The View from Castle Rock, by Alice Munro

by

munroCynthia Ozick has called her “our Chekhov”.

Margaret Atwood, in the introduction to Carried Away (2006), an Everyman’s Library collection of 17 of her stories, describes her reputation as “international literary sainthood”.

Jonathan Franzen, in the opening paragraph of his review of Runaway (2004), says: “Alice Munro has a strong claim to being the best fiction writer now working in North America, but outside of Canada, where her books are No. 1 best sellers, she has never had a large readership.”

With those kind of assessments, from that diverse a group of authors, I think it is probably fair to conclude that the international writing community was not surprised last week when Alice Munro won the 2009 Man Booker International Prize.

And yet….

There is that ominous ending to Franzen’s lede: “…outside of Canada…she has never had a large readership.” The reaction last week from the (very well-read) international blogging community tends to confirm that. Max at Pechorin’s Journal admitted he had never heard of her. Candy Schultz, who lives literally just down the road from Alice Munro Country (as it is known), thought she was American. John Self at The Asylum remembers reading The Progress of Love some 13 years ago, but nothing since. As far as I can tell, neither dovegreyreader nor Lizzy Siddal — two passionate advocates of Canadian fiction — has ever reviewed an Alice Munro book (dgr and Lizzy: please correct me if I am wrong on that front). I am not being critical of any of those readers; that seems a fair survey of where things are at as far as reading Munro is concerned.

So as someone who professes to blog about Canadian fiction, it behooves me to address the issue. I have been reading Alice Munro for more than 40 years (her first book, Dance of the Happy Shades, was published in 1968 and I do remember it) so I can confirm the first statement in Franzen’s review. It is also accurate to say that Munro not only sells in Canada, she is revered, to slightly alter Atwood’s metaphor. She has won three Governor-General awards and two Giller Prizes (all for different books). The volume under review here would almost certainly have been Giller number three except that Munro was on the jury that year and her book could not be considered — confirming that she is not only an exceptional writer, she is an exceptional person.

I’ve chosen Munro’s latest book (her twelfth, not counting collections), The View from Castle Rock (2006), because it is both atypical and typical of her work — if you have not read her, it is not a bad place to start exactly because of that dichotomy.

Before going any further, let me go back to Franzen's excellent review because he does contemplate reasons why she is not read as widely as he believes she should be. The first two are particularly relevant:

1. Munro’s work is all about storytelling pleasure. The problem here being that many buyers of serious fiction seem rather ardently to prefer lyrical, tremblingly earnest, faux-literary stuff.

2. As long as you’re reading Munro, you’re failing to multitask by absorbing civics lessons or historical data. Her subject is people. People people people. If you read fiction about some enriching subject like Renaissance art or an important chapter in our nation’s history, you can be assured of feeling productive. But if the story is set in the modern world, and if the characters’ concerns are familiar to you, and if you become so involved with a book that you can’t put it down at bedtime, there exists a risk that you’re merely being entertained.

The first half of the book is atypical because it does explore a broader history than a character’s everyday life. As the author says in a brief forward “about ten or twelve years ago I began to take more than a random interest in the history of one side of my family, whose name was Laidlaw.” She traced them back to late 18th century Scotland, discovered a writer (either published or a letter writer) in each generation since. “I put all this material together over the years, and almost without my noticing what was happening, it began to shape itself, here and there, into somthing like stories.” Munro is in Geoff Dyer territory here, on that border between sometimes non-fiction and sometimes fiction (she is like Dyer in no other way, however). It is a particularly attractive feature of this collection.

The family history is rooted in the Ettrick Valley on the sprine of Scotland: “This parish possesses no advantages” is the way the description of it began in the Statistcal Account of Scotland, 1799. The family are shepherds (Munro’s father still keeps a flock when we last see him centuries and a continent later) struggling to get by. The longest story of the book — the title story — begins at Castle Rock in Edinburgh with an ancestor’s dream of moving to America (that description includes Canada), which he finally undertakes with most of his adult family some decades later when he is in his sixties.

The other three stories of Part One — “Illinois”, “The Wilds of Morris Township” and “Working for a Living” — are as good an account as you will find anywhere of what it was like to be a settler in Ontario or the mid-west of the United States in the early 1880s. They are interesting from that point of view but they are even more important for understanding what it was that produced Alice Munro, the author that we know today.

Consider this example from “Working for a Living”. Alice’s somewhat agressive mother is off at a resort selling fox fur stoles and wraps made from skins that her father has raised and her grandmother is helping out at home:

When we sat looking out at this view my father rolled and smoked a cigarette, and he and my grandmother talked about the old days on the farm, their old neighbors and funny things — that is, both strange and comical things — that had happened. My mother’s absence brought a sort of peace — not only between them, but for all of us. Some alert and striving note was removed. An edge of ambition, self-regard, perhaps discontent, absent. At the time, I did not know exactly what it was that was missing. I did not know either what a deprivation, rather than a relief, it would be for me, if that was gone for good.

That is vintage Munro, as is the following excerpt — a conversation reported by her father from a smoke break at the Foundry where he works as night watchman:

One night somebody asked, when is the best time in a man’s life?

Some said, it’s when you are a kid and can fool around all the time and go down to the river in the summer and play hockey on the road in the winter and that’s all you think about, fooling around and having a good time.

Or when you’re first married if you’re fond of your wife and a bit later, too, when the children are just little and running around and haven’t shown any bad characteristics yet.

My father spoke up and said, “Now, I think maybe now.”

They asked him why.

He said because you weren’t old yet, with one thing or another collapsing on you, but old enough that you could see that a lot of things you might have wanted out of life you would never get. It was hard to explain how you could be happy in such a situation, but sometimes he thought you were.

The six stories of Part Two tell the story of Alice growing up and this is where Munro returns to that typical style that Franzen describes — except that in this book she is talking about her own growing up, not that of some created character. They are all set in Clinton (where she and her second husband live to this day), the heart of Alice Munro Country in southwestern Ontario, just inland from the eastern shore of Lake Huron and about 60 miles north of the U.S. border at Sarnia.

“Fathers” explores the different kinds of male parent that she runs into as a child; not just her own, but a brute who beats his children and another, rather sissified (he used to be a window-dresser in a Chicago department store) version who serves dinner to Alice and her friend:

I expected the sweetbreads to be like their name — some sort of bun with jam or brown sugar, but couldn’t see why that would come with potatoes. What arrived however, were small pads of meat wrapped in crisp bacon, and little potatoes with their skins on, that had been rolled in hot butter and crisped in the pan. Also carrots cut in thin sticks and having a slightly candied flavor. The carrots I could have done without, but I had never tasted potatoes so delicious or meat so tender. All I wished was for Mr. Wainwright to stay in the kitchen instead of hovering around us pouring out lemonade and asking if everything was to our liking.

Dessert was another wonder — a satin vanilla pudding with a sort of lid on it of golden-brown baked sugar. Tiny cakes to go with it, iced on all sides with a very dark, rich chocolate.

It doesn’t take very many excerpts to show why other writers respect Munro.

In “Lying Under the Apple Tree”, young Alice has her first kiss and, quickly after, first heartbreak. In “Hired Girl” she heads north to an island in Georgian Bay for her first summer job. In “The Ticket”, she prepares for her first marriage (it ended in divorce in 1972) and discovers quite a bit of family history. In “Home” she comes face-to-face with her father’s mortality; in “What Do You Want to Know For?” she contemplates her own.

None of that is earth-shaking stuff — Munro does not do earth-shaking. Everything in it, however, is something that every one of us experiences as we go through life. And great writer that she is, Munro has a way of exploring that in such meticulous detail that a reader — even an aging male like myself — can’t help but be touched.

I will confess that while I like and read Munro, I don’t revere her — I can’t help but be reminded of an author friend’s assessment that “every story is another view of boring southwestern Ontario through sepia-coloured glasses”. That isn’t fair but there are grains of truth in it. As a final confession, I’ll admit that when I picked up The View from Castle Rock for a reread after three years, a glance at the titles of each story in Part One brought back sharp memories of everyone. The titles in Part Two provoked no memory are all — but it is a recognition of Alice Munro’s brilliance that within a page or two of starting each one they moved sharply into focus. My subconscious was obviously more deeply affected than I had thought.

It isn’t just the national chauvinist in me that is proud she won the Man Booker International — the reader is every bit as happy that such an outstanding talent has been recognized, even if I am a sometimes grumpy critic of her work. Franzen is right; the rest of the world is missing something by not reading Alice Munro.

27 Responses to “The View from Castle Rock, by Alice Munro”

  1. Candy Schultz Says:

    You will be happy to know I have started reading The Progress of Love. I am behind in Munro and now I have to look into those books John was talking about (Amongst Women, The Dark). So progress will be slow. She reminds me a bit of Carol Shields who I really, really love. I wonder why Shields doesn’t get more recognition.

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  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Candy: I am pretty sure you will like her — although I would advise spacing out the reading (even though it looks like your pile is going to do that for you anyway). Since many, if not most, of her stories explore similar themes allowing a few months between volumes is probably a good thing. The comparison with Carol Shields is quite appropriate — I like them both but their gentle, deliberate approach to their craft requires a bit of savouring rather than piling right in.

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  3. Myrthe Says:

    I have been leisurely making my way through Munro’s Selected Stories for the past six weeks and I am thoroughly enjoying it. It’s the first time I’m reading some of Munro’s work and, though I don’t remember when she entered my radar or who did it, I do know that it was through other bookbloggers.

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  4. John Self Says:

    John Self at The Asylum remembers reading The Progress of Love some 13 years ago, but nothing since.

    Rejoice! I have purchased Lives of Girls and Women in the handsome Bloomsbury Classics format and will report back in due course on whether my 36 year old Self likes her any more than my 23 year old Self did.

    I have reservations (which is never good when approaching a newish author). I anticipate – and I have skimmed a few pages of Lives which may confirm this – that her stories are beautifully executed, full of heart, neat and proper, at every point exactly what she would want them to be … and rather cosy and dull. (Perhaps this is a little like your friend’s sepia-tinted glasses, Kevin.) I see this in Franzen’s two reasons above, which sound somewhat defensive despite themselves: this business about ‘lyrical, trembling, faux-literary stuff’ (you mean like The Corrections, Jonathan?) has a curl of contempt in the lip which seems quite unjustified to me. What about readers who prefer not faux-literary stuff, but literary stuff? Fiction which takes risks or which brings the reader outside his or her comfort zone?

    I will draw this entirely unjustified attack of uninformed prejudice to a close by saying that with a little more knowledge, I think the same of Lorrie Moore (I’ve read one of her stories: I said a little more knowledge – it was perfectly wonderful, and quite annoyingly smug) and of William Trevor (and I’ve read quite a few of his) – both of whom, like Munro, are feted in the press as masters (or mistresses) of the short story.

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  5. KevinfromCanada Says:

    John: While I in no way want to prejudge a considered opinion, I do have a fear that your reservations (which of course are not yet an opinion) may prove correct. I do appreciate that you are at least willing to test them. Good luck.

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  6. Stewart Says:

    Reading over the quotes makes it seem that I would be interested to read her. My only issue is that I rarely read short stories for the reason that they are often too damn subtle. Contradicting that, however, is the pleasure I find in reading the same story over and over and unravelling its subtleties. I am, I suppose, in short story limbo. I’ll certainly be giving Munro a shot, but not for a little bit yet as I’ve got lots of goodies lined up for this summer.

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  7. Trevor Says:

    Excellent review, Kevin. I know I read some Munro back in my college days, but right now I can’t remember what. Short stories, I know, but which ones??? When I remember, I’ll let you know. As for my plans now, I just want to browse the Munro shelf and pick something at random.

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  8. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Stewart: She has a new book (Too Much Happiness) due out this August — without venturing too far out on the limb, I predict it will be Giller shortlisted (and probably win) if she lets it stand. You could always say you are waiting for that one. Since she mused about not publishing anymore three years ago, this could well be her last.

    And I am sympathetic about which stories???? Trevor. Munro tends to be better remembered when you see them on the page again, rather than in the mind, at least in my case. Sometimes I need a couple of pages to jog the memory.

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  9. adevotedreader Says:

    As a non-Canadian reader I was very impressed by Dance of the happy shades when I read it last year, and have been equally admiring of the 3/4 of her work I’ve read since. I’ve been working my way through her writing chronologically so haven’t got to The View from Castle Rock yet, but am looking forward to it and her new book. Very happy she won the prize, even though she beat my compatriot Peter Carey!

    Any writer can be facetiously summed up and dismissed in a few words, as Munro is by “every story is another view of boring southwestern Ontario through sepia-coloured glasses”. Obviously, authors do set their work in the same time or place, create similar characters and explore similar themes. Unfortunately Munro may be dismissed as accomplished but uninteresting i.e dull because she writes of commonplace people, often women, living largely unremarkable lives. But I think she does this so well that I would say I revere her work alongside that of my other favourites James Joyce, Raymond Carver and David Malouf.

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  10. Colette Jones Says:

    I like the idea of a writer who deals mainly with people. My problem is that I am rarely satisfied with a short story. I’ll give her a try though. Maybe Alice Munro will be the author to change that for me.

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  11. KevinfromCanada Says:

    adevotedreader: Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I should probably have noted that my author friend’s professional interest included the “mavericks” of historical Western Canada, people who in many ways were as far from Munro’s characters as possible. Alice does tend to reward a more contemplative read.
    Colette: The stories in this book are linked enough that in some ways it reads like a novel — it certainly did for me, but that may have come from knowing quite a bit about Alice. The Beggar Maid (which is Who Do You Think You Are? in Canada) is linked stories and was close enough to a novel to be Booker short-listed in 1980. And the title stories in Runaway are almost a linked novella. Having said all that, Munro’s specialty is the short story — even if you don’t like the form, it is worth one book to explore. As adevotedreader shows above, it may set you on a voyage — then again, you may find them boring.

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  12. Sheila o'Brien Says:

    I find the characterization of Alice Munro’s stories as ‘boring” rather churlish. I read “Lives of Girls and Women” in the early ’70’s, and remember being profoundly moved by the gentleness of her version of feminisim, when all around her seemed strident and angry.
    She has had a major impact on the view many Canadian women have of ourselves, and for that she reamins one of my heros.

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  13. Trevor Says:

    You’ve probably seen this already, Kevin, but since we were talking about it the other day. J.D. Salinger is filing a lawsuit. When I saw the J.D. Salinger Emerges, headlines I was pretty excited. This is pretty good too, though. I don’t think he’ll win given the current state of intellectual property law with regard to this sort of stuff, but I hope so!

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  14. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Thanks Trevor, I had not seen it. I agree it does not look winable, but wonder if the whole purpose is just to create a delaying tactic. And, of course, no one has to buy the dumb thing if it ever does get published.

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  15. Colette Jones Says:

    I just checked my “stories” shelf and found an Alice Munro book: Dance of the Hapy Shades. From what Sheila says above though, I’m more intrigued by Lives of Girls and Women.

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  16. John Self Says:

    Sorry to divert further, but the Salinger book – 60 Years Later by ‘John David California’ – has been available in my local bookstore for weeks. I flicked through it again on Tuesday. Clearly the publishers expected this sort of furore, as they provide no contact details other than a web address in the book.

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  17. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Colette: Dance was her first book, Lives is probably known as her most influential. It has been a long time since I read them, buy memory says that if you dip into the stories in the volume you have you will get a good example of what Munro is about — and if she does get you interested in more you can move on.

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  18. KevinfromCanada Says:

    John: Perhaps it is me being an optimist, but it looks like the UK is taking the approach that I would favour — by all means publish and we will just ignore it.

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  19. Cherine Badwi-Hlady Says:

    As an english major at a Canadian university, there was no getting around Alice Munro. I remember Who Do You Think You Are?, Lives of Girls and Women, and Progress of Love as required reading in three different courses.

    She was never a favourite until a few years after I graduated when I read Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You and was totally blown away. The second story in that collection, “Material”, to do this day remains the best short story I have ever read.

    I still have a kind of love-hate relationship with her stories (mostly love, though). Reading Alice Munro is like going for a long run, sometimes it can be a slog and hard to get going, but it is always worth it in the end.

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  20. KevinfromCanada Says:

    It is a sign of my age — and the growth in Canadian fiction — that in my university days the reading you could not avoid was Sinclair Ross’s As For Me and My House. Your Munro metaphor is quite appropriate.

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  21. Colette Jones Says:

    I have Lives of Girls and Women now and I have read the first story and liked it a lot. This appears to be linked stories too.

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  22. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Amazon actually calls it a novel. As with some other Munro books, the line between “linked stories” and “novel” seems to be a moving target. Whatever you choose to call them, the books are good reading.

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  23. S. Forrest Says:

    I’m surprised that Franzen believes Munro isn’t really known in the United States. I, and most everyone I know, have anticipated each of her new collections, and have read her for as long as you have. She is considered the best of writers and is readily found in just about any decent bookstore.
    Who did you say Franzen was??? could he have been the one who was embarrassed because Oprah selected his novel for a monthly read?
    My husband has always read her too. Go figure.

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  24. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I think his point was that she does not sell as well as he thinks she should. Certainly the critics and serious readers treat her very well. Thanks for asking the question. And I trust you (and your husband) are standing by for her new collection, Too Much Happiness, due out one month from today.

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  25. andre gerard Says:

    Hi Kevin,

    I’m sending you a thumbnail biography of Alice Munro and a one paragraph introduction to an excerpt to The View from Castle Rock. I’ve just come across your blog in doing a last bit of research for those two paragraphs, and I would like to make contact with your blogging community. Before I go on to say more, here are the two paragraphs.

    excerpt from The View from Castle Rock

    Uncleaned castings, “all disfigured with what looked like warts or barnacles,” and green sand, used for molds, invite meaning. Like many of the authors in this anthology–like Phillip Roth and Saul Bellow, for instance–to get at truths Alice Munro knowingly blurs and blasts the boundaries between fact and fiction. As all traces of the enterprise are destroyed, her writing glows with shadowy, metafactual possibilities–even while remaining “as truthful as our notion of the past can ever be.” The Foundry can be reached by back roads, without having to go through town. When the daughter delivers a message to the father, and discovers that the work father is different from the home father, father truths emerge. Fathers are a product of their environment, and there is a Heisenberg location effect, as well as a Heisenberg observer effect. Fathers behave differently depending on where they are and on who is watching. The Foundry father is different from the domestic father. The work father surrounded by fellows is freer in form than the home father surrounded by family. Yet fathers can grow through families. Responsibilities make them heroic, and they do for family what they might not do for themselves. For family, some fathers fight through drifts and survive. The lessons learned are not just lessons of character and the evolution and molding of self required to be a good father. They also include lessons of possibility. The father watching the child, and sometimes in some small way living through the child, discovers unknown possibilities within himself. The child does deliver a message. After fox, foundry, and turkey, Robert Laidlaw surprised himself by following his daughter’s path, writing stories and completing a novel about pioneer life. “Many of the offspring will have their father’s colour,” and sometimes fathers can find self and future in their children’s shadings.

    “Pots can show malice, the patterns of linoleum can leer up at you, treachery is the other side of dailiness.” Winner of three Governor General’s Awards, two Giller Prizes, a WH Smith Literary Award, a PEN/Malamud Award, an O. Henry Award, a Man Booker International Prize, and numerous other awards and honours, Alice Munro is often compared to short story masters such as Anton Chekov, James Joyce, Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor and Carson McCullers. Significant literary ancestors also include Emily and Charlotte Bronte, the Haldor Laxness of Independent People, and James Hogg. Born Alice Laidlaw, July 10, 1931, in Wingham, Ontario, Alice broke free of the hardscrabble existence of small-town, rural Canada with the help of a two-year scholarship to the University of Western Ontario and an early marriage (1951). Marriage was followed by a move to British Columbia and the birth of four children—the second of whom, Catherine, born without kidneys, died two days after birth. Munro sold her first short story to Mayfair magazine in 1953, the year her first daughter was born, and in 1968 her first collection of short stories, Dance of the Happy Shades, won a Governor General’s Award. As Munro’s reputation grew, many of her stories were first published in the New Yorker, before being gathered, arranged , and often rewritten in collections such as Who Do You Think You Are? (1978), The Progress of Love (1986), The Love of a Good Woman (1998), and Too Much Happiness (2009). Domestic in scale, epic in scope, her short stories use telling detail and clear, crisp prose to perturb reality. They bring out the extraordinary in the ordinary. Again and again, with unsentimental yet loving curiosity–and always with a sense of wonder–Munro tries to make sense of ordinary lives and the way in which such lives are shaped by powerful, often hidden forces of genetics, psyche, culture, history, imagination, character and chance. The shifting depths of her stories roil beneath surfaces “preserved as if under glass, bright as mustard or grimy as charcoal, with every shading in between.”

    As the last quotation proves, Munro is an alchemist, literarily capable of turning shit into gold. As for my own two paragraphs, I hope they tempt you and your friends to start visiting my blog at http://patremoirpress.com, to start corresponding, and to help call attention to my book, Fathers: A Literary Anthology, when it comes out in April. The site was set up to publicize the book, and it contains excerpts from the book, as well as blogging reflections on writers as varied as Mordecai Richler, Adrienne Rich, Leonard Cohen, and Alison Bechdel. With kind permission of the Stegner estate, it also contains Wallace Stegner’s brillliant essay “Letter, Much Too Late.”

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  26. Lou Says:

    I’d never read Munro before reading this book, which I have found well written. The story of her ancestors in Scotland is most interesting. I think I’ll keep on discovering her work by reading some short stories.

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  27. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Lou: Her short stories are different from this collection in that they are not autobiographical. However, I am sure you are going to discover why Munro is regarded as one of the best — if not the best — short story author writiing today.

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