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The View from Alice Munro

With canny lies and family truths, a fiction writer mines her own life

Margaret-Ann Fitzpatrick-Hanly

The View from Castle Rock

Alice Munro

Douglas Gibson Books

349 pages, hardcover

Is Alice Munro more of an autobiographer in The View from Castle Rock than in her other books? Is she more self-revealing about her own passion, domesticity, envy, aging, literary ambition, her approach to death or anxiety, or to the transferences of feelings as a four-year-old onto “current” experiences used in the “stories”? Munro certainly plays throughout the book with references to James Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner, the famous Scottish writer being a distant cousin of hers. She begins in a country churchyard with her great-great-great-great grandfather’s tombstone:

Here lyeth William Laidlaw, the far-famed Will o’ Phaup, who for feats of frolic, agility and strength, had no equal in his day…

Epitaph composed by his grandson, James Hogg.

Hogg was born on a poor farm near Ettrick Forest and helped by Alice’s progenitor, James Laidlaw. He published his most famous book, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, in 1824. A classic gothic tale of good versus evil set in a world of angels, devils and demonic possession, this novel is known for its telling of stories from multiple angles and its questioning of a single truth about historical events. So when Munro writes her half-teasing note on postmodernism in the foreword to The View from Castle Rock, we know she has Hogg in mind: “I was doing something closer to what a memoir does—exploring a life, my own life … as searchingly as I could … 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.”

The “view” of the title is all about paying attention to point of view, for what the old father, James Laidlaw, thought was the shining ocean and America was not: “it was some years before [his son Andrew] was well enough acquainted with maps to know that he had been looking at Fife.” Munro amuses her reader with the fact that the courage of her forebears to leave for America was based on a drunken view of Fife. Conflicting accounts of events, in the tradition of Hogg’s memoirs, often tell us more about the narrators than about the events.

We learn that Will Laidlaw came from a “high stony farm … in the Ettrick Valley” that was said to have, as the title of one of the stories proclaims, “no advantages.” But what advantages after all, what inspiration was there for the writer’s mind in the Ettrick Valley! It was “the home of Michael Scott, the philosopher and wizard of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, who appears in Dante’s Inferno. And if that were not enough, William Wallace, the guerilla hero of the Scots, is said to have hidden out here from the English, and there is a story of Merlin—Merlin—being hunted down and murdered, in the old forest, by Ettrick shepherds.” How many of the Laidlaws were on their way to hell as unjustified sinners?

In “Fathers,” Munro the teenage narrator writes of a brutal man who beat his daughter, who in her turn thought she would not be hanged if she killed him while she was still a juvenile. “My father agreed,” she writes. “‘Hard to get a court around here to convict her.’ My mother said that it was a shame, what a man like that had made of his daughter.” Munro the narrator thinks back on being beaten by her father at times, at age twelve, for “back talk or smart talk or intransigence” to her mother, but also recalls her eventual adaptation to her family as a writer-to-be: “I don’t mean that I was always trying to make the family laugh—though I did that too—but that I relayed news and gossip … I had learned how to do this in a way that would not get me rebuked for being sarcastic or vulgar … I had mastered a deadpan, even demure style that could make people laugh even when they thought they shouldn’t and that made it hard to tell whether I was innocent or malicious.” 

How can Munro make us laugh at teenage sin, sexuality and the thirst for knowledge? In “Lying Under the Apple Tree,” with its reference to deceit and to the Garden of Eden, Munro explores odd gaps in adolescent knowledge. “I seem to have believed that a penis was at maximum size all the time, and in its classic shape, but in spite of this could be kept dangling down inside the leg of the pants, not hoisted up to put pressure against another body in this way.” In “Hired Girl,” the narrator realizes that despite her sense of being humiliated by the rich, it was she who wanted to shame, humiliate and hurt the wealthy woman who hired her: “Cruelty was a thing I could not recognize in myself. I thought I was blameless here, and in any dealings with this family. All because of being young, and poor, and knowing about Nausicaa.” The allusion to the girl on the beach, surprised by Ulysses on his way home (or might it also be to the Nausicaa of Joyce’s Ulysses?), is typical of this densely allusive text. Munro refers twice to Wuthering Heights, to Emily Brontë, who loved James Hogg and who in her famous novel explored the dark side of human nature, a child abandoned and hurt, a developing sadism and narcissism, a possessive sexuality, loneliness, and death, with a commentary from a primitive Presbyterian minister and the memoir of a hired girl.

The last story before the closing “Messenger” is “What Do You Want to Know For?”—a story about wanting to know things and meeting uncertainties, such as a cancer scare and an unaccountable burial mound. In a university library, in the cemeteries of Huron County, in geographical atlases, Munro shares with her second husband her historical researches; or does she search for metaphors, for resonances with her shifting inner life? She brings us full circle from the cemetery of the Ettrick Valley to the cemeteries and old churches and Presbyterian practices and beliefs of Huron County, to the private memoirs and confessions of many justified sinners, to dread and to family bonds, not much altered.

And when we look back at what Munro says of James Hogg in “No Advantages,” we find that she is teasing her readers about truth and fiction, confessions and memoirs: “Hogg was both insider and outsider, industriously and—he hoped—profitably shaping and recording his people’s stories … There would be some trimming and embroidering of material on Hogg’s part. Some canny lying of the sort you can depend upon a writer to do.” Munro does write something close to a memoir, with the conscience of a writer, industriously and profitably shaping people’s stories trimming and embroidering with some canny lying, and with tact.

Margaret-Ann Fitzpatrick-Hanly is a Toronto psychoanalyst and critic who has written on narrative, Keats, Brontë, Austen and Alice Munro.