Among the Nobel favorites, those weather-beaten figures on the liar’s bench of literature, two names turn up every year side by side: the Canadian writers Alice Munro and Margaret Atwood. Munro (1931), the Vermeer of the short story, is known for her unparalleled prose. Atwood (1939), always more political, has moved from sharp-edged explorations of contemporary life to science fictional warnings about the depletion of the planet.
I came to Atwood in my late teens, just before she published the unforgettable “Handmaid’s Tale.” I picked up “Lady Oracle” for a long bus ride and spent the trip doubled up in silent laughter. Her humor is dry as a bone; her eye for how women impersonate the women they want to become—comically in “Lady Oracle,” more seriously in “The Robber Bride” and “Alias Grace”—is peerless.
Munro was a later discovery. I’m still astonished at how she uses deceptively simple rhythms to carry you deep beneath the surface of small-town life. She’s technically accomplished, surprisingly dark in outlook, a sophisticated talent. Her stories age better than Atwood’s and may last longer.
If I were handing out awards for pleasure, I would choose Atwood. But the Nobel-Phillips Prize 2012 goes to Munro, for great art.
Trouw, October 11, 2012. I was told I could only choose one writer; this was my way of including two anyway. The actual prize went to the Chinese writer Mo Yan, but I got my wish, or one-half of it, a year later. My two colleagues who contributed predictions cast their votes for Philip Roth, so they’re still waiting.