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Essential, Elemental Alice

If anyone can lay claim to being the heart of Canada's national literature, it's our Nobel laureate.

By Michael LaPointe 11 Oct 2013 | TheTyee.ca

Michael LaPointe is a writer and literary journalist in Vancouver. He contributes to the Times Literary Supplement.

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Alice Munro, new Nobel laureate and reigning comeback to CanLit's detractors.

Alice Munro is Canada's first recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature. The 82-year-old short story author was awakened with the news at 4 a.m. in Victoria, B.C. yesterday, where she is visiting her daughter. "It just seems impossible," she told the CBC. "It seems just so splendid a thing to happen, I can't describe it, it's more than I can say." Words have rarely failed Munro.

The selection signals a welcome change from how the Nobel has been awarded in recent years. The jury has lately bestowed the prize less for writers' aesthetic qualities than for their extra-literary significance. The last laureate, Mo Yan, was commended in the award ceremony speech as "a poet who tears down stereotypical propaganda posters, elevating the individual from an anonymous human mass" -- a clear rebuke of Chinese Communist Party ideology. Although the jury has only decorated very fine and distinguished writers, the award's politicization has resulted in exasperating oversights and widespread distrust of the jury.

But though her work, being serious, naturally contains political qualities, Munro is a pure literary artist. Her stories are never didactic, never conveniently reduced. If she tears down any "stereotypical propaganda," it is the stereotyping of the everyday, the propaganda of cliché. The Nobel jury is surely right to cite Munro's "fantastic portrayal of human beings," for her characters thwart each story's easy resolution, elevating her work to an art that will endure even when her context has long faded. Munro's personalities are always elusive, always out ahead of us, always breaking through a political frame.

Queen of the canon

In August, The Tyee reprinted an essay I wrote for the Literary Review of Canada, titled "What's Happened to CanLit?" Perhaps a more apt title would have been "What's Happened to Teaching CanLit?" or closer still, "What Happens to Someone Who Thinks about How to Teach CanLit?" The essay, which I call "an essay of ambiguity," maps the dilemma facing Canadian educators: whether to include Canadian authors in the curriculum and how to do so sensitively. Lacking a coherent, historical canon from which to draw, which authors do we select? What are the political, cultural and aesthetic consequences of those selections?

Investigating these questions only caused them to multiply. It seemed almost impossible to navigate: if we artificially construct a canon for Canadian literature, we are necessarily excluding many regions, but if we resolve upon regionalism, we might be preventing a dialectic encounter with difference. Many who reacted negatively to the essay seem to have thought that I was attacking Canadian literature, or calling it second-rate. This is certainly not the case. But it is nevertheless true that many do think Canadian writers are ersatz, provincial or insufficient. Said one educator in the essay, with total self-assurance, "Canada has not produced a Shakespeare or an Austen or a Mark Twain."

But one solution to the dilemma of whom to teach did somewhat facetiously tempt me: "Just read Alice Munro. Read Alice Munro and be done with all these questions." For if anyone can lay claim to being the heart of our national literature, it is our Nobel laureate. She is concretely Canadian, yet internationally accessible. She is historical, but not anachronistic. She has a fine brush for the small details, and a broad one for the major questions. As I wrote in a review for the Times Literary Supplement of her latest, and possibly last collection, Dear Life, "The stories of Alice Munro are the stuff of life -- of family, history, loss and love." It is rare that an author feels so essential, so elemental: Shakespeare, Austen and Twain are good examples. Munro has few peers, living or dead.

Precisely by escaping political reduction, Munro is the central Canadian author. The moral counter-balance achieved in her greatest stories reflects the ambiguity that, as I came to recognize, inevitably overcomes anyone grappling with this country's major questions. Seeking a solution in this nation is quixotic; only ambiguity abides. To know the poetry of this sensation, read the stories of Alice Munro.


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