This is not how an Alice Munro story would turn out.
On Tuesday, Ms. Munro, 82, rose early in Victoria, where she is spending the winter, and, holding a cup of coffee, stretched out on a chesterfield, while her eldest daughter, Sheila, took the adjacent couch and turned on the computer to catch the pomp and ceremony of a foreign ritual. The scene is cozily familiar to anybody who has snuggled under a throw to exclaim and gossip about a royal wedding, but this was something far more personal – the live streaming of the 2013 Nobel Prize for literature. So, while the laureate and one of her daughters watched from the privacy of their own living room, another daughter, Jenny, serene in her upswept hairdo, sleeveless brocaded top and flowing navy skirt, bowed to the King of Sweden and accepted the world’s most prestigious literary prize on her mother’s behalf.
“I am simply not able physically to do it,” Ms. Munro said in an interview before the ceremony. “She is wonderful,” Ms. Munro said of Jenny, “for taking this off my shoulders and for doing all of this for me.”
Sitting in a soft chair later, lit by a soft light from the overcast daylight, she is unabashed about choosing her own comfort over pomp and ceremony. “I think when you get old as I am, you take things – I was going to say easily but it’s not quite that. It’s the fact that you are going to die soon so what happens is more or less always interesting, but not of great moment. You are detached.”
As for winning the Nobel, Ms. Munro said in a strong clear voice that she had never anticipated such recognition. “It is just like something wonderful that has fallen about me. I never thought too much about how my books were selling.” Reading is a different matter. “I would like my work to last for a time,” she said without any effort at false modesty. “I am not sure how to make this happen because you can be famous for a time and then disappear.” As she knows, not even the Nobel can guarantee her legacy. That depends on readers spreading the word.
But she is firm she has no urge to write again. “I’ve been writing since I was about 10, and it’s really time to have a completely different take on life.” What does that look like? “I don’t know yet. I just get up every day and do things. Nothing is as tense any more. Writing was hard work.”
Sheila Munro has moved outside into the garden of their modest home while her mother holds court in the living room for a steady stream of reporters, photographers and videographers. She is not shy, says her daughter; the truth is simpler: She has very little interest in the celebrity aspect of her literary prizes. “She is the opposite of a diva.”
If this were a Munro story about the Nobel prize instead of real life, there would have been a twist just as the reader was lulled into anticipating a satisfactory conclusion to a tale well told. There was a Munrovian touch early on, when one of her publishers unaccountably failed to inform the Nobel committee that the leading contender for that year’s prize had gone to British Columbia for the season and had a different phone number. After spending most of the day futilely calling her home in Clinton, Ont., the organizers finally took to Twitter, pleading for the writer of 14 books and winner of more than a mantle of literary hardware to give them a call. That hitch was resolved, although with some disappointment for the author, who was awoken before dawn in early October by an enterprising reporter who demanded her reaction to the news that she had won the Nobel prize, and at some cost to the Nobel committee members who were denied the pleasure of telling her themselves. Small potatoes, as she herself might have written, to deflect us from her real purpose.
As a solitary little girl, Alice Munro made up stories on her walk to school from her family’s brick house on the outskirts of a small town in southwestern Ontario. One of the earliest was based on The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Anderson. Ms. Munro admired the little mermaid’s bravery in giving up her tail for human legs to win the heart of the prince, but being a neophyte writer, she changed the tragic ending and rewarded the little mermaid by having her marry the prince and live happily ever after. As she grew older, she traded happy endings and fantasy characters for the sorrow and tragedy of human drama, often mining her own absorbed experience of love, betrayal, death, longing, family conflict and reconciliation.
The day before the ceremony, Ms. Munro and Sheila began celebrating by drinking a glass or two of champagne at the Rattenbury-designed house in Victoria where the writer once lived, raised her children, wrote stories and tentatively sent them to editors. Her first husband, Jim Munro, proprietor of Munro’s Books, which, incidentally is doing a roaring trade in sales of the works by the writer local literati once dismissed as “just a housewife,” still lives there with his second wife, textile artist Carole Sabiston. Ms. Sabiston organized the late afternoon party for the Munros and writer Rachel Wyatt, an old friend from Ontario days, to sit in front of the fire and sip champagne, and Mr. Munro drove them home afterward. “We are all dining out on it,” said the jubilant bookseller, the writer’s earliest and still stalwart supporter. “We are thrilled for her.”
While the extended family anticipated Tuesday’s festivities, Ms. Munro composed “some words” which Sheila e-mailed to Jenny to deliver at the banquet after the ceremony in Stockholm. “I am honoured and delighted to have received this prize as the crowning achievement of my writing life, and only wish I could be there in person to receive it.
“I want to say hello to the people of Sweden, to all my supporters in Canada, and my readers around the world.
“I want to thank the Nobel academy, the jurors, the filmmakers and everyone else who made this event possible. I also want to thank the country of Sweden for instituting and preserving this wonderful award.
“I believe it is so important to recognize and celebrate the significance, meaning, and enjoyment to be found in fiction.”
And in typically Munro fashion, Sheila ended by telling her younger sister to “tweak to your liking.” Then the women turned to more practical concerns: buying a bottle of champagne – having dismissed Mumm’s – which Sheila had selected in honour of her mother – for a brand that was on special; enlisting the computer skills of a 20-something grandson to make sure they could actually receive the live stream of the ceremony; and planning a Christmas shopping expedition to Munro’s Books, followed by a celebratory lunch in the Bombay Room of The Empress Hotel. “It is a very elegant, very comfortable room,” Sheila Munro said, “and it is my mother’s favourite restaurant.”
And then perhaps home for a nap, an ordinary activity in an extraordinary day for Alice Munro.
So much for real life. In the larger scheme of a Munro story, there would have been a narrative twist, when the author, having bought herself a new dress and perhaps having indulged in a stylish haircut that had not turned out precisely as imagined, arrived in Stockholm for her inevitable comeuppance. There had been a mistake. She was not the winner. Instead of recognizing the short story, the prize was going to another – probably a distinguished male writer of doorstopper sagas. And why not? Who does she think she is anyway?
With a report from Justine Hunter