Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Short Story Month 2014: Alice Munro

I go to Ottawa tomorrow to join my Canadian colleagues in a celebration of the work of Alice Munro. Professor Robert Thacker, author of the excellent biography of Ms. Munro, Writing Her Lives, and I share the honor of giving keynote addresses.  Professor Thacker will speak on Friday afternoon, and I will speak on Saturday morning. Many fine writers, critics, and scholars will discuss various aspects of Munro's work over the three-day weekend. I will give you a summary of the celebration when I return.

Since I will be taking a break from my blog for a few days while in Ottawa, I though it only appropriate that I post a brief discussion of her work before I left.  I have written many blogs on Alice Munro over the past several years, but for some reason have neglected her most personal collection, The View from Castle Rock.  Munro says that as she put together the material in this book over the years, not surprisingly, since she is, with little or no argument, the best short-story writer currently practicing that underrated art, the material began to shape itself into “something like stories.” The combination of the words of her ancestors and her own, she says, resulted in a re-creation of lives about as truthful as the past can be.

 In addition, Munro says, during this same period she was also writing a special set of stories that she had not included in her last four books of fiction because she felt they did not belong.  Although they were not memoirs, they were closer to her own life than other stories she had written.  She says in her previous stories, she drew on personal material, but then did whatever she wanted to with it, for the chief thing she was doing was “making a story.”  However, in these new pieces, she knew she was doing something closer to what a memoir does—exploring her own life, although not in a rigorously factual way.

The View from Castle Rock is made up of these two separate sets—five family chronicles that Munro says are “something like stories” and six pieces drawn from her own life that she emphatically declares are “stories.” Munro describes them as two separate streams that flow into one channel.

The first story, “No Advantages,” is the most historical, least fictionalized, of the five pieces of “family history.”  The narrator is Munro, in her sixties, traveling alone in Scotland.  When she finds the gravestone of her great-great-great-great-great grandfather, born at the end of the seventeenth century, she enjoys that familiar human experience of imagining her ancestors existing in time and space.  Discovering he is the last man in Scotland to have seen the fairies, she envisions him as a sort of Rip Van Winkle who encounters little people, about as high as a two-year-old child, calling his name.  She draws conclusions and forms hypotheses about him and those who follow him.  She identifies a trait of her Scottish ancestors that forms her own attitudes generations later--the reluctance to call attention to one’s self, the opposite of which is not modesty, but rather a refusal to turn your life into a story, either for other people or for yourself--a curious trait for a storyteller who has all her adult life transformed her life into story.

The title story of the collection moves closer to fictionalized narrative.  Its imaginative spark derives from a received story of one of her ancestors, a young boy, being taken up to Edinburgh Castle by his father, who points out a grayish-blue piece of land showing through the mist beyond the waves and pronounces gravely “America.”  The boy knows he is not looking at America, but rather an island off the coast of Scotland, but this does not lessen the force of the illusion of a land that does have “advantages,” so far away, yet so close—a combination of fiction and reality.  The story focuses on the actual journey the family makes to Nova Scotia. Although Munro says she depends largely on a journal kept by one of the family members, whereas he merely records events, Munro speculates and humanizes, inventing actions for which she has no historical basis and creating motivations based on her imaginative identification with her ancestors.

“Illinois” deals with an event that must have been irresistible to Munro, who has written previous stories of tricks and cross-purposes.  A young male ancestor steals his baby sister and hides her; two silly young girls who like to play jokes steal the infant a second time to tease another boy.  It is a comedy of errors that ends well when the father finds the baby. “The Wilds of Morris Township” has less drama and little comedy, focusing on the quiet intentions of an ancestor who builds himself a house and lives out his life in a brotherly-sisterly relationship with a second cousin.  Munro’s recollection that her father said he had seen the odd couple at church when he was a child brings the chronicle of the family closer to her own life.

“Working for a Living” recounts how Munro’s father begins his adult life as a fur-trapper and seller of skins for the commercial market and how he meets her mother.  After her father stops raising animals for fur, he gets a job at a foundry as a night watchman; when Munro, as a young girl, goes to visit him there, she sees him as someone other than just her father.  In this story, we are introduced to Munro as a future writer. While her father provides her with particular explanations of the foundry, she is more interested in the general effects--the gloom, the fine dust, and the atmosphere of the place. Munro leaves this first half of The View from Castle Rock with her father listening to his grandfather and other men speaking in the dialect of their own childhood---an appropriate transition to the second half, which begins with a fictional account of Munro’s early understanding of the complex relationships that daughters have with their fathers.
“Fathers,” the opening piece of the second part of the book, brings us closer to the kind of story that has made Munro famous.  Describing the relationship that two different girls have with their fathers, it is structured around theme rather than event.  First, there is Dahlia, who hates her father for his brutality and would kill him if she could.  Secondly, there is Frances, whose parents try to encourage their daughter’s friendship with Munro. However, when Munro sees Frances’ father squeeze the mother’s behind, she feels some sort of “creepy menace” about them.  Not used to this open display of attention, she feels cornered and humiliated.  She recalls once when her father beat her for some back talk to her mother, the probable source of “Royal Beatings” one of Munro’s most famous stories.  However, she does not compare her situation to Dahlia’s, but she knows that her father hates the arrogance in her.  “Fathers’ is a story about two kinds of father/daughter relationships, neither with which Munro completely identifies, but both of which she intuitively understands.

All the stories in this second section point to Munro’s future as a writer.  In “Lying Under the Apple Tree,” she is thirteen and has a secret poetic idea about looking up through apple blossoms, which has an irresistible formality for her, like kneeling in church.  She has her first erotic feelings for an older boy, but when they are interrupted in what Munro expects will be her first sexual experience, she realizes that the boy is having a relationship with the woman who owns the farm where he works.  Once again, the story ends with a presage of Munro’s future life as an author, for she says for the next few years it is men in books who become her lovers, sardonic and with a ferocious streak in them; her preference running to Heathcliff rather than Edgar Linton, Rhett Butler rather than Ashley Wilkes. 

In “Hired Girl,” Munro, 17, takes a summer job with a family.  When they have a party and friends come to stay the weekend, Munro thinks they are glamorous, like the people she has read about in magazines--people who drink a lot, have affairs, and go to psychiatrists.  When the visiting husband suggests she go swimming without her bathing suit, the next time she is in the water she pulls her top down and thinks of him touching her, feeling both a sense of pleasure and repulsion. When the summer is over, the husband for whom she works gives Munro a copy of Isak Dinensen’s Seven Gothic Tales.  The fictional takes precedence over the merely real, for as soon as she begins to read, she loses herself in the book, believing that this gift of literature has always belonged to her. 

In “The Ticket,” Munro is 20 and preparing for her wedding with her first boyfriend.  The family is glad someone wants her, for she has always scared men off with her intelligence and her arrogance.  More and more, Munro sees the world in terms of language.  As if they were stories, she studies three marriages as a way to prepare for her own—that of her parents, which is the most mysterious because like many children she cannot imagine them in any connection except the one through her; that of her grandparents, which she knows from reports from her mother; and that of her Uncle Cyril and Aunt Charlie, who warn her about marriage.  Munro makes a rare confession in this story by saying that her first husband deserved better than what she gave him; he deserved a “whole heart.” 

The last three stories in the collection bring events closer to the present.  In “Home,” Munro is in love with a man other than her husband, her mother has died, and she comes to visit her ill father and her stepmother, a woman good at sniffing out high-mindedness and superiority.  In “What Do You Want to Know For?” she is married to her second husband and has been told she has a lump in her left breast and must have a biopsy.  Over sixty now, she does not think her death would be a disaster.  It is at this time in her life that she begins to think more about her family and to become interested in imagining them in the past.

In the Epilogue, entitled “Messenger,” Munro ponders the impulse to investigate one’s family history, sifting untrustworthy evidence, linking names, dates and anecdotes--determined to be joined to death and thus to life.  Alice Munro’s most personal book ends appropriately with a metaphor, a huge seashell, which she holds to her ear to listen to the pounding of her own blood and the roar of the ocean.  This metaphor of listening to the self and the sea brings the book full circle, echoing the young ancestor so many years ago, gazing from Castle Rock across that misty ocean which held the future and now holds the past.


Anonymous said...

I will be in Ottawa and am very much looking forward to your keynote.

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