Alice Munro: Her subject is ‘simply life itself’

October 10, 2013

In describing Alice Munro, the Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood once wrote: “She’s the kind of writer about whom it is often said — no matter how well known she becomes — that she ought to be better known.”

Atwood’s dictum is about to be put to the test: Munro, the revered 82-year-old Canadian writer, has just won the Nobel Prize.

In awarding her the prize — which comes with 8 million Swedish kronor, or about $1.2 million — the committee has made official what Munro’s legions of fans have been saying for years: She is the master of the contemporary short story.

Fans won’t be surprised to hear that Munro, famously modest, responded by asking that the attention be immediately shared. “When I began writing there was a very small community of Canadian writers and little attention was paid by the world,” she said. “Now Canadian writers are read, admired and respected around the globe. I’m so thrilled to be chosen as this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature recipient. I hope it fosters further interest in all Canadian writers. I also hope that this brings further recognition to the short-story form.”

In recent years, the Nobel Prize in Literature has become an occasion, at least in North America, for sheepish shrugs and head-scratching. Herta Müller, Mo Yan, Jean-Marie Gustave Le Cl éz io — for many of us, the Nobels have become doubly educational: We simultaneously learn of an author’s existence and find out that we ought to have been reading him or her all along.

This year, then, came as something of a relief. Those rumored to be under consideration — Haruki Murakami, Philip Roth, Munro — were all household names, more likely to be found on our bookshelves than in our crossword puzzles.

And even among those authors, none inspired quite the reverence among readers — and writers — that Munro does. Mention to a serious bibliophile that you like her and the conversation will shift to a solemn, almost embarrassingly private register, as if you’d interrupted cocktail party chatter to reveal a family secret.

This love seems always to be revealed with a certain hesitancy. This has mostly to do with the fact that Munro is explicitly a writer of short stories. Until she retired this year, her collections had been issuing from Canada as steadily as weather bulletins.

Beginning with “Dance of the Happy Shades” in 1968 and ending with “Dear Life” in 2013, her career has been a shower of stories. Thus, there is no single mountain peak — no “Beloved,” no “American Pastoral” — to which one can assuredly point and say: Read this and you’ll understand. Ask Munro fans which book to start with, and they’ll say, “Well, have you read ‘The Beggar Maid’? Oh, but what about ‘Open Secrets’? Or maybe ‘Hateship, Friendship’?” Pretty soon your suitcase is brimming with her essential works.

Munro’s publishers have tried, at various points, to cull the field. Everyman’s Library published a handsome volume of her selected stories in 2006. Vintage had done the same in 1997, and then again, more sparingly, in 2005.

Prize committees have done their parts to introduce her to the world, as well: She won the Man Booker International Prize in 2009, the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1998 and enough Giller prizes that she decided a few years ago to take herself out of the running.

But her books are just as much at home on the favorite paperbacks table as on the dais. She’s an author you read on the train, you read in bed, you read in happiness, you read in grief. She is, perhaps more than any writer since Chekhov (with whom she is constantly, and aptly, compared) an author whose subject is simply life itself.

In her second book, “Lives of Girls and Women” (1971), she wrote something like a credo for those who cherish this type of writing: “People’s lives, in Jubilee as elsewhere, were dull, simple, amazing, and unfathomable — deep caves paved with kitchen linoleum.”

Even among writers — a notoriously discontented lot — there was none of the typical carping or ­second-guessing going on Thursday. In fact, the news of her prize set off a virtual round of toasts.

Among the revelers was the short-story writer Jim Shepard, who said: “I imagine fiction writers everywhere today are celebrating the Nobel Committee having gotten it exactly right. There’s probably no one alive who’s better at the craft of the short story, or who has done more to revolutionize the use of time in that form, the result often being a 20-page story that demonstrates the breadth and scope of a novel.”

And Elizabeth Strout, author of “Olive Kitteridge”: “Alice Munro taught me things about writing that are immeasurable; she has dared in a quiet, steady way, to go to places of deep honesty. I will always remember the first time I read her story ‘Royal Beatings.’ I thought: ‘Look what she did — she has told the truth completely.’ And reading her story ‘White Dump’ for the first time — I remember that, too. I thought, ‘Look what she does, she goes wherever she wants, and I go with her.’ The authority she brings to the page is just lovely.”

Jonathan Franzen wrote in a 2005 paean: “Reading Munro puts me in that state of quiet reflection in which I think about my own life: about the decisions I’ve made, the things I’ve done and haven’t done, the kind of person I am, the prospect of death. She is one of the handful of writers, some living, most dead, whom I have in mind when I say that fiction is my religion.”

It’s somehow incongruous to imagine, but Munro will travel to Stockholm in December, climb onto the stage, and give a gracious, fitting speech.

Literature is one of those realms in which giving out prizes can seem not merely dubious but positively obtuse. Books like Munro’s are so deeply personal and idiosyncratic that it feels like a violation to subject them to the crude business of committee meetings and PR releases; you might as well storm a butterfly den with a klieg light.

But today, and from now on, that den will be a good deal more crowded. Alice Munro is a Nobel laureate, and the only natural response is delight. And then, of course, once the euphoria of justice done has passed, to pay the tribute that is beyond the power of any prize committee, even the one in Stockholm, to issue: to read her.

Dolnick is the author of “At the Bottom of Everything.”

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