My heart stopped in a bookstore on Thursday morning. Isn’t that dramatic?
But there on the table was Lying under the Apple Tree, by Alice Munro. But there isn’t a book called Lying Under the Apple Tree by Alice Munro. I’ve read them all. This book doesn’t exist. There it sat. Looking thick and full of stories. A new book.
Now, you’ll have to understand that when I recently bought Dear Life, Alice Munro’s “last” book, it was with a strange mix of delight and grief. (Last because she says it is and for now, we must take her word for it. It is a splendid finish. But I wish for more.) Of course I wanted to read it. I didn’t want to have read it. How awful that those two words share spelling. The past tense is brutal. I wanted to inhabit her stories but could scarcely bare their consumption.
The book sat on my shelf unopened for a week or two. I was saving it for my train-trip to London. I imagined Plum peacefully sleeping away the miles in the sling and me delighting in a delicious book with a cup of surprisingly good coffee in my hand. (Yes, I said imagining. I know that train coffee would never fit this bill, but one can, of course, imagine.) Reality on the train was a little more complicated. (And the coffee was, well… anyway…) Plum didn’t doze much. Plum didn’t play with his toys much either. He was on an adventure with Mummy and wanted to spend time with Mummy. Go figure. But from time to time, we did find our quiet spots. For a while, he settled in with The Mitten by Jan Brett and I had the chance to pull out my Alice. After a paragraph or two, he tired of The Mitten and preferred Alice himself. Can’t say I blame him much though I love Jan Brett’s lovely illustrations. The result was that I read through the first story very, very slowly. Which is how one should read Alice, perhaps.
The ensuing stories I tried to read slowly as well. Some I reread. Actually, most I reread. She is one of the writers that make you both forget about the act of reading and then afterwards become intensely aware. How did she get you from A to B? When did the tense shift? How did she decide to include that detail, that unfathomable moment? Why on earth would the husband respond that way and how did she know to ask or not to ask? They are thinking stories, but those you need to think through with your heart.
It was several weeks after coming home from London that I let myself read the final story. (And I won’t tell you about it – you will need to get the book and read it yourself. It is absolutely worth it.) After I finished. I closed the book and sat quietly.
So I felt really jittery in the bookstore on Thursday. A new Alice Munro. But when I picked up the book and looked inside, I realized that I had been had. It turns out that Lying Under the Apple Tree is not a new book. Well, it’s new because it has just been published this month, but it isn’t new at all because it is an anthology of Alice’s best stories from her other books. It makes sense. She won the Nobel prize recently. A new edition of selected stories is fitting and lucrative. But for just a moment, it didn’t seem fair at all. I felt like something had been snatched away.
Alice Munro’s short stories hold a lot of life. In thin slivers and bright images, she manages to contain vital and astonishing depth. A photograph left in the sun. An unexpected answer to a question. A family of skunks in the garden. Ridiculous and memorable. And akin to parables. Like parables, Munro crafts her short stories from the stuff of basic life. They are familiar. And shocking, too. They wake us up.
Yesterday, I was chatting with two literature students after the service. They told me that they were taking a break from studying and would be writing a three-hour exam first thing Monday morning so I’m thinking about them now. I studied literature at university, too, and it felt like a gift to spend four years immersed in stories. A gift and a luxury and a necessity, too. As a student, I divided my time between literature and religion courses, and found that at the core, they were about the same thing. The human imagination reaching for something ephemeral, transient, eternal.
Now my reading comes in stolen moments when Plum nurses or the bigger kids are busy with their homework. (I come by these snatched moments honestly – I can remember my mother reading novels while stirring the porridge on the stove.) Last night, I was tucked into bed with a book after bedtime and I came across this nugget in a novel by Douglas Coupland:
“…do you pray? What is prayer but a wish for the events of your life to string together to form a story – something that makes some sense of events you know have meaning. And so I pray.”
You preach it, brother, and keep the prayers and parables coming. You and Alice and all the others story-crafters who shock us and feed us and shake us awake and make us hungry for more.