By Sven Nordenstam and Cameron French
STOCKHOLM/TORONTO (Reuters) - Canadian Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize for Literature on Thursday for her tales of the struggles, loves and tragedies of women in small-town Canada that made her what the award-giving committee called the "master of the contemporary short story."
"Some critics consider her a Canadian Chekhov," the Swedish Academy said in announcing the award on its website, comparing Munro to the 19th-century Russian short story writer.
The 82-year-old Munro, who revealed in 2009 that she had undergone coronary bypass surgery and cancer treatment, said it was "surprising and wonderful" to receive the award.
"I am dazed by all the attention and affection that has been coming my way this morning," she said in a statement. "I hope it fosters further interest in all Canadian writers. I also hope that this brings further recognition to the short story form."
Despite the honor and attention it would bring to her work, she told CBC News that the award would not change the decision she announced earlier this year to retire from writing.
SHORT, BUT RICH, STORIES
The short story, a style more popular in the 19th and early 20th century, has long taken a back seat to the novel in popular tastes.
Munro's merit, in the eyes of her admirers, was to introduce into her stories a richness of plot and depth of detail usually more characteristic of novels.
The characters in her stories are often girls and women who lead seemingly unexceptional lives but struggle with tribulations ranging from sexual abuse and stifling marriages to repressed love and the ravages of aging.
"Suddenly you find yourself being fascinated by the life of this chambermaid, or this bean farmer, or this Vancouver housewife," Douglas Gibson, her longtime editor and publisher, said in a CBC interview. "These are ordinary people, ordinary stories, but she has the magic."
The award triggered an outpouring of pride in Canada. Social media website Twitter was flooded with congratulations.
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper said in a statement, "I am certain that Ms. Munro's tremendous body of work and this premier accomplishment will serve to inspire Canadian writers of all ranks to pursue literary excellence and their passion for the written word."
Reporters who gathered early on Thursday at the hotel in Victoria, British Columbia, where Munro was staying were asked to leave by hotel staff, who said she did not want to be disturbed.
Born in 1931 in Wingham, a small town in the region of southwestern Ontario that serves as the setting for many of her stories, Munro started writing in her teens and has published more than a dozen short-story collections over the years.
Munro's works include "Lives of Girls and Women" in 1971, "Runaway" in 2004 and "Too Much Happiness" five years later.
Her story "The Bear Came over the Mountain, from her 2001 collection "Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage," was adapted into the Oscar-nominated film "Away from Her," directed by Sarah Polley.
Munro becomes the second Canadian-born writer to win the Nobel for Literature, although she is the first winner to be thought of as distinctly Canadian. Saul Bellow, who won the award in 1976, was born in Quebec but raised in Chicago and is widely considered an American writer.
"Her texts often feature depictions of everyday but decisive events, epiphanies of a kind, that illuminate the surrounding story and let existential questions appear in a flash of lightning," the Nobel Academy said in appraising Munro.
That sentiment was echoed by fellow Canadian writer Margaret Atwood, who described Munro in a 2008 tribute as being among the major writers of fiction in our time.
"Munro has been among those writers subject to periodic rediscovery, at least outside Canada. It's as if she jumps out of a cake - Surprise! - and then has to jump out of it again, and then again," Atwood wrote.
The former Alice Laidlaw married James Munro in 1951 and moved to Victoria, where the two ran a bookstore that still operates today. They had four daughters - one died just hours after being born - before divorcing in 1972. Afterwards, Munro moved back to Ontario.
Her second husband, geographer Gerald Fremlin, died this past April, which her publisher Gibson said factored in to her decision to quite writing this year. Munro also threatened to retire in 2006, but then changed her mind and published two more collections.
"She lost her husband in the spring and she's quite frail. And when she said 'no more' this time I believe her. I didn't believe it the first time, but I believe it now," he said.
The literature prize, which comes with an award of 8 million crowns ($1.25 million), is the fourth of this year's crop of Nobel prizes, which were established in the will of Alfred Nobel, the Swede who invented dynamite. The prizes were awarded for the first time in 1901.
Munro also won the Man Booker International Prize in 2009, and has won the Giller Prize - Canada's most high-profile literary award - twice.
(With additional reporting by Niklas Pollard in Stockholm, Euan Rocha and Allison Martell in Toronto and Jennifer Kwan in Victoria; Editing by Alistair Scrutton, Ralph Boulton and Michael Roddy, Jeffrey Hodgson and Vicki Allen)