I have been an Alice Munro fan for a long time and it was just so gratifying to hear the news of her winning the Nobel Prize for literature this year. The short odds were with Haruki Murakami, author of Windup Bird Chronicles, Kafka on the Shore and 1Q84. I really liked Windup a lot, Kafka a bit less, and had to force myself to finish 1Q84. He also writes short stories, which I like, and the story of how he became a writer is simply wonderful.
But Munro is a magician. Her stories are unlike any other. Taking place mostly in the country around Toronto – she is a Canadian and lives near there – and mostly in a time some decades past, they are small tales with profound meaning. Some stories chronicle a long time, others a short time. They start, sometimes, in the middle of a story, and often just end, sometimes with an authorial comment. I am currently reading her collection, Dear Life, which she says is the last she will write.
What I get from her is how deep the desire for freedom and connection is in all lives but how difficult and often fearful those same desires are. Her characters stand up to the same tyrannies of life, or learn to live with them; they seek some kind of honesty and honor in their dealing with others, and are almost always hopeful that life can be good, even when life is difficult and tragedy occurs.
The New Yorker just reprinted her story “The Bear Comes over the Mountain” (which has no bear and no mountain) about an older couple and what happens when the wife has to be institutionalized with dementia. It is heartbreaking and told with such empathy for the struggles people face.
In fact, that is it. For me, Munro really cares about her characters; she doesn’t use them to make a point; she lets them have their own lives. This is not easy given that she is writing fiction and she is creating them, but she gives them an autonomy and integrity that is rare in fiction. Every story makes me think. The lessons are not always obvious, nor are they big and grand claims. I am almost done reading Anna Karenina and that is the opposite – Tolstoy is after big ideas and big themes in big ways. But Munro gets at what it means to be human every bit as much as does Tolstoy, just in a quieter and mostly unassuming manner.
I can’t recommend her highly enough. Read a couple of stories and then just sit and think about what she is trying to say. It may not come automatically, but let a story sit and Munro’s deep humanism will come clear.
So, good job, Nobel Committee. Now, if you will just give next year’s prize to Bob Dylan, I’ll be totally satisfied.
Rev. Dr. Jim Nelson