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When Alice Munro was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature on October 10 she wasn’t even waiting for the phone to ring – she was in bed, asleep. After repeated attempts to contact the Canadian writer, the Swedish Academy ended up leaving her a voicemail message; she only found out about the £770,000 win when one of her daughters finally got through to her in the wee hours.
The story rings true. The 82-year-old short story writer is renowned as a modest, private person who doesn’t court celebrity, and is happy to be able to wander freely, and observantly, around her little corner of Ontario.
There was a huge swell of delight – though not much surprise – at the announcement. Over the decades Munro has won numerous literary trophies, from the Man Booker International Prize in 2009 to countless North American awards. Often dubbed “the Canadian Chekhov”, she was described by Peter Englund, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, as a “master of the contemporary short story”. Her Nobel win nevertheless represented an important recognition: Munro is the first Canadian winner and only the 13th woman to win out of 110 Nobel laureates; the last was Herta Müller in 2009.
Munro’s protagonists are predominantly the women of Huron County, Ontario, a place where everyone knows everyone’s business and where, until recently, women have led conservative lives. In crystalline prose, and in very few pages, she illuminates their hopes and longings, regrets and realities, and their stoicism and frustrations with the push and pull of family life. She is neither sentimental nor judgmental and, while there is much that is specific to these small-town lives, their dilemmas and desires are universal.
Born in 1931 in Wingham, Ontario, within Huron County, Munro’s father was a fox and mink farmer, her mother a teacher; hers was a restrictive upbringing, steeped in Presbyterian and Methodist tradition. After marrying her first husband, James Munro, at the age of 20, she moved to Vancouver and later to Victoria but returned to Huron County in the 1970s. She has lived there ever since, just 20 miles from where she was raised.
Munro knew she wanted to be a writer when she was 14 but only started writing in earnest after she married, snatching time when her three young daughters were napping and staying up late to work on her stories. And while she aspired to write the Great Canadian Novel, she found that the short story form was more compatible with the demands of domestic life. Her first collection, Dance of the Happy Shades, was published in 1968 when Munro was 37; it won the Governor General’s Award, Canada’s highest literary honour. Since then she hasn’t stopped: she published her 14th collection of stories, the semi-autobiographical Dear Life, last year. Despite several declarations of intent to retire, it somehow seems unlikely that this will be her last.