Last night I had the deep pleasure of reading Alice Munro’s recent New Yorker piece, The View from Castle Rock, to Viv aloud. Man, such fine writing! It’s so precise and finely crafted, pivoting from scene to scene with the grace of a dancing master. (My reading order for the mag got scrambled as I had picked up the more-recent food issue while on a trip out of town and just turned to the issue last night).
The story is a sketch of a Scots family’s passage from Edinburgh to Quebec in 1818, and there are no improbable crises or supernatural eruptions to color he tale, only the rolling passage of the ship over waves, echoed in Munro’s rythmic, stately prose. I found the story compelling formally. I was fascinated at the economy and mythic brevity with which Munro introduces and signals the role and character of each play on her pitching stage. Moreover, though, I found the tale moving, falling headfirst into the hoary bit of stage management – a jump cut to the present (seeTitanic and ST:TNG’s The Inner Light) and, friends, weeping like a baby as I read the last few paragraphs.
In the Irish, and other, emigrant songs I have learned over the past ten years, the stunning sadness and permanency of the nineteenth-century experience of that long, final boat journey is well-captured. But these songs are songs crafted to provide a broad audience with a formal, social mechanism to express the sense of loss and sadness, and a means for their descendants to touch that as well. As such, the songs are usually quite generalized and do not dwell on the images and experiences of the trip itself so much as the dramatic moment of boarding the ship or the last glimpse of the homeland.
Munro’s story includes these moments, but her novelistic skill has permitted her to stitch these revenants from the cloth of history and with a puff of her breath send them dancing into our minds, inviting us to complete the act of resurrection and, for a few moments, bring these dead Scots to life one more.