Alice Munro doesn’t write much about her writing: there are only a few interviews, hardly any essays or journalistic pieces, and we don’t catch her holding forth about her literary likes and dislikes. But here in her new collection, The View from Castle Rock, she speaks to us directly, first in a brief introduction explaining the way the book has been put together, and then in a piece, ‘No Advantages’, in which she describes in her own person the researches into her family history that have resulted in some of the stories that follow. Unsurprisingly, in a writer as conscious of the equivocal authority of storytelling as Munro, even these introductory pieces are not quite transparently transactional. Without ever losing her focus on these other, past lives, she also seems to be giving us a magical account of her own life in writing, tracing a history for her imagination.
Munro follows her Laidlaw family history back to the Ettrick Valley, fifty miles south of Edinburgh and thirty miles north of the English border, which her great-great-great-grandfather James and his family left in 1818. Much painstaking research must lie behind the facts assembled here; even so, she seems able to reach back with exceptional ease, accessing not only the usual meagre birth and marriage and death dates, but rich resources of information. In every generation, the Laidlaws ‘seemed to produce somebody who went in for writing long, outspoken, sometimes outrageous letters and detailed recollections’; but it must be a charmed accident that so much material was kept safe across nearly two hundred years, almost as though the emigrants’ absence preserved intact a connection with the past that stay-at-home generations would have obliterated simply by living on in the same space.
Munro shifts in her evocation all the time between a real Ettrick Valley and a mythic scene of origin: ‘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.’ The minister of Ettrick parish wrote in 1799 that the place had ‘no advantages’; it was bleak and wet and inaccessible, but as Munro describes it the valley begins to take on a mysterious power, precisely in its poverty and inaccessibility, conferring all kinds of advantages on those who belong to it. Shepherds were supposed to have hunted down and murdered Merlin in these woods; the valley was home to Michael Scott, a wizard who appears in Dante’s Inferno. The area was in unruly border country, and it is also on the spine of Scotland, where the waters divide to flow west or east. James Laidlaw’s grandfather Will O’Phaup followed fairies one evening into the hills, until just in time he recognised what they were. James Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd (he ‘escaped into the uneasy role of the naive comedian, the bumpkin genius, in Edinburgh’), was James Laidlaw’s cousin; Hogg’s mother sang songs for Walter Scott to include in his collection of border ballads. Burns too, although he’s from Ayrshire, can’t but be invoked: like Hogg, he was called up to sit on the cutty stool in front of the congregation, for fornication. (Davie Balfour in Kidnapped also begins his adventures from the valley, though Munro doesn’t mention this.) The Ettrick Valley begins to seem one of those uncanny spots where the skin between ordinary life and story is more than usually permeable. Through being imagined intensely enough, it becomes a signifying somewhere, a fitting place for a writer of Munro’s stature and provenance to project her beginning, connecting herself with a long tradition of gifts that have sprung up fresh at the margins of organised, urbanised cultural life.
As she invokes it, the valley in the early 19th century was at a point of transition between an archaic and a modern culture, which is also the way she imagines the mid-20th-century rural Canada that is the subject of so many of her stories. On the one hand, just on the point of vanishing out of sight, there’s the semi-magical world of folk tale and tall story (Will O’Phaup in his youth not only sees fairies but is the local lad who can run faster than visiting champions; Munro remembers versions of this tale told two centuries later in Ontario). Margaret Laidlaw Hogg gave over her songs for Scott’s collection, but regretted it afterwards, intuiting the absolute losses incurred when oracy is translated into a print culture. ‘“They were made for singin and no for prentin,” she is supposed to have said. “And noo they’ll never be sung mair.”’ The restless intellectual interrogation that comes to the valley through the church is a powerful agent for change: Munro spends some pages on the life of the Reverend Thomas Boston, minister in the valley at the time James Laidlaw left it, writer of an autobiography and a book called Human Nature in Its Four-fold State. She suggests that the Laidlaw generations, with their determination to leave written records of their lives, owe much to a Protestant tradition of agonised self-scrutiny, by no means reliably orthodox or complacent. They read the Bible with ‘piety but also with hunger, to discover God’s order, the architecture of His mind. They found a lot to puzzle about.’ Boston’s problem, as Munro sympathetically describes it, is ‘the compulsion, the honourable compulsion, to follow where certain lines of reasoning lead’.
James Hogg’s privileged movement between the old ways of the valley and the modernity of Edinburgh’s literary culture mirrors the way Munro has always positioned herself, mediating the old-fashioned rural Canada she grew up in for a sophisticated cosmopolitan readership. Even when her writing is preoccupied with particularly modern dilemmas – sexual freedoms or the breaking-up of the framework of marriage – her almost anthropological long view is so penetrating because of her vantage point between systems. Hogg, moving beyond the closed world of the valley, is able to have a ‘historical awareness of the recent past’ and a vision like Scott’s of the ‘importance of something that was vanishing’: the same vision gives urgency to Munro’s writing. The vantage point of the inside-outsider isn’t ever comfortable, though: it is open to discounting from both directions. Hogg is Edinburgh’s ‘bumpkin genius’; to his cousin James Laidlaw, he has ‘spent most of his life in conning lies’. Munro’s nearer relatives might describe it as ‘calling attention’ to himself.
Everywhere in Laidlaw history Munro traces a tension between the ‘need to turn your life into a story’ and its disapproving opposite, ‘not exactly modesty but a strenuous dignity and control, a sort of refusal’, like Margaret Hogg’s reluctance to let go of her ballads. This tension lies behind the authorial hesitation of Munro’s storytelling, always ready to disclaim its own authority, its version of things, reflecting continually on the mysteries and processes and treacheries of fiction. It might have been like that, she warns, but it might not. Be careful. Who is she to say? And yet, in the end, her imagination can’t resist making that last dream leap into the past; as if, without it, what she’s told so far is not enough. Between pages 26 and 27 of The View from Castle Rock, Munro’s telling of the past changes mode from something like an essay to story:
The first time Andrew was ever in Edinburgh he was ten years old. With his father and some other men he climbed a slippery black street. It was raining, the city smell of smoke filled the air, and the half doors were open, showing the firelit insides of the taverns which he hoped they might enter, because he was wet through.
Now she is making it up: ‘conning lies’. The ten-year-old’s trip to Edinburgh she might have learned about from a diary or a letter. But not the boy’s impression of the black street, not the hope of entering the tavern, not the actual sensation, in a particular individual, of being there. The difference perhaps isn’t absolute: in the preceding pages she has described or conjectured about things she can’t quite know, but always with a proviso, a sign in the text that she’s guessing. For all the power with which Munro conjures and speculates, readers have remained where we belong: outside, noses pressed up against the glass of our separation from the past, perhaps from all experience not contiguous with our own. But the story, in its act of imaginative re-creation, cuts us loose if it can from our moorings in our own lives and carries us away inside another place.
Henry James warns, in his preface to ‘The Aspern Papers’, against writing about the too distant past. His ‘visitable past’, ‘a world we may reach over to as by making a long arm we grasp an object at the other end of our own table’, is more or less anything within living memory: accessing it is like ‘looking over a garden wall into another garden’. Beyond that, he cautions, ‘a succession of walls appear . . . even by use of our longest ladder we are baffled and bewildered – the view is mainly a view of barriers.’ Of course, every good rule in literature is proved by its exceptions. Before The View from Castle Rock, Munro too had almost always written about this ‘visitable past’, reaching back to the beginnings of the 20th century, with only one or two rare forays deeper into time (‘Meneseteung’ and ‘A Wilderness Station’). Now, in the first two or three stories here, which tell of the Laidlaw family’s journey to Canada, and their initial experiences there, she risks this further territory. She has the help of Laidlaw letters and diaries, but she has to make up what she puts in between those outlines, those incomplete or clumsy statements. What she makes up isn’t what happened, it is what she hopes might have happened, could have happened. What is this guessing that writers do? Is it irresponsible, in the light of the scruples of history? And how do readers judge whether it works, when they can’t test it against the ‘truth’? This is on board ship in 1818 (Agnes is James Laidlaw’s daughter-in-law, about to give birth):
‘You should go and say farewell to your native land and the last farewell to your mother and father for you will not be seeing them again,’ says Old James to Agnes. ‘And there is worse yet you will have to endure. Aye, but there is. You have the curse of Eve.’ He says this with the mealy relish of a preacher and Agnes calls him an old shite-bag under her breath, but she hardly has energy even to scowl.
Old shite-bag. You and your native land.
The preparations for the magical act of imagining the past, the pre-absorption and the researches, are crucial, but not sufficient in themselves: anyway, it’s a matter of responsiveness and not mere quantity (‘Shakespeare acquired more essential history from Plutarch than most men could from the whole British Museum,’ T.S. Eliot said). In the end it comes down to the intelligence of the writer, her sensitivity to difference (difference is almost the master-theme of Munro’s work) and the strength of the writing itself, the sustaining medium of the writer’s style. Munro’s seasoned voice, with its scruple of doubt internalised, makes itself at home here, juxtaposing the archaisms of the old man’s talk with Agnes’s casual, modern-seeming impieties, hearing Old James’s portentousness as at once infuriating and resonant, intuiting the profoundly gendered social and cultural arrangements behind their talk. Transposing her own sensibility backwards, Munro opens a door for us into a strange place, enabling us to read its signs, fill the gaps between its codes with familiar flesh, the familiar flashes of appeal and repulsion between individuals pressed up close together in families. She never tries to give us an exhaustive picture of the past moment, any more than she would want to be exhaustive if she were writing about her own time; she moves intuitively around, putting out her words to catch its essential elements. Capturing the far past, if one can only do it, turns out to involve very much the same act of imagining as capturing the present: and that’s just where its special difficulty lies.
These first stories in A View from Castle Rock are an important addition to Munro’s work, something new, full of interest and mystery; and they are independent pieces too, with their own internal organisation and richly complex point. The living centre of the title story seems to be the child James, not two years old. He’s Agnes’s son, Old James’s grandson, but he’s looked after by his crooked plain little aunt Mary: ‘She has tended all of her brothers . . . but she has never known a child like this. Nobody else has any idea of how original and independent and clever he is.’ James has his own vocabulary of made-up words: peep for ‘bird’, gruggin for ‘shit’. ‘“Talk like folk,”’ his mother says. ‘If he doesn’t, she may give him a clout. “What are you? . . . Are you a folk or an elfit?”’ Wayward, gifted, curious about everything he sees, stubbornly refusing to be broken in to the particularities of the culture he is born to, fiercely fighting off Mary’s solicitude, wanting to escape to run around the deck, to be free: the child seems to embody the recurring hope of the entirely new, fitting for these emigrants’ extraordinary removal to the New World. When Mary carries him to watch a cow being hoisted aboard the ship, she wonders if he will remember seeing this, or whether he’ll think that he dreamed it. All the signs in narrative we’re used to trusting seem to indicate that it’s Young James who will carry the story forward. It’s an utterly surprising stroke when we learn what happens to him shortly after the family land in Quebec, and it’s characteristic of Munro to have invented backwards from the fact of the child’s end, to this counter-indicative beginning. She reminds us that the carriers of story aren’t protected, that the seeming promises of narrative – potential, opportunity, appetite – are no guarantee of fulfilment in real lives. History isn’t only forward-reaching, determined by adding up to our present.
As the collection moves closer in time, the reader has the sensation of moving through a more familiar landscape. The father’s silver-fox fur farm, the mother’s Parkinson’s disease, the grandmother’s immaculate housekeeping, the affair with a boy from a religious family, the summer job working as a maid for a rich family: Munro has borrowed all these elements for stories, sometimes over and over, altering and trimming them to fit. Now here they are as part of her family history and her own youth: told sometimes as fiction, sometimes in a narrative that’s more like memoir. (Even here, she won’t promise that this is the ‘truth’: she only says in her foreword that ‘such stories pay more attention to the truth of a life than fiction usually does.’) There are surprises too, material she doesn’t seem to have used before: some beautiful passages, for instance, in ‘Working for a Living’, about her father getting work as a nightwatchman in a foundry after the fur farm collapsed. She remembers cycling there one night to give him a message, and his showing her round the eerie, empty place ‘so large and high that I had the sense of being in a dark forest with thick dark trees’; a couple of night-workers using long hooks were lifting a heavy, hot casting out of a box of sand. Like Hogg and Burns and Scott, Munro is acutely aware that her record is a witness to ‘the importance of something that was vanishing’:
Much that I saw that night was going to disappear. The cupola, the hand-lifted ladles, the killing dust . . . Many particular skills and dangers were going to go. Many everyday risks, along with much foolhardy pride, and random ingenuity and improvisation. The processes I saw were probably closer to those of the Middle Ages than to those of today.
And I imagine that the special character of the men who worked in the Foundry was going to change, as the processes of the work changed.
It is always the particularity of experience that claims Munro: the detailed effects of economics, of technology, of class, of cultural change, as they play out in the lives of men and women. Her fictions begin in ‘the idea of there being places like this all over the country, in every town and city. Places with their windows painted over. You passed them in a car or a train and never gave a thought to what was going on inside.’ Munro’s genius, as she imagines what is going on inside the closed worlds of individual lives, has to do with her exceptional openness to other people’s words, to the shapes of their understanding and their ways of seeing.