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The Stellar Alice Munro

As former bureau chief of the Canada office of The New York Times, I got to write an appreciation of the life and career of Nobel Prize winner Alice Munro. The Times recognized the achievement of the great Canadian author by placing my obit on Page A1 of the print paper on May 14, and giving it prominent placement on the website, where many commented on the impact of her work.

The Obit is behind the NYT paywall, but I am including a version of it here.


May 14, 2024

Alice Munro, the revered Canadian author who started writing short stories because she did not think she had the time or the talent to master novels, then stubbornly dedicated her long career to churning out psychologically dense stories that dazzled the literary world and earned her the Nobel Prize in Literature, died on Monday night in Port Hope, Ontario, east of Toronto. She was 92.

A spokesman for her publisher, Penguin Random House Canada, confirmed the death, at a nursing home. Ms. Munro’s health had declined since at least 2009, when she said she’d had heart bypass surgery and had been treated for cancer, though she continued to write.

Ms. Munro was a member of the rare breed of writer, like Katherine Anne Porter and Raymond Carver, who made their reputations in the notoriously difficult literary arena of the short story, and did so with great success. Her tales — many of them focused on women at different stages of their lives coping with complex desires — were so eagerly received and gratefully read that she attracted a whole new generation of readers.

Ms. Munro’s stories were widely considered to be without equal, a mixture of ordinary people and extraordinary themes. She portrayed small-town folks, often in rural southwestern Ontario, facing situations that made the fantastic seem an everyday occurrence. Some of her characters were fleshed out so completely through generations and across continents that readers reached a level of intimacy with them that usually comes only with a full-length novel.

She achieved such compactness through exquisite craftsmanship and a degree of precision that did not waste words. Other writers declared some of her stories to be near-perfect — a heavy burden for a writer of modest personal character who had struggled to overcome a lack of self-confidence at the beginning of her career, when she left the protective embrace of her quiet hometown and ventured into the competitive literary scene.

Her insecurity, however powerfully she felt it, was never noticed by her fellow writers, who celebrated her craftsmanship and freely lent her their highest praise.

The Irish novelist Edna O’Brien ranked Ms. Munro with William Faulkner and James Joyce as writers who had influenced her work. Joyce Carol Oates said Munro stories “have the density — moral, emotional, sometimes historical — of other writers’ novels.” And the novelist Richard Ford once made it clear that questioning Ms. Munro’s mastery over the short story would be akin to doubting the hardness of a diamond or the bouquet of a ripened peach.

“ With Alice it’s like a shorthand,” Mr. Ford said. “You’ll just mention her, and everybody just kind of generally nods that she’s just sort of as good as it gets.”

In awarding her the Nobel in 2013, when she was 82, the Swedish Academy cited her 14 collections of stories and referred to her as “a master of the contemporary short story,” praising her ability to “accommodate the entire epic complexity of the novel in just a few short pages.”

As famous for the refined exuberance of her prose as for the modesty of her personal life, Ms. Munro declined to travel to Sweden to accept her Nobel, saying she was too frail. In place of the formal lecture that winners traditionally give, she taped a long interview in Victoria, British Columbia, where she had been visiting when her award was announced. When asked if the process of writing her stories had consumed her entirely, she responded that it did, then added, “But you know, I always got lunch for my children.”

During the presentation of the taped interview at the Swedish Academy, the Swedish actress Pernilla August read an excerpt from Ms. Munro’s story “Carried Away,” a multi-decade tale of dashed expectations that typified the complicated, often disappointing, world of her stories.

“She had a picture taken. She knew how she wanted it to be,” the excerpt read. “She would have liked to wear a simple white blouse, a peasant girl’s smock with the string open at the neck. She did not own a blouse of that description and in fact had only seen them in pictures. And she would have liked to let her hair down. Or if it had to be up, she would have liked it piled very loosely and bound with strings of pearls.

“Instead she wore her blue silk shirtwaist and bound her hair as usual. She thought the picture made her look rather pale, hollow-eyed. Her expression was sterner and more foreboding than she had intended. She sent it anyway.”

‘Our Chekhov’

Ms. Munro’s early success in Canada, where her first collection of stories, “Dance of the Happy Shades” (1968), won the Governor General’s Literary Award, the equivalent of a Pulitzer Prize for fiction, spread to the United States after her stories began to be published in The New Yorker in 1977. She was an important member of a generation of Canadian writers, along with Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje, whose celebrity reached far beyond the country’s borders.

Ms. Munro went on to win the Governor General’s award twice more, along with two Giller Prizes, another important national award in Canada, and many other honors. In 2009, she withdrew her collection “Too Much Happiness” from consideration for yet another Giller because she believed that a younger writer should have a chance to win it.

That same year she was awarded the Man Booker International Prize for her lifelong body of work, which the judges claimed was “practically perfect.” The awards committee commented that although she was known mostly as a short-story writer, “she brings as much depth, wisdom and precision to every story as most novelists bring to a lifetime of novels.”

“To read Alice Munro is to learn something every time that you never thought of before,” the judges said.

As her many-layered style developed, her short stories came to be neither short nor simply stories — she included 15 stories in her first book, but only eight or nine longer ones in some of her most recent collections. The greater length of each story gave her room to explore the psychological profiles of her characters more fully, and the resulting works are tightly woven tapestries of great tension, lasting resonance and stunning breadth that combine the emotional thrust of a novel with the pinpoint power of a masterful poem.

Over the years, her stories seemed to grow darker and more paradoxical, even though she often described her own life as ordinary and generally upbeat. Often her characters were simple people confronting unusual circumstances. But those situations could be odd, even bizarre, such as an accident in which a soldier who returned from war is decapitated after his sleeve is caught in a factory machine, or the actions of an unattractive girl who steals so much money from her parents’ store to pay boys for sex that her parents are forced to declare bankruptcy. The women in her stories tended to be emotionally pierced — divorced women, adulteresses and noble victims of life’s vicissitudes.

Like Faulkner, Eudora Welty and the other Southern writers she admired, Ms. Munro was capable of breathing life into an entire world — for her, the importunate countryside of southwestern Ontario and the placid, occasionally threatening presence of Lake Huron.

Cynthia Ozick called her “our Chekhov,” and the description stuck.

In a 2009 review of “Too Much Happiness,” Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times described the collection’s title story as “a brilliant distillation of her Chekhovian art.”

Never a Novel

Ms. Munro was able to live a life remarkable for its normalcy. Her days, like her characters’, were filled with quotidian routines punctuated by the explosive mystery of happenstance and accident.

Outside of a decade spent on the west coast of Canada during her first marriage, she lived with a great deal of satisfaction in the Ontario bramble she celebrated in her stories, quietly composing them in the house where her second husband was raised, not far from the place where she was born.

Perhaps the question that most dogged her throughout her long career was why, with her abundant talents and perceptive eye, she restricted herself to what is generally seen as the limited world of the short story rather than launch into the glittery universe of the novel.

“I don’t really understand a novel,” Ms. Munro confessed to Mervyn Rothstein of The Times in a 1986 interview. “I don’t understand where the excitement is supposed to come in a novel, and I do in a story. There’s a kind of tension that if I’m getting a story right I can feel right away.”

While one of her early collections, “Lives of Girls and Women,” is sometimes called a novel, Ms. Munro and her longtime editor at Alfred A. Knopf, Ann Close, considered it a collection of linked stories.

“Once I started to write that, I was off,” she told The Paris Review. “Then I made a big mistake. I tried to make it a regular novel, an ordinary sort of childhood adolescence novel. About March I saw it wasn’t working. It didn’t feel right to me, and I thought I would have to abandon it. I was very depressed. Then it came to me that what I had to do was pull it apart and put it in the story form. Then I could handle it.”

At times she swore she would never write a novel — almost dismissing the challenge as too great for her to even attempt. But at other times she seemed to wistfully wonder, as one of her characters might, how different her life might have been had she written a blockbuster novel.

“I’m thinking of something now, how it might be a novel, but I bet you it won’t be,” she said in a 1998 interview, just after publication of her widely acclaimed collection “The Love of a Good Woman.” She confessed that on occasion she had experimented with stretching her stories into novels but said she found that the stories “start to sag” when she did so, as though being taken beyond their natural limits. Still, the lure never completely evaporated. “My ambition is to write a novel before I die,” she said, also in 1998.

She never did.

Shortly before receiving her Nobel in 2013, Ms. Munro told several interviewers that she had decided to stop writing. As far back as 2009, she had disclosed her cancer diagnosis and that she’d undergone heart bypass surgery. Her declining health had robbed her of strength, but she also remarked that she’d been writing since she was 20 and had grown weary of what Del, a character in “Lives of Girls and Women” who is generally taken to be Ms. Munro’s proxy, says is a writer’s only duty, which is “to produce a masterpiece.”

“ That’s a long time to be working,” Ms. Munro said, “and I thought maybe it’s time to take it easy.”

Rural Beginnings

Alice Ann Laidlaw was born on July 10, 1931, in the village of Wingham, Ontario, hard by the banks of Lake Huron. She was the first of three children of Robert Eric Laidlaw and Anne Clarke (Chamney) Laidlaw. Her father had tried his luck at the rather exotic undertaking of raising silver foxes and mink, but when that failed he went through a number of professions, including stints as foundry watchman and turkey farmer.

When Anne Laidlaw developed Parkinson’s disease, it fell to Alice, not yet a teenager but the oldest of the three children, to care for her mother, an experience that she wove through her writing. She was able to attend college after winning a two-year scholarship to the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario, about 65 miles south of Wingham.

She majored in English but initially kept her ambition to write fiction to herself. She dropped out before completing her studies and married a fellow student, James Munro. She sold her first short work of fiction, a story, to the radio service of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

The Munros settled in Vancouver and had two children; a third died at birth. Ms. Munro said the domestic demands of those years — balancing parenthood with her dream of writing, “getting apple juice, answering the phone and letting the cat in” — left her no time or energy for ambitious projects like writing novels. Instead, she dedicated herself to mastering the short story, a form that she felt she could manage in between raising her children and taking care of her house.

In 1963, Ms. Munro and her husband moved to Victoria, where she helped him found a bookstore, Munro’s, and gave birth to another daughter. The marriage ended in 1973, and she moved back to Ontario.

By then, her literary reputation in Canada was established. In 1968, her first book, “Dance of the Happy Shades,” a collection of short stories compiled over a dozen years, introduced readers to what would later be widely recognized as “Alice Munro Country” — the rigidly introspective landscape of solitary country roads and stolid houses of yellow brick within which shy lives and solemn secrets unfolded.

“Everybody knows what a house does, how it encloses space and makes connections between one enclosed space and another and presents what is outside in a new way,” she wrote in a 1982 essay. “That is the nearest I can come to explaining what a story is for me.”

Her stories are blanketed with countless small but sharp observations that animate Munro Country. For instance, in “Spaceships Have Landed,” a story in the collection “Open Secrets” (1994), the main character drunkenly flirts with her boyfriend’s friend, only to be grossly insulted by him. The next day, she calls him to the porch of her house and confronts him while using a piece of steel wool to clean freshly laid eggs.

Such details evoke a sense of the semirural Canadian backcountry, a quiet land where people never deliberately call attention to themselves and the ordinariness of life can be suddenly disrupted by accidents, arrivals and unanticipated departures.

Although Ms. Munro was most often described as a Canadian writer, her stories evoked not Canada itself but the bittersweet triumphs, mishaps and humiliations of small town life. And in the end, every landscape served as backdrop for her central themes, which were the unpredictability of life and the betrayals that women suffer or commit — scenes redolent with autobiography.

In “The Albanian Virgin,” a celebrated story featuring a rare exotic setting as well as the familiar Canadian landscape, the female protagonist runs a bookstore in Victoria and dreamily contemplates the errant directions taken by her life: “But I was not despondent. I had made a desperate change in my life, and in spite of the regrets that I suffered every day, I was proud of that. I felt as if I had finally come out into the world in a new, true, skin.”

A Publicity-Shy ‘Plodder’

Ms. Munro shunned much of the publicity usually associated with literary success and limited her book tour appearances and readings. She often referred to herself in a self-deprecating way; she said she had not “come out of the closet” as a professional writer until she was 40, and she called herself a “plodder” because of the slow and deliberate way she worked, often writing in her nightclothes for several hours in the morning and then extensively revising her stories before sending them off.

But to critics, there was nothing plodding about her stories, which were put together so seamlessly that the many flashbacks, flash-forwards and shifts in time and place that she employed happened without notice. She often started her stories at a point where other authors might end theirs, and continued them well past the climax or denouement that would have satisfied others less driven by the twists of fate. Inevitably, this left readers to work out who exactly the narrator was and how one character was related to another.

Eventually, though, every piece would fit together. “It’s like a child’s puzzle,” the novelist Anne Tyler once said of Ms. Munro’s work. “In the most successful of the stories, the end result is a satisfying click as everything settles precisely into place.”

After the turbulence and dislocation she went through before Ms. Munro turned 40, her life and career clicked satisfyingly into place when she returned to southern Ontario. She started seeing Gerald Fremlin, a geographer, and after a brief romance married him and moved into the house in Clinton, Ontario, where he was raised.

She is survived by her daughters, Sheila, Jenny and Andrea. Sheila Munro is the author of the 2001 memoir “Lives of Mothers and Daughters: Growing Up With Alice Munro.”

She embarked on an ambitious schedule of publishing a collection of short stories every three or four years, winning praise and admiration across Canada, where she comes close to being a household literary saint. After receiving her first Governor General’s award, she won it twice more, for “Who Do You Think You Are?” in 1978 and for “The Progress of Love” in 1986.

In 1998, she received the Giller Prize for “The Love of a Good Woman,” and in 2004 she picked up another for “Runaway.” After the National Book Critics Circle agreed for the first time to consider authors from outside the United States for its award, Ms. Munro won in 1998 for “The Love of a Good Woman.”

As if she were a character in one of her stories, plagued by bad timing and unlucky happenstance, Ms. Munro was not at home when the Swedish Academy called to tell her that she had won; it had to leave a telephone message. She was in Victoria visiting her daughter, who heard the news and woke her mother at 4 a.m. Still groggy when interviewed by the CBC, Ms. Munro admitted that she’d forgotten that the prize was to be awarded that day, calling it “a splendid thing to happen,” adding, “more than I can say.”

Struggling to control her emotions, she reflected on her success and what it might mean for literature. “My stories have gotten around quite remarkably for short stories,” she told the interviewer. “I would really hope that this would make people see the short story as an important art, not something you play around with until you got a novel written.”

Lisa D. Awano and Sofia Poznansky contributed reporting.

A correction was made on 

May 14, 2024

An earlier version of this obituary misspelled the given name of an author who praised Ms. Munro’s writing. She is Anne Tyler, not Ann.




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