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Munro’s Nobel Is a Welcome Sign of Sanity From Stockholm

Alice Munro
The Swedish Academy said today in a statement published on its website 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature Winner Alice Munro is “the master of the contemporary short story.” Photographer: Derek Shapton/Knopf via Bloomberg

Alice Munro’s popularity makes her a surprising choice as winner of this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature, given the Swedish Academy’s tradition of rewarding outdated, outclassed blusterers.

Yet despite Munro’s preference for small-town settings, there is nothing safe about her work by any standards. Who else could have come up with a book title as mordantly charged as “Too Much Happiness”?

Peer beyond the steely simplicity of her prose and you’ll find a slyly postmodern fascination with how we go about narrating our lives.

In Munro’s world, the details her characters choose to omit or else forget come to define their relationships. Chronology can feel disorientatingly slippery and backstories are often fraught with seething grudges and erotic secrets.

As she laid it out in the introduction to her “Selected Stories:” “A story is not like a road to follow ... it’s more like a house. You go inside and stay there for a while, wandering back and forth and settling where you like and discovering how the room and corridors relate to each other, how the world outside is altered by being viewed from these windows.”

Pans Simmering

Her own story had a decidedly old-fashioned beginning. She started to write as a 1950s wife and mother, working in snatched hours while her babies slept and pans simmered. No wonder it took her almost two decades to amass the stories that formed her first collection.

Published in 1968, “Dance of the Happy Shades” won Canada’s Governor General’s Award. Three years later, she followed it with “Lives of Girls and Women,” a fictionalized portrait of her childhood.

In it, she writes of other people’s existences as being “dull, simple, amazing and unfathomable -- deep caves paved with kitchen linoleum.”

The autobiographical flavor lingers, especially in her more recent work. “The View From Castle Rock” was explicitly inspired by family history, and revealed her to be a descendent of James Hogg, the Scottish author of “The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner,” a novel published in 1824.

Her latest and, she’s said, last collection, bears another loaded title: “Dear Life.” In stories in which disappearances, confounding coincidences and ruinous indiscretions are threaded together by a frank acknowledgement of memory’s shifting nature, life is shown to be a treasure both costly and precious.

Like Chekhov

Munro has been likened to Chekhov so often the comparison can sound tinny. Yet to call her the master of the contemporary short story almost undersells an author whose oeuvre transcends its form in so many respects. She is, quite simply, a brilliant writer.

It’s unfortunate, though, that the politics of this most perverse literary prize mean her victory effectively shuts out another Canadian woman writer, one whose vision for literature’s future is irresistibly bold.

I mean, of course, Margaret Atwood. And in a twist that might have come from one of Munro’s own stories, Atwood also happens to be a big fan.

(Hephzibah Anderson is a critic for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)

Muse highlights include a Lewis Lapham podcast and Jeremy Gerard on theater.

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