We all live in Alice Munro Country

October 10, 2013 by · 3 Comments 

Alice_MunroShe has been called “our Chekhov,” and is routinely cited as one of the greatest living English-language writers. She has won three Governor General’s Literary Awards for fiction, two Scotiabank Giller Prizes, two O. Henry Awards, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the PEN/Malmud Award, and the Man Booker International Prize. “Among writers themselves,” said Margaret Atwood, “her name is spoken in hushed tones.”

Today, those tones will be anything but hushed.

This morning, Alice Munro became the first Canadian woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, and only the thirteenth woman out of 110 laureates. In a brief statement, the Swedish Academy calls Munro “a master of the contemporary short story.”

While the reaction from observers is likely to be raucous, the author’s own response was typically gracious and understated. A Canadian Press story in The Globe and Mail quotes Munro as saying she is “amazed and very grateful.” Also typically, Munro goes on to shift the focus off herself: “I’m particularly glad that winning this award will please so many Canadians. I’m happy, too, that this will bring more attention to Canadian writing.”

Munro has been a perennial favourite to win the Nobel, and this year the betting house Ladbrokes ranked her second in odds, after Haruki Murakami.

Although the 82-year-old Ontario author has been remarkably consistent in her themes over the course of a career that spans four-and-a-half decades and fourteen books (excluding anthologies and best-of retrospectives), she has not remained stagnant as a writer. In a Quill & Quire review of her latest collection, Dear Life (2012), James Grainger points out:

Critics have been saying for so long that a typical Alice Munro story is as rich and textured as any novel that they seem not to have noticed that her recent stories don’t resemble novels much at all. Beginning (roughly) with Runaway (2004) and continuing through to Too Much Happiness (2009), Munro has gradually shifted away from the complex, oblique narratives and intricately layered portraiture of her mid-career work toward a pared-down, almost expressionistic form of storytelling.

Yet her subjects have remained the same: sexual politics, domestic violence – physical and, more often, psychological – and self-awareness in the lives of girls and women. “‘Dreariness of spirit’ is one of the great Munro enemies,” Atwood writes in the introduction to the 2009 volume My Best Stories:

Her characters do battle with it in every way they can, fighting against stifling mores and other people’s deadening expectations and imposed rules of behaviour, and every possible kind of muffling and spiritual smothering. Given a choice between being a person who does good works but has inauthentic feelings and is numb at heart and one who behaves badly but is true to what she really feels and is thus alive to herself, a Munro woman is likely to choose the latter; or, if she chooses the former, she will then comment on her own slipperiness, guile, wiliness, slyness, and perversity.

Quoted on the website NDTV, Munro herself claims, “There are no such things as big and little subjects. The major things, the evils, that exist in the world have a direct relationship to the evil that exists around a dining room table when people are doing things to each other.”

In an interview with The Paris Review, Munro talks about the influence of Southern American writers on her own sensibility:

The writers of the American South were the first writers who really moved me because they showed me that you could write about small towns, rural people, and that kind of life I knew very well. But the thing about the Southern writers that interested me, without my being really aware of it, was that all the Southern writers whom I really loved were women. I didn’t really like Faulkner that much. I loved Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, Katherine Anne Porter, Carson McCullers. There was a feeling that women could write about the freakish, the marginal.

Munro has, over the course of a truly remarkable career, incorporated that influence, and also transcended it. Her stories rank as some of the most subtle, provocative work produced not just in Canada, but internationally in the past forty years. Previous recent choices of Nobel laureates have caused controversy, but it is difficult to imagine anyone with knowledge of world literature arguing seriously that Alice Munro is undeserving of the honour.

The term “Alice Munro Country” is typically applied to a small patch of land in rural Ontario; today, the Swedish Academy has ensured that designation has a much broader connotation. We all live in Alice Munro Country. And we are all immeasurably better for it.

***

I had come to Victoria because it was the farthest place I could get to from London, Ontario, without going out of the country. In London, my husband, Donald, and I had rented a basement apartment in our house to a couple named Nelson and Sylvia. Nelson was an English major at the university and Sylvia was a nurse. Donald was a dermatologist, and I was doing a thesis on Mary Shelley – not very quickly. I had met Donald when I went to see him about a rash on my neck. He was eight years older than I was – a tall, freckled, blushing man, cleverer than he looked. A dermatologist sees grief and despair, though the problems that bring people to him may not be in the same class as tumors and blocked arteries. He sees sabotage from within, and truly unlucky fate. He sees how matters like love and happiness can be governed by a patch of riled-up cells. Experience of this sort had made Donald kind, in a cautious, impersonal way. He said that my rash was probably due to stress, and that he could see I was going to be a wonderful woman, once I got a few problems under control.

– “The Albanian Virgin,” by 2013 Nobel Prize winner Alice Munro

UPDATE: I’ve been taking some heat on social media for stating that Munro is the first Canadian Nobel laureate, since Saul Bellow was born in Lachine, Quebec. For the record: I have never considered Bellow a Canadian author. He was raised and educated in the U.S., did all of his writing there, and is most closely associated with Chicago. He considered himself an American writer, as do I. But, for those who wish to argue, I acknowledge his place of birth as Canada, and have amended the above post accordingly.

Comments

3 Responses to “We all live in Alice Munro Country”
  1. Simon Lavery says:

    Interesting and informative – thanks. How did you produce such a polished, well-written piece so quickly?!

  2. Great piece on Munro. My personal favourite is the triptych “Chance,” “Soon,” “Silence,” which made an indelible emotional impact. Followed by the exquisite, dream-like “Floating Bridge.”

    I agree with you about Saul Bellow.

  3. No need to apologize, Steven — Bellow himself would’ve found it ludicrous to be called a Canadian writer.

    Alice is the first Canadian — no gender tag needed! (viz: today’s G&M front page)