Alice Munro, Nobel Prize for Literature: her legacy threatened by a family scandal

This is news that has shocked many fans of Alice Munro, the Canadian author who won the Nobel Prize in 2013. In an article published on July 7 in the daily life Toronto Star, The novelist’s daughter, Andrea Skinner, accuses her stepfather, Gerald Fremlin, of sexually assaulting her when she was a child. She also denounces the inaction of her mother and father throughout their lives.

“This revelation is a betrayal – a storm that sweeps everything away in its path,” believes journalist Marsha Lederman, who asks in an opinion piece The Globe and Mail, another Canadian daily:

“How is it possible to continue reading Munro?”

Very clear-cut, and feeling betrayed, she believes that the entire work of the novelist “will appear under another prism – if we still want to read it again”.

A deep-rooted culture of silence

Alice Munro, who died last May, was celebrated for her work, mainly short stories, which finely dissected the inner workings of intimate life, particularly that of women. This scandal has further upset the female writers who considered her a role model, shocked by her daughter’s accusations that she had taken her husband’s side.

This is the case of Michelle Dean. Originally from the Ottawa Valley, near Ottawa, about which Alice Munro has written extensively, she confides that the culture of silence is in place in families in this region. “It has often been written of Alice that she found the universal in the particular – well, this universality is very much like the ‘low-key’, Protestant, white, very particular rural life in which my family is rooted,” she explains on the American site The Cut.

More nuanced than Marsha Lederman, she knows that in reality, the vast majority of families “don’t react to aggression like they do in the movies,” but rather have “tendency to protect oneself by sacrificing the one who has disturbed their peace”.

The stories Alice Munro tells sound different now, says Michelle Dean. “All his stories, right down to the last one, are about secrets that his characters cannot betray, because their personality, or more often their ‘discreet’ social background, prevents them from revealing the slightest part of their inner life. Today, certain passages acquire a very particular resonance.”

Reinterpreting his stories

Michelle Dean, like author Sarah Weinman, which also reacts in The Globe and Mail, thus immediately recalled a passage from Vandals, published in 1993, shortly afters that Andrea Skinner informed her mother of the attacks and that the latter temporarily left her partner, before taking her side. The news (available in French in the collection Open secrets, ed. Points) is about a young woman, Liza, who was sexually abused as a child by the partner of her older neighbor, Bea. Alice Munro writes that Bea could have “create a cordon sanitaire if she had wanted to”, but that to do this she would have had to “to transform into a completely different woman, inflexible, uncompromising, expeditious, energetic, intolerant.”

What is certain, according to Michelle Dean, is that the debate is about “the question of whether, despite everything, metaphorically, we should leave the statue of Alice on its pedestal.” She thinks it is possible: “What I was trying to tell you is that now I think I know these stories better than before, because of this revelation.”

As children, we often look to adults and think that they are doing the best they can, but that is not always the case, the author continues.

“You know who taught me that? First it was the Ottawa Valley. Then it was Alice. Now it’s Andrea.”

A Lolita-like distortion

Sarah Weinman, she says to herself “furious” to have learned that this secret was in fact known to many people, “The worst part is that Fremlin has not shown the slightest remorse, because he has never acknowledged that it was an assault.” For her, this case echoes the story of Lolita Nabokov’s novel and its reception: critics having reversed the guilt to accuse Lolita, a 12-year-old girl, of having seduced Humbert Humbert, 37. An interpretation totally opposed to the intention of its author, who denounced pedophilia.

Gerald Fremlin, who died in 2013, also used this strategy at the time, to clear his name with his parents, highlights Sarah Weinman, author of Lolita. The True Story. The Case That Inspired Nabokov’s Masterpiece (in French from Seuil editions).

“Fed by a bad reading of LolitaFremlin imposes on Andrea Skinner a free will of which he completely deprives her”, writes Sarah Weinman.

“Munro’s decision to plunder reality and turn it into literature had unforgivable consequences, and her privileging of her literary double – of whom Fremlin was a central element – ​​over her youngest daughter irreparably sullies her work.”

A cult that ends

By publicly denouncing this, Andrea Skinner is reestablishing the truth “and reminds us that great artists are not necessarily good people, and that monsters lurk, perhaps and above all, in the small, quiet and peaceful world of Canadian literature,” adds Sarah Weinman.

Some famous writers also reacted on social networks, relates the Toronto Star. “If you have read Munro, you will have noticed that very often bad guys are valorized, forgiven, excused; there is a kind of resignation,” thus analyzes on X the American Joyce Carol Oates.

For journalist Marsha Lederman, “the literary cult that was devoted to him is over.” Alice Munro may have been a victim, “but she became someone else when she made that shocking decision: to choose her abusive husband and not her daughter, the real victim.”

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