Mavis Gallant Essay - Gallant, Mavis (Vol. 7)

Mavis de Trafford Young

Gallant, Mavis (Vol. 7)

Gallant, Mavis 1922–

Mavis Gallant, a Canadian novelist and short story writer, has said that most writers emerge from a "solitary childhood" ridden with the "shocks of violent change." In her own expertly crafted fiction, the characters are often lonely and alone, driven almost to madness by the apathy and antagonism of others.

We take it for granted that gossip is one of the great popular arts, but it takes a novel as splendid as this one [A Fairly Good Time] to demonstrate how the fine and intricate tendrils of gossip can be enhanced and transfigured by the literary artist…. Page by page, and as a whole, Miss Gallant brings to life things beyond analysis. A Fairly Good Time is a very, very good novel.

R. V. Cassill, "Gossip Transferred into Art," in Book World (© The Washington Post), May 31, 1970, p. 5.

Some time ago I picked up the notion that Mavis Gallant was a kind of latter-day Mazo de la Roche providing refined soap-opera fiction for the upper middle class readers of American magazines. The archetypal reader I pictured as a fortyish woman sunning herself on a backyard patio and occasionally stirring from a snooze to flip through the jewellery and clothing ads of a magazine on her lap and take in another one of Gallant's delicately wrought weepers.

At first glance, the stories almost confirmed my earlier suspicions. Stories with titles like "My Heart is Broken" turned out to be almost as bad as their titles. Recurrent settings and types of characters, which seemed to be gauged for a certain kind of jaded audience, sometimes became tedious in repetition. Superficially, you could see why our languishing patio reader might appreciate her work.

Gallant's fiction presents a stagnant woman-crowded world that is hinged on ritual, where the figures display a recurrent impotence in rebelling against a conservative code of feminine behaviour which is serving only to destroy them. The characters are almost uniformly presented as grown-up orphans—as harried divorcées, widows or restless young women—roaming Europe and settling down in suffocating hotels, pensions, flats in Paris or run-down winter homes on the Riviera. Fragile and powerless, they seem trapped like faded toy ballerinas behind the glass door of an old wooden cabinet.

What unifies them all as characters is their central mediocrity and their lack of vitality. Freed from financial worries by small amounts of cash from trust funds or alimony, they are, ironically, tied even more rigidly in their exile to the old North American code of ladylike behaviour. Even their physical surroundings conspire to deny them release. Their supposedly romantic destination points of Paris, the Riviera and the Alps almost always fail to reveal any magical qualities that they can observe or feel comfortable in.

The only form of rebellion they can manage is to fall apart within the shell of the code that traps them. The young women are often messy in their habits, flighty in imagination up to the point of insanity. The older women are eccentric, inclined to socializing with effeminate bachelors who entertain them with fatuous chatter and compliments. Typically, they dress in tweeds, pearls, and "strings of fur (that bear) the claws and muzzles of some small, flattened beast."

As for the ordinary men, they are not welcome in this world. Unlike the women, they are well-organized, well-meaning and successful people who are genuinely mystified by the complicated worries and inadequacies of the women. As could be expected, the mixing of the two sexes is unsettled, often with the men's feeling robbed of a romantic ideal. (p. 33)

Because the moral code is so hollow and the protagonists so often emotionally lame, the fall from grace of Gallant's women is presented more frequently in quiet irony than in terms of tragedy. This is particularly true of her only full-length novel, A Fairly Good Time, published in 1970. (pp. 33-4)

In her new book, The Pegnitz Junction, Gallant has jettisoned the rag-doll expatriates of the first four books and focused on the modern Germans, a move of rather considerable cultural and psychological agility. Gallant has always shown a remarkable ability to inhabit the minds of her characters, regardless of their cultural background or social status. Even her men make sense, and this is a rare accomplishment among women writers….

Though lacking much of the harrowing complications of The Pegnitz Junction [the title story], the other five stories in the book have a similar theme: the sad rootlessness of modern German life. It's almost as if Gallant has decided to trade in her quiet fiction of social behaviour for the nihilism of modern European writers….

All the stories are beautifully written. The style of the novella, though fragmented to accommodate the interplay of Christine's mind with the reality around her, manages to keep up a good pace, overcoming many of the problems encountered in A Fairly Good Time. To me, The Pegnitz Junction is a stunning addition to Gallant's earlier work. (p. 34)

We can hope Canadian critics and readers will be able to accept both the neglected work of this major Canadian writer and the presently unorthodox notion that good Canadian writing does not have to be equated with myopic navel-gazing. (p. 36)

John Ayre, "The Sophisticated World of Mavis Gallant," in Saturday Night, September, 1973, pp. 33-6.

Mavis Gallant's fifth book [The Pegnitz Junction] consists of a novella and five short stories, and covers themes and places which she has already staked out in previous books. She writes about Germany and France; her characters are the refugee, the rootless, the emotionally disinherited…. It is a world of displacement where journeys are allegorical and love is inadequate, and in the background there are always memories of "the Adolf-time" and the concentration camps.

Mrs Gallant is too sharp and intelligent a writer to approach such themes head-on. Her technique is oblique and meticulously understated, with relationships presented through their effects as much as through their contents. Her tone is detached, and her observation precise, whether of a small boy's technique in eating ice-cream, or of a railway official's jokey interrogation of a child's pet sponge. But her manipulation of ironic detail: "when Ernst put on his Hitler Youth uniform at seven, it meant, mostly, a great saving in clothes"….

Mrs Gallant, judged by the high standard she herself sets, sometimes lapses. She can slip into well-bred New Yorker-ish triteness, where the sky is "a thick winter blanket", and a city is "as pink and golden as a pretty child and as new as morning". At times, she over-emphasizes…. But these are minor slips in a memorable collection.

"All Change," in The Times Literary. Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1974; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), March 15, 1974, p. 253.

Mavis Gallant's stories [in The Pegnitz Junction] are almost too intelligent to be true, but a distinctive feature of them is that, well ordered though they are, by a mind one falls in love with for its grasp and quiet wit, they convey with remarkable success a sense of the amorphousness, the mess, of life. In particular, the mess left in our lives when the winds of war have done their work of destroying or leaving awry all the order we sought to stamp on our living.

Some of the people in these stories are young, but the majority are middle-aged or old, and all are doing what they can to make the most of the mess….

What Isabel Quigly has written of her is on target: 'surefooted, ironic and so dexterous with words that you want to keep quoting … the quality of her wit is very much her own'….

Two years ago Mavis Gallant's latest novel, A Fairly Good Time, was one of a batch I didn't get round to. A piece of folly now being remedied. Urgently. (p. 105)

James Brockway, in Books and Bookmen (© copyright James Brockway, 1974; reprinted with permission), July, 1974.