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Second Glance: The Wit and Woe of Mavis Gallant

The Collected Stories of Mavis Gallant

Random House, 1996

Paris Stories

By Mavis Gallant
New York Review of Books, 2002

Varieties of Exile

By Mavis Gallant
New York Review of Books, 2003

There’s a bookstore with a tabby cat curled up on a pile of books in the window. Inside, an owner perched on a stool gazes out at a sudden downpour. A woman dives into the shop. She shakes out her coat and sprays water everywhere. The owner greets her with a weak smile. Guiltily, she looks round, then asks, “Any short story collections?” He walks towards the back of the store and points to a bottom shelf, every spine embossed with the name Mavis Gallant. The woman stares at them as if he’d taken her to the cookbook section. “Who is Mavis Gallant?”

Francophiles, Canadians, and The New Yorker-obsessed can’t keep Gallant to themselves. For one thing, there’s The New York Review of Books to contend with. They have been doing a damn fine job over the last few years of bringing Gallant out from the dusty bottom shelves and used bookstore circuit and into the fresh, paperback light of day. In the forward of the NYRB Press’ edition of Gallant’s Canada-based stories, Varieties of Exiles, Russell Banks sets forth his reply to “Who is Mavis Gallant?”

With gratifying regularity her stories have appeared in the pages of The New Yorker for nearly five decades now (which fact alone justifies the existence of the magazine); she has won numerous prizes and awards, yet here in the United States, despite having long been ensconced at Parnassian heights, she has mostly been viewed as a ‘writers writer.’ Surely this is due more to her residency abroad, her absence from book-chat circles, and her well-known aversion to intrusions on her privacy than to any particular difficulty or preciousness or exoticism in her work. For what is a writers’ writer, anyhow? Merely one who honors in every sentence she writes the deepest, most time-honored principles of composition: honesty, clarity, concision. So, yes, in that sense she is a writers’ writer. But only in that sense.

True to form, Michael Ondaatje has written an ode-like introduction to NYRB’s edition of Gallant’s Paris Stories:

The characters who people Mavis Gallant’s Europe are complex and various. The same is true of her protean prose. She is light years away from writers who claim a recognizable indelible style and constant landscape, although we as readers do become accustomed to her chameleon nature, her quick pace and her sudden swerves, so that we watch and listen carefully for any ground shift of humor or sadness. Her tenderness arrives unexpectedly, while her wit is sly, almost too quick. Comic possibilities are everywhere.

And then there’s the collection to end all collections – Random House’s 887-page edition of The Collected Stories of Mavis Gallant from 1996. All the stories, save one, originally appeared in The New Yorker. They are arranged by the decade in which the action occurs or by groups of recurring main characters, with the years in which they were written listed parenthetically in the table of contents. While this chronological arrangement spoons out healthy portions of twentieth-century Canadian and European history, it also permits the fanatical Gallant reader to skip around, read her work in publication order, and sample a different recipe entirely, that of Gallant’s evolution as a writer.

New York. Paris. Montreal. Is it because Gallant is such a gadabout that her fan base is seemingly small and privileged? Au contraire – you’d be hard-pressed to find a more grounded writer. Though a native Canadian, she has called Paris her home for the nearly sixty years. And the New York connection? Well, New York has been her literary home, the place where most of her stories stopped for a visit with the editing pen of The New Yorker’s former fiction editor, William Maxwell, before being sent out in search of readers. Gallant gave up her job as a struggling Canadian journalist to move to Paris and to be a struggling fiction writer in 1950. She immediately set her sights on publishing in The New Yorker. Rejected writers everywhere will appreciate Gallant’s New Yorker woes as expressed in her letter below (from the memoir Getting Started by her friend and fellow-Canadian Bill Weintraub):

The news from the NYorker was heartbreaking. I had a letter saying they couldn’t take on story because the theme was like others they run and it was too bad I had ‘innocently stumbled’ on the same idea, although it was ‘wonderful.’ Fine words butter no croissants. They went on to say they liked the other one fine and were doing a preliminary editing and would let know soon. I was sure that meant yes (this is the heartbreaking part) and then had another letter saying it was like part of a novel and wouldn’t work as story although it was ‘funny and delightful.’ They said ‘although at the end one is finished with the story one isn’t finished with the people.’ This isn’t sour grapes, but I don’t consider that valid. The point of a short is just that: that you should be quite through with the story, but the people should have continuity. It’s had rather a bad effect on me. Everything I’m now doing looks horrible.

Thankfully, she persevered, The New Yorker saw the error of its ways, and the rest is happy literary history.

Time to bring her fiction to the table. Be warned that the repast will leave you stuffed – Gallant recommends that you take single story bites. And be warned you will squirm, giggle, and weep your way through the meal. Let’s start with what will make you squirm. “The Four Seasons,” set during World War II, is told from the point of view of Carmela, a poor Italian servant to the Unwin family, British expatriates who live in a village along the Ligurian coast. Gallant is especially adept at inducing reader uneasiness when using “outsider” points of view like Carmela’s:

Carmela still waited, glancing sidelong, hair cut unevenly and pushed behind her ears. She wore a gray skirt, a cotton blouse, and sandals. A limp black cardigan hung on her shoulders. She did not own stockings, shoes, a change of underwear, a dressing gown, or a coat, but she had a medal on a chain, an inheritance from a Sicilian grandmother – the grandmother from whom she had her southern name. Mrs. Unwin had already examined Carmela’s ears to see if the lobes were pierced. She couldn’t stand that – the vanity of it, and the mutilation. Letting Carmela’s ears go, she had said to her husband, “Good. Mussolini is getting rid of most of that. All but the medals.”

Upon reading this, I stifled a mean giggle and rubbed my earlobes. This story twists this way and that – with Mrs. Unwin making disagreeable, particularly British comments, and Carmela pretending she doesn’t understand English rather than be forced to react to all the bitter silliness that pours from Mrs. Unwin’s mouth. The husband is vapid, but well-meaning and their poor ricket-inflicted twins spend lots of time sitting in Carmela’s lap. When foreign-born Jews begin to be expelled from their village and “the Unwins were astonished to learn who some of them were…,” British complacency is speared quite economically and the Unwins foreshadow that disagreeable butler in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day. We rejoice when Mrs. Unwin and her family are forced to flee for England on a coal boat, but only until we realize that Carmela will have to remain behind, return to her destitute family, and survive the war as best she can. Cue a few silent tears:

Carmela had her head down on the kitchen table. Pains like wings pressed on her shoulders until her sobs tore them apart.

“Why are you crying?” said Mrs. Unwin. “Nothing can happen to you. You’ll be thankful to have the money after Mussolini has lost his war.” She patted the child between her fragile shoulders. “And yet, how can he lose, eh? Even I don’t see how. Perhaps we’ll all laugh – oh, I don’t know what I’m saying. Carmela, please. Don’t alarm the children.”

Yes, Mrs. Unwin lands one more not-so-subtle blow to Carmela’s “fragile shoulders.” Now we must let Carmela get on that bus to return to her village and meet her fate and we’re worried for her, which simply proves that whoever wrote that rejection letter from The New Yorker to Gallant had no idea what they were talking about. The hallmark of a finely wrought short story is when “at the end one is finished with the story one isn’t finished with the people.”

Besides their Canadian citizenship, Mavis Gallant and Alice Munro share a gift for making their readers uneasy. In Munro’s fiction this uneasiness-factor is like a generous sprinkling of black pepper; in Gallant’s fiction, it combines with what Ondaatje calls “sly wit” to become more like cayenne. This is not to say that Gallant’s fiction lacks subtlety; however, more often than not, both characters and readers are equally discomfited, which magnifies the effect. For example, in the opening line of “The Fenton Child,” Nora enters “a long room filled with cots and undesired infants” and meets Neil, who she has been told is the three-month-old son of the Fenton’s. Her father has arranged for her to do the “Christian act” of bringing Neil from the convent hospital, where he’s been since his birth, and caring for him till the Fenton’s nursemaid arrives. The passage below—Gallant at her best— works both metaphorically to establish the story’s theme of a dangerous truth revealed and literally to set readers’ expectations that we are accompanying Nora and Neil on a doomed, rather than joyous, journey:

Nora was seventeen and still did not know whether she liked children or saw them as part of a Catholic woman’s fate. If they had to come along, then let them be clear-eyed and talcum-scented, affectionate and quick to learn. The eyes of the Fenton baby were opaquely gray, so rigidly focused that she said to herself, He is blind. They never warned me. But as she bent close, wondering if his gaze might alter, the combs at her temples slipped loose and she saw him take notice of the waves of dark hair that fell and enclosed him. So, he perceived things. For the rest, he remained as before, as still as a doll, with both hands folded tight.

When Nora arrives at the house with Mr. Fenton and his friend, Dr. Marchand, Nora hands Neil to a maid whom she has mistaken for Mrs. Fenton. Mrs. Fenton never comes downstairs even to see the child and Nora finally surmises that the child is being illegally adopted. When she voices her concern, she is given lunch and sent on her way. Over tea later in the day, Nora questions her father about the Fentons while her mother insists she forget the child because “he’s already forgotten you.” But, just as Gallant’s characters haunt us long after we shut the book, Neil haunts Nora:

He will remember that I picked him up, Nora decided. He will remember the smell of the incense. He will remember the front door and moving into the dark hall. I’ll try to remember him. It’s the best I can do.

©Alison Harris

©Alison Harris

Upon finishing Munro stories, I often have the sensation that while I have been enlightened, the characters in the stories haven’t. That cannot be said of a story like “The Fenton Child,” where reader and character, hand-in-hand, journey toward the same sliver of enlightenment.Over the last year, I’ve read many works by Irene Némirovsky and Nina Berberova, both émigrés who lived in Paris and wrote about Europe during WWII. While Gallant’s “The Four Seasons” and “The Moslem Wife” (another story about British expatriates during the war), cover similar landascape to Némirovsky and Berberova, Gallant’s eye does not search out the romantic or the tragic. Instead, she sets her sights on the dark humor to be found in that bleak terrain. For example, in “The Latehomecomer” a prisoner of war returns home to Berlin from captivity in the spring of 1950 to discover he has a stepfather:

My mother had never mentioned him. I had been writing from Brittany to “Grete Bestermann,” but the “Toeppler” engraved on a brass plate next to the bellpull at her new address turned out to be her name, too. As she slipped the key in the lock, she said quietly, “Listen, Thomas. I’m Frau Toeppler now. I married a kind man with a pension. This is his key, his name, and his apartment. He wants to make you welcome.” From the moment she met me at the railway station that day, she must have been wondering how to break it.

I put my hand over the name, leaving a perfect palm print. I said, “I suppose there are no razor blades and no civilian shirts in Berlin. But some ass is already engraving nameplates.”

Thomas knows he’s in for a rocky stay with his stepfather when the man belittles Thomas’ mother over her inferior dialect, puts on airs to Thomas that he intends to raise his two apartments to American standards by adding Venetian blinds and gas-heated water tanks, and then instructs Thomas’ mother to draw Thomas a bath. The humor swirls away with the running water and Thomas expresses his discomfort over this new version of his mother:

In captivity I had longed for her and for the lost paradise of our poverty, where she had belonged entirely to my brother and to me and we had slept with her, one on each side. I had written letters to her full of remorse for past neglect and containing promises of future goodness: I would work hard and look after her forever. These letters, sent to a blond, young, soft-voiced Grete Bestermann, had been read by Grete Toeppler, whose graying hair was pinned up in a sort of oval balloon, and who was anxious and thin, as afraid of things to come as she was of the past.

Humor then returns to lighten the story’s load. Thomas is forced to drink a welcome-home brandy with his stepfather and his stepfather’s friend, Will Wehler – “a stout man with three locks of slick gray hair across his skull. All the fat men of comic stories and of literature were to be Willy Wehler to me I the future.” Thomas tries to get into the boasting spirit of the occasion and comes up flat with a story about being fourteen and capturing an American prisoner of war only to have him stroll away. The only reaction this story elicits is a question from WillyWehler about how much he had been paid as a prisoner of war. Thomas thinks, “I often wondered what the first question would be once I was home. Now I had it.” Later that night he tells his mom he plans to return to school and become a teacher, which cheers her up considerably. But one of the final notes struck by Gallant is somber:

In captivity I had never suffered a pain except for the cramps of hunger the first years, which had been replaced by a scratching, morbid anxiety, and the pain of homesickness, which take you in the stomach and the throat. Now I felt the first of the real pains that were to follow me like little dogs for the rest of my life, perhaps: The first compressed my knee, the second tangled the nerves at the back of my neck. I discovered that my eyes were sensitive and that it hurt to blink.

His mother struggles to put a bright face on things by taking him outside and having him make a wish on a new moon; he wishes to be back at that moment before his mother met him at the station. Thankfully, Gallant’s eye for the insanity of engraved nameplates, Willy Wehler the brandy-drinking comic figure and discussions of POW paychecks saves “The Latehomecomer” from being unbearably austere.

Gallant’s Montreal stories versus her European stories – I have no desire to pick favorites based on settings. Yes, there’s an alluring autobiographical thread in the Linnet Muir stories-Montreal based stories, but does that make those somehow better than the stories with European settings? In his introduction to Varieties of Exile Russell Banks argues yes, for personal reasons (he’s half Canadian), and makes a fairly strong case:

I have for personal reasons … an abiding affection if not an outright preference for the North American stories, if only because Gallant has attended there to lives that are familiar and matter great to me and rarely make it into literature …None of these characters has money or property or much education; none of them is secure in society. Characters and situations like these seem peculiarly American, North American.

However, I remain unconvinced that Linnet and Nora’s stories are more in need of Gallant’s storytelling abilities than characters such as Carmela and Thomas simply by virtue of geography. What I will concede is that in addition to being overall brilliant short stories, the Linnet Muir stories have some of the finest opening lines of any short stories in the English language. Indulge me for a minute here:

When I was young I thought that men had small lives of their own creation.
—“Between Zero and One”

In the third summer of the war I began to meet refugees. There were large numbers of them in Montreal – to me a source of infinite wonder. I could not get enough of them.
—“Varieties of Exile”

Halfway between our two great wars, parents whose own early years had been shaped with Edwardian firmness were apt to lend a tone of finality to quite simple remarks: ‘Because I say so’ was the answer to ‘Why?’ and a child’s response to ‘What did I just tell you?’ could seldom be anything but ‘Not to’ – not to say, do touch, remove, go out, argue, reject, eat, pick up, open, shout, appear to sulk, appear to be cross. Dark riddles filled the corners of life because no enlightenment was thought required.
—“Voice Lost in Snow”

Ultimately, no matter what the setting, Gallant imbues her fiction with a sense of time and place that act in masterful ways upon her characters and their stories.

Fiction that nourishes – Gallant offers us a buffet of the highest order. I dare you to finish even one of her stories and not be tempted to turn the page and read another. But Gallant herself recommends small bites: “Stories are not chapters of novels. 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.” But don’t let them wait too long. The time is long overdue for Gallant’s fiction to be elevated to a much higher shelf in the bookstore.

___
Karen Vanuska’s creative non-fiction piece “Lost and Found” appeared in the December 2008 issue of The Battered Suitcase. Her short fiction has appeared in UC Irvine’s Faultline Journal of Art and Literature. She also reviews book for the Half Moon Bay Review. Her literary blog can be found at http://karenvanuska.livejournal.com/.

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