Canadians everywhere are standing taller with the news on Thursday Alice Munro has won the Nobel Prize for literature. It goes without saying a Nobel being awarded to a Canadian polishes the national brand, but it should be emphasized the accomplishment is very much hers and not ours.
Munro, 82, has remained committed to her commercially dubious genre, the short story, for more than 50 years. This while most of her colleagues in the trenches of literature chased fame and fortune via the novel. But Munro's real genius lies not in her steady focus but in her rare ability to locate the universal in the particular. Like Jane Austen or George Eliot before her, her canvas has been the daily concerns of average people in parochial settings.
The protagonists of her stories, published in some 15 collections since 1968, are typically women from small-town southern Ontario, women of genteel poverty who make small choices that echo throughout their lives. Munro's language, while always precise, is at the service of character and psychology. Not to discount her formal innovations of structure and point of view, Munro eschews flash. She does not beg for readers; they must come to her.
And of course they have. In the last 20 years especially, her reputation has spread beyond her native borders. Her stories regularly debut in The New Yorker magazine. It is telling that her most repeated compliment, "our Chekhov," was minted by an American critic. Her place is so secure that The London Review of Books in England saw fit to publish a long hatchet job on her this past June. The Brits would save their breath on a colonial not perceived to be a giant.
Munro counts as Canada's first literary Nobel winner, if you discount Chicago's Saul Bellow, who was born in Quebec, left at age nine with his family, and took out U.S. citizenship in his mid-20s. Still in the running should be Toronto's Margaret Atwood, 73, whose broad talent, feisty persona and political bent are the opposite of Munro's. Fortunately, and with apologies to the poet Walt Whitman, literature contains multitudes.