Loads of Learned Lumber

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Alice Munro, _Dear Life_

HAD I BEEN told in 2012 that the next year's winner of the Nobel prize in Literature was a Canadian woman, I would have bet the house that it was Margaret Atwood.

(1) She is internationally acclaimed.

(2) She is primarily a novelist--can you think of any Nobel laureate fiction writer, before Munro, better known for his or her short stories than for novels? Agnon, maybe.

(3) She is not only a novelist, but also one who often deals in big themes, and skillfully, too.

(4) For a contemporary writer, she gets loads of scholarly attention.

(5) She's a pretty damned good prose stylist, if you ask me.

(6) Alias Grace.

Still, one can hardly begrudge Alice Munro the honor. You wouldn't call her an innovator; she has struck squarely to the middle of the furrow first plowed by Chekhov and Joyce: relatively ordinary folks in relatively ordinary circumstances who abruptly find themselves face to face with a truth about their and their loved ones' being that will permanently mark their sense of themselves. Not a new furrow, and one that was been well and truly plowed in the 20th century, but she does it about as well as it can be done. And she is actually better at folding in history and the passage of time than even Chekhov or Joyce ("The Dead" excepted, probably); who better at giving you the density of a novel in twenty-odd pages? Who better at telescoping a character's past into her present, or her present into her future?

I worry, though. What are the odds of a second Canadian female fiction writer getting the Nobel in the next twenty years? And Atwood really deserves it. Roth really deserves it, too, and he's not going to get it, either, with Bellow already be-laureled. Well, what are you going to do?  Joyce and Chekhov didn't get it, either.  One really should not worry about such things, even though Boyhood not getting the Best Picture Oscar is robbery, plain and simple.

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