Alice Munro awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 2013

The Canadian "writer's writer" hailed by the committee as a "master of the contemporary short story".

The "Canadian Chekhov", Alice Munro, has been awarded the 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature. The Swedish Academy called the author of 14 story collections, numerous essays and compilations a "master of the contemporary short story", before announcing the eight million kroner (£770,000) prize. Munro is the 13th woman to be presented with the award and the 1st Canadian - apart from Saul Bellow, who lived most of his life in the US. She also won the Man International Prize - not to be confused with the Man Booker Prize, despite newly overlapping criteria - for "continued creativity, development and overall contribution to fiction on the world stage" in 2009.

It has not yet been confirmed whether Munro has received the news. Winners are traditionally notified by phone in the hour before the announcement (a formal presentation occurs - where possible - some time after), but the Academy were unable to locate her so left a phone message instead.

Munro has long been considered a "writer's writer". Her stories deal with small-town life in and around the Great Lakes, and themes of gender, memory and missed opportunities, though they are best described as "long short stories" given that they often exceed the traditional structure of the short story both in narrative time (her stories are frequently non-linear) and word count. Not everyone is a fan. Munro is repeatedly praised for glorifying "decent, ordinary lives", but as Christian Lorentzen was keen to stress in the LRB: "Ordinary people turn out to live in a rural corner of Ontario between Toronto and Lake Huron, and to be white, Christian, prudish and dangling on a class rung somewhere between genteel poverty and middle-class comfort."

Lorentzen may need to go into hiding. The NS's lead fiction critic, Leo Robson, sees the arrangement of her stories as sometimes problematic, but had the following to say about her style: "Munro, though her one-time under-appreciation has now been over-corrected, is an astute and lavishly confident writer, her clean, well-shaped sentences delivering a near-constant supply of stinging insight, together with moments of wonderful soft-fingered grace. Her economy with words can be dazzling: 'you couldn't call it rape, she too was determined'".

Dear Life, Munro's most recent collection, closes with four brief sketches she describes as "the first and last – and the closest – things I have to say about my own life." The 82-year old Munro resides on a farm close to Clinton, Ontario, where she and her husband Gerald Fremlin lived until Fremlin's death in April this year.

Shortly after, Munro announced that Dear Life would be her final collection and that she had retired from the writing life.

Alice Munro at a readingin London in 2009. Photograph: Getty Images.

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

Donmar Warehouse
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Limehouse raises the question of when party loyalty becomes political irresponsibility

Labour's “Gang of Four” are brought to life brilliantly at the Donmar Warehouse.

A star of the Labour Party right wing, exiled from the shadow cabinet for deviating from the dominant orthodoxy, rants about how a decent but weak Labour leader, with an election-losing anti-European, anti-nuclear manifesto, risks letting the prime minister get away with whatever she wants.

Laughter shows that the audience gets what the dramatist Steve Waters is up to. Limehouse takes place on 25 January 1981, when a gentle veteran, Michael Foot, seems to be leading Labour to such sure oblivion at the next election that Dr David Owen has summoned his fellow moderates Shirley Williams, Bill Rodgers and (just back from a stint running Europe) Roy Jenkins to Sunday lunch in his kitchen in east London. This meeting led the “Gang of Four”, as they became known, to make a statement of estrangement from Labour that heralded the creation of the Social Democratic Party.

Waters was inspired by a New Statesman interview in which Rodgers wondered if the left-right divide under Jeremy Corbyn might justify a similar evacuation of the pragmatists now. The debates that the play stages – fidelity to party and national tribes against a fear of political and historical irrelevance – feel hotly topical.

Williams, considering an offer to abandon Labour and teach at Harvard, faced then the dilemma of an Ed Balls or Tristram Hunt now. And Labour members today who fantasise about a new progressive grouping might reflect that, while the SDP briefly seemed a plausible alternative to Thatcherism (winning 7.8 million votes at the 1983 election), the middle-class revolution was squeezed externally by two-party domination and internally by disputes over leadership and direction.

But, for all the parallel relevance, the success of Limehouse ultimately depends on the convincing re-creation of an era and its people. Enjoyable period details include the luxury macaroni cheese to a recipe by Delia Smith that Debbie Owen, Delia’s literary agent, chops and fries on stage to fuel her husband’s discussions with his three wary comrades. Waters also skilfully uses the mechanics of a pre-digital world – having to go out for newspapers, going upstairs to answer a phone – to get one character out of the way to allow others to talk about them.

As a good playwright should, Waters votes for each character in turn. Owen, though teased for vanity and temper, is allowed a long speech that honours his status as one of the most memorable orators in modern British politics. Tom Goodman-Hill samples Owen’s confident baritone without going the whole Rory Bremner.

Playing Jenkins, a man celebrated for both a speech defect and rococo cadences, Roger Allam has no choice but to deliver the voice perfectly, which he does. Waters carefully gives the character an early riff about the “crepuscular greyness” of Brussels, allowing Allam to establish the w-sounds and extravagant adjectives. Actor and playwright also challenge the assumption that for Jenkins both to love fine wine and to advocate social justice was inevitably a contradiction.

Debra Gillett refreshingly avoids the scattiness that caricaturists attribute to Williams, stressing instead her large brain and deep soul, in a portrayal that increases the sense of shame that the Tories should lead Labour 2-0 in the score of female prime ministers. As Rodgers (in Beatles terms, the Ringo of the confab four), Paul Chahidi touchingly suggests a politician who knows that he will always be a bag-man but still agonises over whose luggage to carry.

Unfolding over 100 minutes, Polly Findlay’s production has a lovely rhythm, staging the delayed entrances of Jenkins and Williams for maximum impact. Biodramas about the living or recently dead can be hobbled by a need to negotiate objections of tact or fact. Politicians, however, often purchase even the rudest cartoons of themselves for the loo wall, and the real Owen, Williams and Rodgers laughed warmly during, and strongly applauded after, the first night.

At an impromptu press conference afterwards, a genial and generous Owen astutely observed that what at the time was “a very happy day in our house” has been dramatised as tragicomedy. But, regardless of whether Marx was right about history repeating itself the second time as farce, the possibility that farce is being repeated in Labour Party history has encouraged a compelling play that is sublimely enjoyable but also deeply serious – on the question of when loyalty to party can become disloyalty to political responsibility.

“Limehouse” runs until 15 April

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution