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Alice Munro: Her subject is ‘simply life itself’

  • Special to the Washington Post
  • Published Sunday, Oct. 13, 2013, at 12 a.m.

In describing Alice Munro, 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: Alice Munro, the revered 82-year-old Canadian short-story writer, has just won the Nobel Prize.

There’s almost certainly no living writer who inspires quite the reverence among readers – and writers – that Munro does. Mention to a serious bibliophile that you like her and the conversation will shift into a solemn, almost embarrassingly private register, as if you’d interrupted cocktail party chatter to reveal a family secret.

That this love seems always to be revealed with some surprise has mostly to do with the fact that she writes short stories. Her collections –13 books of them, as of her retirement earlier this year – have been issuing steadily since “Dance of the Happy Shades” in 1968. Thus there is no single mountain-peak – no “The Corrections,” no “American Pastoral” – to which one can assuredly point and say: read this and you’ll understand. Ask a Munro fan which book to start with and he’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.

Her publishers have tried, at various points, to cull the bounty: Everyman’s Library published a handsome volume of her Selected Stories in 2006. Vintage did 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 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.

You can read The Eagle’s review of Munro’s most recent book at http://www.kansas.com/2013/02/17/2679728/the-train-to-glory.html.

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.”

But even among writers – a notoriously discontent lot – there is none of the typical carping or second-guessing going on about the Nobel Prize.

Among the revelers is short-story writer Jim Shephard, who says: “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 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.”

And Jonathan Franzen, who 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.”

Literature is one of those realms in which giving out prizes can seem not merely dubious but positively obtuse. It is so deeply personal and idiosyncratic that it feels like a violation to subject it to the crude business of committee meetings and PR releases.

But now 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 only tribute that is beyond the power of any prize committee, even the one in Stockholm, to issue: to read her.

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