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Alice Munro, Nobel Prize-winning short-story ‘master,’ dies at 92

By Emily Langer Washington Post

Alice Munro, a towering woman of letters for the past half-century whose works of short fiction illuminated the emotional terrain of seemingly ordinary lives, and who was honored at the end of her career with the Nobel Prize in literature, died May 13 at her home in Port Hope, Ontario. She was 92.

The Canadian writer’s death was announced by her publisher, Penguin Random House Canada. The cause was not immediately available. Mrs. Munro had in recent years endured numerous health problems, including heart ailments and cancer, and in 2013 she said publicly that she was “probably not going to write any more.”

Four months later - and after perennial rumors that she might be next in line for the award - she won the Nobel Prize. The announcement described her as a “master of the contemporary short story,” an official pronouncement of what critics and readers around the world had been saying for years.

Sherry Linkon, an English professor at Georgetown University, said Mrs. Munro helped remodel and revitalize the short-story form. “Most of us learn as children that a story has a beginning, a middle and an end,” she said. Mrs. Munro’s stories “help us to understand that the beginning of the story might have been decades ago, and the end of the story might be decades hence, and, really, that’s how life works.”

Brought up to be a farmer’s wife, Mrs. Munro said she “never intended to be a short-story writer” and that she turned to the form because the demands of motherhood did not permit her to write longer works.

“In 20 years, I’ve never had a day when I didn’t have to think about someone else’s needs,” she once said. “And this means the writing has to be fitted around it.”

Mrs. Munro populated her stories with regular people grinding along in their lives in small towns, in suburbs, on farms and, often, on the margins of society. In short order - the only order permitted by short stories - readers discover that the characters are burdened by discontent, secrets and tragedy. Mrs. Munro’s writing was understated, yet unsparing.

In “Before the Change,” first published in the New Yorker in 1998, the protagonist discovers that her father is an illegal abortionist. The story “Dimension,” printed in the same magazine in 2006, revolves around Doree, a Comfort Inn chambermaid whose husband has murdered their three children.

“None of the people she worked with knew what had happened. Or, if they did, they didn’t let on,” Mrs. Munro wrote in the third paragraph, before revealing to readers what, exactly, had gone on with Doree.

“Her picture had been in the paper,” Mrs. Munro continued, describing the maid, “they’d used the photo he took of her with all three kids, the new baby, Dimitri, in her arms, and Barbara Ann and Sasha on either side, looking on. Her hair had been long and wavy and brown then, natural in curl and color, as he liked it, and her face bashful and soft - a reflection less of the way she was than of the way he wanted to see her.”

Mrs. Munro once told the New York Times that her stories hinged on “a kind of primordial moment, an awful revelation, that you can’t do anything about,” and she often held back before unveiling it.

The American short-story writer Cynthia Ozick called Mrs. Munro “our Chekhov,” referring to the turn-of-the-20th-century Russian author regarded as a short-story maestro. Many of her collections - the most recent of which included “The View from Castle Rock” (2006), “Too Much Happiness” (2009) and “Dear Life” (2012) - were considered masterpieces of the form.

She was especially known for her exposition of female characters. She titled one of her books “Lives of Girls and Women” (1971).

“Her stories made visible the ways that women’s lives are every bit as important, complex and contested as men’s are,” Linkon said. “And dark … You get a sense of the ways that people can be cruel to each other and cruel to themselves.”

Mrs. Munro had a particular interest in what she called “a new kind of old woman, women who grew up under one set of rules and then found they could live with another.”

She might have been describing herself.

Alice Ann Laidlaw was born July 10, 1931, in Wingham, Ontario. Many of her stories were set in the bleak environs of rural Canada, a world similar to the one where she spent much of her life.

Her father, a fox breeder and later a foundry worker, wrote a novel about an Ontario pioneer family, and her mother was a teacher.

“We lived outside the whole social structure because we didn’t live in the town and we didn’t live in the country,” Mrs. Munro once told an interviewer. “We lived in this kind of little ghetto where all the bootleggers and prostitutes and hangers-on lived. Those were the people I knew. It was a community of outcasts. I had that feeling about myself.”

Her mother developed Parkinson’s disease when Mrs. Munro was 12, leaving the girl to become, in a sense, the woman of the house.

“It’s an incurable, slowly deteriorating illness which probably gave me a great sense of fatality. Of things not going well,” she said. “But I wouldn’t say I was unhappy. I didn’t belong to any nice middle class, so I got to know more types of kids. It didn’t seem bleak to me at the time. It seemed full of interest.”

She received a scholarship to attend the University of Western Ontario, where she started out studying journalism - a “coverup,” she said, for her desire to be a writer. Later in college, she studied English and published her first short story. To scrape by, the Ottawa Citizen reported, she picked tobacco and sold pints of her blood.

“My life has been tremendously lucky,” Mrs. Munro told the Los Angeles Times. “If I hadn’t gotten that scholarship to university, I would have dried up in Wingham. You can’t be alone too long with your hopes and ambitions. I would have become a weird spinster.”

In 1951, she married a fellow student, Jim Munro, and moved with him to Victoria, British Columbia, and opened a bookstore. They had three daughters, Sheila, Andrea and Jenny; another died shortly after birth.

Mrs. Munro’s first book, “Dance of the Happy Shades,” was published in 1968 and received the first of her three Governor General’s Literary Awards, one of Canada’s most prestigious artistic honors.

And yet, “there was huge social disapproval for women who listened to the news on the radio, much less would-be writers,” Mrs. Munro said. “I was trying to write all the time. I liked keeping house and being a mother, but it was the expectation that a woman should spend her free time going to coffee klatches and talking about nothing that bothered me.”

In the early 1970s, the Munros divorced. Several years later, she married Gerald Fremlin, an old college classmate.

Mrs. Munro continued writing books, including the collection “Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You” (1974). Her first appearance in the New Yorker came in 1977 with “Royal Beatings,” a story infused with violence about the troubled relationship between a girl and her father and stepmother.

Over the years, the New Yorker published many more of Mrs. Munro’s pieces and helped bring her to wide renown in the United States. Three of the stories - most recently “What Is Remembered” (2001) - received National Magazine awards for fiction.

Her books “Who Do You Think You Are?” (1978), “The Progress of Love” (1986), “Friend of My Youth” (1990), “The Love of a Good Woman” (1998) and “Runaway” (2004) were decorated with literary honors in Canada, and Mrs. Munro received the prestigious Man Booker International Prize in 2009.

The acclaimed 2006 film “Away From Her,” starring Julie Christie and Gordon Pinsent, was based on Mrs. Munro’s story “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” about an elderly woman afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease and her husband’s efforts to reconcile himself to the new attachment she forms at her nursing home, and to his own past.

Fremlin, Mrs. Munro’s husband, died in 2013. A complete list of survivors was not immediately available. Sheila Munro wrote “Lives of Mothers and Daughters: Growing Up With Alice Munro” (2001), a book that transcended the genres of biography and memoir.

Mrs. Munro expressed concern that, through her fiction, she had been misunderstood. “People say I write depressing or pessimistic stories,” she told the New York Times, “and I know that in my own life I’m not a pessimistic person … you should hear me as a mother, the cheerful, trite advice I give.”

But she acknowledged the fundamental impossibility of knowing oneself.

“Everybody’s doing their own novel of their own lives,” she said. “The novel changes - at first we have a romance, a very satisfying novel that has a rather simple technique, and then we grow out of that and we end up with a very discontinuous, discordant, very contemporary kind of novel. I think that what happens to a lot of us in middle age is that we can’t really hang on to our fiction any more.”