It’s not for nothing that the Canadian winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature has been a favourite with readers and writers
It’s the triumph of the minimalist in a world of blazing guns. Alice Munro is the fox that came in from the cold. At 82 and counting she has every reason to shake the silver spangles from her still bright head of hair and rejoice at winning the Nobel Prize for Literature this year. The Swedish Academy in its announcement has hailed her as “the master of the contemporary short story.” She edges out an equally brilliant maestro of both the short story and novel, the Japanese writer Haruki Murakami who wields a samurai’s flamboyance to Munro’s small town epiphanies.
For readers of the New Yorker, where many of her early short stories appeared, the Nobel Academy’s decision is spot on. In some ways, Munro epitomises the sedate, seemingly inviolable “let’s not shake the crockery” style of the New Yorker. There is a need to fill in the details of the North American family portraits in the precise un-blinking manner of those old Norman Rockwell covers, the housewife baking the apple-pie in the warm kitchen with the blue checked table cloth, the dad out in the backyard hacking at the woodpile, the dogs barking in the distance, etc.
There the resemblance ends. Nothing is as it appears. For one thing, Munro is Canadian. The dog at the edge of the garden is most often a wolf. Her father was a fox farmer, her mother a teacher. They lived in a hard-scrabble town called Wingham to the west of Toronto. When she escaped her childhood and got a scholarship to study at the University of Ontario and majored in journalism, the first thing she did was to marry a fellow student James Munro and become a full-time mother and housewife herself. She was a Sylvia Plath style depressive by the time she was 30, without even having the gift for poetic self-pity, or so it would seem to us, from this distance.
“It was glory I was after ... walking the streets like an exile or a spy,” recalls the narrator of Lives of Girls and Women.
She found glory of sorts in the bookstore that she ran with her second husband. By the time that marriage had fallen apart she had found her writer’s gift. Her first collection of stories, Dance of the Happy Shades won her the Governor’s Prize in 1968.
The itinerant ne’er-do-well husbands, the desperate mothers who find unsuitable lovers and do not mind shacking up with them in the close proximity of their pubescent daughters are rendered with an unflinchingly honesty that is all the more startling on account of its nonchalance. She does not write to shock. Nor is there the all too pervasive Sixties wild-child need to show off that she’s been there and seen it all, done it all.
There is finesse to Munro’s writing that makes even her most painful stories appear like moments of redemption in the midst of utter loss. Or as one of her characters, Neal, the sometime actor who abandons the mother in the story ‘Gravel’ just as she is about to have his child, tells the narrator, the younger daughter who has been witness to the shiftless behaviour of the adults around her:
“The thing is to be happy,” he said. “No matter what. Just try that. You can. It gets to be easier and easier. It’s nothing to do with circumstances. You wouldn’t believe how good it is. Accept everything and then tragedy disappears. Or tragedy lightens, anyway, and you’re just there, going along easy in the world.”
As Orhan Pamuk explained in his essay on being a novelist quoting Friedrich Schiller, on the subject of the naïve and sentimental poet, “Naïve poets are one with nature; in fact they are like nature — calm, cruel and wise.” While by contrast, “The sentimental poet is uneasy, above all in one respect: he is unsure whether his words will encompass reality, whether they will attain it, whether his utterances will convey the meaning he intends. So he is exceedingly aware of the poem he writes, the methods and techniques he uses, and the artifice involved in the endeavour.”
Alice Munro combines both qualities. The ferociousness of her world view has about it the quality of a wolf in the Canadian wilderness. The way she listens to the sounds of that silence and brings it into her work and into the heart of the reader is that of a master craftsperson. More than anything else she is a stylist. She polishes the silver, even if it is just pewter and by doing so she makes it shine and sing for us. It’s not for nothing that Munro has always been a favourite with other writers and now it seems the Nobel will make her everyone’s darling.
The permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, Peter Englund, had this to say: “We’re not saying just that she can say a lot in just 20 pages — more than an average novel writer can — but also that she can cover ground. She can have a single short story that covers decades and it works.”
Bravo to a brave heart!
(Geeta Doctor is a Chennai-based writer.)