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Reflections of a working writer and reader

 

 

The View from Castle Rock by Alice Munro

Alice Munro is a master of the short story; she writes like this: (the setting is Edinburgh Castle, some time around 1850)

They were climbing uneven stone steps, some as high as Andrew’s knees – he had to crawl occasionally -inside what as far as he could make out was a roofless tower. His father called out, ‘Are ye all with me then, are ye all in for the climb?’ and some straggling voices answered him. Andrew got the impression that there was not such a crowd following as there had been on the street.

They climbed far up in the roundabout stairway and at last came out on a bare rock, a shelf, from which the land fell steeply away. The rain had ceased for the present.

‘Ah, there,’ said Andrew’s father. ‘Now where’s all the ones was tramping on our heels to get here?’

One of the men just reaching the top step said, ‘There’s two-three of them took off to have a look at the Meg.’

‘Engines of war,’ said Andrew’s father. ‘All they have eyes for is engines of war. Take care they don’t go and blow themselves up.’

‘Haven’t the heart for the stairs, more like,’ said another man who was panting. And the first one said cheerfully, ‘Scairt to get all the way up here, scairt they’re bound to fall off.’

A third man – and that was the lot – came staggering across the shelf as if he had in mind to mdo that very thing.

‘Where is it then?’ he hollered. ‘Are we up on Arthur’s seat?’

‘Ye are not,’ said Andrew’s father. ‘Look beyond you.’

The sun was out now, shining on the stone heap of houses and streets below them, and the churches whose spires did not reach to this height, and some little trees and fields, then a wide silvery stretch of water. And beyond that a pale green and grayish-blue land, part in sunlight and part in shadow, a land as light as mist, sucked into the sky.

‘So did I not tell you?’ Andrew’s father said. ‘America. It is only a little bit of it, though, only the shore. There is where every man is sitting in the midst of his own properties, and even the beggars is riding around in carriages.

‘Well the sea does not look so wide as I thought,’ said the man who had stopped staggering. ‘It does not look as if it would take you weeks to cross it.’

‘It is the effect of the height we’re on,’ said the man who stood beside Andrew’s father. ‘The height we’re on is making the width of it the less.’

‘It’s a fortunate day for the view,’ said Andrew’s father. ‘Many a day you could climb up here and see nothing but the fog.’

He turned and addressed Andrew.

‘So there you are my lad and you have looked over at America,’ he said. ‘God grant you one day you will see it closer up and for yourself.’

Alice Munro uses this series of linked stories to explore her ancestor’s lives in Scotland (Walter Scott and James Hogg were both part of the scene). She traces the family’s move to Canada, and mixes in her own life experience growing up in Ontario. She examines the way we tell stories to maintain our connections to the past, and how these stories sometimes disappear. She also, unashamedly, mixes fact with fiction, so thoroughly that by the end of the book we don’t know which is which.

It is difficult to pin down Alice Munro, and say, this is why she is so good. While you are reading her you know how good she is, and at the end of one of her stories you need to take a breath to regain some distance and equilibrium. But later, you realize you’ve lost her again, or she’s lost you, or . . . what has actually happened is that the moment has passed. Because her writing style somehow, impossibly, apes the world in which our thoughts and impressions perform their acrobatics. The quiescent mind wanders imaginatively, and Munro’s stories do the same thing. It’s not that they are about experiences unknown, just the opposite. They are about everyday people in everyday situations, but she uses language to stir at their superficialities until all that has been hidden comes rushing to the surface.

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