This post is in celebration of Alice Munro‘s Nobel Prize in Literature. The quick facts: she is the first Canadian writer, the 13th woman, and the 27th English speaking author to win. Putting that in perspective: “The Nobel Prize in Literature has been awarded 106 times to 110 Nobel Laureates between 1901 and 2013.” The motivation, as the committee puts it, for awarding the prize to Munro is that she is the “master of the contemporary short story.” So this award is also an award for the short story. Check out this interesting essay on the Nobel prizes for literature over the decades.
Say Munro and your listener will respond with small town Ontario. Wingham, Clinton, Jubilee. Towns real and fictional, small Southwestern Ontario towns that are said to be the limits of Alice Munro’s fictional world. Through the small life in the small town to tell a universal tale. Universal. What an odd word, that. She is not writing science fiction. What is meant is a story that is true to all people. Through the small comes the large meaning.
But the world comes into Munro’s small towns. There is the war, ever a backdrop in Lives of Girls and Women. In “Changes and Ceremonies,” Miss Farris, the teacher putting on the school operetta refers to a previous student actor who died in the air force. The teacher that Miss Farris loves, Mr. Boyce, an Englishman, came at the beginning of the war, having survived the sinking of a ship.
In the title story, there is a lovely scene that follows Mr. Chamberlain telling anecdotes about his time in Italy in the war. Suddenly the mother, who sells encyclopedias for a living, realizes that he is talking about that Italy:
“In Florence, you were in Florence,” repeated my mother, confused and joyful. I had an inkling of what she felt, but hoped she would not reveal too much. “I never thought,” she said. “Well, of course I knew it was Italy but it seems so strange—” She meant that this Italy we had been talking about, where the war was fought, was the same place history happened, in the very place, where the old Popes were, and the Medici, and Leonardo. The Cenci. The cypresses. Dante Alighieri.
The experienced coming up against the naieve is all the more pricking because of Munro’s twist that it is the mother who enthuses rather than the teen. This is the perfect expression of the realization that a place you read about is the same place that is now or was recently in the news, embodied by the vet sitting across from you.
The war comes up again in “Baptizing,” as a time frame — the war ended a year before they started high school. “Many of the movies we went to were about the war…” After the movie the narrator and her friend Jerry would go to Haines’ Restaurant, and Jerry would talk about the war. “He gave me a description of the Bataan Death March, methods of torture in Japanese prison camps, the fire-bombing of Tokyo, the destruction of Dresden; he bombarded me with unbeatable [unbearable?] atrocities, annihilating statistics.” With “insistent relish” he would tell her about the weapons in development, about biological warfare, about nerve gas, about another war that would wipe us out. And she would resist:
He was in touch with the real world, he knew how they had split the atom. The only world I was in touch with was the one I had made, with the aid of some books, to be peculiar and nourishing to myself. Yet I hung on; I grew bored and cross and said all right, suppose this is true, why do you get up in the morning and go to school? If it’s all true, why do you plan on being a great scientist?
“If the world is finished, if there is no hope, then why do you?”
“There is still time for me to get the Nobel Prize,” he said blasphemously, to make me laugh. … “You know I’m kidding.” He meant about the Nobel Prize, not the war. We could not get away from the Jubilee belief that there are great, supernatural dangers attached to boasting, or having high hopes of yourself. Yet what really drew and kept us together were these hopes, both denied and admitted, both ridiculed and respected in each other. (Lives of Girls and Women, New American Library Plume edition 1983)
Alice Munro did live abroad. We know she went to University of Western Ontario, got married, moved to Vancouver and then to Victoria. Had children and had a bookstore. Returned to Ontario in 1972 and married again, settling in Clinton. You knew all that, but… Did you know that she lived in Scotland for a few months, researching her Scots family and in effect researching her book The View from Castle Rock and some of the stories in Friend of My Youth?
Soon she may travel to Stockholm. She has travelled before for her work, to Norway and Australia. She was one of a group of Canadian writers who made an official visit to China. (The others were Gary Geddes, Robert Kroetsch, Adele Wiseman, Patrick Lane, Suzanne Paradis, and Geoffrey Hancock. You can read about it in Chinada: Memoirs of the Gang of Seven, edited by Gary Geddes.) Where else has she been?
Departure, even if within Canada, is important to a writer’s work. James Joyce famously wrote to family in Ireland for maps, for details of the Dublin he’d left behind. Other expats have turned their eyes to home. In the epilogue to Lives of Girls and Women, the narrator speaks of a similar desire. She writes, “It did not occur to me then that one day I would be so greedy for Jubilee.” That she would want to make lists, to seek accuracy. “And no list could hold what I wanted, for what I wanted was every last thing, every layer of speech and thought, stroke of light on bark or walls, every smell, pothole, pain, crack, delusion, held still and held together – radiant, everlasting.”
What she wanted is what she gave us.
- Alice Munro wins Nobel Literature Prize (bbc.co.uk)
- Alice Munro wins Nobel Prize for literature (newscanada-plus.com)
- Alice Munro pages at The Guardian (theguardian.com)
- Munro letter online (vancouversun.com)
- The story that I read standing up in the middle of getting dressed