STOCKHOLM — If there were a literary prize higher than the Nobel, Alice Munro would probably win that, too.
“Among writers, her name is spoken in hushed tones,” fellow Canadian author 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.”
Munro, 82, was cited by Nobel judges Thursday as a thorough but forgiving chronicler of the human spirit, and her selection marks a couple of breakthroughs among prize winners. She is the first Canadian writer to receive the $1.2 million award from the Swedish Academy since Saul Bellow, who left for the U.S. as a boy and won in 1976, and the first laureate ever to be fully identified with Canada. She is also the rare author to win because of her short fiction.
“I think my stories have gotten around quite remarkably for short stories, and I would really hope that this would make people see the short story as an important art, not just something that you played around with until you’d got a novel written,” she told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.
Her books having sold more than 1 million copies in the U.S. alone, she has long been an international ambassador for the short story, proof that the narrative arc and depth of characterization we expect from a novel can be realized in just 30-40 pages. Critics and peers have praised her in every way a writer can be praised: the precision of her language; the perfection of detail; the surprise and logic of her storytelling; the graceful, seamless shifts of moods; the intimacy with every shade of human behavior.
Her stories are usually set in Ontario, her home province. Among her best known is “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” the story of a woman who begins losing her memory and agrees with her husband that she should be placed in a nursing home. Canadian actress-director Sarah Polley adapted the story into the 2006 film “Away from Her,” starring Julie Christie.
The narrative begins in a relatively tender, traditional mood. But we soon learn that the husband has been unfaithful in the past and didn’t always regret it — “What he felt was mainly a gigantic increase in well-being.” The wife, meanwhile, has fallen for a man at the nursing home.
In the story “Dimensions,” Munro introduces us to a chambermaid named Doree, who needs to take three buses for a visit to a “facility” outside of Clinton, Ontario. Munro explains that Doree is happy in her work, that she has been told she is “young and decent looking” and that her picture once was in the newspaper, in the days when her spiked blonde hair was wavy and brown.
“Dimensions” begins in close-up, then steadily pulls back. With every page, the story darkens, and terrifies. The “facility” is an institution where Doree’s husband, Lloyd, is held. Doree’s picture was in the paper because her husband murdered their children.
“In all the time since what had happened, any thought of the children had been something to get rid of, pull out immediately like a knife in the throat,” Munro writes.
Before winning the Nobel, she won a National Book Critics Circle prize for “Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage.” She is also a three-time winner of the Governor General’s prize, Canada’s highest literary honor. Any further awards will likely be honorary. She told Canada’s National Post in June that she was “probably not going to write anymore.”
Starting in the 1960s, when she was first published, she has often contrasted her youth in Wingham, a conservative Canadian town west of Toronto, and her life after the social revolution of the `60s. Munro herself lived out the fears, and celebrated the liberation, of the educated housewives in Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique.”
In an interview with AP in 2003, she described the `60s as “wonderful.”
It was “because, having been born in 1931, I was a little old, but not too old, and women like me after a couple of years were wearing miniskirts and prancing around,” she said.
Munro, the daughter of a fox farmer and a teacher, was born Alice Anne Laidlaw. She was a literary person in a nonliterary town, concealing her ambition like a forbidden passion.
She received a scholarship to study at the University of Western Ontario, majoring in journalism, and was still an undergraduate when she sold a story to CBC radio in Canada. She dropped out of college to marry a fellow student, James Munro, had three children and became a full-time housewife. By her early 30s, she was so confined, so frightened and depressed, that she could barely write a full sentence.
Her good fortune was to open a bookstore with her husband, in 1963. Stimulated by everything from the conversation of adults to simply filling out invoices, her narrative talents resurfaced but her marriage collapsed. Her first collection, “Dance of the Happy Shades,” came out in 1968 and won the Governor’s prize.
At least in her work, Munro is among the least politicized of Nobel winners, who in recent years have included Mario Vargas Llosa and Doris Lessing. In 2003, she told the AP she was not inspired by current events, but instead by memories, anecdotes, gossip. The stories themselves have few topical references or famous names.
“I don’t do a lot of indicators where you can tell what time it is, because that would impinge on me too much. Somebody writing about now would have to have Iraq in it. They need to have the right music and right celebrities and right style of clothes,” she said.
“In ordinary life I am a fairly active, political person. I have opinions and join clubs. But I always want to see what happens with people underneath; it interests me more.”
The 2013 Nobel announcements continue Friday with the Nobel Peace Prize, followed by the economics prize on Monday. The awards will be handed to the winners on Dec. 10, the anniversary of prize founder Alfred Nobel’s death in 1896.