Mavis Gallant is one of those troublesome authors often referred to as “a writer’s writer.” The designation is double–edged, for on the one hand it suggests someone whose writing is so professional and polished that it is best appreciated by those who are themselves capable of writing highly crafted prose; on the other hand, it often suggests someone who is seldom read by anyone else but other writers. Gallant’s case is further complicated by the fact that of the fifty–two stories in this collection (out of the more than one hundred stories she has written since 1950) all but one of them originally appeared in The New Yorkermagazine. Furthermore, until his retirement in the mid-1970’s, all were personally accepted by the editor and author William Maxwell, a short–story writer himself, whose themes, characters, and styles are quite similar to those of Mavis Gallant. Although The New Yorker is notorious for capturing authors and holding on to them––John Updike and John Cheever are two of the most famous examples––Gallant’s literary situation presents a strange, but not unheard of, case of the total output of one author being sustained in print almost solely by the taste of another author.
This may account for the fact that all of Gallant’s stories, at least the fifty percent of them she has chosen to include in this hefty collection, sound very much alike. It is as though she found her literary milieu very early (Maxwell published her first story in 1950 when she was in her late twenties) and has stuck to it untiringly ever since. In her preface to The Collected Stories, Gallant insists, quite rightly, that short stories are not chapters of novels and should not be read one after another as if they were meant to follow along. Although a number of her stories focus on the same characters as they develop over time and therefore could be read together as if they were chapters in a novel, it would indeed be exhausting to read a great many of Gallant’s stories one after another; although the plots and characters change, they change only slightly, and the rhythm of the prose is fairly consistent throughout this volume.
An example can be seen in two stories that focus on the same characters, “Speck’s Idea” and “Overhead in a Balloon.” The first focuses on Sandor Speck, who runs an art gallery in Paris. As are most art fanciers in Gallant’s stories, Speck is more interested in artistic reputations than in artistic merit. The plot concerns his ineffectual efforts to revive interest in a forgotten artist so that he can profit by a renewed interest in his gallery. Yet in this comic satiric story that reads much like minor Henry James, Speck, after much wrangling with the artist’s widow for a number of his canvases, fails to bring off his artistic/commercial coup. “Overhead in a Balloon,” the title story of one of Gallant’s collections, centers on Speck’s assistant Walter. Speck never appears in the story but is unflatteringly referred to throughout by Walter as “trout face”; the character Walter is so similar to Speck that with a name change they would be relatively indistinguishable. Like his boss, Walter is also made the ineffectual victim of an artist who, like Walter and Speck, is more concerned with the practical matters of establishing reputation than he is interested in the integrity of art.
Four interrelated stories focus on Henri Grippes, a Parisian novelist, diarist, and critic, who, like Speck and Walter, lives on the fringes of the artistic life, and who focuses his attention on making a name for himself by capitalizing on the rising and falling stock of various literary and artistic fashions. In “A Painful Affair,” Grippes is passed over to speak at the commemoration ceremony for a wealthy patron of the arts by a man that Grippes feels is only a minor critic and thinker. “A Flying Start” moves back in time to the story of how the lesser critic courted the favor of the benefactress and thus edged Grippes out of his moment of fame. The theme of changing fashions of what constitutes art and therefore what establishes fame is emphasized throughout the story by a sort of running gag about a planned dictionary of literary biography that over the years is constantly altered because of changes in literary taste and thus is never produced. In “Grippes and Poche,” Grippes fights a continual battle with a tax auditor who, because he is an admirer, saves Grippes from financial harm; finally in “In Plain Sight,” Grippes, grown old and crotchety, ironically complains about the increasing commercialization of the arty area of Paris where he has lived for so many years. These stories reflect a representative side of Gallant’s work––her skill at creating comic satire about the artistic life––which partially explains why she is often referred to as a writer’s writer.
Another series of four interrelated stories follows the life of a man, Edouard B., who, having married an older Jewish–born actress during World War II so she would not...
(The entire section is 2062 words.)