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.

Show Hide image

In the name of the father: Patricia Lockwood on sex, centaurs and Catholicism

The author of the viral poem “Rape Joke” talks about growing up with her gun-toting Catholic “priestdaddy”.

“Oh my fricking God. It’s a centaur.” The American poet Patricia Lockwood and I are in the lobby of a Whitehall hotel and she is finding the quantity of equine art distracting. I have already been skipped along a corridor to examine the bizarrely detailed rendering of a horse’s anus in a Napoleonic painting (“They made a point of doing him straight up the butt”) that turns out to be a copy of Théodore Géricault’s Charging Chasseur. Now a statue on the mantelpiece has caught her eye, prompting a reverie on what she saw at the British Museum a couple of days ago: “A wonderful statue of a man kneeing a centaur in the balls. It’s the most important thing to me there. It’s so beautiful.”

The confluence of violence, sex, orifices, animals and mythology runs throughout Lockwood’s work in wild and witty poems such as “The Whole World Gets Together and Gangbangs a Deer” (inspired by the realisation that “Bambi is a puberty movie”) and “Revealing Nature Photographs” (pastoral verse meets porn spam) – and it also colours her new book, Priestdaddy, a deeply idiosyncratic family memoir in which copulation is a go-to metaphor. Her dad’s frenzied, tuneless playing raises the prospect that he might be “having sex with the guitar”; during Lockwood’s teenage depression, she writes, the only thing she was having sex with “was the intolerable sadness of the human condition, which sucked so much in bed”.

Lockwood (pictured at her First Holy Communion) has dark, cropped hair and elfin features, pearly white nails and sleeping cats on her knees (an effect achieved with decorated tights – “Let this be for the stocking boys,” she says). Her voice is deadpan, frequently dipping into laughter without losing her poise. She is one day off her 35th birthday and has been married since she was 21. Her father, Greg, is a priest and, along with her four siblings in a succession of rectories across the Midwest, she was raised a Catholic – thus ensuring, she says, the permanent sexual warping of her mind.

“We Catholics become perverts because of the way sex is discussed in strictly negative terms. I saw pictures of aborted foetuses before I knew what basic anatomy was.”

As a devout teenager, she attended a youth group called God’s Gang and was given a virginity pledge in the form of a business card. The group leaders had a “very hip and young” approach: “We’re going to tell you every single thing you can do, in explicit terms, and just be like, ‘But don’t do it.’”

The ribald humour of her writing – Lockwood is renowned on Twitter for her surreal “sexts” – often contains a darkness. The poem that made her name, “Rape Joke”, takes her experience of being raped at 19 by a boyfriend and metes it out in discrete, increasingly devastating soundbites and images. It was posted online in 2013 and went viral, leading to a publishing deal for her collection Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals.

After the rape, Lockwood was “absolutely insane” for about five years, but it’s not as if she was entirely happy before: at 16, she had attempted suicide by taking a hundred Tylenol tablets. Her memoir recounts, too, being embedded in a church mired in scandal, a claustrophobic situation that hit home when a priest close to her was arrested for having sex with a 14-year-old boy. Such events led to Lockwood abandoning her faith and escaping with Jason, her future husband, whom she met on an online poetry messageboard.

When Patricia was 30, she and Jason ran out of money and moved back to the rectory, allowing her to observe her parents afresh. The resulting portraits in Priestdaddy are larger than life: her mother, Karen, is a hyperactive generator of mad puns and proverbs; her ex-navy father is a self-mythologising, right-wing whirlwind of talk radio, guns and Tom Clancy novels. Married Catholic priests are rare but Greg, previously a Lutheran minister, got the pope’s permission to convert. Usually to be found in his underwear, he wants for no new expensive gadget or guitar, though the family is expected to make sacrifices. In 2001, two weeks before Patricia – who learned to read at three and was writing poetry at seven – was supposed to leave for college, he told her that they couldn’t afford it. He later “changed the story in his mind so that I had said I don’t need to go”.

“Growing up in my household,” she says, “all of these far-right, retrograde ideas of gender roles and the man as patriarch existed from the very beginning. But I didn’t think of my house as a bellwether of what was going to happen.” It came as no surprise to her that Greg and many like him voted for Trump. When she reported on a Trump rally in February 2016, she “moved like a ghost through the crowd. They saw me as one of their own.”

Anger at her father’s selfishness “would be useless”, and Lockwood respects his sense of vocation, which she feels she has inherited. She has believed in her own genius ever since she was writing “mermaids-having-sex-with-Jesus poems” at the age of 19. Jason is her support staff, licking her envelopes and buying her clothes. His offering the previous day was a T-shirt emblazoned with Justin Bieber’s face: it revealed how much she resembles the singer – “a full 90 per cent overlap” – and is definitely not ironic.

“Do you think we only got irony after Christ was crucified?” she wonders, and then spots two black-clad priests in dog collars who have sat down across the room from us. “Ooh,” she exclaims, awed and delighted, and then, in a whisper, ever confident in her powers of creation: “I manifested them.”

“Priestdaddy: A Memoir” is published by Allen Lane. “Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals” is published by Penguin

Tom Gatti is Culture Editor of the New Statesman. He previously edited the Saturday Review section of the Times, and can be found on Twitter as @tom_gatti.

 

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

0800 7318496