a rumor burns through the tentative, decentralized community of American writers that a certain book must be owned. Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, a new collection by Alice Munro, her tenth, has already incited writers to call one another on the telephone, to send e-mail exhortations, and in the extreme (writers are not profligate) — to pay retail for more than one copy in order to give the book away.

Every artist, brilliant, pretty good, or aspiring, has the same wish — to make something beautiful and lasting — and the concomitant capacity for awe in the presence of the "serene achievement" (as Conrad called Henry James\'s New York Editions). The highest compliment a critic can pay a short-story writer is to say that he or she is our Chekhov. More than one writer has made that claim for Alice Munro.

Her genius, like Chekhov\'s, is quiet and particularly hard to describe, because it has the simplicity of the best naturalism, in that it seems not translated from life but, rather, like life itself. In analyzing another Russian writer\'s transparent straightforwardness, James Wood described the critic\'s frustration: "Why are his characters so real? Because they are so individual. Why does his world feel so true? Because it is so real. And so on."

It may be instructive, in trying to account for Munro\'s disproportionate power, to consider "Lady With Lapdog," arguably Chekhov\'s most famous and beloved story. Even after dozens of readings (in several translations) I still find it exceedingly difficult to pinpoint how the story works as deeply as it does. One might seize on the regular use of incongruities: the cynical philanderer\'s thoughts of a young woman\'s slender neck and beautiful eyes, followed by his impression that she is pathetic; the roué cutting a watermelon and eating it silently for a half hour while the woman sobs, thinking herself fallen after their first tryst; the open ending. Chekhov properly placed all statements about beauty, eternity, and falling in love right next to comic, breezy, urbane sentences, lending the impression that this young married woman and her older Muscovite lover, although particular to us, are not out of the human ordinary.

Yet I could think of half a dozen stories to which one could fairly ascribe these same techniques of juxtaposition and tonal incongruity but which nonetheless lack this story\'s power. Likewise, I could strain to name a few writers who possess an immense lyric gift, in whose work a poet\'s compression punctuates a novelist\'s love of leisured complication, of time; yet their stories register altogether differently from Munro\'s. Ann Close, Munro\'s American editor since The Beggar Maid (1978), has described the experience of going back to a place in a story where she remembered a particular passage and finding that it had never been there. "More than with other writers," Close said, "with Alice, there\'s a huge amount between the lines." At the heart of all great naturalism is mystery, an emotional sum greater than its technical parts.

I am not a sophisticated chronicler of literary reputation. I don\'t really know how famous Munro is. And perhaps with our particular favorites there is a tendency to downplay their popularity. No one likes to think his or her taste is common. More