POLITICS

Canadian authors ecstatic over Munro's Nobel Prize win: 'She truly is our Chekhov'

10/10/2013 11:10 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST
TORONTO - Canadian writers and literary experts reacted with ecstatic pride to Thursday's announcement that cherished homegrown short story master Alice Munro had won the Nobel Prize in literature, saying it was long-overdue and richly deserved.

"She's so perfect. I'm thrilled," said author Joan Barfoot from London, Ont., in southwestern Ontario, where Munro grew up.

"I've read every word she's ever written and just thought, 'This is perfection.'"

"I think my first thought was 'Finally,'" said Toronto-based writer Wayson Choy.

"She has caught human beings and their interactions in such a way that the ambiguity between people is made vivid and meaningful."

Winnipeg novelist David Bergen said he "got all teary-eyed" when he heard the news.

"I thought, 'Oh, that's just marvellous,' and then I met someone else on the street who teaches at the university ... and we talked about it and she said she got all teary-eyed, too."

There was also a feeling of "huge excitement" at the University of Western in London, Ont., where Munro studied English as an undergraduate in the 1950s and returned as a Writer-in-Residence from '74-'75, a year before she received an honorary doctorate there.

"There's just something very gracious and modest about her life and career, and so I think it's particularly wonderful that she's been honoured with such a huge recognition," said Dr. Bryce Traister, chair of the school's Department of English and Writing Studies.

The 82-year-old Wingham, Ont., native is the 110th Nobel laureate in literature and only the 13th woman to receive the distinction, which the typically modest author called "quite wonderful" in a telephone interview with The Canadian Press shortly after the announcement.

She's also just the second Canadian-born author to receive the honour after Saul Bellow in 1976. Though he was born in Lachine, Que., he moved to Chicago at age eight.

By contrast, Munro has stayed in Canada throughout her career, and is beloved for writing about its culture, landscape and small-town characters in a way that makes them feel universal.

"There's a great modesty about her writing," said Traister. "She's not a flashy or pretentious stylist. She uses simple words. In some ways she's kind of the anti-English professor, and I mean that as a compliment.

"She writes about teachers and librarians and housewives and ordinary people, but she is always able to represent those people both with irony and compassion. She brings out the complexities of inner life that we all have ... and she puts that on paper and represents it using this kind of effortless language that really captures the fleetingness, the preciousness and the beauty of those kinds of inner moments."

It took a while for Munro to achieve the cachet she has today, though.

Robert Thacker, who is recognized as the academic authority on Munro and teaches Canadian Studies and English at St. Lawrence University in upstate New York, said Canada's Nobel winner has been writing seriously since she was a teenager in the late '40s.

But it wasn't until she started publishing regularly in the New Yorker in '77 that she developed international prestige.

"This is a person who, I think, has been dedicated to her art all along and the recognition has only come in the last few decades," said the Ohio native, who has been following Munro's career since he wrote his master's thesis her in '76, and authored "Alice Munro: Writing Her Lives."

"Part of the reason she didn't meet with more success earlier was because she writes short stories, and even the one novel that she's published as a novel is really a collection of inter-connected short stories.

"I think it's a wonderful thing for the short story, because this is a person who pretty much anybody who studies it seriously says that she kind of pushed the boundaries and made the short story quite a different thing."

Munro's first collection of short stories, 1968's "Dance of the Happy Shades," won a Governor General's Literary Award as did her '78 collection "Who Do You Think You Are?"

Her long list of honours also includes two Scotiabank Giller prizes and the Man Booker International Prize. Her story "The Bear Came Over the Mountain," about an aging couple grappling with Alzheimer's, was adapted into Sarah Polley's acclaimed film "Away From Her."

"I think in some ways, the short story form that she uses almost belies her power," said Bergen. "She's conquered the form, absolutely, and it's immeasurable.

"A short story is incredibly difficult to write and also it takes up a lot of energy, and what has always amazed me about her is that when she puts 12 short stories into a collection, basically what she's done is write 12 novels. And as a writer, you know that she's taken up a lot of her power and focus and introspection to come to those stories.

"It must be draining, but she does it beautifully."

Thacker praised her works for having a density and humanity that elicits compassion and understanding in readers.

"She writes about being a human being and I think it's a rare thing," he said. "When you read a Munro story ... I find myself just kind of perpetually struck by the wisdom of this or that phrasing or description of a situation, but in a lot of ways it's quite quotidien. It's what everybody does in their life."

Barfoot recalled reading Munro's "Lives of Girls and Women" when she was young and recognizing the spirit of the "rocky-souled" characters and geography.

"Her work does the whole world. It's not Clinton-Wingham, or little places in B.C. It's everywhere," she said.

"She has a way of writing sentences that take a long time to read a short story, because you have to stop every other sentence and say, 'Ah' to yourself. She writes very capacious short stories.

"I've written several novels that could fit nicely into one of her short stories, probably. They are impeccable."

Choy said he was first introduced to Munro in the '60s at the creative writing school at the University of British Columbia and "could tell that this was only the beginning."

"I just had that feeling. You read one story of hers and you think you've read a novel," he said.

"The characters become one complete and collected community, and that's the community of neighbours and people we know.

"She truly is our Chekhov."

Novelist and short story writer Marina Endicott said Munro "deserves (the Nobel) more than anybody" and she planned to teach the author's short story "Dimension" to her class at the University of Aberta on Thursday.

"'Dimension' is a story about a woman whose husband has killed their children. She wrote it when she was at least in her 70s and it's just another example of her incredible ability to inhabit a life that she can't have any physical experience of, but she has that huge capacity of understanding."