Young Alfred gravitated toward Chemistry, and became fascinated by the chemical nitroglycerin — a specialty that had its ups and downs. At one point, a nitro accident destroyed a work shed and killed one of Alfred’s brothers. Undeterred, he kept experimenting until he created a safer, powdered form of nitroglycerin that he patented as dynamite— “dyna” being the Greek word for power. The demand was instant, from both industrial and military users, and Alfred became one of the wealthiest men in the world. Fast-forward to his later years, when he began having heart problems, as well as second thoughts on the destructive legacy of his creation.
When one of the remaining Nobel brothers died (of natural causes), a newspaper mistakenly thought it was Alfred, and headlined his obituary “The Merchant of Death is Dead.” Not surprisingly, this hit him hard. He began working immediately, and secretly — not even informing his family — to set up a trust fund, effective after his death, to reward positive, life-giving human achievement in a wide range of fields, from chemistry and physics to literature.
All of which is a long way around to mention that this week’s Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to a lady who (a) richly deserves the honor, and (b) you might not have heard of, because she has mostly labored quietly at the keyboard in her little corner of the world for some 50 years, in isolation from the fame-fests of New York and Hollywood.
Her name is Alice Munro. She’s 82 years old, lost her long-time husband this past April at the age of 88, and is recovering from cancer and heart surgery herself. Her work consists entirely of short stories, another factor that works against her in the fame department. Literary reviewers tend to be a snobbish bunch, and they presume that anybody who doesn’t write novels is just a slacker and not to be taken seriously, because everybody knows there’s no real money in short stories.
I’m not a literary expert, but I’m very sure that some of Munro’s stories are things of such crystal-cut beauty and robust revelation that they will still be published and valued long after all of us who are now reading this statement have turned to dust.
What’s more, her writing has the gift of making you laugh at human foolishness with one sentence, and then ripping your heart completely out with another. Sometimes in the same story, which is my sole personal test as a reader for what separates a great writer from a competent one. But enough of my ranting. If you haven’t read Alice Munro before, here’s my suggestion for a quick starter kit: Go to this week’s online edition of New Yorker magazine and search for her story “The Bear Came Over the Mountain.” Not only is it one of her best, it was made into a movie in 2006 starring Julie Christie (the movie’s title is “Away from Her”) and nominated for a screenplay Oscar but lost to “No Country for Old Men,” which is no shabby piece of work to lose to. (Unto?)
As for books, her collections “Open Secrets” (1994), “Runaway” (2004), and “Too Much Happiness” (2009) are all gems that you can’t go wrong with.
That said: Warning. Warning. Warning.
Munro can sometimes be difficult to read. Not because she writes sloppily or uses big words, but because she doesn’t MINCE words and often tackles situations that are so real they make one uneasy. Plus, she takes risks where literary structure is concerned. “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” for instance, opens with a beautiful and joyous long paragraph in which a young woman, at the beach with her boyfriend, asks him on a whim, “Do you think it would be fun to get married?” and he accepts. But just when you’re settled back for an entertaining and uplifting story of young love, suddenly the couple — much older, apparently — are shopping in a supermarket when the man looks around and his wife has disappeared. A policeman finds her walking on a nearby road, and when he asks what she’s doing there, she says, “Looking for Boris and Natasha.” Which are the names of the couple’s beloved wolfhounds, who died decades before.
Back home, when the initial shock of the incident has worn off, she remarks to her husband, “I don’t think it’s anything to be worried about. I expect I’m just losing my mind.”
What happens after that is as beautiful as it is disturbing, and the story never goes where you’re quite expecting. Technically it’s about Alzheimer’s, but more about human nature and aging, and one that has stayed with me a long time after the last line has been read. Sometime soon, I hope to rent the movie.
Bottom line: Nobel Prize for Literature, 2013, a good choice and a life-affirming one. If Alfred (who was, incidentally, a poet) were still with us, I think he’d be proud.
Dale Short is a native of Walker County. His columns, books, photos and radio features are available on his website, carrolldaleshort.com. His weekly radio program “Music from Home” airs each Sunday at 6 pm on Oldies 101.5 and is archived afterward on his website.