STOCKHOLM — If there were a literary prize higher than the Nobel, Alice Munro would probably win that, too.
"Among writers, her name is spoken in hushed tones," fellow Canadian author Margaret Atwood once wrote. "She's the kind of writer about whom it is often said — no matter how well known she becomes — that she ought to be better known."
Munro, 82, was cited by Nobel judges Thursday as a thorough but forgiving chronicler of the human spirit, and her selection marks a couple of breakthroughs among prize winners. She is the first Canadian writer to receive the $1.2 million award from the Swedish Academy since Saul Bellow, who left for the U.S. as a boy and won in 1976, and the first laureate ever to be fully identified with Canada. She is also the rare author to win because of her short fiction.
"I think my stories have gotten around quite remarkably for short stories, and I would really hope that this would make people see the short story as an important art, not just something that you played around with until you'd got a novel written," she told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.
Her books having sold more than 1 million copies in the U.S. alone, she has long been an international ambassador for the short story, proof that the narrative arc and depth of characterization we expect from a novel can be realized in just 30-40 pages. Critics and peers have praised her in every way a writer can be praised: the precision of her language; the perfection of detail; the surprise and logic of her storytelling; the graceful, seamless shifts of moods; the intimacy with every shade of human behavior.
Her stories are usually set in Ontario, her home province. Among her best known is "The Bear Came Over the Mountain," the story of a woman who begins losing her memory and agrees with her husband that she should be placed in a nursing home. Canadian actress-director Sarah Polley adapted the story into the 2006 film "Away from Her," starring Julie Christie.
The narrative begins in a relatively tender, traditional mood. But we soon learn that the husband has been unfaithful in the past and didn't always regret it — "What he felt was mainly a gigantic increase in well-being." The wife, meanwhile, has fallen for a man at the nursing home.
In the story "Dimensions," Munro introduces us to a chambermaid named Doree, who needs to take three buses for a visit to a "facility" outside of Clinton, Ontario. Munro explains that Doree is happy in her work, that she has been told she is "young and decent looking" and that her picture once was in the newspaper, in the days when her spiked blonde hair was wavy and brown.
"Dimensions" begins in close-up, then steadily pulls back. With every page, the story darkens, and terrifies. The "facility" is an institution where Doree's husband, Lloyd, is held. Doree's picture was in the paper because her husband murdered their children.
"In all the time since what had happened, any thought of the children had been something to get rid of, pull out immediately like a knife in the throat," Munro writes.