Alice Munro, the first Canadian to win the Nobel Prize for literature, has always been reclusive. Even the Swedish Academy, which had lauded Ms. Munro as a “master of the contemporary short story” on its website Thursday morning, tweeted that it had to leave a phone message asking her to get in touch.
Don’t ask Alice, read Alice, is the lesson her fans have learned over the years. A woman with a slyly wicked sense of humour, Ms. Munro, 82, has always shunned the spotlight, preferring to let others talk while she plumbs her own emotional life to write penetrating, seemingly artless stories.
She lures readers into her imagined world and then shakes them up with plot twists and character revelations that seem to come out of nowhere, but quickly become chillingly plausible. How does she do it, is a question that literary critics have posed for years. Despite all the theories, the simplest answer suffices: She is a genius.
And now the world has confirmed a truth almost universally proclaimed in Canada. The woman who turned the interior lives of girls and women, in a small pocket of Southwestern Ontario, into literary magic has been awarded the world’s most prestigious lifetime achievement award.
“What I love is that all her stories feel so private and intimate,” said poet and novelist Michael Ondaatje, describing himself as “overjoyed and inarticulate” at the news. “They have their own code,” he said about her stories. “They don’t have a large public or rhetorical voice. So the readers have to come to her. She doesn’t go out to them.”
Earlier this year, Ms. Munro, the author of 14 books of short stories and the winner of dozens of literary prizes including The Giller (twice) and the Man Booker for lifetime achievement, announced her retirement, saying that her most recent book, Dear Life, would be her last. That added an elegiac tone to the Nobel Prize announcement. However, there may be no need for an elegy. Reached by the Nobel committee late in the afternoon, she was so chuffed by the award, not for herself, she made clear, but for her chosen form, that she allowed, she “might change her mind” about retiring.
A “thrilled” Margaret Atwood said it’s a long way from Ms. Munro being called a “housewife” when her first collection of short stories, Dance of the Happy Shades, won the Governor-General’s award in 1968. Back then, Ms. Munro, who was born in tiny Wingham, Ont., in 1931, was living in Victoria, working with her first husband, James Munro, in the independent bookstore that is still a prominent feature of downtown Victoria, and raising their three daughters. After they divorced in 1972, Ms. Munro moved back to Ontario, living in the small town of Clinton with her second husband Gerald Fremlin. He died earlier this year, and last month, accompanied by her daughter Jenny Munro, she travelled back to Victoria to spend the winter with her eldest daughter, biographer Sheila Munro.
The prize is “long overdue for a Canadian,” Ms. Atwood said, mentioning others, including novelist Robertson Davies and poets Irving Layton and Al Purdy, who were rumoured to be in the running over the years. (Saul Bellow, born in Lachine, Que., was an American citizen when he won the Nobel in 1976.) The prize can’t be awarded posthumously. “It is not a People’s Choice award,” Ms. Atwood said. Writers are nominated by academics and a winner chosen by the Swedish Academy, “and the workings of that committee are quite secretive,” she said.
Ms. Munro is only the 13th female laureate since the literature prize was launched in 1901, a drumroll that includes Doris Lessing and Toni Morrison. Although glad that the prize went to a woman, Ms. Atwood insisted that gender should never be a deciding factor. “You can’t make literary decisions on that basis,” she said, “any more than we on the Giller jury were making decisions on whose turn it is, or what gender they are.”
The announcement was greeted with joy by younger writers, such as Sheila Heti, author of How Should a Person Be, and Marjorie Celona, who was long-listed for the Giller Prize last year for her debut novel Y. They first read Ms. Munro as girls on the cusp of puberty, picking up copies of her early collections on family bookshelves and coffee tables and then turning the pages with growing absorption.
“Dance of the Happy Shades was one of the first books I read and loved, in that magical age when you discover books,” said Ms. Celona, 32. “I was a young girl who was looking for affirmation that life was gloomy and complicated and strange and there it was in this book.”
As an adult, reading the stories again, Ms. Celona says she has a deeper awareness of Ms. Munro’s magic. “If I take a step back, I can see that she has charted what it is like to be a woman from girlhood to old age,” she said. “I have effectively grown up with her books and I think that is such a gift she has given readers and the world.”
For Ms. Heti, 36, Ms. Munro is a great and “incredibly” rigorous artist. “It is impossible not to respect how clear her vision is” and how she has “dedicated her life unwaveringly to this,” Ms. Heti said. “It is quite inspiring.” As for the Nobel Prize, “it is a thrill when somebody gets something they deserve. It has nothing to do with being Canadian.”
WRITERS ON ALICE MUNRO’S NOBEL VICTORY
I’m absolutely ecstatic that Alice won; nobody should win if she doesn’t.
Richard Ford is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Independence Day.
I am beside myself with joy, and bursting with pride as a Canadian. Alice Munro’s is a literature that affirms all of life, its disturbing darks as well as its sudden shafts of light. A win like this is a gift, not only to us as a country, but to the whole body of world literature. A simply marvellous day.
Jane Urquhart’s last novel was Sanctuary Line.
This is the Nobel announcement that has made me happiest in the whole of my life. She has done more for the possibilities and the form of the short story than any other writer I know.
A.S. Byatt won the Man Booker Prize for Possession.
I want to say that I am very, very pleased, very pleased for a Canadian to win the prize, I am very pleased for a short-story writer to win the prize and I am very pleased that Alice Munro won the prize as an individual. It is good for the country, good for the genre and especially good for this outstanding practitioner of her craft.
I think her work is very unique in that it explores not only the Lives of Girls and Women, but it explores the lives of people who lived in a certain area of a certain country at a certain time. In that area of southwestern Ontario, where a lot of these very, very bright girls perhaps could not fulfill their destinies by going to university and so on and it was a time when people didn’t necessarily say, “You go, girl,” but rather said, Who Do You Think You Are? when all these girls are trying to get to university, or stay there, or not marry the guy next door. So I think if the writer is supposed to hold a mirror up to life, she certainly did hold a mirror up to life, not only on behalf of the people of her own generation, but perhaps also people of her parents’ generation and so forth.
Novelist Alistair MacLeod is the author of No Great Mischief.
I am just overjoyed and inarticulate! How deserved this is. How wonderful that a short-story writer after a long solitary career is celebrated by the whole world this way.
I keep thinking of her early stories, such as Walker Brothers Cowboy and later Miles City, Montana – those works when Alice Munro was this writer under the radar for most of the world and given support at that time by people like Robert Weaver of the CBC, who was another true hero to Canadian literature.
What I love is that all her stories feel so private and intimate. They have their own code. They don’t have a large public or rhetorical voice. So the readers have to come to her. She doesn’t go out to them.
Michael Ondaatje won the Booker Prize for his novel The English Patient.
It’s been an Aliceous Day, even here in Dublin. It is hard to think of a more popular choice of Nobel laureate than Munro. She is the opposite of the stereotype of writer as Old Bastard; wounded, self-important, striving for the prize. Munro seems modest by contrast, though she is just as steely as any Old Bastard when it comes to putting the right words on the page. Her career spanned decades in which the very nature of female ambition seemed to change. You might say that Munro hid in plain sight, that she managed her ambition by eschewing ambition: She made no great claims. In a changing world she held the line. She kept it close and always, always (thank you Alice Munro!) true.
Irish writer Anne Enright won the Man Booker Prize for The Gathering.
When I was young, I was fortunate enough to hear Alice Munro read her story The Moons of Jupiter – it must have been shortly after the book was published, in 1982, though in my memory it is only a few years ago, not almost three decades. Even then, a reading by Alice Munro was a rare and glorious event, and the tiny Brigantine Room was full. There are some readings I will never forget. I can count them on one hand and I wonder at my good fortune to have witnessed certain moments when a writer seems to be reading as much to herself as to the listener; a gratitude for having understood something necessary. I had this feeling listening to The Moons of Jupiter. In this story, the narrator is both a daughter and a writer. She is in Toronto with her father, who is in the hospital awaiting a heart operation. The daughter, with time on her hands while her father is undergoing tests, wanders along Bloor Street and, impulsively, she goes into the planetarium where the show is about to begin. “Awe, “ Munro writes, “what was that supposed to be?…Once you knew what it was you wouldn’t be courting it.” The daughter has grown daughters of her own, one of whom she rarely hears from and, in the street afterwards, she imagines seeing her. In a few lines, Munro conveys the narrator’s acceptance of this estrangement – more than acceptance, her awareness that this growing up is as it should be – and in the same few lines, an overwhelming immensity of loneliness.The story is of course about parents and children, aging and death, and in true Munro style, emotion floods the narrative at perfectly calibrated moments, though the diction never changes. How does she manage this invisible feat? By never losing sight of the fact that our emotions are precisely where we contain our defences; never one without the other. And so, there is always emotion and never sentiment. Dear Alice, congratulations.
Novelist Anne Michaels is the author of Fugitive Pieces.
A lot of people have been comparing her to Chekhov, and she is sort of the Canadian Chekhov, isn’t she? There is something about her ability to pick lives that are in many respects hopeless and pitiful, but that still earn our respect, which still seem to us not marginal but essentially human. So I think it’s partly that and she has Chekhov’s gift for quiet comedy as well. And then I think it’s her gift – I don’t know how else to describe it – to make the real real. The hardest thing in literature is to take the apparently non-dramatic, when it’s not about a new Third World nation being born or war breaking out, but is about the actual texture of human existence, and make it dramatic, make it necessary. How she does that I wish I knew. But she does it – I see every time I read her. It’s an uncanny gift. As with Chekhov’s, her people are almost all losers by the standards of a competitive society, but in a way, you think of Margaret Atwood’s great thing about survival in Canadian literature, not in the form of surviving the Arctic or nature, but her work is about survival, about her people being punished for striving, for wanting beyond things and nevertheless manage on the whole to go on and clearly a universal emotion. The truth is what really matters in writing is not theme and subject but the micro-dramatics of each moment. She has an uncanny gift for that. When married people people have a fight in an Alice Munro story, there’s one wonderful story, I can’t recall which one now, but there’s a description of how just before a fight begins to both the husband and wife know the shape of the fight and both change gears to go from saying mild annoyances to truly hurtful things that is eerily true, it has an X-ray’s quality of truth. And she does that again and again. And I think you’d have to collect a bouquet of those micro-moments to really explain why she’s so great.
Adam Gopnik is an essayist and the author of Paris to the Moon.