Monday, February 29, 2016

Mavis Gallant – The Writer’s Writer

     I’ve always wanted to read Mavis Gallant since Fran Lebowitz opined on Charlie Rose that The Collected Stories of Mavis Gallant was one of the books of the year.  She sounded fascinating because she was a Canadian who spent most of her adult life in France.  I read a couple of her really short stories from that collection after it went into paperback in Joseph Beth, but didn’t actually buy it.  (I only feel somewhat guilty about that since I’ve purchased a couple trees worth of books at JB).  She died last year at 91 after a lengthy career, though she wasn’t published in Canada until the ‘70s.  Her American reputation was made because over a hundred of her stories appeared in The New Yorker (only John Cheever saw more of his short fiction published there).

     I saw Paris Stories (2002) at this darling independent bookstore in Niagara-on-the-Lake so I bought it and started reading it almost immediately and it ended up taking me about two and a half months even though there’s only fifteen stories.  What happened?  They’re densely detailed and intricate works that were physically difficult to read because the font was so small.  Either Canadians have better eyes than me – quite possible – or they’re used to this font.  Maybe it’s cultural.  

Mavis Gallant in Paris
     In this collection, Gallant focuses mainly on Paris as well as other parts of France and Switzerland while presenting French natives, ex-patriots from North America, and refugees from Eastern Europe.  The stories cover over fifty years from the immediate aftermath of World War II through the 1990s.  An underlying theme is that Europe has never fully recovered from that war and the subsequent conflicts between democracy, communism, and fascism.  Having lived in Europe, it felt like a collective lived memory to me, but I don’t think most American readers would be as entranced.  

Mavis Gallant Writing in Postwar Paris
     In “Forain,” Gallant encapsulates her overarching theme in an image of an immigrant writer’s funeral:

Only a few of the mourners mounting the treacherous steps can have had a thought to spare for Tremski’s private affairs.  His wife’s flight from a brave and decent husband, dragging by the hand a child of three, belonged to the folklore, not the history of mid-century emigration.  The chronicle of two generations, displaced and dispossessed, had come to a stop.  The evaluation could begin, had already started.  Scholars who looked dismayingly youthful, speaking the same language, but with a new, jarring vocabulary, were trekking to Western capitals – taping reminiscences, copying old letters.  History turned out to be a plodding science.  What most émigrés settled for now was the haphazard accuracy of a memory like Tremski’s.  In the end it was always a poem that ran through the mind – no a string of dates.  

Like her compatriot Alice Munro, Gallant writes stories that are much bigger than the form.  Munro’s stories have the psychological detail and complex plot structures of novels whereas Gallant’s stories are the essence of entire cultures and histories.  The major difference between them is that Munro always has one character in a story with whom a reader can empathize; Gallant never identifies with any specific character, but regards them with, as Mary McCarthy termed it, “a cold eye.”   That may be the reason that Gallant didn’t have as broad a readership as Munro.

     However, this approach works brilliantly in the chilling “August.”  Here’s part of a letter that a young woman writes to her psychotherapist about what she sees as their failed professional relationship:

     “What help can you give me?” she wrote.  “I have often been disgusted by the smell of your dresses and your rotten teeth.  If in six months you have not been able to take your dresses to be cleaned, or yourself to a dentist, how can you help me?  Can you convince me that I’m not going to be hit by a car when I step off the curb?  Can you convince me that the sidewalk is a safe place to be?“  

Mavis Gallant at Le Dôme Restaurant in Paris*
     I’m glad I finally read Gallant.  She’s daunting and somewhat involved.  I took much longer with her book (about two months) and this review (about four weeks) than I initially expected.  Perhaps that’s the result of examining work that is classic rather than timely.  Or it could be a result of my lack of focus.  

*Photograph by Paul Cooper

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