TORONTO — Speak the name Alice among Canadian readers and writers, and no last name is required. The cliches abound but are no less sturdy for that. Short-story writer extraordinaire Alice Munro is “our Chekhov,” a “national treasure.”
So, when it was announced in Stockholm on Thursday that she’d won the Nobel Prize for Literature and its accompanying $1.25 million prize, Facebook and Twitter lit up like Toronto’s Skydome when the Blue Jays won their first World Series in 1992. Eyes teared with pleasure. The collective national heart swelled with joy and pride — a suitably restrained pride; anything more would be un-Canadian. The collective national head is beaver-busily examining what this might mean for Canadian literature, often referred to as CanLit.
Ms. Munro is the first Canadian — unless you count Saul Bellow, and he himself wouldn’t; this most American of American writers left Canada when he was 9 — to win literature’s ultimate prize. And that has to make a difference, n’est-ce pas? She is the 13th woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Even Prime Minister Stephen Harper, not much loved by the arts community, weighed in with a statement: “Munro is a giant in Canadian literature, and this Nobel Prize further solidifies Canada’s place among the ranks of countries with the best writers in the world.”
So is this prize significant for Canada, and Canadian writing, like — as some have claimed — winning the gold medal in Olympic hockey?
For novelist Margaret Atwood, herself recipient of a major international prize (the 2000 Booker Prize for The Blind Assassin), the prize is, as she put it in an interview, “vindication of the fact that Canada has a literature, that we have great writers.”
For Jack Rabinovitch, founder of the Scotiabank Giller Prize, Canada’s most prestigious award for fiction (Ms. Munro has won it twice, and has also been a juror), her win “serves notice that Canadian literature is on a par with any writing in the world. Every sentence she writes is a gem. And she’s not only an outstanding writer, she’s an outstanding human being.”
But for Andre Alexis, a novelist, critic, and playwright, the honor is tinged with sadness. “I realize it’s often awarded late in a writer’s career, but this feels literally valedictory.” And indeed, Ms. Munro has said her most recent book, the quasiautobiographical Dear Life, was to be her last. Most people figure that, at 82, she’s earned the rest.
But as Mr. Alexis points out, this is hardly the first time CanLit has made a global splash. Michael Ondaatje, Ms. Atwood, Carol Shields, and Yann Martel (Life of Pi) have all won major literary awards.
As Canadians everywhere rejoice, its writers and critics think about the Munro legacy.
For Mr. Alexis: “Canadian writers have learned to judge ourselves against her. She’s been hugely influential in raising the standards of our literature. What the Nobel signifies is that, since she has been our standard of excellence, that standard is now recognized internationally as a gold standard.”
Not just a standard of excellence internationally, but a powerful influence on other Canadian writers. Newfoundland short-story writer and novelist Lisa Moore has just received her third shortlisting for the Giller Prize. Though she is stylistically very different from Ms. Munro, she said: “I’ve read her all my life. In fact, when I followed my husband from Newfoundland to Toronto, I planned just to sit in a room and write stories. I blame Alice for that. She showed that writing can be a life for Canadians, especially for Canadian women, since her stories were very often about young women from rural Canada who made bold decisions to shake up their lives.
Ms. Munro, born Alice Anne Laidlaw, grew up in Wingham, a conservative town west of Toronto. She received a scholarship to study at the University of Western Ontario, where she majored in journalism before dropping out to get married. She and her husband, James Munro, a fellow Western Ontario student, later opened a bookstore. She lives in Clinton, a town in southwestern Ontario that just tops 3,000 in population.
“With Margaret Atwood and Mavis Gallant,” Ms. Moore added, “she is one of a triumvirate of powerful women writers who made it much easier for others to come. They have been instrumental in forging a new image for Canadian writers, especially women writers. Far from reinforcing the stereotype of meek niceness, her work offers consistent challenges about gender, sexuality, identity, and how people may interact with the opposite sex.”
Adrienne Clarkson, a writer as well as a former Canadian governor-general (the representative of the British monarchy in Canada), cites one of Ms. Munro’s best-known quotes by way of agreement: “As soon as a man and woman of almost any age are alone together within four walls, it is assumed that anything may happen. Spontaneous combustion, instant fornication, triumph of the senses. What possibilities men and women must see in each other to infer such dangers. Or, believing in the dangers, how often they must think about the possibilities.”
For Ms. Clarkson, Ms. Munro’s greatest virtues — like those of, say, Mr. Chekhov, or the splendid U.S. short-storyist Lorrie Moore — lie in her attention to the particularities of lives and times and places, to the slight billowing of a curtain as a man and a woman, alone together, agree to separate, or to stay unhappily together. Much of her work may be set in small-town southwestern Ontario, but, Ms. Clarkson says, “the incredible passions that get acted out there are anything but parochial.”
Out of the particular, the universal. We agree nobody does this better than Ms. Munro.
This quality has been sharply assessed by Ms. Atwood, who wrote four years ago: “Alice Munro has often been compared to Chekhov, but perhaps she’s more like Cezanne. You paint an apple, you paint an apple over again, until this utterly familiar object becomes strange and luminous and mysterious; yet it remains only an apple.”
It is the ability to efface herself in prose that is luminously simple yet contains the most complex of human emotions and outcomes, the ability to see the skull beneath the skin and yet observe the skin clearly, the ability always to see otherness fully that makes Ms. Munro not just a great Canadian writer (though she is assuredly that) but a great writer.
The Block News Alliance consists of the The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Martin Levin is former Books editor of The Globe and Mail, Canada’s national newspaper.