STOCKHOLM — If there were a literary award bigger than the Nobel Prize, Alice Munro would probably win that, too.
“Among writers, her name is spoken in hushed tones,” fellow Canadian author Margaret Atwood once wrote. “She’s the kind of writer about whom it is often said – no matter how well known she becomes – that she ought to be better known.”
Munro, 82, was awarded literature’s highest honor Thursday, saluted by the Nobel committee as a thorough but forgiving chronicler of the human spirit, and her selection marks a number of breakthroughs.
She is the first winner of the $1.2 million prize to be fully identified with Canada. Saul Bellow won in 1976, but though he was born in Canada, he moved to the U.S. as a boy and is more closely associated with Chicago.
Munro is also the rare author to win for short stories.
“When I began writing there was a very small community of Canadian writers and little attention was paid by the world. Now Canadian writers are read, admired and respected around the globe,” Munro said in a statement issued by her publisher, Alfred A. Knopf. She said she hopes the Nobel “fosters further interest in all Canadian writers” and “brings further recognition to the short story form.”
Her books have sold more than 1 million copies in the U.S. alone. She has long been an international ambassador for the short story, proof that the narrative arc and depth of characterization expected from a novel can be realized in just 30 to 40 pages.
Critics and peers have praised her in every way a writer can be praised: the precision of her language; the perfection of detail; the surprise and logic of her storytelling; the graceful, seamless shifts of moods; the intimacy with every shade of human behavior.
In 2010, News book reviewer Karen Brady wrote of Munro’s “Too Much Happiness,” that the author “astonishes, once again. ... Here we have 10 perfectly honed pieces, each a study of the human psyche in hard-to-imagine circumstances that Munro presents, seemingly effortlessly, in an economy of words and sentences.”
In February 2005, Munro’s short story collection, “Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage: Stories” was the Buffalo News Book Club selection. In the intro to the piece, News’ staff reviewer Barbara Sullivan wrote that “Munro’s 10th collection showcases the Canadian author’s deft touch at creating characters with wild and craggy internal landscapes. Whether teenage girls, college students, housekeepers or aging philanderers, the character’s in ‘Hateship’ come to vivid life even in the short sketches required by the genre.
“Munro’s plots, too, are noteworthy, in that they are always original, always full of unexpected action, always apt to linger long after the last page is turned.”
Munro’s stories are usually set in Ontario, her home province. (She was born in Wingham, west of Toronto.) Among her best-known is “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” about a woman who begins losing her memory and agrees with her husband that she should be put in a nursing home. Canadian actress-director Sarah Polley adapted the story into the 2006 film “Away from Her,” starring Julie Christie.
The narrative begins in a relatively tender, traditional mood. But we soon learn that the husband has been unfaithful in the past and didn’t always regret it – “What he felt was mainly a gigantic increase in well-being.”
The wife, meanwhile, has fallen for a man at the nursing home.
In the story “Dimensions,” Munro introduces a chambermaid named Doree, who needs to take three buses for a visit to a “facility” outside Clinton, Ont. Munro explains that Doree is happy in her work, that she has been told she is “young and decent looking” and that her picture was once in the newspaper, in the days when her spiked blonde hair was wavy and brown.
“Dimensions” begins in close-up, then steadily pulls back.
With every page, the story darkens, and terrifies. The “facility” is an institution where Doree’s husband is held. Doree’s picture was in the paper because her husband murdered their children.
“In all the time since what had happened, any thought of the children had been something to get rid of, pull out immediately like a knife in the throat,” Munro writes.
Munro won a National Book Critics Circle prize in 1998 for “The Love of a Good Woman” and was a finalist in 2001 for “Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage.” She is also a three-time winner of the Governor General’s prize, Canada’s highest literary honor.
Any further awards are likely to honorary.
She told Canada’s National Post in June that she was “probably not going to write anymore.”
Her most recent collection, “Dear Life,” came out in 2012.