I keep forgetting to put this down in writing even though I am thinking about it much of the time and have taken out copies of her books from my bookcases and written emails about this to friends and browsed through numerous congratulatory sites. The Canadian short story writer Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize for literature yesterday. The 13th woman to win it. Perhaps the only short story writer to win it. I’m not sure how many Canadian writers have won the prize, but not nearly enough.
I have been reading the short stories of Alice Munro for 25 years and her work just keeps on getting better. She is one of the most remarkable writers I have ever read and each time I reread one of her fictions I am staggered to find how much was missed on a previous reading.
When I began reading her work at university, a lecturer who was a Hemingway specialist told me Munro’s work was too domestic and uneventful, just a housewife writing about family and adultery and children and stuck away in a very small geographic area. She was regional, unimportant, trivial and couldn’t write novels, just short stories. I disagreed quite hotly and went red in the face – I could see the lecturer thinking that i was another of these petty, aggressive small-minded feminist types.
He suggested I calm down and think it through reasonably. I did just that and came to the conclusion Alice Munro was a genius. A modest but knowing and confident genius. Her stories were about the big issues in life: how we misunderstand what we need most to grasp, how we fail at love, how we struggle to overcome shame, how unexpected and tricky life’s coincidences and intentions really are. Her insights into human nature and the relationships between mothers and daughters, or men and women, are unsentimental, penetrating and sharp as a paper knife.
Shame and embarrassment are driving forces for Munro’s characters, just as perfectionism in the writing has been a driving force for her: getting it down, getting it right, but also the impossibility of that. Munro chronicles failure much more often than she chronicles success, because the task of the writer has failure built in. In this she is a romantic: the visionary gleam exists, but it can’t be grasped, and if you drivel on about it openly the folks in the grocery store will think you’re a lunatic.
As in much else, Munro is thus quintessentially Canadian. Faced with the Nobel she will be modest, she won’t get a swelled head. The rest of us, on this magnificent occasion, will just have to do that for her.