Alice Munro, Nobel winner and titan of the short story, dies aged 92

The Canadian short-story writer and Nobel prize winner Alice Munro, who examined everyday life through the lens of short fiction for more than 60 years, has died aged 92 at her care home in Ontario. She had suffered from dementia for more than a decade.

Once called “the Canadian Chekhov” by Cynthia Ozick, Munro’s body of work was founded on forms and subjects traditionally disregarded by the literary mainstream. It was only later in life that Munro’s reputation began to rise, her understated stories of apparently plain folks in undramatic, small-town Canada amassing a raft of international awards that included the 2013 Nobel prize in literature.

Margaret Atwood once called her “among the major writers of English fiction of our time.” Salman Rushdie praised her as “a master of the form” while Jonathan Franzen once wrote: “[Munro] is one of the handful of writers, some living, most dead, whom I have in mind when I say that fiction is my religion.”

Born in 1931 to a family of fox and poultry farmers living outside Wingham, Ontario, and struggling to survive during the Great Depression, Munro went to university on a scholarship and studied for two years before moving to Vancouver with her first husband, James Munro, in 1951. Describing herself as a “B-minus housewife” during this time – she had to ask her husband for money to buy groceries – Munro began to write whenever her daughters were asleep, keeping the pieces short because it was too hard to concentrate for extended periods. (“I was big on naps,” she told the Observer in 2005.)

Munro’s stories began to be published in magazines such as the Tamarack Review, the Montrealer and the Canadian Forum, gradually assembling enough for a collection which appeared in 1968. Hailed by the New York Times as evidence that the short story was “alive and well in Canada”, Dance of the Happy Shades was praised for its “sympathetic vibration with the farmers and townspeople who live there”, and for Munro’s “refreshing strategy” of providing more questions than answers.

Munro began concentrating on writing a novel but found herself struggling because, as she later admitted, “it didn’t have life. It didn’t have punch. Something about it was flabby.” She split it up into a collection of linked stories, Lives of Girls and Women, which was published in 1971 and offered a portrait of the artist as a young girl as its narrator, Del, grows up and begins to write in a small Ontario town. The novel served almost as a manifesto for Munro’s own work: Del abandons the gothic novel she had been working on and turns to the “dull, simple, amazing, unfathomable” lives around her in Jubilee, describing “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.”

The 1970s was a decade of transformation for Munro: she moved back to Wingham after her first marriage broke down in 1973, married again in 1976 and had her first story published in the New Yorker in 1977 – Royal Beatings, a story based on the punishments she had received from her father as a child. She would go on to also be published in the likes of the Paris Review and the Atlantic Monthly.

Despite repeated attempts, the novel never came. “Between every book,” she said, “I think, ‘well, now it’s time to get down to the serious stuff’ … It doesn’t work.”

Her pursuit of authenticity turned Munro into an unrivalled chronicler of sexual politics, falling in love, deceit and desire. For Margaret Atwood, “few writers have explored such processes more thoroughly, and more ruthlessly” than Munro: “Hands, chairs, glances – all are part of an intricate inner map strewn with barbed wire and booby traps, and secret paths through the shrubbery.”

Munro’s reputation continued to grow as her stories grew in scope and complexity. Who Do You Think You Are? was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize in 1980 and the Giller prize followed twice, once in 1998 for The Love of a Good Woman and again in 2004 for Runaway. She won the Man Booker International prize in 2009 and the Nobel prize in literature in 2013.

Open heart surgery in 2001 brought with it an increased perception of her own mortality, with Munro’s writing circling ever more closely around illness and memory. A story about a character diagnosed with cancer published in the New Yorker in 2008, Free Radicals, was followed a year later by the admission that she had cancer herself. A last collection of stories, 2012’s Dear Life, included four autobiographical pieces which the author called “the first and last – and the closest – things I have to say about my own life”.

Speaking to the Guardian in 2013, Munro explained that she had been “writing personal stories all my life”.

“I hope they are a good read,” she said. “I hope they move people. When I like a story it’s because it does something … a blow to the chest.”

A statement from Kristin Cochrane, CEO of Canadian publishing company McClelland & Stewart, read: “Alice’s writing inspired countless writers … and her work leaves an indelible mark on our literary landscape.”

Tributes came in from across the industry, including Romantic Comedy author Curtis Sittenfeld, who called Munro “my favorite writer since I first read her work when I was 16” and added “Although we never met, I’m so deeply grateful to her”.

Leave the World Behind author Rumaan Alam posted: “the truth is that alice munro is immortal, what an absolute genius”. Canadian novelist Heather O’Neill shared: “Devastated to her about Alice Munro’s passing. Last month I reread all of Alice Munro’s books. I felt the need to be close to her. Every time I read her is a new experience. Every time changes me. She will live forever.”

Canadian heritage minister Pascale St-Onge also wrote: “Alice Munro was a Canadian literary icon. For six decades, her short stories captivated hearts around Canada and the world.”

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