Last week, recently retired Canadian author Alice Munro became the 13th woman in the history of the 110 year-old award to win the Nobel Prize for Literature for her impeccably crafted short stories.
Immediately, I was struck by the number of news reports announcing a win for “The Canadian Chekhov.” Here were some of the reasons given by other Canadian writers in an article in the Winnipeg Free Press.com for the moniker:
Munro has stayed in Canada throughout her career, and is beloved for writing about its culture, landscape and small-town characters in a way that makes them feel universal.
Quick note here — remember I’d noted a couple of rehearsals ago that Chekhov and Ibsen shared many parallels in their career paths? One very specific divergence was time spent working/writing abroad. Ibsen wrote many of his major plays (between 1862 and 1891) while living in Germany and then Italy serving a self-imposed exile from Norway whose theater community he felt did not adequately compensate his talent. Chekhov, by contrast and despite the benefit it might have been to his health, rarely traveled outside of Russia. From what I’ve read 1891 marks his first extended trip abroad to France and Italy. He returns to the south of France in 1897 for health reasons but does not make an extended stay or regular pilgrimages to warmer climes after that. While he moves from his country estate in Melikhovo to Yalta for his health in 1899, his tuberculosis worsens to a point where he is order by a doctor to go abroad. He finally makes that trip to Germany in 1904. It proves to be too late and he dies and returns home to Russia in a coffin.
[Munro’s] first collection of short stories, 1968’s “Dance of the Happy Shades,” won a Governor General’s Literary Award as did her ’78 collection “Who Do You Think You Are?”
Munro’s long list of honours also includes two Scotiabank Giller prizes and the Man Booker International Prize. Her fiction has also been regularly featured in the New Yorker, and her story “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” was adapted into Sarah Polley’s acclaimed film “Away From Her.”
“I think in some ways, the short story form that she uses almost belies her power,” said [David] Bergen. “She’s conquered the form, absolutely, and it’s immeasurable.
“A short story is incredibly difficult to write and also it takes up a lot of energy, and what has always amazed me about her is that when she puts 12 short stories into a collection, basically what she’s done is write 12 novels. And as a writer, you know that she’s taken up a lot of her power and focus and introspection to come to those stories.
“It must be draining, but she does it beautifully.”
[Joan] Barfoot recalled reading Munro’s “Lives of Girls and Women” when she was young and recognizing the spirit of the “rocky-souled” characters and geography.
“Her work does the whole world. It’s not Clinton-Wingham, or little places in B.C. It’s everywhere,” she said.
“She has a way of writing sentences that take a long time to read a short story, because you have to stop every other sentence and say, ‘Ah’ to yourself. She writes very capacious short stories.
“I’ve written several novels that could fit nicely into one of her short stories, probably. They are impeccable.”
[Wayson] Choy said he was first introduced to Munro in the ’60s at the creative writing school at the University of British Columbia and “could tell that this was only the beginning.”
“I just had that feeling. You read one story of hers and you think you’ve read a novel,” he said.
“The characters become one complete and collected community, and that’s the community of neighbours and people we know.
“She truly is our Chekhov.”
If you’ve never read any of Munro’s work, some stories to start with include “Lives of Women and Girls” (1971), “The Love of a Good Woman” (1998), and “Dimension” (2006).
On a sadder note, another writer, this one who was a Professor of English and the Blackburn Writer in Residence at Duke (brought to the university through the suggestion of Theater Studies’ own Professor Michael Malone) and who unexpectedly this weekend at the age of 62.
Oscar Hijuelos, the first Latino author to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction (for his 1989 novel The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love), was remembered in today’s The New York Times, which quoted Michiko Kakutani’s review of that award-winning novel with this passage:
Indeed, Oscar Hijuelos’s remarkable new novel is another kind of American story — an immigrant story of lost opportunities and squandered hopes. While it dwells in bawdy detail on Cesar’s sexual escapades, while it portrays the musical world of the ’50s in bright, primary colors, the novel is essentially elegiac in tone — a Chekhovian lament for a life of missed connections and misplaced dreams.
Kakutani is a critic who continues to see Chekhov in Hijuelos’ work, writing in a 2002 review of his A Simple Habana Melody.
Like so many of Oscar Hijuelos’s lovelorn, melancholy people, Israel Levis, the hero of ”A Simple Habana Melody (From When the World Was Good),” is a Chekhovian character, haunted by missed connections and unfulfilled dreams. He also emerges as a spiritual cousin of the two brothers in the author’s Pulitzer-Prize winning 1989 novel, ”The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love”: like Nestor Castillo, he is a shy, introspective man, holding a torch for a woman from his long-ago past; like Cesar Castillo, he eventually misplaces his love of music and his love of pleasure, allowing regrets to define his life.
Dean Patton sent out a note marking Professor Hijuelos‘ passing that notes the flags in front of the Allen Building will fly at half mast this next week in his honor. Like Chekhov he is gone much too soon. Like Chekhov we are blessed with a treasure trove of his work that will live on and on.