A funny thing happened when a friend and I went to an Alice Munro reading yesterday evening: Alice Munro wasn’t there.
Looking back on it now, it maybe was a little too good to be true. In the past year in Zürich, I’ve attended readings by JM Coetzee and John Irving, and now Alice Munro was coming to town. These are not authors that I just kinda-sorta like; it was starting to seem eerie how tailored to my taste these author appearances were.
Yes: I’m aware that Alice Munro is 81 years old. And yes, I’m aware that she, having lived her life in the Canadian provinces of Ontario and British Columbia, probably speaks no German, unlike Coetzee and Irving, who both speak enough to be comfortable at bilingual events.
But at 81 Munro does have a new book of stories out, entitled Dear Life. It was easy for me, then, to spin a mental yarn in which she decided to do a European tour, and opted to include in it our klein aber fein city – hadn’t its beauty dazzled me on my walk to the venue? The lit-up churches and the fairy-light-garlanded trees standing out against the black sky…the swans bobbing serenely on the dark river, the glow of these lights reflected dimly in their breasts…who wouldn’t want to visit Zürich near Christmastime?
Admittedly, there were clues that Alice Munro wasn’t coming to the Literaturhaus’ “Alice-Munro Abend” (translated in my head as “An Evening with Alice Munro”). Though the event was advertised using a picture of Munro, the names of two other, local female writers were on the bill. But recall that John Irving’s reading involved someone helping out with reading the German bits — wasn’t it plausible that that’s what those women would be there for? Or else, the three were planning to have a conversation about writing?
When the event began, however, there was a table with only two chairs on stage…and both chairs were occupied by these women. Where would Alice sit? A third woman came on stage to welcome us all to the event, and she began to talk about Alice, in German. As my friend later noted, she talked about her in a somewhat indelicate manner (“Alice is not young; it’s difficult for her to travel”) but as always when German is being spoken quickly, the meaning fades in and out for me, so all I noticed is that she didn’t look at anyone in particular, as you typically do look at someone when speaking about them in their presence.
Next the two authors began to talk about her life and work, and went on to read from some of her stories, all in German. Surely it isn’t polite to alienate her with all this German? I thought. To make her wait so long for her turn to speak/read? And where indeed was she waiting — in the audience? The bubble of my illusion was being stretched further and further…until they played a tinny audio recording of Alice speaking at a true public reading, and it popped.
It turns out that we non-native German speakers may have been foiled by one little word in the advertisement for this event: widmen. It apparently signalled that this was an evening dedicated to, and not with, the writer. However, a German-speaking couple sitting in front of us walked out partway through, presumably after realizing that Alice Munro wasn’t coming, so I think there might still have been cross-lingual confusion.
After the event, my friend and I ran into a fellow expat writer who at first looked absolutely stricken by what had taken place – she loves Alice Munro; she’d brought a book to be signed – but then, as we headed for the drinks table, pooling our embarrassment, began to laugh until tears stood out in her eyes.
That’s when it occurred to me how much this event had succeeded in capturing the spirit of Alice Munro’s writing. What I think most of us cherish about her fiction are its moments of raw and blemished humanity: moments of awkwardness, embarrassment, anger, and yes…disappointment, too.
In her stories, Munro gives us the moment in which one woman calmly but furiously cleans her kitchen while another confesses to an affair with her husband. She gives us the moment when an older woman who has opened her home in kindness to a stranger realizes that her life is in jeopardy. She gives us the confusion of a man upon finding out that his wife, institutionalized with Alzheimer’s disease, has taken a new boyfriend. And – perhaps most salient for me – she gives us the moment of revealing oneself as a writer:
…here comes the disclosure which is not easy for me: I am a writer. That does not sound right. Too presumptuous; phony, or at least unconvincing. Try again. I write. Is that better? I try to write. That makes it worse. Hypocritical humility. Well then?
It doesn’t matter. However I put it, the words create their space of silence, the delicate moment of exposure. But people are kind, the silence is quickly absorbed by the solicitude of friendly voices, crying variously, how wonderful, and good for you, and well, that is intriguing. And what do you write, they inquire with spirit. Fiction, I reply, bearing my humiliation by this time with ease, even a suggestion of flippancy, which was not always mine, and again, again, the perceptible circles of dismay are smoothed out by such ready and tactful voices–which have however exhausted their stock of consolatory phrases, and can say only, ‘Ah!'”
– From the story “The Office”
I feel sure that if Alice Munro had lived as an expat, she would have brilliantly captured the moments of delight and confusion and embarrassment and sorrow that accompany this experience, too.
In the end I’m grateful to Zürich’s “Alice Munro-Abend” for reminding me that I can visit with Munro, in my home and in the original language, any time I wish. In her perfectly-crafted stories, which now fill thirteen volumes, she has never once failed to show up.
But I can’t help wishing that Alice Munro the person – who ironically at this moment is probably at her home in Ontario, only a few hundred kilometres from my hometown, from my family – will have a holiday season as beautiful as the one we enjoy here in Zürich.