Unsentimental Journey

 

I’ve just finished ‘The View from Castle Rock’ by Alice Munro and found it a most intriguing and indeed almost perplexing read. The book is a series of short stories based on the anecdotes and the archival evidence that Munro has uncovered relating to her family, reaching back to its early days in the dour Scottish landscape of the late 18th century where life was harsh, religion was paramount and the people still believed in fairies. The story that gives its name to the whole collection tells the story of the intrepid Munro ancestors who sailed across the Atlantic to Canada in the hope of a more prosperous life. The guiding force behind the emigration is Old James, whose dreams of distant lands have fuelled his fantasies for many years before finally the voyage is undertaken. He brings with him two sons, Andrew and Walter, and a rather strange and backward daughter, Mary. Andrew brings his pregnant wife, Agnes, an unsympathetic character, materially minded, without tenderness and utterly scornful of anything that does not fit her own way of thinking, and his small son, James, who is the light of Mary’s life. This disparate group settles into the dislocation of a sea journey with its discomforts and unexpected delights and Munro conjures up the scenes with breathtaking authenticity and vivacity. Her powers of evocation are really quite amazing, and it was only when I was halfway through that I caught myself wondering whether anything was ever going to happen in this story.

 

Generally, journeys in stories are weighed down with symbolic meaning. The ordeals that travelers have to endure, the challenges they face, the discomforts they suffer, all add up to a paradigm of life itself, only concentrated on the troublesome business of shifting geographically from A to B. But there’s none of this in Munro’s account; on the one hand she is constrained by the distance of time and the actuality of historical facts. She knows her ancestors sailed, and arrived safely, and much as she promises the reader an imaginative recreation of her family story, she is also aware of wanting to stay within ‘the outline of a true narrative.’ This unusual compromise leads to a narrative that adheres very tightly to an unchanging present: the characters travel overseas without becoming caught up in any significant transformations. Walter finds his horizons enlarged a little thanks to a friendship he develops on the boat; Mary develops a little more self-confidence; Agnes remains her rather brutal, blunt-edged self. Only Old James manages the kind of literary transition beloved of the journey story: having been the driving force to leave his homeland, his incarceration on the boat finds him swapping his tales of venturing forth for tales of homesick nostalgia. But in this respect he remains resolutely someone who can only truly exist in a fantasy location.

 

What happens to the family, the tragedies and the triumphs, the politics and the romance, all happen outside the framework of the story itself, although Munro catches us up at the end of the tale with an overview of her ancestor’s lives. The journey, then, becomes a story that happens almost within parenthesis, a three month long pause in their real lives, although it is a moment that is wholly decisive for their destinies. I found this story fascinating and frustrating at the same time. Fascinating because Munro is such a talented, confident writer; it’s almost like being present at a masterclass in writing craft; but frustrating because I wanted to interpret something out of it, some underlying story that held truth about experience, traveling, abandoning the homeland in favour of the unknown. But the project of hovering between a memoir and fiction binds and limits Munro in unexpected narrative places. Don’t get me wrong – this very feature is one of the most interesting qualities of the writing. I will most certainly be reading the rest of the book now, not only to watch the unfolding story of further generations, but to see how Munro tackles the telling of it.

 

Cross-posted at A Curious Singularity 

14 thoughts on “Unsentimental Journey

  1. An intriguing post about the employment of fiction in history or history in fiction. Perhaps we are being given a commentary on the very pervasive current trend to make history seem so real, especially in the cinema. There have always been such books and plays, films, etc. Today, however, these seem, alongside the so called docusoap, so convincing. I’m thinking of Becoming Jane, Shakespeare in Love, The Girl With the Pearl Earring, etc. Even memoirs and history books seem to be moving in this more characterised direction.

  2. I’ve been noticing the trend that Bookboxed is talking about, too–I’m thinking of the last few books by Geraldine Brooks, as well as Girl With the Pearl Earring, and other books of that type. As you know, I have Munro’s book on my pile, and I’m reallly looking forward to reading it. I usually love Munro’s style, and I’ll be interested to see if I still like it employed in this different direction. My interest is also piqued because I’ve been thinking about writing about family history, and the obvious pitfalls that entails…

  3. I didn’t realize that voyages had this sort of symbolic meaning, or maybe I knew but never thought about it in that sort of way (now I’ll be looking for meaning whenever someone steps aboard a boat!). Interesting post, Litlove (and comments, too). I have this book and read the first story in it ages ago, but now I think I will have to dig it out and read it in earnest.

  4. And for some weird reason I always look for more meaning in short stories than I do in novels sometimes (like a story must have a reason for being–not something simply for entertainment or pleasure), though I still have trouble distinguishing just what it is (but will keep working at them!).

  5. Bookboxed, that is (as ever) an extremely interesting comment. You’re quite right that history is both held at arm’s length with the evident fictionalisation of the story and then brought right up close to the viewer/reader with the immediacy of the narrative. It’s one way to deal with the problem that is bringing the past to life. Apparently the stories in the first half of the collection provide echoes for the stories from Munro’s own life that fill the second part. I’ll let you know how the interactions between the histories develop. Gentle Reader – how very intriguing to think that you are tempted to write about your family history! I think that’s a fascinating idea, although I wouldn’t know how to go about doing it myself. This is the first Munro book I’ve read, although I have always heard such good things said about her. Emily – you made me laugh out loud – how very insightful you are! Danielle – do read it on one of your short story Sundays and join in the discussion at A Curious Singularity – I’d love to know what you think of it. And I know just what you mean about considering the short story to be some sort of concentrated essence of a novel – I do exactly the same thing! And yet they are far harder to get to the bottom of than novels. Just less time to explain things, I imagine, and to let characters develop.

  6. Having attempted to write fictionalised history based on ancestral family members I agree with your comments about developing someone during a journey. Jean M Auel had problems with her “travelling” tale within “Earth’s Children” possibly because she stayed in the “Present” voice as she has done for the whole of the series. I think a part of the problem is that it is necessary to take a reader through the exterior landscape and while there is time for adventure, that comes at a price. The interior landscapes must be neglected to some extent. In a short story the problem is exacerbated by the sheer lack of space to do both. An author can present a character or two and their physical journey but any more and the short story becomes a “Novella” or more. (oops, my SF background is showing). Of course there is also the problem that character does not change significantly during a journey as any journey is too short for such a change. The changes come later as the person has time to reflect and to apply the lessons learned during the journey.

    Hmm, now where are those three pages I wrote on the Catholic Bernard Smith’s wooing of the Protestant Henrietta Gresswell in the new colony to which they had separately travelled – – –

  7. Such an interesting post and comments! It appears that just like a cigar is sometime just a cigar, a journey is sometimes just a journey. I’m ashamed to say I have yet to read Munro. I always mean to but other books get in the way.

  8. Munro, who’s not to my taste, has received mixed criticism for this book: it’s been considered both good and not good, parts being weak, other parts being more convincing. I think that must happen quite a bit with historical novels, or fiction that plays with history, especially.

    Litlove, something from what I’m reading now deals with realism, and seems applicable to the historical novel:

    “It is a sophomoric truism that the present instantaneously and without surcease becomes the past… [A particular writer, Ralph Cusack], in managing his work so that the past and the present are one, implies that if the past is dead and the present is the past, it too is dead: it simply does not exist. Given this proposition, the idea of fictional realism suffers an enormous blow. If presently occurring phenomena are not _really_ here and now, and if they are as actually irretrievable as the phenomena of a decade past, what indeed measures or can measure present reality?…[Cusack] tells us once again (we cannot be told it often enough) that all fiction is a lie and lies most egregiously when it pretends to remember _the facts_.” (Gilbert Sorrentino, “Anytime is Every Time,” in _Something Said: Essays_)

    Historical fiction, or works in which history is imagined, would seem to lie even more, relying as they do on research (a congregation of facts, in the sense above). Maybe the closest thing we have to ‘what happened’ is: there are black marks on white paper trying to convince us of something.

  9. I read the title story when it was excerpted in The New Yorker and I remember the “visual” of it has remained with me. I think that is definitely because of Munro’s elegant writing. I’d like to read the collection sometime and see what I think of it. I enjoy Munro in small doses. One story at a time, with weeks or months in between.

  10. Archie – what an interesting comment! I have never read any of Jean Auel’s work (although people love them). I’m also most intrigued by bloggers who are attempting to recreate their family history – such a fascinating project and so essential to keep social history alive for future generations. Stefanie – let’s not go into how many authors I have in my ‘Must Read Soon’ list that I’ve yet to get around to! Yes, it’s that absence of other dimensions that intrigued me about the Munro story, but give me time… I’ll concoct something🙂 JB – I just love that last line in your quote about fiction never being more about lies than when it purports to tell the facts – that’s wonderful, and worthy of me looking up Sorrentino, I do believe. I also think what you have to say about the archival evidence of testimony being the best we can get towards a true appreciation of the past is fascinating, and something I will have to think on more. Verbivore – yes, some writers are best enjoyed in small quantities, aren’t they? I adored the Orhan Pamuk book, but I couldn’t read another one just yet. You are spot on that the visual is paramount, too.

  11. I really enjoyed reading your take on the story Litlove. I didn’t find it frustrating but I see what you mean about wanting to interpret some meaning from it. Another thing that I thought was interesting which I forgot to mention was the tension she held in the story. I thought something awful was going to take place on board the ship, especially in the scene where Mary is looking for the little boy. So I did find that interesting. Are you reading the whole book or did you just read the one story? I had to return my copy of the book but will have to read more of Munro.

  12. As always, your viewpoint fascinates me, especially having just finished this story myself. You’re quite right, it really is different from the usual “journey tale,” as we don’t see the culmination of the voyage (except for the little glimpse at the end). To me, reading it was like looking at an old photograph and imagining what might have happened during a frozen moment in time.

    I don’t think this story is necessarily representative of Munroe’s work. The stories from the other collection of hers that I recently read (Friends and Lovers) are much more convetional, if you will, yet beautifully written. I’m interested to read the rest of this collection, and see how it progresses.

    Wonderful review!

  13. Iliana – I agree with you completely about the tension. I thought something terrible might happen to Agnes in childbirth, too, and to Walter and his young lady. I am reading the rest of the book now, as it got me so interested I had to keep going. I’d really recommend it – if you get the chance to borrow it again! Ravenous – I love what you say about looking at an old photo – it’s exactly like that – and thank you for the information on Munro, who I shall certainly be reading more of, including the rest of this book too!

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