By Janet Somerville
The Fleck Dance Theatre was packed to the gills on Saturday, November 2, and the evening’s warm-hearted playfulness was established with IFOA Director Geoffrey Taylor quipping, “through the magic of prerecorded voiceover, I just got to introduce myself.” He celebrated Alice Munro as this year’s Harbourfront Festival Prize recipient, “who has made a substantial contribution to Canadian letters,” noting how delighted he was “that the Nobel Foundation agreed with us about a month after our announcement.” Avie Bennett, former Chair of IFOA and President of McClelland & Stewart, accepted the prize on Munro’s behalf and said, “Please settle for my assurances that I’ll convey both the cheque and your good wishes to Alice.”
Douglas Gibson, Munro’s longtime editor, who made her feel “that short stories were worthy fiction” decades ago, hosted the evening. About the Nobel nod this year, Gibson recounted how he sat by the phone for the past five years, awaiting THE call in the wee hours of the morning. This year, as soon as the news spread, he was invited to do several “interviews of exaltation” that went like this: “How great is it?” “It’s really, really, really great!” Well, it IS. Since a video of the evening was being sent to Alice, Gibson encouraged the audience to show its appreciation for her work, and we roared to our feet, cheering and clapping, absolutely chuffed for her.
The first to pay tribute was Alice’s longtime friend Jane Urquhart, who claimed Alice’s stories, grounded as they are in small town life, “gave me permission to play with the notion of writing myself.” She unfurled the tale of their first meeting in 1987, when Urquhart retrieved Munro from the bus depot in New Hamburg, “practically incoherent with excitement.” In her diary at the time, Urquhart mused about the number of exclamation marks: “Yesterday I spent the day with Alice Munro!!!! She sat in precisely the right chair at the kitchen table!!!!! She told me about her father’s book and she cried.” Urquhart then read an excerpt from Robert Laidlaw’s book and from Alice’s story “Working for a Living,” collected in The View From Castle Rock. She concluded with another piece from her own diary, where she recorded, “Alice told me that the Clinton librarian had been captured by Albanian bandits. She wondered if she could write a story about it. I hope she does!!!!!!!”
Miriam Toews, who Gibson noted, “grew up in the shadow of Alice and found the shade not depressing, but inspiring,” spoke next. Toews remembered that when she was twelve, her sister went away to university and told her to “stay out of my room,” a plea she ignored and therein found a copy of Lives of Girls and Women on the bookshelf, its cover image “like looking out my window.” Between its pages she began her “own course of study on life with Del Jordan. Serious. Badass. Hardcore adult literature.” And, after reading an excerpt from that coming-of-age collection, she noted, “Alice Munro initiated me into the world of literature and I am grateful for her exquisite company.”
Novelist Colum McCann took the stage after Toews, noting “literature is an intimate form of admiration. The short story is an imploding universe, a white star with hot language and beautifully defined singularities. I see Alice Munro as the absolute antidote to despair.” And, then he read a heartbreaking, exquisite excerpt from “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” the piece that Sarah Polley adapted into her Oscar-nominated screenplay Away from Her.
Celebrated short story writer and fellow IMPAC winner Alistair MacLeod waxed on about how “Alice notices everything and that is one of her great strengths.” Consider the details of the washing on the line, the Rhode Island red hens, the velvet paintings of Niagara Falls in the kitchen and other bits of what might be observed in Jubilee: “deep caves paved with linoleum.” With his rumbling East Coast cadence, MacLeod read from “Passion,” one of the stories in Runaway.
As Gibson introduced the final speaker, Margaret Drabble, he noted she had “a grandparent called Bloor and loves to return to Toronto where there is a subway line named after her family.” Who knew? Drabble began by delighting in carrying Munro’s complete work on her Kindle and her thrill in re-reading Alice, which is equally rewarding to discovering her for the first time. “She is a virtuoso, but with none of the self-conscious showmanship. She writes with insight, sympathy and great wit. Her stories turn ‘round on themselves, and come back to where they began. When I think of her work, I think of landscape and long journeys. Settings are described with poetic precision. Alice has such a powerful sense of the way landscape shapes our lives.”
Alice Munro’s stories reflect the narratives in our own lives. What, in fiction, is more powerful than that?
Follow Janet Somerville on Twitter @janetsomerville.