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Virtuoso of the elliptical


STOCKHOLM, Sweden — Canadian short story legend Alice Munro was celebrated Tuesday as a “stunningly precise” writer who “is often able to say more in 30 pages than an ordinary novelist is capable of in 300” at a ceremony where her daughter Jenny accepted the 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature on her behalf.

“Munro writes about what are usually called ordinary people, but her intelligence, compassion and astonishing power of perception enable her to give their lives a remarkable dignity — indeed redemption — since she shows how much of the extraordinary can fit into that jam-packed emptiness called the ordinary,” Peter Englund, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, said Tuesday during a formal ceremony at the Stockholm Concert Hall.

“The trivial and trite are intertwined with the amazing and unfathomable, but never at the cost of contradiction. If you have never before fantasized about the strangers you see on a bus, you begin doing so after having read Alice Munro.”

The 82-year-old Munro was named this year’s Nobel literature laureate on Oct. 10 but was too unwell to travel from Victoria — where she’s staying with her daughter Sheila — to the Swedish capital to accept in person.

At Tuesday’s ceremony, Jenny Munro received the Nobel Medal, a diploma and a document confirming the C$1.2 million award.

Wearing a sleeveless, midnight-blue embroidered gown with her blond hair in an updo, Jenny Munro was met with thunderous applause and a standing ovation from the packed theatre as she bowed and accepted the honour from King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden.

In a laudatory speech before the literature honour was handed out, Englund called Munro “a virtuoso of the elliptical.”

“It is a challenge to find an unessential word or a superfluous phrase,” he said. “Reading one of her texts is like watching a cat walk across a laid dinner table. A brief short story can often cover decades, summarizing a life, as she moves deftly between different periods.”

Englund also praised Munro’s ability to convey “the tranquility of the outer world” in her stories, which are set in the small-town southwestern Ontario landscape in which she grew up.

“If you read a lot of Alice Munro’s works carefully, sooner or later, in one of her short stories, you will come face to face with yourself; this is an encounter that always leaves you shaken and often changed, but never crushed.”

Professor Carl-Henrik Heldin, chairman of the board of the Nobel Foundation, acknowledged the literary treasure at the outset of the ceremony.

“We send our warmest greetings to Alice Munro, who was unable to come to Stockholm. We are glad that Jenny Munro is here to receive the prize on behalf of her mother.”

Raised in the southwestern Ontario farming community of Wingham, Munro is only the 13th woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize in literature, and the first Canadian-based author to receive it. She is the 110th laureate in literature.

The prizes in physics, chemistry, medicine and economics were also awarded during Tuesday’s ceremony. The peace prize was presented at an earlier event.

The ceremony was to be followed by a lavish dinner at Stockholm City Hall with members of Sweden’s royal family as well as other dignitaries.

Munro has previously won the Man Booker International Prize for her entire body of work, as well as two Scotiabank Giller Prizes (for 1998’s The Love of a Good Woman and 2004’s Runaway ), three Governor General’s Literary Awards (for her 1968 debut Dance of the Happy Shades, 1978’s Who Do You Think You Are? and 1986’s The Progress of Love), the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, the inaugural Marian Engel Award and the American National Book Critics Circle Award.

Born in 1931 in the southwestern Ontario farming community of Wingham, Munro later moved to Victoria with Jim Munro, with whom she had three children. The couple eventually divorced and Munro moved back to Ontario. She eventually remarried Gerald Fremlin, who died earlier this year.

In a recent interview with The Canadian Press, Englund said that while there is usually some debate over the Nobel literature laureate, Munro has been an unusually popular choice.

Bookstores in the Swedish capital have been displaying Munro’s collections prominently since she was announced as this year’s laureate.

And according to a new study from BookNet Canada, the prize has resulted in a significant spike in sales of Munro’s works, both on home soil and internationally.

Munro has kept an extremely low profile, granting only a handful of interviews since she was announced as the winner.

Regarded as the world’s highest literary honour, the Nobel puts Munro in the company of great wordsmiths including George Bernard Shaw, Ernest Hemingway, Hermann Hesse, T.S. Eliot and Toni Morrison.

Canadian-born, American-raised writer Saul Bellow won in 1976.

Following are remarks made by Peter Englund, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy.


Following are remarks made by Peter Englund, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy.

It may seem like a paradox but it is actually quite logical. What we call world literature is generally rooted in the local and individual. In her writing, Alice Munro portrays with almost anthropological precision a recognizable, tranquil, everyday world with predictable, external accoutrements. Her equivalent of William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County is located in southwestern Ontario. This flat, Canadian, agricultural landscape, with its broad rivers and seemingly bland, small towns is where most of her short stories unfold. But the serenity and simplicity are deceptive in every way. The tranquility of the outerworld is always apparent in Alice Munro’s works, which then open the portals to an inner world, where the opposite is true. Munro writes about what are usually called ordinary people, but her intelligence, compassion and astonishing power of perception enable her to give their lives a remarkable dignity — indeed, redemption, since she shows how much of extraordinary can fit into that jam-packed emptiness called the ordinary . . .

Her short stories rely very little on external drama. They are an emotional chamber play, her world of silences and lies, waiting and longing. The biggest events occur inside of her characters. The greatest pain remains unexpressed. Like few others, she is interested in the silent and the silenced, the passive, those who choose not to choose, who live on the sidelines, the quitters and the losers. Barriers in gender and class are never far away in her works . . . .

In an uncompromising way, Alice Munro demonstrates that love rarely saves us or leads to reliable happiness and that few things can be as devastating to us as our own dreams. Sexuality is constantly present and its power is gripping. We’re often blind and even devastated. Even though genuine happiness may occur, sometimes accidentally, people rarely go unpunished for believing in romantic love. This might seem unbearably dark or even painful if her piercing lucidity was not mixed with something that — for want of a better word — I must call tenderness. If you read a lot of Alice Munro’s works carefully, sooner or later, in one of her short stories, you will come to face with yourself. This is an encounter that always leaves you shaking and often changed but never crushed . . . .

Over the years, numerous prominent scientists have received a well-deserved award in this auditorium for having solved some of the great enigmas of the universe or of our material existence. But you, dear Alice Munro, like few others, have come close to solving the greatest mystery of them all: the human heart and its caprices.

The Swedish Academy congratulates you. I now ask Jenny Munro to rise and, in her mother’s place, receive the 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature from the hand of His Majesty the King.

 
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