The Collected Stories of Mavis Gallant
(Random House; 887 pages; $45)
Mavis Gallant is one of those strangely positioned writers whose fans rank her near the top of the literary ladder but who remains, to the rest of the world, not much more than a name. A quick rundown, then, of her long and impressive career: It begins in Quebec, where Gallant was born and lived till the age of 27. In 1950, she quit a newspaper job and moved to Paris, allowing herself two years to publish fiction or find another line of work. You might expect a painful drama to follow, a piling up of drafts and rejections. Instead, she was instantly mature, prolific, and publishable. Her first submission to The New Yorker was returned with a friendly letter, but on the second try she got in. Since then she’s published over 100 stories there, more than any writer so far.
If arithmetic is the measure, Gallant must be the quintessential New Yorker fiction writer. For four decades, up until a few years ago–when the magazine changed editors and began to emphasize the news–her quiet professionalism, her wry, mildly gloomy sensibility, and her knack for perfect detail were a near-perfect fit. This last gift of observation, Gallant explains in the introduction to her huge new Collected Stories, dates back to a bifurcated childhood:
One’s beginnings are regional. Mine are wholly Quebec, English and Protestant, yes, but with a strong current of French and Catholic. My young parents sent me off on that current by placing me in a French convent school, for reasons never made plain. I remember my grandmother’s saying, “Well, I give up.” It was a singular thing to do and in those days unheard of. It left me with two systems of behavior, divided by syntax and tradition; two environments to consider, one becalmed in a long twilight of nineteenth-century religiosity; two codes of social behavior; much practical experience of the difference between a rule and a moral point.
Here is the split mind of a Henry James heroine, raised in this hemisphere with excessive propriety and then thrust, unprotected, into old and indecipherable European traditions. Note the characteristically airtight yet elliptical prose, the world-weary delicacy that records “the difference between a rule and a moral point” but commits neither to one nor the other.
Later, living in Paris, Gallant took up the Jamesian theme of innocents abroad, though she sometimes sketched her expatriates with the quicker, more economical strokes of a Hemingway. Yet she arrived in France in the 1950s, a time of drab poverty and rubble, one century after rich New World travelers made their first bewildering return trips to Europe and one long shock-filled war after the jazz age and its tremors. To that Europe, Gallant brought a new bemused realism and an acquaintance with such petty facts as train schedules and plumbing. She became a deromanticizer, an adjuster of expectations. A Gallant character who cultivates decadent aristocratic airs or tries too hard to hold on to Puritan freshness is at best a self-punishing neurotic, at worst a fool.
As if to emphasize the documentary nature of these pieces, Gallant has arranged them chronologically in her collection, by decade from the ‘30s through the ‘90s. The stories weren’t necessarily written in the decade they’re filed under: The opening work, “The Moslem Wife,” about Netta, a strangely sheltered Englishwoman who lives in Southern France with her callow husband Jack, evokes the Vichy period but was written in 1976. Netta and Jack run a small hotel; Jack is a philanderer and eventually leaves, and Gallant traces them through separation and World War II and a pragmatic last-minute reconciliation–“the same voyage, at the same speed” as the first time around in their disastrous affair–in a bus station.
Gallant’s stories of men and women–and these include a few tales of trusting men let down by untrustworthy women–follow a basic pattern: Someone (possessing a naiveté perhaps reminiscent of the 27-year-old who ran off to Paris to write) offers someone else his or her love and is let down, but still manages to get up in the morning for the next several decades. These stories are the tightest and the best designed, and they yield her most memorable lines, dark, ironic compressions of incompatible worldviews. Netta, for instance, “took it for granted, now she was married, that Jack felt as she did about light, dark, death, and love,” and from that we understand that separation is inevitable. Or take this moment from “Between Zero and One”:
When I was young I thought that men had small lives of their own creation. I could not see why, born enfranchised, without the obstacles and constraints attendant on women, they set such close limits for themselves and why, once the limits had been reached, they seemed so taken aback.
Elsewhere, the wandering observer predominates, and the stories gain weight in the quest for clinical accuracy. Besides the English in the south of France, we get lifestyle portraits of Romanians scraping by on fake passports in Paris, Americans slumming in dirty Madrid, a German soldier returned from prison camp to Berlin; in the later stories, we meet Canadians coping with European strays. Often, Gallant keeps the plot to a minimum, merely visiting her characters several times over a span of years. The young grow up, and we learn about French school exams and then the petty hierarchies in the civil service. The elderly are defined by their memory of past events. From the opening to “In Plain Sight”:
On the first Wednesday of every month, sharp at noon, an air-raid siren wails across Paris, startling pigeons and lending an edge to the midday news. Older Parisians say it has the tone and pitch of a newsreel sound track. They think, Before the war, and remember things in black-and-white. Some wonder how old Hitler would be today and if he really did escape to South Africa. Others say an order to test warning equipment was given in 1956, at the time of the Suez crisis, and never taken off the books.
This passage could easily belong to a piece of nonfiction–to one of the witty old “Letters from Europe” that used to run in The New Yorker. And in fact, in the best of these character studies, a vivid picture of Cold War Europe–infected with mediocre rhetoric, imprisoned by fake boundaries, inhabited by numb and ambivalent people–begins to take shape. James and Hemingway give way to the shabby backdrops of John Le Carré’s novels. Yet, unlike Le Carré, Gallant does not believe in plot, or in speculating on the meaning of her stories. Character is everything; facts make the man. If Gallant sometimes achieves the same high notes that great reporting does, her less-successful stories resemble the more meandering old New Yorker human-interest profiles, in which a person’s fleeting thoughts, neurotic habits, and random memories are woven into a pattering portrait. Consider the opening to “The End of the World,” which introduces an angry son who, as the story goes on, will be called to Paris to care for a selfish dying father:
I never like to leave Canada, because I’m disappointed every time. I’ve felt disappointed about places I haven’t even seen. My wife went to Florida with her mother once. When they arrived there, they met some neighbors from home who told them about a sign saying NO CANADIANS. They never saw this sign anywhere, but they kept hearing about others who did, or whose friends had seen it, always in different places, and it spoiled their trip for them. Many people, like them, have never come across it but have heard about it, so it must be there somewhere. Another time I had to go and look after my brother Kenny in Buffalo.
There’s a healthy faith in the concrete in this kind of story, and a democratic interest in human nature. But there’s also a cool complacency, an indifferent shrug. By Gallant’s own admission in the introduction, she composes with an eye to craft, not the deeper heart of a story. Each local ironic effect has to be placed precisely; each street name has to be gotten right the first time. “I could not move on to the second sentence until the first sentence sounded true,” she writes somewhat diffidently. “True to what? Some arrangement in my head, I suppose. … The first flash of fiction arrives without words. It consists of a fixed image, like a slide or (closer still) a freeze frame. … Whole scenes then follow, complete in themselves but like disconnected parts of the film.” But a film and a slide show are not the same thing as fully imagined fiction. These stories make up a time capsule assembled by a skilled social historian, a rich gallery of plausible lives. They are well observed, well written, and remote, and no more than a handful, if that, will last.