Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Alice Munro, "The View from Castle Rock"

 –Penguin Modern Classics, Canada 2010 ISBN 978-0-14-317740-1

Read from April 10th to May 5th 2015

My rating: 

Marin Preda, a great Romanian author, declared once in an interview, speaking of his most famous character: “Ilie Moromete, who really existed, was my father.” I’ve always used this quote as an example for my students of how writers like to maintain a deliberate confusion between fiction and reality.

In her Foreword of The View from Castle Rock, Alice Munro is even more ambiguous. After informing the reader that there is an historical truth behind her stories, she emphasizes the word stories as though putting it in opposition with the concept of real events, only to suggest immediately afterwards that reality and fiction are impossible to be told apart, that you can read them, without being wrong, either as the biography of a family or as a narrative inspired by this biography:

These are stories.You could say that such stories pay more attention to the truth of 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. 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.

And you become tired soon enough if you go in search of the truth, that is if you try to separate reality from fiction, the narrator voice from the auctorial voice and the auctorial voice from the real one. For the masterstroke of The View from Castle Rock, which, besides, ensures the unity of the text, is the perfect blend of those voices, so much so that some critics named the narrator Alice, in spite of her complete silence regarding her name. This is the first writer’s privilege Alice Munro makes use of: to challenge the reader not only to redefine reality (or fiction, if you wish), but also to become comfortable in this hybrid universe.

The second privilege is to redefine genre. It has already been said that Alice Munro does not need to write novels, for her stories are often enough novels in nuce. However, this book looks suspiciously like a novel, moreover, like a saga with, it’s true, many pages ripped out. And just as the broken parts of the slate tablets could not prevent human imagination to restore Gilgamesh tale, the broken links between the stories can easily be filled in to retrace a line that, as beautifully said Elizabeth Hay in her Introduction “is not just the line of blood, but of ink”. To keep the reader in hesitant balance between the two genres, the writer uses some narrative hooks that unite and divide at the same time the stories. The steadiest is the narrative voice, whose reliability is uncertain even when provides documents to support her story, like the letter of her ancestor Old James which, like the other events she talks about, could or could not have existed (and does she not, with a subtle irony, urges us to believe only in James Hogg’s, her fellow writer, words?):

“…I belive that Hogg and Walter Scott has got more money for Lieing than old Boston and the Erskins got for all the Sermons ever they Wrote…”

and I am surely one of the liars the old man talks about, in what I have written about the voyage. Except for Walter’s journal, and the letters, the story is full of my inventions.
The sighting of Fife from Castle Rock is related by Hogg, so it must be true.

Another hook is the leitmotiv of the journey, or journeys, for are many: the narrator’s from Canada to Scotland in search of her ancestors and from Ontario to Vancouver in search of herself; James Laidlaw’s from Scotland to Canada to fulfil a dream dreamt on the top of Castle Rock from where he pretended to see the American Coast; William Laidlaw’s from Scotland to United States to break with family; Andrew’s from upper Canada to Illinois to bring back with him William’s widow and her children; and one last travel of the narrator to Illinois to find William’s grave.

In fact it is with the image of a grave that the book symmetrically opens and closes, in the same game of decanting reality until it becomes imaginary: a real gravestone, discovered in Scotland, of her direct ancestor, the first William Laidlaw, whose life had had “something of the radiance of myth” for he was the last to see fairies and ghosts; and an imaginary one, since it was never discovered, of the other William Laidlaw, dead of cholera in Illinois.

In my opinion, though, the most impressive tale the book talks about is the initiatory journey the narrator takes, in which she looks not only for the ancestors that could define her past but for the origin of her gift, of her own need to express herself in writing, to arrive at a proud acknowledgment of a hereditary talent that, like a messenger from the past, gave her the power to reshape reality by flooding timeframe, distance, reality:

And in one of these houses – I can’t remember whose – a magic doorstop, a big mother-of-pearl seashell that I recognized as a messenger from near and far, because I could hold it to my ear – when nobody was there to stop me – and discover the tremendous pounding of my own blood, and of the sea.

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