Canadian novelist — and now Nobel prize winner — Alice Munro sets her taut, acutely observed stories in the rural Ontario countryside where she grew up, focusing a stark lens on the frailties of the human condition.
The Swedish Nobel Academy honored Munro with its literature prize on Thursday, hailing her as a “master of the contemporary short story,” and praising her “finely tuned storytelling, which is characterised by clarity and psychological realism. Some critics consider her a Canadian Chekhov.”
Despite her vast success and an impressive list of literary prizes awarded over the past four decades, Munro, 82, remains as unassuming and modest as the characters in her collections of short stories and novels.
These are usually women who do not fit the normal stereotype of the beautiful, ravishing heroine, possibly reflecting the puritan values of her childhood.
“She is not a socialite. She i actually rarely seen in public, and does not go on book tours,” commented American literary critic David Homel.
As brilliant, dignified and elegant as Munro is, she is sometimes described as the complete opposite of another great dame of Canadian literature — Margaret Atwood.
Born on July 10, 1931 in Wingham, Ontario, she grew up in the countryside. Her father Robert Eric Laidlaw raised foxes and poultry, while her mother was a small town schoolteacher.
At just 11 years old, she decided she wanted to be a writer, and never wavered in her career choice.
“I think maybe I was successful in doing this because I didn’t have any other talents,” she explained in an interview posted on YouTube.
“I’m not really an intellectual,” Munro said. “I was an ok housewife but I wasn’t that great. There was never anything else that I was really drawn to doing so nothing interfered in the way life interferes for so many people.”
“It always does seem like magic to me.”
Munro’s first story “The Dimensions of a Shadow” was published in 1950 while she was studying at the University of Western Ontario.
It was at school that she met her first husband James Munro. The couple married in 1951 and moved to Vancouver in westernmost Canada, where they raised three girls.
In 1963, they bought a house in Victoria and opened a bookstore, Munro’s Books, described by author Allan Fotheringham as “the most magnificent bookstore in Canada, possibly in North America.”
Munro was three times awarded the Governor General’s Award for fiction, first for “Dance of the Happy Shades” published in 1968. “Who Do You Think You Are” (1978) and “The Progress of Love” (1986) also won Canada’s highest literary honour.
Her short stories often appeared in the pages of prestigious magazines such as The New Yorker and The Atlantic Monthly, with her latest collection “Dear Life” appearing in 2012.
“She writes about women for women, but does not demonize men,” said Homel.
Her subjects and her writing style, such as a reliance on narration to describe the events in her books, have earned her the moniker “our Chekhov,” in reference to the 19th century Russian playwright Anton Chekhov — a term affectionately coined by Russian-American short story writer Cynthia Ozick.
Munro herself has said she writes about the “underbelly of relationships,” adding she sets her stories in Canada “because I live life here at a level of irritation which I would not achieve in a place that I knew less well.”
“There are no such things as big and little subjects,” she has said. “The major things, the evils, that exist in the world have a direct relationship to the evil that exists around a dining room table when people are doing things to each other.”
In a 2010 interview, she said she wanted readers “to feel something is astonishing — not the ‘what happens’ but the way everything happens,” she explained, adding that “long short story fictions do that best” for her as opposed to full-length novels.
After Munro’s first marriage ended in divorce in 1972, she took a post as a writer-in-residence at her alma mater in Ontario.
Four years later, she remarried, to geographer Gerald Fremlin, and published new works every four years on average.
Munro said earlier this year that she was “probably” not going to write anymore. She insisted in an interview with the New York Times that she meant to retire and said “Dear Life” would be her last work.
Her story “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” was adapted for the screen by Sarah Polley as the film “Away from Her,” and in 2009 she won the prestigious Man Booker International Prize for her body of work.
The Booker panel praised her originality and depth.
“Alice Munro is mostly known as a short story writer and yet she brings as much depth, wisdom and precision to every story as most novelists bring to a lifetime of novels,” they said.
“To read Alice Munro is to learn something every time that you never thought of before.”
Copyright (2013) AFP. All rights reserved.
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