Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize, and a nation rejoiced. But to put it that way limits it, because it wasn’t just a nation. On Thursday, I spoke with a Swedish newspaper editor. He wanted to know what I thought Ms. Munro’s win would mean for Canada, if it would raise the profile of Canadian writers around the world.
“Well, what do you think of her?” I asked. “Do you read her in Sweden?”
“Oh yes,” he assured me. “She is extremely popular here with readers, and with literary critics. She is the one writer we all wanted to win the prize.”
In the ecstatic reactions, the Twitter praise, the Facebook rejoicing, she was so often called “Our Alice.” That’s presumptuous, of course – she has never been an especially public figure, and guards her privacy carefully. But the sentiment is undeniable; millions of readers around the world cherish her as they would a close friend, and feel intensely connected with her. But what if that gets it slightly wrong? What if it’s less that she’s ours, and more that we’re hers?
Her stories, after all, are the stories of us. They’re stories of people with jobs, in marriages, with children and problems. Sometimes, extraordinary things happen. Sometimes they don’t. Whether they do or not is almost beside the point, for Ms. Munro is capable of extracting astounding dramatic resonance from even the dullest of scenarios. Her work is a grand document of a particular swath of the human condition. (And for Canadians, it’s one that’s especially recognizable.) But that limits things, too.
In one of her very best stories, The Turkey Season, published in 1982’s The Moons of Jupiter, a woman recounts working in a turkey-processing facility when she was 14. “All I could see when I closed my eyes, the first few nights after working there,” she remembers, “was turkeys. I saw them hanging upside down, plucked and stiffened, pale and cold, with the heads and necks limp, the eyes and nostrils clotted with dark blood; the remaining bits of feathers – those dark and bloody, too – seemed to form a crown. I saw them not with aversion but with a sense of endless work to be done.”
And that, in one powerful sentence, is the greatest strength of Alice Munro. She chronicles a world we recognize, a world some of us yearn to escape, to be sure. But more than that, she peers into the darkness – into the vulgar, tentative, ugly hearts of all of us – and sees it not with aversion, but with a sense of endless work to be done. She is an alchemist, transforming our uncertainty, our failings, our weaknesses into remarkable, and remarkably human, dramas. In them, we see ourselves in the fullest sense: not just the glint of recognition that comes from identifying with a character, but the shocking, haunting disturbance that comes from encountering those corners of our own psyches we prefer to leave unexplored.
Who do you think you are? Ms. Munro asked with the title of her 1978 collection. (Elsewhere, in territories less self-inquiring, the book was called The Beggar Maid.) For more than 40 years, we’ve been fortunate to have her help us answer that question. And when we look deeply into her stories, we see that we are, most simply, human. Flawed, sometimes failing. Striving, sometimes achieving. But no matter what, we see how we’ve been shaped by her hand.
Jared Bland is The Globe and Mail’s books editor.