Chris Young/Canadian Press
(Douglas Kneale is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and professor of English at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont.)
Whether I single-handedly helped Alice Munro come to the attention of the Nobel Prize committee, I may never know.
But there is something I do know, and will at long last confess: I have had a crush on Alice Munro ever since she gave a reading in our second-year Canadian literature class at the University of Western Ontario in 1974.
Canada’s first female Nobel laureate in literature has always been, to this man, the country’s most striking writer — and in more ways than one.
Ever since my first and only meeting with her, I have in my imagination applied to her what Jerry Storey, in Munro’s novel Lives of Girls and Women, says to Del Jordan: "Yo' is shore a handsome figger of a woman."
I was totally smitten that day when she came to our class to read from her first book Dance of the Happy Shades. (I still have the autographed copy in my possession: "For Doug. Best Wishes, Alice Munro.")
She sat at the front of the stage in Western’s Middlesex Theatre and said she was going to read her short story "Postcard" the way she would have written it if she were writing it today. A mysterious beginning — what did she mean?
We all followed along in our copies as she read, and every word she spoke was the same as on the page, verbatim.
That is, until she got to the final paragraph — and then she stopped. She didn’t read the last paragraph because, she said, "A good short story should say everything it has to say before the final paragraph."
Teaching Munro’s work at university for the past 30 years, I have often begun with that statement as a way into thinking about how and what literature generally "has to say."
In "Postcard," the final paragraph — the one that Munro did not read — the narrator Helen Louise, in a brief narrative coda, reaches out to the lover who has, inevitably, abandoned her.
Pure Canadian Gothic
It is pure Canadian Gothic: "the fat fatuous" lover (as Hugh Garner described him in his foreword to the first edition of Munro’s book), the classic jilted female, the paralyzed and dying mother upstairs, the small-town self-interestedness, the pathetic and rhetorically self-conscious apostrophe at the end.
Back in December 1974, for my essay assignment on Munro, I drove north out of London, Ont., to her hometown of Wingham, took black-and-white pictures on my Voigtlander and submitted a photo album containing my own shades of Jubilee country, with surrounding interpretation of Munro’s text. I ended up getting the highest mark in English 138 that year.
Ages later, when I had become chair of English at Western, I nominated Alice Munro for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Nothing came of it.
Then this past year, as dean of humanities at Brock University, I submitted a fresh nomination.
This time I received a formal reply from Peter Englund, permanent secretary of the Nobelkommitté, Svenska Akademiens: "The Swedish Academy gratefully acknowledges the receipt of your nomination for the current year’s Nobel Prize in Literature."
And now she’s won it.
Unless I hear of another nominator, I am going to take solo credit for Munro’s win. At the same time, I am going to say publicly what I have felt privately ever since she walked into my imagination, and my CanLit class, almost 40 years ago.
To Alice Munro, at 82, in all her glory as Canada’s first female Nobel literature laureate, from this old young man in the 22nd row: "Yo' is shore a handsome figger of a woman."