“I was brought up to believe that the worst thing you could do was ‘call attention to yourself,’ or ‘think you were smart,’” Alice Munro, the new winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, once told the New Yorker. When Munro (1931) was growing up in Depression-era Canada, she learned not to believe she was special. Even after a scholarship gave her two years at university, after she married, moved to Vancouver, and started a family, she didn’t feel that a woman writer had the world’s approval. After all, a woman who would “do anything so weird as writing was unseemly and probably neglectful” of her husband and children.

Attention for the brilliance of Alice Munro has been building for some time. Her first book, “The Dance of the Happy Shades” (1968), won the Governor General’s Award, the Canadian national literary prize. She later won the prize two more times. When she won the Man Booker International Prize for her whole body of work in 2009, the American novelist Jane Smiley called her stories “practically perfect.” Reviewing her in 2004, Jonathan Franzen said she “has a strong claim to being the best fiction writer now working in North America.”

Yet as Margaret Atwood has pointed out, no matter how famous or admired Munro becomes, no matter how close to “literary sainthood,” her work still seems like a well-kept secret. “Readers don’t see her name in lights on every billboard. They come across her as if by accident or fate, and are drawn in, and then there is an outbreak of wonder and excitement, and incredulity – Where did Alice Munro come from? Why didn’t anybody tell me?”

Munro comes from rural Ontario, where her father had a fox fur farm that did not survive the Depression. Southwest Ontario has a reputation for both small-mindedness and oddity, according to Atwood, who described it in the Guardian as a place of “lush nature, repressed emotions, respectable fronts, hidden sexual excesses, outbreaks of violence, lurid crimes, long-held grudges, strange rumours.” Unsurprisingly, it has been a central source of Munro’s material. Her characters often manage to escape, but like Philip Roth’s children of Newark, they look back with equal parts affection and anger, relief at getting away and longing for what has been lost.

Her early stories often follow the outlines of Munro’s own life. A young girl grows up in a small town. She is poor, but so is everyone else around her. She has bitter conflicts with her mother. She belongs to the town but is also an outsider, constantly observing the people around her. Eventually she goes to college, marries, and moves to the West Coast. She has children, and wonders how to be a good mother while preserving her most important inner characteristic, her power of observation. She has doubts about her marriage.

In giving her the award, the Nobel Prize committee called her a “master of the contemporary short story.”This is one of the salient facts about Munro: she is one of the very rare writers—Chekhov, Raymond Carver—who have been recognized as great without ever writing a novel. Her one book billed as a novel, the 1971 “The Lives of Girls and Women,” is really a collection of linked stories.

Yet because her stories are so rich and full of life, they are as satisfying to those who love plot and character as they are to those who admire perfectly wrought prose. One of her most celebrated stories, “Miles City, Montana” (1985), compresses into a few pages a family on a summer vacation, a close call, and the memory of a long-ago drowning. Its themes are much like those of Franzen’s “Freedom”: a marriage in trouble, disappointed ambitions, parents’ fears for their children, the consequences for children of too much independence. (Franzen has as much as said that he took the idea for his latest novel from Munro’s work.) But Munro’s talent is such that she is able to compress all this into a literary diamond, a 20-page gem of understanding.

Her short story “The Bear Came over the Mountain,” made into the 2008 film “Away from Her,” is about a husband whose wife begins losing her memory. After he puts her in a nursing home, she falls in love with another patient, leading him to question their life together. Here too, she says in a few short pages a great deal about the entwined pleasure and pain of human relationships.

Women’s experience is central to her writing. She has called this the basis of feminism, too: the belief that what women do matters. She is seldom explicitly feminist in her work, unlike Atwood or her Nobel predecessor Doris Lessing. But women’s hopes and frustrations are ever-present in her fiction, and the Nobel Prize serves to confirm what Munro has known all along: that what might seem to be the trivia of women’s lives can become the subject of art that speaks to us all.

In a brief reaction read by her publisher, Munro said, “I’m amazed and very grateful.” She also said she hoped the Nobel would call attention to Canadian writing. She is the first Canadian to win the prize.

Retired from literature

Like her fellow writer Philip Roth, Alice Munro recently announced that she was retiring from literature. In an interview with the New York Times last July she said she no longer had the energy. Her decision had to do not only with her own health (she has had heart surgery in recent years and has been treated for cancer), but with the death in April of her second husband, Gerald Fremlin. They had been married since 1976, and lived together in his hometown of Clinton, Ontario, just a few miles from Munro’s birthplace.

Unless Munro comes out of retirement, her final book appeared in 2012: “Dear Life,” a collection of stories and autobiographical sketches. An earlier collection, “Too Much Happiness,” was published last month in Dutch translation. Among her best books are “The Progress of Love” (1986), “Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage” (2001), and “Runaway” (2004).

 

Trouw, October 11, 2013.