Thursday, 9 August 2007

Fiction, Memoir and Alice Munro

This last week I've taken a break from 19th century Paris, and read The View from Castle Rock (McClelland and Stewart, 2006) by Alice Munro. What a pleasure, and an interesting experiment in walking the boundary between fiction and non-fiction!

Munro has always drawn deeply on her own experience in creating her remarkable series of fictions, which in many respects are truer than non-fiction. When I first read The Lives of Girls and Women in the early 1970s I was blown over at their resonances with the lives led by women in my family. With some trepidation I bought a copy and sent it to a cousin whose struggle to break free of small time life was still going on at that time. She never commented on it, which I took then to mean just how uncomfortably close to her reality Munro’s stories were.

But at the age of 75, Munro suggests that Castle Rock is something closer to the facts about her life, that it approaches memoir in some respects. Part of the book consists of stories which she wrote over the years beginning with documents from her Laidlaw ancestors. At the same time, she says in the foreword to the book, she found herself writing about the figures in her own life, using their real names, but discovering that they began to take on new “their own life and color and did things they had not done in reality....You could say that such stories pay more attention to the truth of a life than fiction usually does.”

In The View from Castle Rock, Munro writes with her usual elegance and elliptical economy. But, oddly, the stories are not as compelling as other fictions she has created out of the same life experience. It is as if writing “fiction” from the beginning allowed her really to soar, like her ancestor who said he could see America from Castle Rock in Edinburgh.

For the facts about her life, read Lives of Mothers and Daughters: Growing up with Alice Munro ( McClelland and Stewart, 2002) by her daughter Sheila Munro or the literary biography, Alice Munro: Writing Her Lives, by Robert Thacker (McClelland and Stewart, 2005.) For marvelous literary experience, read any of her books of short fiction.

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