Alice Munro's Nobel Prize

I must have been the last person in the literate world to hear that Alice Munro was awarded this year's Nobel Prize for literature. (We academics slave away from dawn to midnight!)  Even so late, I want to celebrate.  I first read her Dance of the Happy Shades and Lives of Girls and Women twenty-five years ago, when living for a few months in Canada and looking for Canadian writing.  Since then I’ve collected every one of her books that came in reach.  

Perhaps there was some fellow-feeling; one of her topics, growing up in provincial Ontario, has strong resonances for a reader who grew up in suburban New South Wales in the nineteen-fifties.  But there is much more to Alice Munro than her location.

She is one of the two best contemporary writers in English that I know. (The other, J. M. Coetzee, got his Nobel a while ago.)  Her short stories are often compared to Chekhov’s.  I think that’s an understatement.  Chekhov’s stories, gripping as they are, are self-contained.  Munro uses the plainest literary techniques (after all, Who Do You Think You Are?), yet each of her stories has the extraordinary effect of implying an invisible novel around it.  And taken in a group, they call up not just a community and a culture but a history – which is, in a way, history itself.

The only comparable writing I know is by James Joyce. Dubliners has something of the same effect, and I’m reminded that Ulysses was originally to be a short story for Dubliners.  But Joyce was still making literature out of the traditional material, the lives of men and boys.  With no more fanfare than the stroll to the lake shore that opened Dance of the Happy Shades back in 1968, Alice Munro has done something extraordinary to writing in English.
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