Canadian-French (not French Canadian!) writer Mavis Gallant died 18 February in Paris. Gallant was born Mavis Leslie de Trafford Young in Montreal 11 August 1922 to Albert Stewart Roy de Trafford Young, a Canadian furniture salesman and no especially successful painter who was the son of an officer in the British Army and his wife, Benedictine Weissman, a Rumanian-born artist and playwright. Mavis was sent to boarding school when she was only four. She passed through seventeen schools in the US and Canada (reclling hating them all), and was inside and outside family and cultures from very early on, long before expatriated herself. Her marriage to John Gallant, a Winnipeg musicisian, that was briefer than its span of years, 1942-47, looks like, since he was overseas in the armed forces most of the time. She began work as a reporter for the Montreal Standard in1944 and statrted writing short fiction, leaving for Europe (first Spain, then Paris) to work full-time on it in 1950.
Though she published two novels, Green Water, Green Sky (1959) and A Fairly Good Time (1970); a play, What Is to Be Done? (1984), her reputation was made as a writer of short stories, 116 of which were published in the New Yorker. After the piublication of nearly 900 pages of Collected Stories in 1996, she had faded from widespread attention until New York Review Books published two collections of stories selected and introduced by prominent Canadian writers Paris Stories (selected by Michael Ondaatjee in 2002) and Varieties of Exile (selected by Russell Banks in 2003); these two volumes were followed by The Cost of Living: Early and Uncollected Stories in 2009. At the time of her death, she was preparing her diaries for publication. Anexcerpt on hunger when she lived briefly in Spain was published in the New Yorker last July.
Although the collection of Mavis Gallant stories selected and introduced by Michael Ondaatje is titled Paris Stories, only a plurality of them are set in Paris. Some more are set on the French Riviera(‘s less fashionable parts, between Monaco and Italy). The one I like least, “The Late Homecomer” is set in Berlin, although it involves a German prisoner-of-war who was unaccountably held in France until 1950. The one that I thought while I was reading it that I liked least, “The Ice Wagon Coming Down the Street” is primarily the recollection of a feckless couple of Canadians who felt exiled in Geneva, where the husband shared an office with a drab teetotaler from Saskatchewan. (The sadness of the story lingers in my mind, lifting it from the bottom place in my ranking.)
All the stories were written in Paris, but since Ms. Gallant took herself off to Paris to write in 1950 at the age of 27, this geographic specification does not significantly differ from calling the collection “Some Mavis Gallant stories.”
Not fitting in – varieties of exile within the predominantly Francophone city of her birth – came early, and is Gallant’s major theme (“the quandaries of people who must make their way in the world without any place to call their own” as the jacket of Varieties of Exile put it). A number of her characters, including the woman from Saskatchewan, the Berlin repatriate I’ve already mentioned, and the English (not British) family in “The Remission,” one of the longest stories in the volume, are particularly lost and confused where they go (Geneva, Berlin, the Mediterranean coast). But even the Parisians are uneasy. Speck, the art dealer in another of the longest stories, “Speck’s Idea’ has moved his gallery often. The minor French writer Grippes spent a year in California and published a book in America. His not declaring royalties form it got him the attention of the tax authorities, M. Poche in particular. Grippes has income that is hidden, but the taxman’s incomprehension of the “literary racket” keep Grippes off balance in “Grippes and Poche,” one of the stories I enjoyed most (and, to me, one of the funniest).
Gallant’s stories are often not short. And few honor the Aristotelian standard of unity of space and time. Many stories and plays even a large number of novels occur in short durations, but not Gallant’s. Many of hers cover multiple geographic locations (“The Ice Wagon” is a good example, with memories of Paris, Geneva, Montreal, and Saskatchewan). And even more cover relatively long spans of time: years of remission on the Mediterranean for the man who goes there from England to die in “The Remission,” years abroad in “The Ice Wagon,” 1938-50 in “The Late Homecomer,” decades in “the Moslem Wife,” etc.
In her afterword, which is for me the best story of all – that of the writer herself – Gallant writes: “Stories are not chapters of novels. [At least hers are not!] They should not be read one after another, as if they were meant to follow along. Read one. Shut the book. Read something else. Come back later. Stories can wait.” I read that immediately after reading Ondaatje’s introduction and follower her advice. (BTW, the clipped sentences are not typical of her style.) Such an approach is bad for review-writing, because the freshness of memory is compromised. (I ended up overdosing, reading all the longest stories consecutively, months after reading the shorter ones.)
Rather than being “chapters of a novel,” many of Gallant’s stories seem like condensed novels. Her jump-cuts (to borrow a cinematic term) appeal to Ondaatje, whose own novels are as oblique as Gallant’s stories (especially, Divisadero, his most recent one, which I have difficulty considering a single novel rather than two novellas with a very tenuous link). Neither builds characters and narratives in a straight line, or even in a tight spiral. Her paragraphs and his chapters can be very disjunctive. Ondaatje lauds Gallant’s stories’ “quick pace and sudden. swerves.” I don’t think I would call them “quick-paced,” but there are definitely sudden swerves. And not many epiphanies (positive or negative ones). All of these stories first appeared in the New Yorker (between 1959 and 1995 – “In Transit” and “August” are the only ones not in chronological order of original publication. Ben Cheever characterized New Yorker stories as having an air of sadness and not much happening, and these fit that bill.
My favorite from these stories that I have not yet mentioned (set in Geneva over Christmas – one of the shortest time spans of any of the stories) is “Irina.” Hardly anything happens, but unlike many New Yorker, including many of Gallant’s, I felt that the story had an ending, didn’t just stop. Even the ones that seem to me to have endings (all of my favorite ones: Irina, Speck’s Idea, Remission, Grippes and Porche, August) have relatively open endings. Many of the others don’t have endings that satisfy me. “They were the last words they exchanged today”? Today?
Most of the stories are told by omniscient narrators. As with Muriel Spark (who wrote short stories as well as short novels), the “God’s eye” perspective is a cold eye. Neither Gallant nor Spark shows the kind of compassion for her befuddled often self-defeating character than Penelope Fitzgerald had. The pretensions and other stupidities of Gallant’s and Spark’s character are pinned to the page rather like butterflies and other insects are pinned for display.
Spark was a Scottish writer who lived in Italy, Gallant is a Canadian writer who has long lived in Paris (whereas Penelope Fitzgerald stayed home and imagined different times and places). I don’t think that Gallant’s professional interest in marginality is uniquely Canadian, but is very typically Canadian (cf. Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood… and Michael Ondaatje). BTW, the Canadians in Paris Stories are Anglophone, and I think outnumbered by English expatriates in France. (there are French-Canadians in Varieties of Exile, however.)
Varieties of Exile
“There is no escape from yesterday, because yesterday has deformed us or been_deformed by us.” – Samuel Beckett, quoted by Banks in his introduction
Before I started reading these two collections of her stories, I read of Gallant as an heir to Henry James-not in ornate style (far from it!), but in fascination with the international clashes of expectations. The jacket cover of Varieties of Exile advertised “the fine-grained evocation of the quandaries of people who must make their way in the world without any place to call their own.” The title of the book also suggested (if not quite “advertised” such a theme., but I discovered that the book’s title is the title of one story, a story about a Canadian girl who romanticized European refugees from Hitler, welcoming them “as prophets of a promised social order that was to consist of justice, equality, art, personal relations, courage, generosity.” She could not fail to notice that the refugees seemed to hate each other. They may have shared her some of her frustrations with her homeland (which I would specify as a Scottish enclave of Montreal), but were lacking in most of the just-listed qualities.
The title story is not really about the seething exiles or about assimilating ones. It is more remittance men (a now vanished species, paid by families in the UK to stay out of it) and youthful marriage to a man going to war that I’d say it is “about.” Mostly, though, it is about the beginnings of a writer, “putting life through a sieve and then discarding” the pulp.
The last three stories, longer than most of the others in the collection, are narrated by Steve, a (Scottish) Montreal expatriate who has settled in the South of France, but is unable to escape the past, since the aunt who raised him keeps sending people she knows to look him up. In “Let It Pass,” it is the loutish daughter of his ex-wife. “The Concert Party” involves multiple Canadians who have settled in the South of France-and who like each other about as well as the refugees from Hitler in Montreal did. And who are about as little interested in assimilating to where they have settled. And mostly monolingual English speakers. (If they did not learn French in a city and province in which the majority speaks French, living in France is not going to induce most of them to learn French.) Between these two long stories is another, “In a War” in which Steve recalls his youthful friendship with Lily Quayle, his future wife, and her lower-class family, including an older brother, Leo, who was a delivery man who went off to the European war (WWII).
Although I do not buy these stories being told from a male perspective, they share the acute observation of the other stories in the volume and the very dry humor. With the title story and “The End of the World,” they are my favorites. “The End of the World” is also purportedly narrated by a male, but with a perspective on family relations that strikes me as female. It’s difficult for me to credit a line (excellent a line as it is!) such as “I hadn’t been prepared for this, for how long the mind stayed alive and how frivolous it went on being” to a son viewing his dying father. In a way the story is “Conradian,” but without a Marlowe.
“The End of the World” is also set in France. The story titled “Florida” is set in Florida. though in a Florida that is a suburb of Montreal. (It is, BTW, an affecting story to read. Thinking back about it, it seems contrived, but this did not strike me while I was absorbed in it.)
In his introduction Russell Banks writes: “The fifteen stories gathered together here are the ones I love best from Gallant’s so-called ‘Canadian stories.’ They are ‘Canadian,’ not by virtue of where they are set, but only because their protagonists happen to hail from that country, regardless of where they turn up in the world of the story.” In fact, all hail from Montreal, and the majority of the stories are set in Montreal, with memories of relationships there and the presence of people related to those remembered relationships in all the ones in which the characters are not in Montreal.
(How did my crash course on Canadian literature during my first year at the University of Toronto miss Gallant? It included Gabrielle Roy, Ethel Water, Margaret Laurence, Margaret Atwood… By the mid-1970s the unawareness of Canada by Canadians that is mentioned in many of the stories had changed, and I endeavored to insure that there was Canadian content in the courses I taught. Back in the 1940s, as is remarked in “The Doctor,” “French books were from France; English books from England or the United States. It would not have entered their minds that the language they heard spoken around them could be written, too.” Invisibility of women and nondomestic ambition of women such as the author are also leitmotifs along with the lack of consciousness of Canada distinct from England, e.g., “Efforts not to turn a young girl’s head-part of an education I had encountered at every stage and in every sort of school-had succeeded in making me invisible to myself.”)
The collection includes a clump of stories featuring Linnet Muir, another clump featuring the Carette sisters, Berthe and Marie, as well as the three Steve stories. Those with the Carette sisters have some especially devastating dry humor. In “The Doctor,” Gallant writes, “Unconsciously, everyone under the age of ten knows everything…. It is part of the clairvoyant immunity to hypocrisy we are born with and that vanishes just before puberty.” She seems to have retained some of this clairvoyance, along with knowledge of why adults behave as they do.
The book begins with “The Fenton Child”-which is unfortunate, both because it is unusually long and the least interesting story in the book, and is placed where it might deter readers. I would recommend skipping it and the third story, “New Year’s Eve”-of starting with “In Youth and Pleasure” and proceeding through the rest of the stories and then (perhaps) returning to the first five).
In an afterword to Paris Stories, Gallant wrote that stories “are not chapters of novels. They should not be read one after another, as if they were meant to follow along…. Stories can wait.” I think the last three (Steve) stories amplify each other, and the Carette stories also do. And I’m not very good at waiting.
Other than starting on the wrong foot (or a faux pied), my only complaint about the book is that it does not indicate when the stories were written or first published. For me, the last stories in the volume are the best, but I don’t know if they were the most recently written ones.