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Alice Munro, master of the short story, at 90

Stefan Dege
July 9, 2021

The acclaimed Canadian author of "Dear Life" turns 90 on July 10. Alice Munro was the first to win the Nobel Prize as a pure short story writer.

Alice Munro, woman smiles into cameras
Alice MunroImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Derek Shapman

Dear Life was the title Munro gave to her 2012 collection of short stories — possibly her last. Some of the stories are inspired by the author's own life. If the other stories also explore the destinies of women, it never feels as if feminism were the main issue.

Alice Munro has published 14 original short-story collections and several short-story compilations. With this body of work, she became the first Canadian woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2013. She was too frail to travel to Stockholm to collect the award herself, but sent a touching speech by video instead.

Building on a simple story

Munro's stories combine linguistic and emotional density. They typically revolve around a series of recurring themes. They're about women in Canada, mothers and daughters, who grow up, fall in love, and experience the beautiful and tragic sides of life.

"What makes Munro's growth as an artist so crisply and breathtakingly visible […] is precisely the familiarity of her materials. Look what she can do with nothing but her own small story; the more she returns to it, the more she finds," wrote the US author Jonathan Franzen about her a decade before she won the Nobel Prize.

His impassionate piece in the New York Times listed reasons why he felt "her excellence so dismayingly exceeds her fame."

A whole life on a single page

"Munro writes about unfulfilled desires that are carried through one's life, and how people deal with them. It's the small details that make her so great," said Hans-Jürgen Balmes, formerly from the publisher S. Fischer, which distributes Munro's books in Germany.

"She masters the art of capturing the entire life of a human being on a single page," literary critic Sigrid Löffler told DW. "She fills her stories, which are often no longer than 20 to 30 pages, with more life than many 700-page works."

Her short stories are packed with emotion, the language highly polished. A Munro story often has an unexpected beginning, and the narrative develops chronologically forwards or backwards.

Alice Munro, book cover of 'Dear Life'
"Dear Life" might be Munro's last collection of short storiesImage: Getty Images/AFP

Her books have long been best-sellers in Canada and the UK, and she became extremely popular in Germany after winning the Nobel Prize.

Adding value to the short story

Munro began writing relatively late. She first concentrated on raising her three children before she devoted herself to her writing by the end of the 1960s, around the age of 40.

The author long wrestled with the notion that short stories are generally considered preparation work for a novel, seen as a minor genre by literary critics. "How I tortured myself trying to write a novel! Until I one day realized that short stories was the most appropriate format for me," she once told Die Zeit in a rare interview.

As a specialist of the short story, even her book Lives of Girls and Women, told through one single character, was rather considered a short story cycle and not a novel.

She obtained the Man Booker International Prize in 2009 for her lifetime body of work, which includes The Love of a Good Woman (1998) and Runaway (2004). She has also been awarded several other prizes and honors as well, topped by the Nobel Prize in 2013.

Retirement plans — or not

On July 10, the Canadian author turns 90. Although she had announced her retirement plans the year she received her Nobel Prize, she admitted afterwards that ideas still keep coming for new stories.

She had also already hinted that she wanted to stop writing in 2006: "I don't think I can write any more. Two or three years from now, I will be too old, I will be too tired," she had told The Guardian.

Six years later came the critically acclaimed collection Dear Life. As a sign she might be serious about retirement this time, though, she added a coda to the last four stories: "I believe they are the first and last — and the closest — things I have to say about my own life."

This article, translated from German, has been updated.