Alice Munro, Nobel literature winner revered as short story master, dies aged 92

14 May 2024, 20:34

Canadian author Alice Munro in 2013
Obit Alice Munro. Picture: PA

Munro, little known beyond Canada until her late 30s, became one of the few short story writers to enjoy ongoing commercial success.

Nobel laureate Alice Munro, the Canadian literary giant who became one of the world’s most esteemed contemporary authors and one of history’s most honoured short story writers, has died aged 92.

A spokesperson for publisher Penguin Random House Canada said Munro, winner of the Nobel literary prize in 2013, died on Monday at home in Port Hope, Ontario.

Munro had been in frail health for years and often spoke of retirement, a decision that proved final after the author’s 2012 collection, Dear Life.

Often ranked with Anton Chekhov, John Cheever and a handful of other short story writers, Munro achieved stature rare for an art form traditionally placed beneath the novel.

She was the first lifelong Canadian to win the Nobel and the first recipient cited exclusively for short fiction.

Echoing the judgment of so many before, the Swedish academy pronounced her a “master of the contemporary short story” who could “accommodate the entire epic complexity of the novel in just a few short pages”.

Munro, little known beyond Canada until her late 30s, also became one of the few short story writers to enjoy ongoing commercial success.

Sales in North America alone exceeded one million copies and the Nobel announcement raised Dear Life to the high end of The New York Times’ bestseller list for paperback fiction.

Other popular books included Too Much Happiness, The View From Castle Rock and The Love Of A Good Woman.

Over half a century of writing, Munro perfected one of the greatest tricks of any art form: illuminating the universal through the particular, creating stories set around Canada that appealed to readers far away.

She produced no single definitive work, but dozens of classics that were showcases of wisdom, technique and talent – her inspired plot twists and artful shifts of time and perspective; her subtle, sometimes cutting humour; her summation of lives in broad dimension and fine detail; her insights into people across age or background, her genius for sketching a character, like the adulterous woman introduced as “short, cushiony, dark-eyed, effusive. A stranger to irony”.

Her best known fiction included The Beggar Maid, a courtship between an insecure young woman and an officious rich boy who becomes her husband; Corrie, in which a wealthy young woman has an affair with an architect “equipped with a wife and young family”; and The Moons Of Jupiter, about a middle-aged writer who visits her ailing father in a Toronto hospital and shares memories of different parts of their lives.

“I think any life can be interesting,” Munro said during a 2013 post-prize interview for the Nobel Foundation.

“I think any surroundings can be interesting.”

Disliking Munro, as a writer or as a person, seemed almost heretical.

The wide and welcoming smile captured in her author photographs was complemented by a down-to-earth manner and eyes of acute alertness, fitting for a woman who seemed to pull stories out of the air the way songwriters discovered melodies.

She was admired without apparent envy, placed by the likes of Jonathan Franzen, John Updike and Cynthia Ozick at the very top of the pantheon.

Munro’s daughter, Sheila Munro, wrote a memoir in which she confided that “so unassailable is the truth of her fiction that sometimes I even feel as though I’m living inside an Alice Munro story”.

Fellow Canadian author Margaret Atwood called her a pioneer for women, and for Canadians.

“Back in the 1950s and 60s, when Munro began, there was a feeling that not only female writers but Canadians were thought to be both trespassing and transgressing,” Atwood wrote in a 2013 tribute published in The Guardian after Munro won the Nobel.

“The road to the Nobel wasn’t an easy one for Munro: the odds that a literary star would emerge from her time and place would once have been zero.”

Although not overtly political, Munro witnessed and participated in the cultural revolution of the 1960s and 1970s and permitted her characters to do the same.

She was a farmer’s daughter who married young, then left her husband in the 1970s and took to “wearing miniskirts and prancing around”, as she recalled during a 2003 interview with The Associated Press (AP).

Many of her stories contrasted the generation of Munro’s parents with the more open-ended lives of their children, departing from the years when housewives daydreamed “between the walls that the husband was paying for”.

Filmgoers would become familiar with The Bear Came Over The Mountain, the improbably seamless tale of a married woman with memory loss who has an affair with a fellow nursing home patient, a story further complicated by her husband’s many past infidelities.

The Bear was adapted by director Sarah Polley into the feature film Away From Her, which brought an Academy Award nomination for Julie Christie.

In 2014, Kristen Wiig starred in Hateship, Loveship, an adaptation of the story Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, in which a housekeeper leaves her job and travels to a distant rural town to meet up with a man she believes is in love with her – unaware the romantic letters she has received were concocted by his daughter and a friend.

Canadian writer Alice Munro's Dear Life
Canadian writer Alice Munro’s Dear Life (Alamy/PA)

Even before the Nobel, Munro received honours from around the English-language world, including Britain’s Man Booker International Prize and the National Book Critics Circle award in the US, where the American Academy of Arts and Letters voted her in as an honorary member.

In Canada, she was a three-time winner of the Governor General’s Award and a two-time winner of the Giller Prize.

Munro was a short story writer by choice, and, apparently, by design.

Judith Jones, an editor at Alfred A Knopf who worked with Updike and Anne Tyler, did not want to publish Lives Of Girls & Women, her only novel, writing in an internal memo that “there’s no question the lady can write but it’s also clear she is primarily a short story writer”.

Munro would acknowledge that she did not think like a novelist.

“I have all these disconnected realities in my own life, and I see them in other people’s lives,” she told the AP.

“That was one of the problems, why I couldn’t write novels. I never saw things hanging together too well.”

By Press Association

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