Triumph of the short story
By honouring Alice Munro, the judges of the third biennial International Man Booker Prize, which is announced today, acknowledge the 77-year-old Canadian writer’s literary genius
THERE ARE writers who inspire, writers who capture the imaginations and loyalty of their readers for life and who also become mentors to their peers. Canadian virtuoso Alice Munro defies all superlatives; this daring observer of the ordinary is the only living practitioner of the short story to be consistently mentioned in the same breath as William Trevor. By honouring Munro, mere weeks short of her 78th birthday on July 10th, the judges of this, the third biennial International Man Booker Prize, have acknowledged that literary genius is contained in the palm of the hand, in the blink of an eye, in that nuanced sentence, in a knowing glance, the angle of a character’s shoulders as they walk away.
In our age of overstatement and polemic, Munro’s art looks at life as lived. Canadian writers refer to her as the person who made them want to write. The late Timothy Findley presented me with a copy of The Moons of Jupiterand said: “Everything I ever wanted to know about writing, everything I’ve ever tried to learn about writing, is in these stories – everything you would want to know about writing is here – as it is in all of Alice Munro’s stories, she writes with instinct.”
Findley was right. Munro discovered early in her career that great writingis shaped by truth. She has watched, listened and wondered. Munro’s curiosity has always been humane and kindly, never knowing. As anyone who has ever interviewed authors will agree, the name of Alice Munro is one of the most frequently mentioned by writers when acknowledging their influences.
By awarding her this honour, worth £60,000 (€68,000), the judging panel - which itself is an impressive trio consisting of the gifted Indian novelist Amit Chaudhuri, who is also a fine critic; US writer Jane Smiley and Russian satirist, Andrey Kurkov - assembled a strong field. Munro emerged ahead of contenders of the quality of Australian double Booker winner Peter Carey and Scotland’s James Kelman, a consummate stylist and another writer with a firm grasp of the truth. Kelman certainly was a threat, as was the brilliant Italian Antonio Tabucchi, whose inclusion on this international list indicates exactly how astute the judging was. Nobel Literature laureate V S Naipaul was another shortlisted, as was the remarkable Joyce Carol Oates. Croatian writer Dubravka Ugresic featured. The inaugural prize was awarded in 2005 to Albanian Ismail Kadaré, while the 2007 award went to Nigerian Chinua Achebe.
Munro’s sense of irony is invariably directed at herself more than at her characters. She has always regarded herself as an anachronism; an old-style writer, for writing about a world she once knew which has now changed. But although society has changed, life hasn’t and this is why Munro’s understanding of it is so compelling. For Alistair MacLeod, Munro’s traditional feel for narrative as a web that spins and gathers and reveals detail, is the secret. Slowly and carefully she builds a story in an almost architectural way, rather like that of Henry James. A life emerges as the layers of protective coating are peeled away. Most of her fiction is based in rural and semi-rural southern Ontario, the landscape of her childhood. Never as political as Margaret Atwood, Munro’s tone is closer to that of Margaret Lawrence or Mavis Gallant.
BY THE TIME MUNRO ARRIVED at the University of Ontario, she was already a writer having begun consciously noting down observations as a 12-year-old girl. At 15 she had decided her destiny; she was going to write the Great Novel. Interestingly, as one of the world’s finest writers, she has written only one novel Lives of Girls and Women, which was published when she was 41.
Munro’s genius is in the short story and this makes her win so exciting. Munro’s triumph is not only a victory for Canadian literature, one of the world’s most consistently convincing, it is also a tribute to the short story form. But then Munro remains the only writer so far to have secured a Booker shortlisting with a collection of short stories, The Beggar Maid.
Her first collection, Dance of the Happy Shadeswas published in 1968, that year of revolution, and it is true that Munro had never attempted the radical. She has chosen a far more difficult path, the ordinary. Nor did she become involved in literary feminism. Love has remained her central theme, whether it is romantic love with its disappointments or, even more interestingly, friendship and its survival through the trials of life. Many first discovered her through the New Yorker. By the time The Progress of Lovewas published in 1986, she had attracted an international following. It was overwhelmingly one of the major books of that year. The same happened four years later with the publication of Friend of My Youth, which includes several of her finest stories, such as the title story and the brilliant Hold Me Fast, Don’t Let Me Pass.
In 1994, Munro suggested that she was becoming more drawn to history and some of the stories in Open Secretsranged from the 1850s, through to the two World Wars. There is also the fact that Munro has explored, through the background of her characters, the close and often painful relationship between Canada and Britain, particularly Scotland. She understands the conflicts that underlie these bonds and the cultural tensions which can tear characters who are caught between two countries.
This theme would resurface in Munro’s quasi-autobiographical The View from Castle Rock(2006), a book which took her readers by surprise and charmed others who had never read before. Four years after Open Secrets, Munro showed she still had a great deal to say about the lives of women in The Love of a Good Woman. Her 2001 collection Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriageis yet further proof that it is possible for a short story to say far more than a novel, if of course, the short story happens to be written by Alice Munro.
In 2005, Munro’s collection Runawayshowed that the master short story writer was happy to experiment with form and she used an interlinking device through several of the stories.
MUNRO IS A SMALL, DELICATE WOMAN, very feminine, a woman who would look at home in an Edith Wharton novel. In a crowded room she stands to one side and gives the impression she is deep in thought. She is not aloof, she is merely remote and does look at life the subtle way a mother observes a child without invading the child’s individuality. She is a reader and a thinker; she is also an artist, a philosopher who has always grasped the essential difference between the knowing and the wise. Munro is wise.
To honour her is to honour literature, particularly her given territory, the ever mysterious, always miraculous short story, our surest way of figuring out this business known as life.
Well deserved . . . a prize of €60,000 and a trophy to be awarded at Trinity College Dublin in recognition of Dublin's 'rich literary tradition'
Alice Munro will receive the prize of £60,000 (€68,000) and a trophy at the award ceremony on June 25th at Trinity College, Dublin.
Trinity was chosen, according to the man Booker administrators, because “the Man Booker International is a truly international prize not centred on any one city. Its judges this year are drawn from three continents; they have met for their deliberations in two. Dublin with its rich literary tradition is ideal for the award ceremony, following Edinburgh in 2005 and Oxford in 2007. And Trinity College is surely the perfect location.”
The prize is awarded once every two years to a living author for a body of work that has contributed to an achievement in fiction on the world stage, and was first awarded to Ismail Kadaré in 2005 and then to Chinua Achebe in 2007.
THE JUDGING PANEL
Writer Jane Smiley; writer, academic and musician Amit Chaudhuri; and writer, film script writer and essayist, Andrey Kurkov.
Dance of the Happy Shades 1968
Lives of Girls and Women 1971
Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You 1974
Who Do You Think You Are? 1978
The Beggar’s Maid 1980
The Moons of Jupiter 1982
The Progress of Love 1986
Friend of My Youth 1990
Open Secrets 1994
Selected Stories 1996
The Love of a Good Woman 1998
Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage 2001
No Love Lost 2003
Vintage Munro 2004
The View from Castle Rock 2006
Away From Her 2007
Her latest collection of short stories, Too Much Happiness, will be published in October 2009