If there were a literary award bigger than the Nobel Prize, 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 awarded literature’s highest honor Thursday, saluted by the Nobel committee as a thorough but forgiving chronicler of the human spirit, and her selection marks a number of breakthroughs.
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She is the first winner of the $1.2 million prize to be fully identified with Canada. Saul Bellow won in 1976, but though he was born in Canada, he moved to the U.S. as a boy and is more closely associated with Chicago.
Munro is also the rare author to win for short stories.
“When I began writing there was a very small community of Canadian writers and little attention was paid by the world. Now Canadian writers are read, admired and respected around the globe,” Munro said in a statement issued by her publisher, Alfred A. Knopf. She said she hopes the Nobel “fosters further interest in all Canadian writers.”
Her books having sold more than 1 million copies in the U.S. alone, she has long been an ambassador for the short story, proof that the narrative arc and depth of characterization expected from a novel can be realized in 30 to 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,” about a woman who begins losing her memory and agrees with her husband that she should be put 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 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 a chambermaid named Doree, who needs to take three buses for a visit to a “facility” outside 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 was once in the newspaper. The story 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 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.
Munro won a National Book Critics Circle prize in 1998 for “The Love of a Good Woman” and was a finalist in 2001 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 are likely to be honorary. She told Canada’s National Post in June that she was “probably not going to write anymore.” Her most recent collection, “Dear Life,” came out in 2012.
Starting in the 1960s, when she was first published, she has often contrasted her youth in Wingham, a conservative town west of Toronto, and her life after the social upheaval of the ’60s. Munro lived out the fears, and celebrated the liberation, of the educated housewives in Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique.”
In a 2003 interview, she described the 1960s as “wonderful … 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.
The daughter of a fox farmer and a teacher, she was born Alice Anne Laidlaw, a literary person in a nonliterary town. She received a scholarship to study at the University of Western Ontario, majoring in journalism, and was an undergraduate when she sold a story to CBC radio in Canada. She dropped out to marry a fellow student, James Munro, had three children and became a full-time housewife. By her early 30s, she was so confined, 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 to simply filling out invoices, she saw her narrative talents resurface but her marriage collapse.
Her first collection, “Dance of the Happy Shades,” came out in 1968.
Though winners are traditionally notified by phone, the Swedish Academy was unable to locate Munro, and left a phone message instead.
She found out about the prize while visiting her daughter in Victoria, B.C., who woke her at 4 a.m. with the news. Sounding a bit groggy, she spoke with the CBC just a few minutes later by telephone. “It just seems impossible. It seems just so splendid a thing to happen, I can’t describe it, it’s more than I can say,” she said.
Material from The New York Times is included in this report.