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The Nobel committee couldn’t have made a better choice than awarding the Nobel Prize for Literature to Alice Munro, the superlative Canadian writer. Or, in some ways, a more surprising one. The literary prize has often been criticized as having a heavy political agenda, weighted toward Third World writers or those with leftist, if not anti-American points of view.
Munro may be the most agenda-free writer in the English language. She may also be the best. There’s certainly no living writer I would rather read and the publication of each of her collections of short stories is another opportunity to commune with a writer whose microscopic investigations of character, twinned with an uncanny sense of plot development, have justifiably earned her comparisons with Chekhov.
The fact that the Nobelists have chosen a short story writer is cause for celebration in itself. Long considered the weak sibling of novels, short stories have been winning more wide-spread respect, in no small part because of Munro’s undeniable ability to deliver so much literary satisfaction in 25 to 50 pages.
She has said that her last collection, “Dear Life,” will be her final one though her fans are hoping otherwise. Munro, who has also won the 2009 Man Booker International Prize for her body of work, has suggested that her fans go back and re-read the old ones, which is never a bad idea. They stand up to countless readings.
Munro may be the most agenda-free writer in the English language. She may also be the best. Her microscopic investigations of character, twinned with an uncanny sense of plot development, have justifiably earned her comparisons with Chekhov.
The title of that collection says something about Munro’s world. “Dear Life” would seem to suggest that life is dear and we are blessed to be alive. That may be part of it, but the larger implication in the short story of the same name is that we’re all, as the phrase goes, hanging on for dear life, no matter what the circumstances.
There’s a practical element, since she’s now 82, to hanging on. In “The View From Castle Rock,” she wrote a non-fiction account of a scare with breast cancer that turned out to be something else:
“Such frights will come and go. Then there’ll be one that won’t. One that won’t go.” Mortality has been an issue from an early age, particularly because of her mother’s frightful experience with Parkinson’s.
More often the scares are not so easy to put a finger on. They’re fears of drifting apart — from one’s roots, one’s geography, one’s spouse, one’s purpose and identity. Also one’s geography, though she seems rooted in her native Ontario. Nevertheless the small towns and poor surroundings she describes are hardly Rockwellian, they’re more traps for a spirit that has outgrown their narrow concerns and yearns for something more. I have occasion to go to Parry Sound, Bobby Orr’s birthplace, every summer and it’s hard not to cast the locals as characters in a Munro story.
As the press release announcing the Nobel award says, "[her]texts often feature depictions of everyday but decisive events, epiphanies of a kind, that illuminate the surrounding story and let existential questions appear in a flash of lightning."
My favorite, perhaps because it’s the first one I read, has the unwieldy title, “Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage.” The 2001 collection includes the exquisite “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” which Sarah Pauley made into an excellent film, “Away From Her,” with Julie Christie as a woman with Alzheimer’s.
Familiar territory, right? Not so fast. The story is more about the husband, Grant, with his love for his wife mixed with guilt over past affairs. He then sees her drifting away from him (and suspects at one point she’s doing it deliberately) and finally tries to reunite her with Aubrey, another Alzheimer’s patient, a man, she has fallen in love with.
As he visits her in the hospital and she’s asked if she remembers Aubrey:
"Names elude me,” she said harshly.
Then the look passed away as she retrieved, with an effort, some bantering grace. She set the book down carefully and stood up and lifted her arms to put them around him. Her skin or her breath gave off a faint new smell, a smell that seemed to him like that of the stems of cut flowers left too long in their water.
"I'm happy to see you," she said, and pulled his earlobes.
"You could have driven away," she said. "Just driven away without a care in the world and forsook me. Forsooken me. Forsaken."
He kept his face against her white hair, her pink scalp, her sweetly shaped skull. He said, Not a chance.
Remarkably, for all the twists in her stories there’s never a sense that she’s manipulating her characters. The stories move forward with the grace, mystery, and inevitability of a Beethoven piano sonata. There’s hope for change, but resignation that change may not bring much more happiness. Perhaps even less.
But we hold onto our dear lives, often for dear life, as at the end of “Floating Bridge” in “Hateship, Friendship”:
What she felt was a lighthearted sort of compassion, almost like laughter. A swish of tender hilarity, getting the better of all her sores and hollows, for the time given.
Munro on writing, three years ago:
“This is so surprising and wonderful. I am dazed by all the attention and affection that has been coming my way this morning. It is such an honour to receive this wonderful recognition from the Nobel Committee and I send them my thanks.
When I began writing there was a very small community of Canadian writers and little attention was paid by the world. 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."
This program aired on October 10, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.
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