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Brescia’s Monika Lee on Alice Munro: Ontario Gothic wins Nobel gold

- October 11th, 2013

monika lee

Dr. Monika Lee, Department of English, Brescia University College, an undated photograph courtesy of brescia.uwo.ca 

A good friend to JBNBlog over many years & ace scholar & teacher is Brescia College’s Monika Lee. Like so many of us,  Monika was inspired by Alice Munro’s Nobel Prize in Literature . . . like not so many of us (JBNBlog for one) she was inspired to speak truth with eloquence about the prize & what it means . . . thanks, Monika, for generously agreeing to share your words here. It is a joy to see how you carry on the work of your parents (& mine . . . four great friends over many decades) in explaining Canada’s greatness to your fellow Canadians.

Alice Munro and Canadian Literature on the World Stage

In the last two decades, Canadian literature has become more than simply Canadian literature.    Ours has become a world-class literature with an international  readership. This is what I tell my students at Brescia University College in London, Southwestern Ontario.  I also tell them that Alice Munro is probably the greatest writer of the short story anywhere in the world today.  Now they may not look quite so sceptical.  Not that there weren’t world-class writers in Canada before the 1990s.  There undoubtedly were, Gabrielle Roy, Anne Hébert, Margaret Atwood, Leonard Cohen, Robertson Davies, Alice Munro herself, and others less famous but not necessarily less accomplished.  However, the quality, profusion, richness and breadth of Canadian writing have made a quantum leap in the twenty-first century, and the global readership has expanded.  Munro, Atwood, and Cohen themselves have made just such a leap since the millennium.

Canada’s first Nobel Laureate (sorry, Saul Bellow, I love your writing, but I don’t think you’re Canada’s) is none other than Alice Munro, the private, reserved and prolific fiction writer whose home in Southwestern Ontario connects her with a local literary tradition known as Ontario Gothic in which the very banal pseudo-Protestantism and respectability of Southwestern Ontario  shroud dark secrets and frightening possibilities.  The grand themes of literature are all there, especially heartbreak, betrayal, and love.  How else could such a regional focus achieve the widespread readership Munro enjoys around the world today?  Munro has appropriately been dubbed “the Canadian Chekhov”, and like him, she constructs a realistic small world full of hidden passions brilliantly rendered with subtlety, irony, complexity, and truthfulness.   In reading Munro, as in reading Chekhov, we discover (to echo Wordsworth) how extraordinary the ordinary both is and can be.  For those who like to disparage Munro’s writing as “domestic”, I always shudder inwardly at the mildly sexist implication, since what did Chekhov write about if not families?  What did Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky write about, if not the dangers lurking in domesticity, and yet somehow these male giants of the literary world are not pursued by the disparaging epithet, “domestic”.   This year’s Nobel Committee is clearly not imbued with an idea that women’s lives and central preoccupations are somehow secondary in the grand scheme of human passion.   But it is not simply that Munro astutely perceives and tells the truth about human life.   As in Chekhov or Joyce, Munro’s language is distilled and purified into marvelously readable and rhythmic prose.

It is an exciting day for literature.  Munro is both a reader’s writer and a writer’s writer.  I’m happy for all the other writers  who dare to write about women and family in a serious and truthful way.  I’m happy because Canada as nation underplays and undervalues its literary luminaries, and perhaps needs a collective shake to notice the genius in our midst.  Perhaps most of all, I’m happy for my Souwesto home, an understated but nonetheless culturally rich region which has always punched above its weight in literature.  It’s as though, for my hockey-loving friends, our hometown hockey team just won a Gold medal at the Olympics, and, best of all, deserved to win it.

(Back to JBNBlog) . . .  Thank you for contributing to our collective shake. Hooray.

Just for fun, here’s something from Monika in 2006, when she helped with a piece I was writing on first cars. Why? Cars was a hit movie & the local angle beckoned the LFP Today section, apparently. Others sharing memories along with Monika included Emma Donoghue, Thelma Rosner & Raymond McFeetors. That’s four aces right there. Who knows? Maybe Monika’s Biscayne found its way on the backroads of Munrovia where Huron County’s world-class stories are found.

Who: Monika Lee, Brescia College professor and artist
First car: ’73 Chevrolet Biscayne
Memories: My first car was also my first clue that Brian (Diemert) was interested in me. We were just acquaintances when, in 1987, he sold me his car, a huge chocolate-brown 1973 Chev Biscayne, for one dollar. It was so big you could have spread a refrigerator across the front seat. Brian had to teach me how to operate the gear shift, which was a very tricky one, and, of course, I had to call him to come over when the car wouldn’t start; so the car’s very age and eccentricity were what led us to spend time together and get to know one another. Four years later we drove that Chev from the church in which we were married — it was covered in yellow streamers and odd decorations we’d made with the words “Sweeties Forever” pasted across it.

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1 comment

  1. Don Marvin says:

    Congratulations on winning the prestigious Nobel Prize. The fact that you are from London Ontario and that I currently reside here simply adds to the pleasure. I am sure that your many years of experience, hard work, dedication and determination resulted in this accomplishment.

    Once again, a heart congratulation.

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