McClelland & Stewart, 2006

McClelland & Stewart, 2006

The View from Castle Rock was not one of my favourite Alice Munro collections. Although I rushed to read it upon publication, I didn’t enjoy it as much as Runaway. On rereading, I planned a different approach.

In the past, I read the collection simply as another of Alice Munro’s works. I didn’t adjust my expectations when she stated that each of the stories therein is inspired by her family history. Even though she systematically excluded these tales from previous collections, I still expected more of what I had already found there.

She must have anticipated that readers could have difficulty adjusting to this hybridization, for she is careful to explain; but, even the explanation is complex, considering truth served alongside fiction and facts in the context of narrative.

“You could say that such stories pay more attention to the truth of a life than fiction usually does. But not enough to swear on. And the part of this book that might be called family history has expanded into fiction, but always within the outline of a true narrative.”

Ultimately truth, life and history are wedded with fiction, elaboration and narrative. So readers are meant to look down at their feet in the river, set aside the desire to analyze, interrogate and classify; they are instructed to be content with the rush of waters, simply inhabit the channel’s flow.

“With these developments the two streams came close enough together that they seemed to me meant to flow in one channel, as they do in this book.”

Perhaps intellectualizing this process would not have resulted in a different experience with this reread. In fact, I began rereading the collection later last year and felt myself spinning towards the same arc of disappointment. I set aside the book and wondered if the next attempt would be a repeat.

This passage in the foreword swept me beyond my resistance, when I began again. But not because of what it offered about the protagonists, some of which I recalled from last year’s stalled reread.

“Some of the characters gave themselves to me in their own words, others rose out of their situations. Their words and my words, a curious re-creation of lives, in a given setting that was as truthful as our notion of the past can ever be.”

It was the last phrase which pulled me in: “as truthful as our notion of the past can ever be”. For one person’s truth is personal: not untruthful but subjective. So, we meet a narrator and spend time with her, and we think we have some basic understanding of her marriage, which we know unravelled, sometime between ‘then’ and ‘now’, but just a glimpse of the once-husband in an airport, the briefest appearance on the stage of the story, and we realize just how much we do not know, about his truth. And so many stories display this pattern, a later realization of depth miscalculated.

When first approaching this reread, my view was focussed solidly on these dozen stories in The View from Castle Rock; in my desire to revision the work as something-other-than-a-Munro-collection to make room for what seemed to be stark differences, I overlooked that one could say the same thing about many of the other stories. Consider “The Bear Went Over the Mountain” and “Tricks”, in “Spaceships Have Landed“ and “The Jack Randa Hotel”: their characters’ stories were “as truthful as [their] notion of the past can ever be”.

I remembered the author’s notes included regarding the autobiographical elements of stories like “Chaddeleys and Flemings” (“Connection”, and “The Stone in the Field) in The Moons of Jupiter (1982) and the final sequence of Dear Life (2012) (which includes “The Eye”, “Night”, “Voices” and “Dear Life”).

This fiction/non-fiction question is a thorny one. As Margaret Atwood said on NPR’s “All Things Considered” last autumn: “When you’re writing fiction everybody thinks you’re secretly writing about real people and things but if you write an autobiography they think you’re lying…as one does.”

Munro’s first story “No Advantages” pays particular attention to the truth of the lives of the men of Ettrick Parish, in the county of Selkirk, Scotland in the late 18th century, on the “high stony farm where my family lived for some time in the Ettrick Valley was called Far-Hope”.

Of considerable importance are Will O’Phaup, James Hogg and James Laidlaw. But of central importance is the idea of storytelling itself: the stories we tell others and the stories we tell ourselves.

The author, as narrator, literally inserts herself into the narrative as well, describing her experience of visiting the parish: “Nevertheless the valley disappointed me the first time I saw it. Places are apt to do that when you’ve set them up in your imagination.”

For of course what we set up in our imaginations is of primary concern. This roots our connection to everyone else’s imagined tales. And, as such, the tales of the Ettrick men are often surprisingly familiar.

“Here is a classic story. I heard versions of it—with different names, different feats—when I was a child growing up in Huron County, in Ontario. A stranger arrives full of fame, bragging of his abilities, and is beaten by the local champion, a simple-hearted fellow who is not even interested in a reward.”

[And, as an aside, the following passage from the opening story, vividly recalls the opening scene of Michael Crummey’s Sweetland as well, as though it, too, is but a version. This is a long passage but it reveals the early stories’ tone, and I’m including it not only for all those Sweetland lovers, but to underscore the pattern of layered meaning which anchors the truths that each of us discovers in fiction, as tale connects to tale.

  “As soon as he gets close enough to them he calls out.
But nobody takes any notice. And then again he calls out, but still not one of them turns around or looks towards him. He can see them plain from their backs, all country folks in their plaids and their bonnets, both men and women, and normal-sized, but he cannot get to look at their faces, they stay turned away from him. And they do not look to be hurrying, they are dawdling along and gossiping and chatting and he can hear the noise they make but not quite the words.
So he follows faster and faster and finally he takes to a run, to catch up to them, but no matter how fast he runs he cannot do that—though they are not hurrying at all, they are still just dawdling. And so busy he is, thinking about catching up to them, that it does not occur to him for some while that they are not going homeward at all.”]

There is no end to the stories; The View from Castle Rock stands as evidence. “If such a man becomes famous, of course, it is another story. Alive he is booted out, dead he is welcomed home. After a generation or two, it is another story.”

The collection contains generations of stories. “It would be a mistake to think that everybody believed these stories,” she says, which is another way of saying that at least some did believe these stories, that the set up in these listeners’ imaginations was not a disappointment.

On first reading, I was preoccupied with the sense of these stories being one storyteller’s imagination of generations past, but on this rereading, I am paying more attention to the themes which also resonate in Alice Munro’s other collections.

Take a line like this, for instance: “The past is full of contradictions and complications, perhaps equal to those of the present, though we do not usually think so.” How can one not think of “Chance” and “Soon” or “A Wilderness Station” or “Red Dress-1946”. How many members of one generation have been convinced that their own trials and triumphs were unique to their days? How many of us believe we have a monopoly on contradictions and complications? Are we contemporary readers inherently different from the men of Ettrick parish?

And so, my first approach to this collection as simply another in Munro’s oeuvre had merit, for there are more similarities than I had thought. But so, too, does the idea of expecting a slightly different slant, reading these stories in the context of a group of stories which the author has identified as having more prominent autobiographical elements. The line I am drawing to chart my path is no more definite than Alice Munro’s discussion of truth and narrative, but this second attempt at rereading is proving much more satisfying for me.

Have you read The View from Castle Rock?
Or, do you have it in your TBR?
Have you been reading any other short stories lately?

Note: This is part of a series of posts on Alice Munro’s stories in The View from Castle Rock as I read through her work-to-date. She is one of my MRE authors and this is the first story in this collection. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story. Next week, the title story.

Note: There are spoilers in the comments below.