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Thread: Alice Munro: The View from Castle Rock

  1. #1
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    Canada Alice Munro: The View from Castle Rock

    There is already a short thread about the Canadian writer Alice Munro, misplaced at General Discussion, despite Stiffelio's request to have it moved to a more appropriate location -

    http://www.worldliteratureforum.com/...ht=Alice+Munro

    Her semi-autobiographical novel The View from Castle Rock caused a lot of interest in Scotland when it appeared in 2006. In it, Munro portrayed her Scottish ancestors, the Laidlaws (her maiden name is Laidlaw) who were natives of the Ettrick Valley in the Border country. As a writer herself, Munro is intrigued by the fact that her ancestor Robert Laidlaw was a brother of Margaret Laidlaw, mother of James Hogg, the author of "Confessions of a Justified Sinner". Margaret Laidlaw was a tradition-bearer who recited many of her poems and songs and stories to her son's friend Sir Walter Scott, and when Scott published some of the songs she sang for him, she rebuked him - uncaring of the fact that he was a fine Edinburgh gentleman - because now, she said, the songs would be sung no more.

    The book takes its title from a saying of Alice Munro's ancestor James Laidlaw, who claimed, presumably in jest, that the land visible on the other side of the Forth estuary from Edinburgh's Castle Rock was America (it is actually my home county of Fife). Here's the blurb from the book:-

    "On a clear day, you could see 'America' from Edinburgh's Castle Rock - or so said Alice Munro's great-great-great-grandfather James Laidlaw, when he had drink taken. Then, in 1818, Laidlaw left a Scottish valley of banked Presbyterian emotions and uncanny tales - where, like his more famous cousin James Hogg, he was born and bred - and sailed to the new world with his family. This is the story of those Ettrick shepherds and their descendants, among them the author herself. They were a Spartan lot, who kept to themselves, showing off was frowned on, and fear was commonplace, at least for females.

    But opportunities present themselves for two strong-minded women in a ship's close quarters; a father dies and a baby vanishes en route from Illinois to Canada; childhood is short and hazardous even in the twentieth century. This is family history where imperfect recollections blur into fiction, where the past shows through the present like the tracks of a glacier on a geological map. And woven into it are first-person stories that draw on material from Munro's own life. First love flowers under an apple tree while lust rears its head in a barn; a restless mother with ideas beyond her station declines slowly and painfully; a father farms fox fur and turkeys; a clever girl escapes to college and then into marriage.

    Beneath the ordinary landscape there's a different story - evocative, frightening, sexy, unexpected, gripping. Alice Munro tells it like no other."

    It's certainly a tour-de-force, but the mixture of recorded history, preserved family letters quoted verbatim, "made-up bits" (my own technical term) and intimate details of Munro's health problems, along with the graveyard research, made for an uneven mix that left me rather queasy. I like a novel where the research doesn't show through. And, OMG! life in small-town provincial Ontario is SO boring!!

    Harry

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    Default Re: Alice Munro: The View from Castle Rock

    And, OMG! life in small-town provincial Ontario is SO boring!!
    Well, I'm sorry, but it isn't really all that boring . . . really.

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    Default Re: Alice Munro: The View from Castle Rock

    I was being deliberately provocative. I'm a small-town boy myself, but being of a later generation than Munro - the pampered post-WWII baby-boomer generation - my small-town life wasn't as grim and circumscribed as the life she describes. Hard work and few luxuries and a bleak, Calvinistic attitude to life. I know about such things, but was spared them myself. Also, a fishing village turned tourist destination like my town had more links to the outside world than some little country farming community.

    Harry

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    Default Re: Alice Munro: The View from Castle Rock

    Munro just uses the quiet landscape she's familiar with to study, without a lot of distractions, the inner workings of her characters. Where they live is not so important as why they behave the way they do. I think it must be more difficult to write stories with an big city setting, as there are so many variables and unexpected obstacles to work around.

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    Default Re: Alice Munro: The View from Castle Rock

    Quote Originally Posted by lenz View Post
    Munro just uses the quiet landscape she's familiar with to study, without a lot of distractions, the inner workings of her characters. Where they live is not so important as why they behave the way they do. I think it must be more difficult to write stories with an big city setting, as there are so many variables and unexpected obstacles to work around.
    I don't see the logic of that. If the writer is mainly concerned with the "inner workings" of their characters, and what motivates their behaviour, it makes no odds what size of community the characters live in. Often people who live in small communities are on the go all the time, active in the community, known to everybody there and incapable of going outside without having to stop and chat to people who know them. Plenty of distractions, in other words. Whereas it's a cliché and truism that you can be lonelier in a big city than anywhere else. You can know nobody there and be able to walk along the street barely aware of the people around you and ignored by them.

    I think in other words that it might be easier to write about a character's inner workings, ignoring their setting, if you place them in a city than if you place them in a small community where they can hardly avoid being part of the scenery and interacting with other people.

    Harry

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    Default Re: Alice Munro: The View from Castle Rock

    You've got a good point, hdw, but Munro's characters tend to have a lot of space around them. They may not be alone in a crowd, but when they're alone on a dirt road in the middle of nowhere - they're really alone. ha ha.

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