Is That Her?: When Alice Munro Stories Turn into Spanish Films

by Sue Sorensen

Sue Sorensen grew up in Saskatchewan and now lives in Winnipeg. Her books are The Collar: Reading Christian Ministry in Fiction, Television, and Film (The Lutterworth Press), the novel A Large Harmonium (Coteau Books), and West of Eden: Essays on Canadian Prairie Literature (Canadian Mennonite University Press). Her poems have appeared in such journals as Room, Grain, Prairie Fire,and CV2. Sue is an Associate Professor of English at Canadian Mennonite University.

When Alice Munro received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2013, I was one of those in the literary community tapped to provide comment. My selection was pretty arbitrary; I’m sure I was number twenty on a list of English professors, and just happened to be the one to pick up the phone. While not a Munro specialist, every year I do offer at least one Munro story to my students. For years I taught the sombre and illuminating “Boys and Girls,” from her early career, since it is in many anthologies; recently I’ve turned my attention to the more complex “Miles City, Montana.” I vividly recall the incendiary experience of first reading that story, and I want to pass on some of that combustion to my students.

It was 1985. Ken Probert, my favourite English professor at the University of Regina, was standing in the doorway of his office holding The New Yorker, gesturing at the first paragraph of “Miles City, Montana.” He hid the title and author from me, or perhaps he read the opening aloud. I can’t quite remember. But I do recall his amazement, which he transferred to me. “Who wrote that?” he said. “Can you tell who wrote that?”

I have lost what I said. I certainly didn’t guess Alice Munro. The story opens on a dead body: a boy has drowned. You might call the flavour Gothic, though any horror is straightforward, restrained. It’s daylight; there are no locked cabinets or lightning strikes. Yes, Alice Munro has occasionally been labelled “Southern Ontario Gothic,” but I have always found this category misleading for Munro. There is little in her stories which is overtly grotesque, and the privileging of the irrational so important in Gothic sensibility is not even slightly in accord with the lyrical composure, the lovely restraint and control, of her narrative voice. Later in the story, the fact of the drowning recedes and we encounter one of Munro’s terrifyingly exact anatomies of a marriage going just slightly wrong. We watch a woman think—think with precision—which is possibly the best part of any of her stories. Motherhood is queried (again just slightly), and both the necessity and the pain of love are carefully, equitably pondered.

But the beginning was almost macabre, slyly so. “It’s Alice Munro!” Probert said. “Would you ever have thought that was Alice Munro?” Ken was a Canadianist and had read everything of hers; my attention had recently meandered toward Henry James, partly at Ken’s prompting. This may not have been as much of a meander as I thought back then. Today I look at the names Alice Munro and Henry James in proximity to each other and think: Yeah. Why not? Are they so different?

This thing she does with the short story has became as sophisticated as the thread work in the best Persian carpet, as thick as a detailed map of the stars.

I pick up her 2004 book Runaway and look at the unreal promotional blurbs: “Where Alice Munro is concerned, even superlatives seem inadequate” (The Montreal Gazette). She “leaves us gasping and quiet at such a new and intimate knowledge of ourselves” (The Ottawa Citizen). Oh, come on, I say to the jacket copy. I don’t disagree, but come on. Since Munro is still alive (and may actually even be in the small Ontario town, Port Hope, I am visiting as I write these words, where one of her daughters has been involved in running a lovely little bookstore, Furby House), I am hesitant to summarize or systematize her career. But maybe 1985, and the moment when Ken Probert gently crowed over the unrecognizability of the opening of “Miles City, Montana” was at least one time when her impact intensified, when she went from being a great short story writer (an accurate portrayer of the surprisingly nuanced actualities of marriages and families and what goes on in intelligent, sensitive women’s minds) to being an amazing artist, who continued to do all that but whose fiction took on a dense presence, strangely metaphysical yet as solid as architecture. In the past three decades she has stared at death and longing and restlessness with such a profound gaze that this thing she does with the short story has became as sophisticated as the thread work in the best Persian carpet, as thick as a detailed map of the stars. That’s how “Miles City, Montana” seems to me each time I read it anew. Whenever I have to teach the story in a new academic year, I think I remember how its sequence of events goes, how the protagonist’s marriage functions, how the 1960s look through Munro’s eyes—and I am chastened each time to find that I have not recalled nearly enough. There is more temporal back-and-forth, there is more humour, there are even more characters than I recall. It is both more symmetrical and balanced and more frightening and lawless than I recall.

But back to the day the Nobel news broke.

One of the challenges of responding to three or four quick radio journalist questions about Alice Munro was that I could not, of course, sum her up in a sentence or two. This is more true of her than of any other writer I can think of, which may be why Jonathan Franzen, in a hugely entertaining 2004 celebration of her in The New York Times Book Review (“‘Runaway’: Alice’s Wonderland”), felt the need to enumerate eight detailed reasons why, despite her brilliance, Munro had not yet attained the level of success she deserved. For example, you cannot, wrote Franzen, use your time reading Munro to become more productive through multitasking, learning some “absorbing civics lessons or historical data.” The reason? “Her subject is people. People people people.” It takes a good long time of circling around Munro to get near the achievement, since a good portion of that achievement involves the unfashionable term “realism.” I quite like Franzen’s phrase, describing Munro’s accomplishment, as “gestaltlike completeness in the representation of a life.” This gets close to the spirit of realism, but that description, like others, dissolves if you probe it too severely. The genre of realism (if it is a genre) was difficult enough to promote when people actually believed in it; even more difficulty arises when it turns out a particular realism is especially attentive to the lives of women. I don’t like using “women’s lives” as a descriptor, since men respond to her fiction as much as women do, and I don’t like saying “realist”—which works for me really quite wonderfully—because I’ve never been able to communicate successfully to other people my own inner definitions of realism. (The best I can do is mutely hand over Chapter 17 of George Eliot’s Adam Bede, but you can’t do that in a radio interview.) Quickly reviewing, before the interview began, my own emotional response to Munro, I came upon my memory of what was, I think, the first story of hers that I encountered. So I talked about that.

In the early 1980s, I took a University of Regina course in the short story with the amiable, pragmatic, and eye-opening Bob Cosbey, just before he retired. The Munro story Bob had us read was from the 1960s, “Thanks for the Ride.” I recall with unusual clarity the sensation of arriving at the end of that story. I looked up from the page and somehow the world was different; I was a different person. I recognized myself in both of the main teenaged protagonists, the relatively sensitive male narrator and the girl with whom he has a brief sexual encounter on a somewhat tawdry outing for which the word “date” is too elegant. I myself felt grief and regret for the characters, but also saw that somehow they wouldn’t allow themselves the luxury of either of those emotions. I could experience in my own skin the damage to that small-town girl’s sexual reputation. But it was more than all that: the composition, the formation of the story was so solid, so dependable.

I trusted Munro’s handling of the sensitive material of youthful sexual exploration; I was only about 19—more or less the same age as the characters—and I needed to feel secure as I listened to these people, so much like me, who were brushing at the edges of danger and power and pain. The container that her story firmly provided, for the possible but never actually present messiness, was so beautifully constructed. If you compare Munro’s stories of youthful indiscretions to something like John Updike’s famous story about teenage rebellion, “A & P,” you’ll find in him similarly expert technique but a less considerate tone. “In walks these three girls in nothing but bathing suits,” is the opening sentence of Updike’s story, and yes, it was 1961, and yes, I recognize that Updike employs a persona, but by the time I’ve finished the first three paragraphs, painstakingly detailing the narrator’s ogling appraisal of young women’s bodies, I’m extremely uncomfortable.

I cannot help but acknowledge that I feel safe with Munro. It’s one of her great qualities.

Munro’s structures—these containers that allow the reader to encounter guilt or fear in a calm atmosphere of empathy combined with piercing judgement—rarely draw attention. She is an elegant, even classical, stylist. Her story structures surely serve many purposes, but one of them is to offer compassionate, smart scaffolding for potentially disquieting investigations. The title story of the 1978 collection Who Do You Think You Are?, a typical Alice Munro story in many ways, winds carefully and sinuously around multiple narratives. First Rose and her brother Brian recall a troubling man who featured in their childhood, Milton Homer, who was “not all there.” Then there’s a side story about Milton’s sisters, Miss Hattie and Miss Mattie, important in stimulating Rose’s prejudices about Christian piety, and another side story about schoolmate Ralph Gillespie, injured in the war and sidelined from life in a way which Rose struggles to grasp. There’s a tantalizing paragraph about an illicit love affair involving the adult Rose, and another which hints at unresolved issues between her childhood self and the television actress self she has now uneasily become. To summarize the plot here makes the story seem disconnected; nothing could be further from the truth. So, is this story about Rose, about Ralph, or about the town itself and its treatment of Milton Homer? The story satisfies because of the confident handling of all these interwoven threads; while you are reading you have no doubt you are seeing this collection of characters as they need to be seen, interrelated yet mostly uncomprehending of each other’s sorrows and secrets. If the reader postulates that “village idiot” Milton Homer is the centre of this story, and he may well be, I would argue that the manner in which his narrative is embedded in the narratives of others transforms the potentially embarrassing contemplation of Milton Homer, makes it serious, less exploitative.

I try not to talk about safety when I talk about literature, because literature and all the arts should be about risk and originality, but I cannot help but acknowledge that I feel safe with Munro. It’s one of her great qualities. It is not an easy safety, of course, but she heads into the most difficult emotional territory I can think of—falling in love, being a parent, losing faith in yourself, being betrayed by or betraying those you thought you loved more than anything in existence—and I can follow her and know I’ll be all right. She will never hurt me, as other writers have certainly done, and she will also never bore me or make things so simplistic they are useless.

All of this is my way of getting around to saying something about the new Spanish Alice Munro: Pedro Almodóvar’s film Julieta. Based on three linked stories in Runaway (“Chance,” “Soon,” and “Silence”), the scenario has been shifted from B.C./Ontario to Madrid. The era has also changed: Munro’s Juliet we first meet in 1964, while the hairstyle of Almodóvar’s young Julieta brings to mind nothing so much as 1980s rock videos by bands like ’Til Tuesday or A-ha. Still, Julieta is surprisingly loyal to the framework of Munro’s tales of desire, motherhood, and exquisite multiple losses. Almodóvar—who has always been energetic, although rarely polite, when presenting women’s lives on the screen—pays admirable attention to what women do and women feel, how they process and react and pine. The performances in Julieta are very fine; two actors play the young and older Julieta (Adriana Ugarte and Emma Suárez), and much of the pleasure of the film simply consists in watching their expressions. I was reminded of Henry James’s marvellous injunction in his preface to The Portrait of a Lady that he wanted his readers to take part, along with him, in organizing an “ado” about Isabel Archer. Almodóvar, similarly, organizes an ado about Julieta; and with startling restraint, given his past indulgence in cinematic flamboyance and even outrage. (I have to admit I have not seen Talk to Her, with its portrayal of rape, or Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, with its very accurate title, but I feel secure in calling them, at the least, controversial.)

Going to this film I had almost expected brilliance, having read D. T. Max’s praise for its melancholy intensity in The New Yorker a few weeks before (December 5, 2016, “The Evolution of Pedro Almodóvar”). Since I live in Winnipeg, Julieta wasn’t yet available to me, so on a Christmas trip to Ontario I watched it at the TIFF Lightbox. I had been prompted by Max’s profile to enter into a position of worshipfulness, although my own experience with Almodóvar’s colourful but sometimes ridiculous earlier films cautioned me that worship was surely not on the agenda. Still, D. T. Max claimed that the film is “Almodóvar at his most reflective and nuanced.”

What I saw instead was a very well-done melodrama, and melodrama is not, in my opinion, what Alice Munro is primarily about—although it is not completely absent from her fiction. In the first and best of the short stories about Juliet, “Chance,” the main character meets Eric on a cross-Canada train. Another man, whom Juliet has affronted, throws himself in front of the train, and she feels terrible; Eric is an understanding conversation partner. They do not begin a sexual relationship on the train, as Almodóvar has it. Instead they sit in the observation car, looking at the night sky. Juliet, a classics scholar, tells Eric the myths behind the constellations and he, a fisherman, is able to pinpoint those very constellations. This shared and equal knowledge is important in “Chance.” Munro’s Juliet is an intellectual—young and uncertain, yes, but nevertheless a woman with a good mind who is going to make a life for herself from that mind’s considerable ability. While Almodóvar’s Julieta does have a book which we see her read, it is largely a prop he doesn’t quite know what to do with, and the improbably bright lipstick and cute chunky earrings of his version of the character grate against a person who could say this in Munro’s original story:

In the town where she grew up her sort of intelligence was often put in the same category as a limp or an extra thumb, and people had been quick to point out the expected accompanying drawbacks—her inability to run a sewing machine or tie up a neat parcel, or notice that her slip was showing.

Just how much we are not in a melodrama is evident in Munro’s story when, in a throwaway phrase, she tells us that Juliet’s sleeping car has a “slight smell of nightclothes and toilets.” Later, when she goes to Eric’s house in a B.C. fishing village after receiving an apparently invitational summons from him, she stumbles into the aftermath of his dead’s wife wake. Juliet, scrambling for understanding, has to sort through whether she has even heard the word correctly. “At first she thinks that he said wait. Or weight?” Munro subtly and minimally works in references that support the notions of Juliet’s classical education – a paragraph about maenads, a short sequence about Briseis and Chryseis (female characters in The Iliad), and finally, this terrific sentence, “The Homeric word is sparkling on her hook,” after she remembers and savours the term kallipareos (“of the lovely cheeks”).

It is the range and variety of these “obscure and unsettling” moments which astound in Munro’s stories.

My point is not that Munro’s protagonist is more intellectually capable than Almodóvar’s, although that is certainly the case. For example, he concocts a classroom scene for his Julieta where she engages in flirtatious banter with students; this is out of character for Munro’s serious young woman. But more than this, her Juliet, even in one story, and especially through all three, progresses through a stunning number of stages, changes, ideas, feelings, careers, life lessons, and occasions for remorse. Almodóvar’s Julieta is simpler: a classicist, then a wife and mother, then a mourner, with some work as a proofreader thrown in. Mostly she is a mourner. I do like the movie Julieta; mourning is important to delineate, as is the bewilderment occasioned by relationships that go sideways and you cannot say why. Julieta is a masterful study in mourning and bewilderment and has my respect.

But Munro’s story cycle is about the complex processes of an entire woman’s life. For example: menstruation, which (not surprisingly) makes no appearance in Almodóvar’s movie, is important in the story “Chance.” Munro takes us through the self-consciousness of a woman bleeding heavily, the vigilance necessary to notice that it’s time to make it through the railway car to deal with the soaked pad, the physical sensation of being “flushed, crampy, feeling a little dizzy and sick,” and then being embarrassed when one cannot flush the toilet as the train is at a standstill. At a more ephemeral but ultimately more important level is Juliet’s realization that the suicide of the man on the train, someone whose plea for companionship she has rejected in the “first victory of this sort she had ever managed” and whom she is ashamed to describe as “the most pitiable, the saddest opponent,” immediately alters her way of reading and thinking, occupations of enormous importance to her. Going back to her book, she notices that she has formerly gulped it down, the intellectual appraisal of its contents processed in “an orgy of underlining.” But “what she had pounced on with such satisfaction at one time now seemed obscure and unsettling.”

It is the range and variety of these “obscure and unsettling” moments which astound in Munro’s stories. The complexity of Munro’s Juliet is all the more astounding in that this very smart young woman lives in the 1960s, with the cards stacked against female intellectual ambition far more harshly than a couple of decades later, when Almodóvar’s film is set. One of the reasons the stories “Soon” and “Silence” are less satisfying for me is that this woman’s cleverness dissolves: Juliet, as we follow her to 1969 in the second story and through the 1980s and 1990s in the third, is increasingly identified—as a result of her own conscious choices—as a wife (if common-law) and mother. She loses direction, heft. However, “Soon” and “Silence” are worthwhile even if only for the delineation of Juliet’s intriguing anger (against religion and, to an extent, her own daughter, whose deliberate disappearance replaces the passion for Eric as the pivot around which Juliet rotates). Near the end of “Silence” Juliet, in her fifties, returns to classical studies: “She lived amongst books, reading through most of her waking hours and being compelled to deepen, to alter, whatever premise she had started with.” It is the deepening and altering of such premises which we are privileged to observe while we live with Munro’s characters; the new film cannot manage to do much in the way of deepening and altering, beyond displaying the carefully orchestrated, gorgeously vibrating colours for which Almodóvar’s films are rather famous.

Film is very different than fiction, but it is not impossible for a film to offer interiority in the way literature does. To gaze intently at Montgomery Clift in A Place in the Sun is to experience a truly confusing mass of emotions: weakness, intelligence and hypersensitivity, repulsion, self-destructive stubbornness. Even in a potboiler like Rebecca, Joan Fontaine’s expressions are a masterclass in repression, diffidence, and vigilant self-consciousness. It’s probably a cliché to talk about Humphrey Bogart’s appealing manner on the screen, the way he communicates embittered, sympathetic integrity. But I’ll mention it anyway. Cinema has to expend immense effort to project on screen the complexity of motivation and human individuality we regularly find in books, but it can be done. Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven was a revelatory experience the first time I saw it; Wes Anderson’s beautifully twisted The Royal Tenenbaums offers many of the satisfactions of a novel. One of the best things about Pedro Almodóvar’s films is his tremendous skill in storytelling. He delights in large casts, expertly deploying his characters through myriad overlapping lusts and betrayals; he handles memorable plot devices (dead bodies in freezers, blenders full of barbiturate-laced gazpacho) with panache. Among contemporary film directors he earns respect for his attention to character and to wide ranges of emotion.

In Julieta, Almodóvar has offered a thorough contemplation of a woman that honours the emotions and some of the intelligence of that woman. That is rare enough in recent film, and thus the praise that Julieta has been accorded (“such quietly assured mastery,” says Godfrey Cheshire) by at least some critics hungry for grown-up movies without explosions or superheroes bitten by radioactive insects. But what Almodóvar’s film offers is not nearly enough. Because this is Munro. The sentimental music soundtrack alone should have Alice Munro rolling her eyes. The complete lack of sentiment in the Mary Pratt paintings which often adorn the covers of her books—now, that’s the way to go. Simplicity, passion, precision, loss: you can read these in Pratt’s “The Bed,” on the cover of the first edition of Runaway, or her “Wedding Dress” on the cover of Friend of My Youth.

Munro rarely writes explanatory acknowledgement pages for her books. There is no need for her intentions to overflow the boundaries of the stories. She has said what she came to say.

He advances on her and she feels herself ransacked from top to bottom, flooded with relief, assaulted by happiness. How astonishing this is. How close to dismay.

That description, of Juliet falling in love with the fisherman Eric in “Chance,” is so precisely right. Here I have to return to my problematic word “realism,” and recognize that I will probably spend my life trying to explain to myself (and anyone else who might care to listen) what realism means and how remarkable it is. Alice Munro is, for me, the realist of and for our age. That is far more essential and extraordinary than it sounds. Even more than McEwan, Carver, Updike, Ford—those crystalline, exact, beautiful writers who make ordinary human endeavours stand still so we can take our time raking our eyes over them for possible meanings—Munro tells me what it feels like to look at a face or a farmyard and really see it; what it feels like to wait for a lover in an empty house; and more than anything else what it feels like to live inside one’s own particular skin. I admit I have read Munro’s recent work very little in the last two decades, because, in part, I needed to work out for myself how to see and describe the world. Her presence and skill are so tremendous that I had to back away. But I do return, again and again, cautiously, to feel the pulse of her very living characters.

It takes vigilant concentration and delicacy to talk about the Munro delineation of sensation and memory. Sometimes I wonder if I’ve actually imagined her literary achievement.

On a recent family vacation I found my sister Sandra re-reading these three stories adapted by Almodóvar – “Chance,” “Soon,” and “Silence.” It was from Sandra’s house, many years ago, that I “liberated” my first Alice Munro book, Dance of the Happy Shades. There was an odd little room near her garage, and in my first year or two of university I found a bunch of Canadian paperbacks there. If my sister had left these books in such a dubious place I decided she didn’t deserve them. I would give them a better home. Pilfering books is one sin of which I have never repented.

During my visit I saw that my sister had turned down a page corner of Munro’s “Chance.” She wanted to talk to me about the impact of a passage, but (as so often with Munro) our discussion ended up going like this: she read the paragraph, we looked at each other, then we nodded. The private act of reading connects us, yet something about reading Munro remains unutterable.

Munro herself wrote about that private, yet communal, experience years prior to her own first book. In 1962, a now-defunct journal, The Montrealer, printed her memoir about an encounter in 1939 with an obscure Charles Dickens title, A Child’s History of England. Dickens’s book had been an important early reading experience for Munro:

As soon as I opened the Child’s History I remembered the smell—which is only the smell of an old book, on good thick yellowing paper, like sawdust, only richer, with some suggestion of vanilla, or the teasing smell empty chocolate papers have. To me, of course, it smells of the summer gloom of the uninhabited living room at home, all the shades down, everything peaceful as church.

When my sister and I talk, eagerly but falteringly, about Munro’s fiction, we are often trying to talk about impressions like that suggestion of vanilla. These are ideas that are essential, yet insubstantial—readings you almost fear to register in case the entire experience collapses in ruin and disappointment. Part of me was taken aback when she won the Nobel Prize because of the intimacy of reading Munro. How could this enormous prize go to a writer whose accomplishment is so difficult to articulate for others? That vanilla scent, that teasing chocolate smell: it takes vigilant concentration and delicacy to talk about the Munro delineation of sensation and memory. Sometimes I wonder if I’ve actually imagined her literary achievement.

Munro, of course, has described such wondering. Of her experience reading that dubious children’s history book she says that it was “the first book I ever read, in the sense that I had a private vision of what I was reading about—unexpected, incommunicable, painfully exciting.” The italics are hers. In other words: there is reading, and then there is reading. And reading is a private act, although connected to the communal joy, Munro says, she experienced hearing stories from her grandmother.

So what am I doing in this essay, trying to explain the impact of an experience of reading when someone as masterful as Alice Munro has declared it to be “incommunicable”? I return to my notion that we are watching a woman think—think with precision—and that is possibly the most important thing.

Sue Sorensen grew up in Saskatchewan and now lives in Winnipeg. Her books are The Collar: Reading Christian Ministry in Fiction, Television, and Film (The Lutterworth Press), the novel A Large Harmonium (Coteau Books), and West of Eden: Essays on Canadian Prairie Literature (Canadian Mennonite University Press). Her poems have appeared in such journals as Room, Grain, Prairie Fire,and CV2. Sue is an Associate Professor of English at Canadian Mennonite University.