Congrats, Alice! Nation Chuffed by Nobel Win

Hearing the news about Alice Munro’s Nobel win this morning sent many Canadians to their shelves. Munro is an author to read in the morning and the evening, whose work repays frequent visits and recitations years later, and whose voice returns when you least expect it, yes, like a friend from your youth:

“So one day Robert carries Flora—for the first and last time he carries her in his arms—to the rooms that his wife Audrey has prepared for her. And once Flora is settled in her well-lit, well-heated corner, Audrey Atkinson undertakes to clean out the newly vacated rooms, Flora’s rooms. She carries a heap of old books out into the yard. It’s spring again, housecleaning time, the season when Flora herself performed such feats, and now the pale face of Flora appears behind the new net curtains. She has dragged herself from her corner, she sees the light-blue sky with its high skidding clouds over the watery fields, the contending crows, the flooded creeks, the reddening tree branches. She sees the smoke rise out of the incinerator in the yard, where her books are burning. Those smelly old books, as Audrey has called them. Words and pages, the ominous dark spines. The elect, the damned, the slim hopes, the mighty torments—up in smoke. There was the ending.”

 

When a young English professor taught us about Munro in 2002 he read us this passage from her 1990 story “Friend of My Youth.” Normally shy and quiet, he grew more and more animated as he went. When he came to the end he banged his fist on his desk and shrieked “and that is why Canadian literature consistently wins more prizes than any other national literature in the world!”

But we hadn’t won the big one—until now.*

Munro says she hopes her Nobel will bring more attention to Canadian writing, and maybe it will. Though literature is taught and marketed in national categories, I’m not always sure such divisions are meaningful for solitary readers. As Sasha Weiss wrote in The New Yorker today, Munro fans feel a curious ownership over her greatness. It’s true: Canadian or not, for her most enthusiastic readers, each fresh discovery of her brilliance whispers at some personal and nationless bit of themselves.

Besides the national thrill of this news, with Canadians still feeling chagrinned over the Gilmour episode, Munro’s Nobel win is being read in some quarters as more of a vote of confidence in writing by women than it should be. Gilmour’s literary sexism is still being dignified by being shouted down. The fact that only thirteen women have ever won the Nobel prize should be an embarrassment to the organization, not a reason to see Munro’s award as new “proof” of the quality of writing by women.

In fact, although she’s justly famous for her many lenses on the lives of girls and women, Alice Munro’s massive talent has about as much to do with her gender as it does with her nationality.

Nevertheless, as a nation, we Canadians are chuffed. As we send our heartfelt congrats Munro’s way, we can only hope along with her that this glow of international recognition will help other Canadian writers find the readers they deserve.

* As Mark Medley points out in the National Post,

“Technically, she’s not the first Canadian to win the prize. That would be Saul Bellow, who was born in Lachine, Quebec, but moved to Chicago as a child. He won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1976, but is largely considered an American writer. This feels different, a monumental day for Canadian writing.”

About the author

Jessica Duffin Wolfe

Jessica Duffin Wolfe is the Editor-in-Chief of The Toronto Review of Books.

By Jessica Duffin Wolfe