Alice Munro, Nobel-Winning Author, Dies at Ninety-Two

A Canadian master of the contemporary short story passes away

A photograph of Alice Munro
Axel Oberg / Alamy

Alice Munro, Canadian author of fifteen short story collections, including the Governor General’s Award–winning collections Dance of the Happy Shades and Who Do You Think You Are?, died on May 13. She was ninety-two years old.

In her prolific life, Munro picked up every notable prize for which she was eligible, sometimes more than once. In 1998 and 2004, she won the Scotiabank Giller Prize (for The Love of a Good Woman and Runaway respectively). In 2009, she was awarded the Man Booker International Prize for, according to the Independent, “a body of work that has contributed to an achievement in fiction on the world stage.” Four years later, Munro became the first Canadian woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature but was too frail to attend the ceremony in Stockholm. In an interview with the CBC after winning, she said she hoped the $1.2 million (US) prize “would make people see the short story as an important art.”

Munro published consistently astonishing stories in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harper’s Magazine, and The Paris Review—stories distinguished by an ironic gaze that inflicts just enough cruelty on its characters to make us see their consummate humanity. In the story “Gravel” from Dear Life, the narrator’s mother leaves her marriage for a local theatre actor named Neal:

My mother packed up our things and took us to live with Neal in the trailer he had found, out in the country. . . . She’d walked out on her silver and her china and her decorating scheme and her flower garden and even on the books in her bookcase. She would live now, not read. She’d left her clothes hanging in the closet and her high-heeled shoes in their shoe trees. Her diamond ring and her wedding ring on the dresser. Her silk nightdresses in their drawer. She meant to go around naked at least some of the time in the country, as long as the weather stayed warm.

That didn’t work out, because when she tried it Caro went and hid in her cot and even Neal said he wasn’t crazy about the idea.

Munro articulates so well the way in which freedom—real freedom—means banishment. Here is a woman who has made a drastic choice, one ripe for narrative irony. She may not get to “go around naked,” but still she is stripped bare in order to reveal the beauty of her folly. We adore her, for she might just as well be us if we dared such a transgression.

Forty years earlier, the story “Postcard” in the collection Dance of the Happy Shades nailed a certain small-town desperation. Upon discovering that Helen’s boyfriend has married someone else while holidaying in Florida, her best friend Alma, who is herself separated from a difficult man named Don Stonehouse, becomes overly solicitous. Here is Helen’s response to her best friend’s treacly attentions:

[M]aybe I’d be the same way if Don Stonehouse showed up like he threatens to and raped her and left her a mass of purple bruises—his words not mine—from head to foot. I’d be as sorry as could be, and anything I could do to help her, I’d do, but I might think well, awful as it is, it’s something happening and it’s been a long winter.

No winter would be long enough to excuse such a longing for violent spectacle, of course, but in Helen’s sardonic, tossed-off sentiment to have her mundane life dramatized at whatever awful cost, we find the literary equivalent of a legitimate beating heart. We sense a fully integrated human in this instance of Helen’s projected hurt. It is through such unpretentious frankness that Munro’s stories make reality shimmer a little more than it ever can.

Alice Munro grew up in Huron County, and after a twenty-year period—in which she married, had four children (one of whom died two days after birth), wrote, and ran (with her first husband) the Victoria bookstore Munro’s Books—she moved back. Her corpus is obsessed with the material of her childhood landscape, the essential minutiae of small-town gossip, the urgency of (often) poor, striving rural folk. She has said that she “couldn’t possess any other landscape or country or lake or town in this way.” Despite her seeming reticence to involve herself in a broader literary society, she fully participated in a lifelong project of exposure. The stories code her life, and the lives of people she encountered or read about, in a very public, sometimes brutally honest, manner. In “Night,” one of the self-described autofictional stories at the end of Dear Life, a young insomniac tells her father of the vicious thoughts that trouble her:

When I spoke of my little sister I said that I was afraid I would hurt her. I believed that would be enough, that he would know enough of what I meant.

“Strangle her,” I said then. I could not stop myself, after all.

Now I could not unsay it, I could not go back to the person I had been before.

My father had heard it. He had heard that I thought myself capable of, for no apparent reason, strangling little Catherine in her sleep.

He said, “Well.”

Then he said not to worry. He said, “People have those kinds of thoughts sometimes.”

Munro has always stared down for the deeper thing, and it is this unflinching noticing that marks her genius. The girl, if she is a sort of Alice Munro stand-in, is also a literary artist in the process of becoming. We see the dark well brim in the witnessing of a child of her own sublime ideation, at precisely the moment where the story begins to burble forth.

Munro’s deeply feminist articulations of the complex, and sometimes absurd, ways in which women live interstitial lives are often narrated by particularly attentive female narrative voices. In “Heirs of the Living Body,” Munro describes an exquisite moment in which her unmarried aunts unloose themselves briefly from their self-assigned roles as custodians to their older amateur historian/archivist brother, Uncle Craig:

Aunt Elspeth and Auntie Grace had come and jumped in the hay too, with their aprons flying, laughing at themselves. When the moment came they would hesitate, and jump with not quite sufficient abandon, landing in a decorous sitting position, hands spread as on a bouncing cushion, or holding their hair.

When they came back and sat on the verandah, with basins of strawberries they were hulling, to make jam, Auntie Grace spoke breathlessly, but in a calm musing voice.

“If a car had come by, wouldn’t you just have wanted to die?”

Aunt Elspeth took the pins out of her hair and let it down over the back of her chair. When the hair was pinned up it looked nearly all grey, but when it was loose it showed a great deal of dark, silky brown, mink’s colour. With little snorting sounds of pleasure she shook her head back and forth and drew her spread fingers through her hair, to get rid of the little bits of hay that had flown up, and were sticking to it.

“Fools we are!” she said.

Where was Uncle Craig this while? Typing undauntedly, behind closed windows and pulled down blinds.

What sacrifices have the aunts made to accommodate Uncle Craig’s useless opus on Wawanash County? What crucial knowledge—their incessant handiwork, their jam making—is deemed not worthy of the archive? This has been Munro’s life’s work: the thorough and vigilant documentation of the ways in which women labour invisibly. The manner in which her women characters nevertheless burst through that hiddenness—which in other (male) hands might read as mysterious, covert, or insufferable—is celebratory, often comic, and always threateningly real.

My first introduction to Munro was her linked collection Lives of Girls and Women (1971). I read it in the window seat in my parent’s rural living room, on my belly, leaning over the edge, the book propped open on the floor as I peered in closer when things got sexy. I was fifteen years old. The sound of the wind through the poplar tree just outside the window would have come into the reading, as would have the burr of my dad rounding the corner with the lawnmower, and birdsong, and the thick unwinding of cicadas, an Ontario summer cliché.

Lives of Girls and Women was a book to wake a young girl up to her body, her brain, her heart. As I read, I believed I was a sort of Del Jordan, the character at the centre of the stories. I, too, was raised in the landscape of rural Ontario with its hardscrabble men and women and its recent postwar farmer families. We were not quite of that landscape in the way Del’s family was, but so much was resonant to me about the terrain of Lives: the quick enunciations of sexuality and the cheeky, devilish adolescent sub-language—my best friend and I had code words for such things as soft nipples (rhododendron) and hard nipples (chrysanthemum) and would burst into unbridled laughter whenever our mothers discussed their gardens. Del’s yearning to both intimately know Wawanash County and to leave it as far behind as possible paralleled precisely my own experience as a bookish rural girl. Munro’s words accumulated into a treatise. I felt I was reading a handbook on how to live out my adolescence.

Rereading Munro now in midlife, I realize that her work made its way under my writerly skin. I unknowingly stole phrases and internalized the veer of her endings. Telltale Munro endings careen away from epiphany in a way that steers the reader back toward the mundane, which has the marvellous effect of vaunting the everyday. In the story “To Reach Japan,” the ending reads, “She didn’t try to escape, she just stood. Downcast, waiting for whatever had to come next.” And this is the thing with Munro: her stories are exceptional in that they harbour not a hint of heroic exceptionalism for their main characters. A character might stand out in some crucial way for the duration of a story, but we get the sense that, once the story is told, their life will tamp down again around them.

That’s what makes Munro both radical and nostalgic. She recognizes and records the ineffable real of which memory is made. Wonderful, weird, strange things do happen to Munro protagonists, just as these things happen to us all if only we stop to gaze hard into the favoured moments of our lives.

At fifteen, I didn’t care for these Munro endings. They offered something adult I didn’t understand or particularly want. Instead, I revelled in the fleshy, delightful detail of her digressive, fully lived interiors. I still wonder if this is intentional in her craft, this resistance to endings. For, after all, aren’t endings things we ought to resist? And certainly this one?

Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer
Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer is the bestselling author of the novels Wait Softly Brother, All the Broken Things, Perfecting, and The Nettle Spinner as well as the story collection Way Up.