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SOURCE: Hughes, Glyn. “In a Strange Land.” New Statesman 110, no. 2853 (29 November 1985): 34-5.
[In the following excerpt, Hughes offers a positive assessment of the stories in Home Truths, but notes that Gallant sometimes lapses into “cliché.”]
Mavis Gallant's sensibility is one which seems to cast that of many other authors into a shadow; into a place from which they do not see clearly, or deeply, or richly enough. Her perceptions are keen and so thickly distributed that they make the textures of many other writers' work look meagre. This is not because of any excessive compression or colouring; her writing is relaxed and not ornate. It is because it is rich in perceptions; because she understands and controls so well the many things that are going on in the lives, or the under-lives, of her characters.
Home Truths is a partly ironic title, for the subject is either exile or home seen after long absence. It is anything but a ‘homely’ book. It is presented in three sections which emphasise the places and particular circumstances of the stories. The first setting is Canada, largely from a child's point of view, some time ago, in fact corresponding roughly with the author's childhood there. The second group of four stories, ‘Canadians Abroad,’ corresponds in time and place with Mavis Gallant's own exile. The third setting is Montreal, where a young woman is growing up. This autobiographical undercurrent gives power, conviction and poignancy to the stories, without bringing arbitrariness to the plots. But it is in the sense of placing that the stories are weakest; in the sense of a particular place, culture and history. The characters are universal ones, but it would not be at the expense of this to give us a more palpable Montreal or Paris.
The real locale of Mavis Gallant's stories, though, is the edge of an abyss. When the writing is most dazzling, when inter-reaction among the characters is most powerful, they are tottering on the edge of something fearful. One reason why this chasm of the psyche is frightening is because it feels familiar—it feels, but we are never sure of it, and it is more disturbing because the geography is not quite specified.
Sometimes her technique of pushing the story forward with leaping perceptions is a cliché of the form, as so often in modern stories; a substitute for the true dynamics of plot. Sometimes the stories are pulled back too easily from the abyss, as if to remind us that New Yorker stories (all but one in this collection was first published there) are ultimately reassuring. Setting aside these reservations, this is a marvellous collection, one to read over and over again, like poems.
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Mavis Gallant 1922-
Canadian short story writer, novelist, critic, playwright, and essayist.
The following entry presents an overview of Gallant's career through 2000. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 7, 18, and 38.
One of the few Canadian authors to have her work regularly published in the New Yorker, Gallant has won international acclaim for her prolific body of short fiction. Peopled by alienated expatriates, time-worn spouses, and disillusioned souls, Gallant's stories offer keen observations about the contemporary human experience in Europe and North America, exposing the ironies of human nature that tread between comedy and tragedy. Her fiction often conveys a sense of ambiguity about the past and its effects on the present, and routinely presents narrative conflicts that reflect the prevalent attitudes of postwar society. Besides short stories, Gallant has also written two novels, a play, and numerous essays and reviews. Long neglected...
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by Canadian readers until the late 1970s, Gallant has since become celebrated as one of Canada's best known authors at home and abroad. Critics and academics alike have frequently compared Gallant to a range of authors, including Henry James, Anton Chekhov, George Eliot, and Katherine Anne Porter.
Gallant was born Mavis de Trafford Young on August 11, 1922, in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, to an Anglo-Scottish father and an American mother. When she was ten years old, Gallant's father died and her mother soon remarried. Over the next eight years, Gallant attended seventeen different schools, completing her education at a New York City high school after she was sent there to live with a guardian. Returning to Canada during World War II, Gallant briefly worked at the National Film Board before she became a feature reporter for the Montreal Standard in 1944. While working for the Standard, Gallant began to publish short stories in a number of Canadian literary magazines. During the late 1940s, she married pianist John Gallant; the couple later divorced. In 1950 Gallant resigned from the newspaper and moved to Paris in order to pursue her writing career full-time. Gallant has since resided in Paris, although she has retained her Canadian citizenship and maintained close ties with Canada. Soon after arriving in Paris, she began publishing work in the New Yorker, which has continuously published her stories since 1951. Over the next three decades, Gallant periodically gathered these stories, along with several novellas, in such collections as The Other Paris (1956), My Heart Is Broken (1964), The Pegnitz Junction (1973), and From the Fifteenth District (1979). In 1981 Gallant published Home Truths, which won the Governor General's Award, Canada's most prestigious literary prize. That same year, Gallant was appointed as an Officer of the Order of Canada, eventually elevating her rank in 1993 to Companion, the order's highest degree. Following the premiere of her play What Is to Be Done? at Toronto's Tarragon Theatre in 1982, Gallant briefly stayed in Canada, accepting an appointment as writer-in-residence at the University of Toronto in 1983 and 1984. In 1986 Gallant published Paris Notebooks, a collection of her nonfiction work for the New Yorker that examines French culture and society. During the 1990s, Gallant continued to gather her New Yorker material in such volumes as Across the Bridge (1993) and The Moslem Wife and Other Stories (1993). The recipient of numerous academic honors, Gallant was feted in 1993 during an evening-long tribute at the International Festival of Authors in Toronto. In 2002 Gallant received the Literary Grand Prix Award at the Blue Metropolis International Literary Festival in Montreal.
Most of Gallant's short stories initially appeared in the New Yorker, before they were periodically collected and subsequently published. Gallant's main narrative aims have consistently focused on the development of a specific situation from the intellectual and emotional perspective of specific characters, particularly favoring the expatriate condition. For example, Gallant's first collection of stories, The Other Paris, explores the expatriation and dislocation of Britons, Americans, and Canadians living in postwar Europe. My Heart Is Broken, an anthology of several stories and a novella, examines the despair of a variety of exiles who inhabit a series of run-down hotels in Europe. In a similar vein, From the Fifteenth District centers on a group of North American expatriates in World War II Europe. Another recurrent theme of Gallant's fiction involves exploring the individuality of the Canadian character set against a confusing and challenging outside world. Delineating the lives of young Canadians at home and abroad at different moments of the twentieth century, Home Truths concludes with a sequence of six “Montreal stories,” which approximate the upheaval and rejection Gallant experienced as a child and adolescent in Montreal between World War I and World War II. In Transit (1988) consists of stories previously published in the 1950s and 1960s, separated into three sections that alternately focus on parents and children, adolescents, and pre-adolescent youngsters. Half of the eleven stories in Across the Bridge recount moments in the lives of the fictional Carette family in prewar and postwar Montreal, and the other half trace their fortunes as expatriates in Paris. Arranged by the date of the stories' settings rather than by the chronology of publication, The Collected Stories of Mavis Gallant (1996) presents a vast selection of Gallant's fiction encompassing her entire career, the only such collection of Canadian literature by a single writer. Although the pieces featured in The Collected Stories do not represent all of Gallant's short fiction in print, the volume is over eight hundred pages long.
In 2002 Canadian author Michael Ondaatje edited a new collection of Gallant's fiction titled Paris Stories. The work reprints a variety of Gallant's best-known stories, including “The Moslem Wife,” “In Plain Sight,” “Grippes and Poche,” and “The Ice Wagon Going down the Street.” While she is best known for her short fiction, Gallant has also produced several notable works in other genres. The first of her two novels, Green Water, Green Sky (1959) follows the destructive relationship of a mother and daughter living abroad. A Fairly Good Time (1970) constructs a narrative around a Canadian woman living in Paris who is haunted by her own isolation and the collapse of her marriage. Gallant's only work of nonfiction, Paris Notebooks, gathers a cross-section of Gallant's essays and criticism on French culture and society that originally appeared in the New Yorker, including an introduction to the autobiography The Affair of Gabrielle Russier (1971) and her own eyewitness account of the 1968 student riots in Paris. Gallant's play, What Is to Be Done?, is set during World War II, dramatizing the struggle of two young, idealistic Canadians with communist sympathies.
Critics have widely acclaimed Gallant's short fiction, particularly after her rise to prominence in Canada during the early 1980s. For much of her career, criticism of Gallant's work has been limited to brief reviews in popular magazines and newspapers. However, academic scrutiny of Gallant's fiction has grown since the late 1980s and has continued to expand since the publication of her Collected Stories in 1996. Many reviewers have noted Gallant's command of the English language and skillful use of narrative forms, remarking favorably on her biting sense of irony. Another strain of commentary has focused on her deft character studies, demonstrating Gallant's empathy with individuals caught between cultures. Additionally, several critics have studied the objectivity of Gallant's perceptions of twentieth-century world history in her cumulative work. Scholars have also examined the significance of her expatriate perspective with respect to definitions of the Canadian character. Due to her Acadian heritage and intimacy with the English history of French Canada, several Canadian literary academics have compared Gallant to author Antoinette Maillet, whom many scholars respect as an authority on Acadian culture. Although most critics have singled out the “outsider” perspective of Gallant's fiction for particular mention, many of these same readers have also applauded the distinctly Canadian consciousness that pervades her fiction.
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SOURCE: Abley, Mark. “Touring the City of Light.” Maclean's 99, no. 41 (13 October 1986): 66.
[In the following review, Abley praises the journalistic qualities of Paris Notebooks.]
Mavis Gallant, one of the best writers of fiction Canada has produced, left the country as a young journalist in 1950. In eight subsequent books of fiction, notably From the Fifteenth District (1979) and Overhead in a Balloon (1985), she revealed an eye for character and language as sharp as a cut diamond. The incisive, wary prose of Paris Notebooks, her first collection of nonfiction, demonstrates that she lost none of her skill as a reporter after she quit her feature-writing job at the Montreal Standard 36 years ago.
More than a third of the book comprises the journals that Gallant kept in Paris during May and early June of 1968. In those turbulent weeks a make-shift alliance of students and workers virtually closed down the city, shaking the foundations of President Charles de Gaulle's regime. Gallant's journals (first published in The New Yorker) eloquently capture the hysteria that pervaded Paris as students painted the city's ancient walls with the slogan “Imagination is taking power.” France itself seemed to teeter on the brink of a collective nervous breakdown. When the government finally reassumed control, Gallant observes, it was “like the feeling after a miscarriage—instant thanksgiving that the pain has ceased, plus the feeling of zero because it was all for nothing.”
The tension and spontaneous drama of “The Events in May” make the rest of Paris Notebooks look slight by comparison. Twelve of its 17 articles concern France or French writers; an essay about Canadian war brides stands out incongruously. More characteristic is “Paris: The Taste of a New Age,” in which Gallant sourly records the intrusive growth of drab modern architecture in the City of Light. She sees France without rose-tinted glasses; its vanity, hypocrisy and xenophobia all annoy her. Praise flows so sparingly from her pen that when she alludes to “the French refusal to accept poverty as a sign of failure in an artist,” the reader feels a mild surprise that Gallant has lapsed into warmth.
Gallant has a talent, rare in Canadian letters, for the informed aphorism, the alert generalization. And it is often tinged with her celebrated scorn. The literary style of Simone de Beauvoir, she suggests, “has the dazed, ruminative rhythm of a French school girl chewing gum at a concert in time to Bach.” While her speculative reach and occasional tenderness is absent from Paris Notebooks, a cool lucidity about her adopted city is apparent in her fiction and nonfiction alike.
And Gallant has become a true Parisian. For all her complaints about the city, she has a manifest affection for its buildings, its history and even its residents. She describes a 19th-century baron as “witty, clever, worldly, cultivated, erudite, elegant, and intelligent—in short, an obsolescent species of Parisian.” Rare indeed, but as long as Mavis Gallant resides there, not obsolescent at all.
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The Other Paris (short stories) 1956
Green Water, Green Sky (novel) 1959
My Heart Is Broken (short stories and novel) 1964; also published as An Unmarried Man's Summer, 1965
A Fairly Good Time (novel) 1970
The Pegnitz Junction (novella and short stories) 1973
The End of the World and Other Stories (short stories) 1974
From the Fifteenth District (novella and short stories) 1979
Home Truths: Selected Canadian Stories (short stories) 1981
What Is to Be Done? (play) 1982
Overhead in a Balloon: Stories of Paris (short stories) 1985
Paris Notebooks: Essays and Reviews (essays and criticism) 1986
In Transit (short stories) 1988
Across the Bridge (short stories) 1993
The Moslem Wife and Other Stories (short stories) 1993
The Collected Stories of Mavis Gallant (short stories) 1996; published in Canada and the United Kingdom as The Selected Stories of Mavis Gallant
Paris Stories [edited by Michael Ondaatje] (short stories) 2002
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SOURCE: Gross, Jeff. Review of Overhead in a Balloon, by Mavis Gallant. Los Angeles Times Book Review (24 May 1987): 8.
[In the following review, Gross summarizes the themes and style of Overhead in a Balloon.]
Behind the tourist's Paris is a city that struggles to regain momentum and a sense of purpose that drifts between the lure of the technological, “European” future, and a longing for the golden past.
A malaise most perceptively described by Mavis Gallant, a Canadian exile who has lived in Paris since 1950. In the stories [in Overhead in a Balloon], 11 of which appeared in The New Yorker, her characters—French painters, writers, Royalists and art gallery owners—are sometimes nostalgic, sometimes frightened, more often resigned to small battles, with son, spouse or tax collector. And, sign of the times, culture is a game of adapting to the winds of political or philosophical fashion, rather than joust in the Pantheon, “compete with the dead—Proust, Flaubert, Balzac, Stendhal. …”
With little dignity, they live: “It was Juliette's custom to furnish social emptiness with some rattling anecdote about her own activities. Guests were often grateful. Without having to cast far, they could bring up a narrative of their own, and the result was close to real conversation.”
And with little dignity, they die: “Juliette had asked to be cremated, thinking of the purification of the flame, but the rite was accomplished by clanking, hidden, high-powered machinery that kept starting and stopping, on cycle. At its loudest, it covered the voice of the clergyman, who affirmed that Juliette was eyeing us with great good will from above, and it prevailed over Juliette's favorite recordings of Mozart and Bach.”
If Gallant's rich and subtly ironic prose does not produce Sisyphean characters locked in heroic struggle, her exile's perspective offers a cross-section more accurate, more appropriate: a merciless and tender dissection of an old body running on tired blood.
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SOURCE: Gallant, Mavis, and Samway, Patrick H. “An Interview with Mavis Gallant.” America 156, no. 23 (13 June 1987): 485-87.
[In the following interview, Gallant discusses her lifelong love of reading, her reaction to the French character, and the genesis of several of the stories in Overhead in a Balloon.]
Born in Montreal, Mavis Gallant left Canada in 1950 to live in Paris. Her books of fiction include The Other Paris,From the Fifteenth District, and The Pegnitz Junction. In 1981, she received the Order of Canada for her contributions to Canadian letters and the Governor General's Award for Home Truths.
Eleven of the 12 stories in her latest book, Overhead in a Balloon were published originally in The New Yorker, where her stories have appeared steadily for over 30 years. Four stories in this collection, “A Recollection,” “Rue de Lille,” “The Colonel's Child” and “Lena,” form an intricate composite sketch of Edouard, a Frenchman looking back on his two marriages: the first to Magdalena, a Jewess who converted to Catholicism and whom he married at 22, and the second to Juliette, whom he met in London during World War II. Dr. Sandor Speck, of “Speck's Idea,” is a dealer in art whose gallery is on the Faubourg Saint-Germain. He conceives an idea to exhibit the works of the late Hubert Cruche and thus further his own reputation as a connoisseur. To set up the exhibition, however, Dr. Speck has to make arrangements with Cruche's wife Lydia, who has been swayed by Signor Vigorelli, who wants his own exhibition of Cruche's works in Milan and Trieste. In “Grippes and Poche,” Henri Grippes, a fiction writer and acquaintance of Victor Prism as recounted in “A Flying Start,” falls prey to traps he sets for himself as he deals with O. Poche, a minor state functionary investigating Grippes's taxes. “Luc and His Father” concerns the relationship Roger and Simone Clairvoies have with their son Luc during the period in his life when a Jesuit priest suggests Luc lacks a proper, masculine self-image, which undergoes a change during the story as he becomes involved with his girlfriend Katia. “Larry” is a microstory that dramatizes the brief encounter Larry Pugh has with his father from whom he has been separated for years and whose only legacy is a portrait of himself that we never really see.
[Samway]: I would be interested in knowing what authors you continue to read and how they influence you.
[Gallant]: I doubt very much if anyone my age can be influenced by an author; “influence,” for what it amounts to, enters the mind when one is very young. When I reread early work, I can see traces of writers I read and reread years before. (Like most writers, I dislike rereading my own work, and never do so unless I am forced to—to choose something when I am to give a reading, something like that.) I was taught to read at three, by my father, and I cannot remember a minute of my life without books. I am convinced that writing grows out of reading. A few years ago, when I was writer-in-residence at a large Canadian university, I would tell the students who came to see me, “Read.” Often they would answer, “Read what?” Young adults. I could hardly believe it.
As time passes, one seems to read quite differently. I've recently read and reread most of Céline, and a great deal about him. And a good deal about the period. I'm only now reading Claude Mauriac's postwar diaries about General de Gaulle, which I barely took note of when they were first published some 10 years ago. When I was young, I read in a haphazard way, whatever interested me, one thing after the other—the best way in youth. Nothing should be made a bore, or imposed, or turned into drudgery. I often receive letters from high school students, particularly from Canada, announcing that I am a “project” or an “assignment.” It all seems rock-bound or duty-bound, and I usually answer: “Tell your teacher that I do not approve. You must read for pleasure, or not at all.” Even now, I cannot imagine spending one second reading something that bores me. As an adolescent I imagined an ideal life, nothing but reading and writing, without being constantly interrupted. Since then I have learned (as I don't need to tell anyone) that there is no ideal life, and that to avoid being interrupted one would need to live on top of an Alp. But in a life without interruptions, one's brain would go dead, and there would be no reading, and certainly no writing. There's no solution, and that is most certainly a good thing.
In Overhead in a Balloon, you write mostly about people who live in and around Paris. What is there in the French character that attracts you?
I've written about Germans, Americans, the British, Hungarians, Italians and French-Canadians. These just happen to be stories about Parisians, assembled in one volume. Don't forget that I've lived here a great many years. What attracted me was Paris. About writing, I doubt if one is attracted by national characteristics—if such things can exist. You cannot be attracted, as a writer, except to people and situations you think you recognize and know, or can say something about, unless, of course, you are deliberately taking the point of view of an outsider. As an outsider, you can see only what is above ground. It takes a long time to untangle the roots. When I first came as an adolescent to the United States from Canada, the first thing I noticed was the absence of resentment, envy and jealousy. When I tell this even now to Americans, they seem astonished. But that was what I saw above ground.
The 12 stories in Overhead in a Balloon intersect with one another at various points, particularly “A Recollection,” “Rue de Lille,” “The Colonel's Child” and “Lena.” I am curious as to what you consider the organizing principle in this collection.
These four stories could have been a novel. But then I thought, four incidents tell the whole story, and so why bore readers with pages of connective tissue. The first image that came into my mind was the railway station in Marseille, and the young man on the platform, and the woman in the white hat leaning out the train window. But I couldn't get the thing right until I could see and hear the man, Edouard, as he later became. One evening at a dinner party, it was near Versailles, I met “Edouard.” Between drinks and dinner our hostess took me aside and told me something about his life (he was a Resistance hero, authentic, and his wife had just died) and there was something about him, I can't quite explain it, that fitted “Edouard.” I sat across the table from him, maintaining polite conversation (“have you seen this, and have you read that?”) and all the while thinking, “Poor man, he doesn't know that I have just saddled him with two wives and a career in broadcasting.” From that evening, everything fell into place. I never saw the man again and do not recall his name; his face is forever that of “Edouard.”
About the other connected stories, I began “Overhead in a Balloon” while I was still writing “Speck's Idea,” but, obviously, they could not be fitted into a single story. The stories about the writers Henri Grippes and Victor Prism are just stories I write from time to time. I write them just for the fun of it. Someone has pointed out to me that the chronology in real time is completely crazy, but I don't care. As for the “organizing principle” of the collection, well, I had a group of 12 stories with Paris backgrounds, and it seemed more sensible to group the same characters in sequence. That was all.
In almost every story, the conclusion is elliptical, asymptotical, tenuous. I think of the “pure love” of “Lena,” those “who outlasted jeopardy” in “Rue de Lille,” Roger's final remark in “Luc and His Father,” Larry's leaving no trace of “loss or mischief” in “Larry,” and so on. Do you have any theoretical opinions about how stories should end?
I wish I could be helpful, but I have no theories at all. When I read theories about the short story, or fiction in general, I can't apply them to anything I write or read. The endings seem to me to be logical, a natural movement from A to B. I can't say “to Z,” because there is no “Z” in fiction, unless one believes that time and life ever come to a full stop. Surely Edouard, when he can't meet Lena's expression of “pure love,” is summing up their marriage from the beginning. I can't discuss the two as if they were characters in history, or “real people,” but the final point is her persistent belief in their marriage and his persistent refusal. They are as remote from me now as any two people I might be told something about at a dinner party, but when I reread the stories, in order to answer your questions, that was how it seemed to me. One can't take sides—at least, I can't—but the woman does have an argument. She is a pain in the neck, but there is something admirable about the way she never gives in.
In “Rue de Lille,” the ending is a natural conclusion. Go back a few paragraphs. She suddenly sees her husband and his first wife clearly, as if the courtyard outside the window had been bombed flat, and so forth. The story opens out from that point to a larger and larger world. As for people in jeopardy, what about Juliette and Edouard and the first wife? It seems plain and simple.
I truly do not know what you mean by “asymptotical,” and if I began to think in such terms I'd never be able to write. Of course, I have no opinion as to how stories should end. If I had, it would be the nerve of the world: utter cheek, I mean, where other writers are concerned. I had a passion for Chekhov when I was young, and I suppose something stuck.
I thought “Grippes and Poche” both whimsical and sad. Would you want to comment, perhaps, on the genesis of this story?
The genesis of “Grippes and Poche,” as you put it, was the Place Saint-Sulpice, seen from the windows of the Trésor Public du Sixième Arrondissement, the building between the church and the police station. That's the income tax center for the sixth arrondissement, which is an administrative district in the city of Paris.
It is not the place where you pay up (there are other grim little offices for that) but the place where people go to complain or to be skinned alive. There, in my vision of him, sat Henri Grippes, looking out. It is only a sentence in the story. The next thing was the woman he imagines in his fiction, at Saint-Nicolas-du-Chardonnet. The whole story is somehow a bridge between the two images. The church is at the other end of Boulevard Saint-Germain. The other end of what, from what? The furniture store he is reminded of in the tax inspector's office. Obviously, I would never expect a reader, even a Parisian, to make the connection, but I have to hold on to threads of that sort if I am to weave the story. I was unable to explain to myself why Henri Grippes wanted to write about that particular woman, or why he is haunted by that particular vision. When I read the story in proof, I thought, of course, it is his mother.
Do you really mean “whimsical?” I would hate that, and it is certainly not my intention. Perhaps we don't think of the word in the same way. No one can see life as funny all the time—at least, no one I've met, so far—but there are elements of humor, often of farce, in situations of great sadness. (Obviously, I am not talking about the death of children, or anything of the kind. I mean, the sorrows of ordinary lives.) Once, at the funeral of a Polish poet in Paris, his elderly brother, who had been weeping, suddenly turned and invited me to a restaurant. He said later that he did not know why; it had suddenly popped into his head. We both broke into fou-rires. You can imagine the disapproval. Tension, you may say. And yet I remember the incident as funny, not hysterical, and at a great remove, like something once seen in a film.
What writing projects are you working on now or plan to work on? And why did you chose these projects?
I am working on something or other to do with Céline. An essay of some kind. And a novel that is more or less on its own feet, now. I'm too superstitious to say more, and I'd hate to have it collapse. I wrote thousands and thousands of words about the Dreyfus case, a huge typescript, still incomplete, piled up on a shelf in the linen closet. Every time I pull out a bathmat, some of the Dreyfus story falls on my head. I'm a slow writer and I work on more than one thing at a time. Everything gets done, but I can understand that to editors it must seem to take forever.
About the second part of your question: I was asked if I wanted to write about Dreyfus. I had no idea what I was getting into. I began by rereading Proust. I still think that À la recherche du temps perdu is the best thing that was ever written about the case and the period. As to fiction, one doesn't choose. Any writer will tell you the same thing, I imagine. The subject appears out of nowhere and hangs about. I'm afraid I can't explain it. I don't know where ideas and beginnings of stories come from: I wish I did. Sometimes there are astonishing coincidences. Recently I met a young architect who told me that his late father (who died about two years ago) had read the stories about Edouard and Juliette and Lena in The New Yorker in 1983 and had become convinced that I had, somehow, learned his life story and had used it. I had never heard of the man, had never met him and was unfamiliar with his name. He was an American who lived in California, but the coincidence was astonishing, even to the names: Juliette, Magdalena (Madeleine) and even streets of Paris. Magdalena lives on Quai Voltaire; the young man told me his mother had lived on Quai Bourbon. And so on. I told him—and, of course, he believed me—that if I had known the story of his father's wartime life and his two marriages I would have avoided anything that even resembled those particular facts—and, most certainly, the names.
I do hope that my responses to your questions are helpful. I liked your questions because they were about the work, not personal. When I am asked a personal question, my mind goes blank.
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Bell, Millicent. “Fiction Chronicle.” Partisan Review 64, no. 3 (summer 1997): 414-28.
Bell examines the short fiction of Gallant, Alice Munro, and William Trevor.
Greenstein, Michael. “How They Write Us: Accepting and Excepting ‘The Jew’ in Canadian Fiction.” Shofar 20, no. 2 (winter 2002): 5-29.
Greenstein discusses the portrayal of Jewish characters in the fiction of several female Canadian authors, including Gallant.
Ingham, David. “The Poetics of Dislocation.” Books in Canada 31, no. 3 (May 2002): 19-20.
Ingham presents a critical reassessment of Home Truths, arguing that readers should revisit the volume because “the experience will be like meeting old friends who have become more interesting (if a little older) over the intervening years.”
Wyile, Herb. “Home & Abroad.” Canadian Literature 131 (winter 1991): 235-36.
Wyile offers a mixed assessment of In Transit.
Additional coverage of Gallant's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 69-72; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 29, 69; Contemporary Canadian Authors, Vol. 1; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 7, 18, 38; Contemporary Novelists, Ed. 7; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 53; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied Authors; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Reference Guide to English Literature, Ed. 2; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; and Short Story Criticism, Vol. 5.
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SOURCE: Lesser, Ellen. “A Quartet of Storytellers.” Women's Review of Books 4, nos. 10-11 (July-August 1987): 24.
[In the following excerpt, Lesser assesses the strengths and weaknesses of Home Truths.]
Short stories used to be considered the fiction writer's warm-up, an exercise period, a prelude to the real career—which was, of course, writing novels. No longer. Today, in what critics have grown fond of calling the short-story renaissance, it is possible to make and sustain a career exclusively writing short fiction. Even those writers we think of as primarily novelists now seem sooner or later to publish a volume of stories, as if the rigors of the shorter form were not a warm-up but a kind of ultimate test, a series of advanced hurdles. Sure, you can tell a story in 300 pages. But can you do it in fifteen or twenty? Can a writer—with a necessarily limited number of brush strokes—make a sketch that suggests a whole world? Can she shape a piece of experience so that, with her final words, we get that feeling of wonder that tells us we've learned something, and something we've needed to know? Can she, in those few pages, make the story really deliver? …
Canadian-born Mavis Gallant is anything but a debutante in the society of the short story; she has seven previous collections to her credit, the most recent being Home Truths. Gallant's chronicling of her native Montreal has inspired critics to make comparisons with Joyce's Dublin. Overhead in a Balloon turns its sights on her adopted city of Paris, and confirms her gift for evoking the intricate atmospherics of place in short fiction. In the title story, one character notices another's habit of saying “‘Paris’ instead of ‘life,’ or ‘manners,’ or ‘people’”—as in, “Now that Paris had changed so much …” In the same way, in these stories, the city becomes life, becomes society, and Gallant's talent for capturing a sense of place resonates in its human dimension. For her hapless art dealer, Sandor Speck,
love affairs and marriages perished between seven and eight o'clock, the hour of rain and no taxis. All over Paris couples must be parting forever, leaving like debris along the curbs the shreds of cancelled restaurant dates, useless ballet tickets, hopeless explanations, and scraps of pride; and toward each of these disasters a taxi was pulling in, the only taxi for miles, the light on its roof already dimmed in anticipation to the twin dots that in Paris mean ‘occupied.’
Part of the pleasure of reading these stories stems from the fact that Gallant is, above all, an exquisite social portraitist; she has an uncanny knack for nailing a person or a whole group in a single wry and elegant sentence. Her eye for the telling detail never falters, whether she's describing the “determined intellectuals” slinking toward cultural centers in their “costly fake working-class clothes”; the Communists, “distinguished by the cleanliness of their no-iron shirts, the sobriety of their washable neckties”; or the aging American benefactress, her daydreams “populated by Bolsheviks, swarming up the Trocadero hill, waving eviction notices.” With these Paris tales, Gallant also shows herself to be a prose stylist of unfailing grace and intelligence; hers is a language that pleases profoundly, but does not intrude.
If one were to fault Mavis Gallant, it would be in matters not of style or vision, but rather of heart. Many of these stories are enjoyable but finally somewhat arid affairs. Three of them feature the author Henri Grippes, who provides the occasion for a deft satire of the literary scene and its politics. Yet only in the last of the trio, “Grippes and Poche”—tracing the relationship between Grippes and an income tax auditor that spans several periods of post-war French life and of the creative life of the writer—does Gallant manages to make of Grippes the kind of character that can actually move us.
Probably the closest we get to feeling a strong emotional tug is in the quartet of tales narrated by the sensitive and devoted Edouard, telling the stories of his two wives, Magdalena and Juliette, as both young and older women. Our hearts are tugged enough that we want to know more, especially about Magdalena—first the Hungarian-born, ex-Jewish bride of convenience, fleeing Paris to wait out the war in Marseilles; next the doctrinaire Catholic convert, refusing to grant a post-war divorce to Edouard, who was much younger and in love with a different woman; finally the aged tyrant, ready to assume her rightful place as Edouard's one and only true wife and widow-to-be. It is ironic that for this master of the short story, her most interesting work starts to bleed past the boundaries of the form.
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SOURCE: Brookner, Anita. “A Canadian in Paris.” Spectator 259, no. 8302 (29 August 1987): 26-7.
[In the following review, Brookner addresses the themes and narrative style of Overhead in a Balloon, comparing the collection to Gallant's novel A Fairly Good Time.]
Mavis Gallant, the Canadian writer, has long been appropriated by the New Yorker, for whom she produces lapidary short stories, which, by an inevitable process of osmosis, have become more characteristic of the New Yorker than of Mavis Gallant. This is to be regretted, for the author, perhaps too little known in this country, since her earlier works are out of print, is able to turn out breathtaking fragments of narrative of a very special kind. She is an expert on rootlessness, or displacement: her characters roam around Europe in the grey aftermath of the second world war, missing trains, winding up in the spare rooms of other people's apartments, taking forced holidays with unmanageable friends from home. But that home always remains remote, and hazards of an incalculable nature prevent return. In the most considered of her narratives this sense of homelessness becomes alarming, like one of those dreams in which inscrutable physical obstacles prevent the dreamer, who is in any case inappropriately dressed, from reaching an important appointment.
In her excellent novel entitled A Fairly Good Time (her best work) all these elements spring into hilarious if nightmarish life. Hopeless Shirley, returning home in the small hours of a Parisian Sunday, finds that her French husband is mysteriously absent, his movements known only to his mother and the landlady, Madame Roux. Shirley could in fact have found him in his mother's apartment, but instead goes out to meet Cat Castle, an interfering Canadian friend of her mother's. From here it is inevitable that she should wind up in a restaurant having breakfast at four o'clock in the afternoon, and paying for the astonishing amount of food eaten by a large friendly girl who has no money. Because the girl has no money Shirley feels obliged to take her home in a taxi. She is under the impression that the girl lives in the neighbourhood, but is forced to change her mind as the taxi whirls past the Renault factory. After this it is obligatory that the girl's family invite her for lunch (vast) on the following Sunday. Shirley, who dislikes these people intensely, turns up regularly because she cannot think of anything else to do. She is hapless as well as hopeless, neither good nor bad and anyway incapable of change. Meanwhile, something really awful is getting ready to happen …
The novel is horribly funny as well as intensely sad. Mavis Gallant's achievement here is to activate all the feelings which belong to those episodes of humiliation and discomfort experienced by people who do not speak the language of whatever country they happen to be in. She herself is neutral and cool, as befits the observer in a foreign country. Although her Canadian background has been well established in the collection of stories entitled An Unmarried Man's Summer, she is freest when she is marginal, and years of this marginality have established her as the expatriates' expatriate, the one who knows the customs of the country while getting them almost casually wrong.
She has a sharp eye for the bores who lie in wait for her characters, incubi and succubi of every nationality, relics of the Algerian war or the G.I. Bill: French mothers-in-law in perpetual mourning ‘for the living,’ trembling Hungarian professors, travellers constantly refreshing themselves from bags inscribed ‘Wines of Germany,’ and, in this latest collection of stories, artists' widows, cracked writers, and eternal refugees, whose status refuses ever to change, even with new cards of identity. Since these stories are specifically Parisian, it is natural that their main concern should be not with great ideas but with staking a claim to a room in someone else's apartment. Poor Walter from the art gallery, who is willing to let his landlord's demented mother walk through his quarters nightly in his effort to retain his foothold, is no match for the relatives who move in and the courteous owner of the property who, one day, places Walter's books outside the door as an indication to him that it is time to move on.
The best stories [in Overhead in a Balloon] concern Magdalena, the glamorous refugee from Budapest who passes a pleasant war in Cannes and prevents the young man who married her to protect her from the Germans from ever marrying anyone else again. Magdalena is a sizeable fictional character, more sizeable than anyone else in this collection; and the masterly storyteller that Mavis Gallant has previously revealed herself to be, in the beautiful volumes entitled The Pegnitz Junction and From the Fifteenth District, survives in the way the Magdalena stories open out into each other, each subsequent story enlightening one on some matters that may have been obscure in the first. There is one story here that knocks spots off all the rest: the tenants of an apartment house meet to discuss the installation of an entryphone, and their Parisian deliberations are chronicled in the form of the minutes of the meeting. This story belongs to the Mavis Gallant who is too good for the New Yorker. For the rest of the collection, alas, the New Yorker reigns supreme.
Mavis Gallant should be read by all those who like to think of themselves as exiles from Hemingway's Paris. Mavis Gallant's Paris is the real place, where the rooms are either too big or too small and in any case belong to somebody else, and where Basque separatists blow up art galleries and policemen routinely beat up pickpockets. The ache of nostalgia that this Paris purveys is undoubtedly the real thing. And who has not seized on that friend from home, intolerable when one had the choice, but suddenly a pearl of great price? Such a one is Doris Fischer in Green Water, Green Sky, another excellent novel.
In honour of the meal Doris went home and returned wearing some sort of finery. She looked like a social worker going to the movies with a girl friend, Bonnie thought. Unjust appraisal always made her kind: she all but took Doris in her arms.
It is in re-reading the novels and the earlier collections of stories that the real essence of this excellent writer is to be found. Her ability to marry memories of tragedy with occasions of high comedy will and must survive to establish another substantial body of work. Another novel from her would be especially welcome. It would be guaranteed to be unlike a novel written by anyone else. Her amused and scrupulous style is unmistakable.
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SOURCE: Cobb, Richard. “Quite Wise During the Events.” Spectator 260, no. 8328 (20 February 1988): 26-7.
[In the following review, Cobb assesses the events and personalities described in Paris Notebooks.]
There are a good many moments in modern French history that it would have been best to have missed. Often it was just a matter of getting out of Paris early on. In July, 1830, one would not have had to go any further than Rambouillet. In June, 1848, the prudent Parisian could have headed for the Vexin or the Beauce, or, indeed, anywhere within easy reach west of Paris: an eastern exit was not to be recommended. In March-May, 1871, the sensible thing would have been to have gone to Versailles, though there might have been difficulty in getting a bed (there would have been plenty of beds in the villages beyond); trains were both leaving Paris and coming into it throughout the Commune, so there would not have been much difficulty in getting away from it all. Brittany would have been the wisest choice, but even Anjou would have been safe enough. I suppose June, 1940, could be argued the other way. As seven-eighths of the Parisians were heading south-west, getting machine-gunned on the roads, the sensible thing would have been to have stayed put, which is what the police did (as, indeed, did the hotel staff the brothel-owners and the prostitutes). There would have been no immediate danger. Paris had been declared an Open City.
May, 1968, was certainly a time to get out. According to Mavis Gallant, a great many members of le beau monde did, stocking up with petrol and driving to Switzerland or Belgium, taking with them their stocks of gold; French francs were no use, the wise Belgians and Swiss would not accept them. A small mercy was that ces événements occurred during the Oxford term, so that one could read about them from a safe distance. Even on the spot the Whitsun holiday would put an end to all that messy nonsense, the young revolutionaries from the XVIme and the VIIIme, after a month of raising and manning barricades, burning cars, uprooting trees, throwing things at the CRS, copulating in the corridors of the old Sorbonne (le repos du guerrier, de la guerrière) and setting fire to the Sorbonne library, driving with their parents to their résidences secondaries: converted mills in the Brie, the Beauce, the Perche and the Pays d'Auge.
The author of the present book [Paris Notebooks] stayed put. Perhaps she had no choice, though one could have walked, cycled, or hitched. Belgium could never have seemed more welcoming. One has the impression that she may have quite enjoyed the whole thing; and physically she was right in the thick of it, for her flat was in the VIme. Certainly she seems to have found June a bit of a let-down after the excitements and the uncertainties of May. Her diary, in its immediacy, reveals a certain ambivalence. She was, after all, only an observer, or, at most, a prudent participant on the fringes of manifs and colloques. Being Canadian was a bit of a privilege: the Canadian banks seem to have remained open, it would have been just a matter of crossing the Seine. May, 1968, could have offered a unique opportunity for the uncommitted observer: there was the non-stop theatre, the graffiti, and the sudden sociability of total strangers who started talking to one another in the street. This is what a lot of people would remember, with a sort of nostalgia, when it was all over, and all the filth and rubbish had been cleared away, the métro had started running again, and things were back to normal. The barriers of reticence had all at once broken down. Perhaps what excited her was the impression of living outside time, even the days of the week lost their specific identity, a sort of unofficial holiday that lasted a month (the dreadful Commune had lasted nearly three).
She is fairly even-handed in her judgments. There is a reference to Maurice Duverger, who, in 1940, had helped draw up Vichy's anti-Jewish legislation, posturing on television on the subject of ‘the beauty of the barricades.’ She even displays some sympathy for the sorely-tried CRS, middle-aged men, many no doubt of provincial origin, who had been brought in from Brittany, Bordeaux and Marseille (as she had spotted from the number-plates on their black buses—she doesn't miss a trick), travelling through the night. She has too a very good ear for the empty language of contestation: refuse, conteste, dénonce, constate—a curious mixture of threat, intimidation, impudence, and legalism. There is a reference to one of the contestants, taking time off from the barricades, who has been put up for the night by a sympathetic family in the VIme. He is filthy and smells: ‘moody boy, sits and broods. Won't help around the place.’ Committed revolutionaries neither wash nor wash up. Why, she asks, do they go on so about Marcuse? Why, for that matter, are they so fanatically anti-American and anti-English? Of the dreadful Cohn-Bendit, she observes: ‘He has the ruthlessness of someone unable to put himself in another's place.’ Quite. We have a glimpse of two horrible little girls, standing on a third-floor balcony, Boulevard Saint-Michel, and shrieking ‘Vive les étudiants’ (this is what Mavis says they shouted, but even horrid little middle-class revolutionary camp-followers would have known their grammar: ‘Vivent les étudiants’). She is sharp on French universalism: when she points out that the student movement had in fact originated in the United States, she meets smiles of polite disbelief,
the same smiles that Anthony S. found so discouraging when he was teaching at the British Institute here. He would say that Samuel Johnson was important, for example. But everyone knew that only Charles Morgan and Lawrence Durrell were important.
At times her diary is wonderfully visual:
Walk in morning rain to Luxembourg Gardens … Something dreamlike about the locked secret garden … A fountain jet still playing … three workmen and a small bright-orange jeeplike thing for transporting rakes and shovels … A man shaking their hands through the grille fence …
There are interesting throw-away observations. Several of her friends hope that the Communists will take charge; then there will be order—Waldeck-Rochet would put an end to the chaos. Someone mentioned as initials only, AZ, is reading up on the Commune (perhaps a bit of wishful thinking, and one not to materialise: this time, no corpses in the street). Another, when asked by her whether he thinks there is going to be a civil war, replies politely, ‘It is possible’ (in this case, not an expression of hope). She watches, from the pavement, the Gaulliste demonstration on the Champs-Elysées
made up of le petit peuple. Not the girl who works in a factory but the waitress from the bistro, the girl who washes your hair. They are fed up with losing time, being tired, losing their pay, and they want to get back to work. Nous voulons travailler …
Not a bad piece of social observation. But she can also be plain silly: ‘I hear them chanting, “Nous sommes tous des juifs allemands.” It is because of Cohn-Bendit, because that is how he is dismissed. They are answering their parents. …’ Of this idiotic and mendacious statement—a triple insult to Jews, Germans, and German Jews, on the part of impudent French middle-class Catholic teenagers from les beaux quartiers, she makes the ponderous comment:
… It is the most important event, I think, since the beginning of this fantastic month of May, because it means a mutation in the French character: a generosity. …
My foot! Later, she expresses her grief, her sense of loss: ‘The month of May wiped out of time.’ She is enraged. Poor joli mois de mai, my birthday month, too, it deserves more than the memory of those obscene and futile events, ces enfantillages, as a friend of mine on the Central Committee of the French Communist Party described them to a shocked group of Balliol undergraduates (in June).
There could have been a postscript. May, 1968 was not even a failed revolution. There was nothing revolutionary about it; there were no corpses in the street. But it did represent a form of warfare against the old—that is anyone over 30; several university heads and their deputies, as a result of being physically assaulted and verbally abused, had heart attacks. Two of my friends died in the next ten years or so, as an indirect result of what they had been through.
Miss Gallant is both fair and indignant on the subject of the impossible, idiotic, incurably pedagogic, humourless Gabrielle Roussier. I had not realised, before reading her piece, that Gabrielle was a Protestant: that explains a lot; nor that her two children (who had been taken into care) were called Jöel and Valérie (they would be). I much enjoyed her piece on British War Brides in Canada. She is rightly severe on Sartre and de Beauvoir, sees Malraux for the fraud he was, thinks that she had discovered Léautaud, detects the cruelty in Colette, does not think much of Zeldin's (‘Theodore Zeldin, distinguished British historian, Oxford don, author’) book on the French (one feels she does not really like the French; she is, after all, Canadian, and from Montreal) and comments shrewdly on the subject of Simenon's awful Intimate Memoirs (and its even more awful translation): ‘By turning us into voyeurs, he manages to divert our attention from his deepest secret, his creativity.’
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SOURCE: Seibold, Douglas. “The Sly Subtleties of Mavis Gallant.” Chicago Tribune Books (28 May 1989): 4.
[In the following review, Seibold summarizes the themes of In Transit, highlighting its treatment of the expatriate condition and honest characterizations.]
Mavis Gallant, a native of Canada who makes her home in Paris, is one of the foremost living practitioners of the short story. Her rich, subtle fiction is a fixture in the annual collections of the year's best stories; it has appeared regularly in the New Yorker for at least 30 years; and each of the 20 stories included in In Transit was first published there.
Gallant does not appear to collect her work in chronological order. Over the past five years she has instead published three or four collections that seem to be organized according to subject, as is In Transit. Each story is concerned with characters either traveling or living in some country other than that in which they were born.
Most often Gallant's heroes and heroines are Anglophones—whether Canadian, American, English or Irish—and the foreignness they experience abroad is rooted in the insularity of their language.
In the first of the book's three sections, “Parents and Children,” Gallant convincingly delineates the gulf between childhood and adulthood, which is as broad as that between two countries. Despite the inevitable passage from one to the next, essentially neither is capable of understanding the other.
In “An Emergency Case,” for example, an English child is being held in a Swiss hospital after being injured in the auto crash that killed his parents. The child doesn't speak French, but much of what he learns about his situation he picks up through overhearing the hospital personnel discussing him in their language.
The child understands far more French than anyone in the hospital realizes; but he is unable to make sense of what has happened to his parents, although it has been explained to him in English by his doctor, in the euphemistic way adults speak of death. It's not French or English that the boy can't understand; it's the foreign code of adulthood.
The considerable variety of In Transit is best exemplified by “Questions and Answers,” an unexpectedly funny story of Rumanian immigrants in Paris. But Gallant doesn't completely avoid a sense of repetitiveness.
Included in this collection are enough veterans of the Raj, diplomats and their wives, eagerly awaited money-bearing letters, and older men coupled with younger women to foster the impression that Gallant is working with limited resources as far as material goes.
Rich and subtle, her work also is distinguished by a bracing pointedness. Gallant often writes about what could be called the fringes of the upper classes, and she is pitiless in exposing their pretensions. Her characters never seem to have quite enough money to lead the lives to which they aspire. And their struggles to behave correctly are made even more pathetic and preposterous by the indifference of the foreign settings.
Gallant is not hampered by overkindness. Few writers are so ready to reveal their protagonists' least flattering qualities, whether these revealed by a story's events or through the direct address of the narrator.
Her baldest observations verge on ridicule, as when she introduces the hero in “Vacances Pax”: “Stuart Fenwich had persuaded a tall fat girl named Valerie to come and see the trench where he had planted peanuts. (It took Fenwick to consider this a form of courtship.)”
In a lesser writer's work that quality might make the characters too unsympathetic; but in Gallant's fiction the places and situations, and the characters who people them, usually are so real that the reader can appreciate them. It helps that her touch is light; a character in “A Question of Disposal” realizes that “Understatement made it possible to be both sensible and cruel, and since living often obliged one to be both, it gave the assurance that no one would be harmed too deeply.”
Even at her harshest, Gallant cedes her character's worth—as she plumbs the lives of these exiles, travelers, freeloaders and vacationers in the makeshift resting places they establish for themselves.
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SOURCE: Blodgett, E. D. “Heresy and Other Arts: A Measure of Mavis Gallant's Fiction.” Essays on Canadian Writing 42 (winter 1990): 1-8.
[In the following essay, Blodgett examines Gallant's work by introducing the main points of the critical response to her oeuvre.]
J'étais un enfant dépossédé du monde.
—Anne Hébert (I)
Mavis Gallant was born in 1922. If she were a professor, this special issue would be a festschrift. Gallant, however, is not a professor, and this is not a festschrift, although it is designed to celebrate critically a writer at the apogee of her career. That she has not received such a celebration yet, with the exception of a special issue of Canadian Fiction Magazine, is a reflection in part, at least, of the manner in which she chose to conduct her career. She has lived in Paris since 1950, spending the year 1983-84 as writer in residence at the University of Toronto. Since 1951, after some early publications in Preview and Northern Review, she has published almost exclusively in The New Yorker. Almost as a reminder of her neglect of Canada, she did not receive a Governor General's Award until she published Home Truths in 1981, a work that bears the revealing subtitle “Selected Canadian Stories.” It could be asserted that other collections are at least as accomplished, notably From the Fifteenth District; and, hence, the award implies that had Gallant chosen to make a more Canadian career, indigenous awards might have been more generous. Gallant's reply seems to have been: my enterprise is writing, which I do to the best of my ability; yours is discernment, which you do within your horizons. It has been remarked that “Our inability to acknowledge the value of Gallant's work is, after all, ultimately a reflection of our cultural parochialism” (Malcolm 116). This collection of essays, if nothing else, is a modest effort to rectify that justly laid charge.
How parochial we are may be measured by a simple fact. Marguérite Yourcenar has lived the same amount of time in the United States. Not only is her prose widely admired in France, and by Gallant herself (Home Truths xiii), but she is also the first woman to have been elected to the Académie Française. If Gallant had chosen to remain in Canada. … Perhaps one conclusion to that sentence would be that we all would be impoverished as result. One of the aspects of such impoverishment would be that Gallant would not have been urged to face with such acuity the problem of exile and dépaysement, which may be found everywhere in her work. It has been suggested, furthermore, by one of her earliest commentators that the “liberty of movement” that life abroad provides gave her “a certain artistic freedom,” followed by “a certain exhilaration” (Wilson 6). But the price has been that she has provoked a certain hostility among members of the Canadian literary establishment to which she has responded so eloquently in the introductory remarks to Home Truths. The very fact that she felt moved to make an apologia underscores the degree of her awareness of the sensitivity of the Canadian reading public. Indeed, to be read in Canada is to be “on trial” (Home Truths xii), suggesting that culture in this country carries with it an aura of criminal offence. How, then, to feel at home in a country where what you say as fiction may be treated as fraud, where writing itself may be considered “an act of intellectual deception” (Home Truths xii)? This is a question that becomes particularly acute when one distinguishes allegiances, as Gallant has done, between the nation of one's birth and the world of art. That she has chosen to do so is reason enough to celebrate her; that she has persisted to write as she does, despite her reception “at home,” is even greater reason.
What is the world to which she has chosen to give her allegiance? Rather than considering the kinds of writers—French, German, and American—with whom Gallant has a prompt familiarity, attention ought to be directed to her sense of herself as a writer. Her self-awareness is determined by the declaration: “I am a Canadian and a writer and a woman” (“An Interview” [“An Interview with Mavis Gallant”] 62). The emphasis placed upon verb and conjunctions charge her assertion with a kind of copulative energy that seems to make each persona almost interchangeable. One seems to thrive upon the other, and all the elements conjoined seem to endow Gallant with a clarity of understanding that is reinforced by her summary statement on the matter: “One's identity—the real one—is never a problem” (“An Interview” 62). One cannot help but feel, however, the more one meditates upon those characters who dominate the scene of her fiction, that such assertions are made in the face of a certain scepticism; which inheres in the erosion of time, experience, history, the mark especially of someone keenly attuned to the moment remembered, the peculiar Stimmung that events have in their passage. The task that Gallant has set herself and achieved in an often stunning fashion is at once to seize upon the order of events, finding what makes them so fitting within a certain historical trajectory, and to carry the reader, often imperceptibly, through and beyond that moment into some indefinable zone in which a sense of vertigo seems inescapable. It is as though the unfolding of her text were a game of I Ching played with both the self and history, each design projecting a certain significance only to be immediately modified by the next, everything in order and everything changing simultaneously at random.
Such ludicity, if one were to translate from another French neologism yet, to my knowledge, to be invented, plays at the core of Gallant's work, whether in “The Pegnitz Junction,” so frequently praised for its understanding of the working of Fascism, or in the more recent “Speck's Idea.” No one is more aware of this than Gallant herself, who has remarked: “I can't imagine writing anything that doesn't have humour. Every situation has an element of farce. I have a friend … who went through Auschwitz—my God, one says that as though one were going through finishing school” (Gabriel 24). Play it is, but deadly play, and the continual gesture toward the war is what endows her work with its curious quality of the tragic, the futile, and the vulnerable, overcome, as Gallant has said, by “the fits of laughter that you get at a funeral” (Gabriel 24).
To say “the war” is to refer to the predominance of the Second World War as a presence, explicit or not, in her work. The war is a determination, and its force may be observed in the record of her recollection of first looking upon photographs from the concentration camps in 1945. It is significant that Gallant believed then, as she does now, that in order to understand what has occurred, an explanation must not be solicited from the victims, but from the Germans; she shares this position with Hugh MacLennan. To find an answer, she observes, was “desperately important to people like myself who were twenty-two and had to live with this shambles” (“An Interview” 40). As Janice Kulyk Keefer has argued, for Gallant, “female experience in which passivity, captive and sometimes complicit suffering have been traditionally the norm, becomes archetypal of the human experience of history in an age in which ‘total war’ has eclipsed all other concepts of conflict” (“Mavis Gallant” 296), and Gallant's career has been a sustained search through the shambles of the twentieth century to know why war happened. No less significant is the fact that she calls her German stories, her meditations on catastrophe, “a kind of personal research” (“An Interview” 39), and the problem for her is not the brute facts themselves, nor even the larger issues that form the discourse of political history. The war is not actual, in the French sense, with Gallant, but filtered by reminiscence; her fictions are an archaeology of war (Woodcock 82). Her characters, therefore, are inevitably epigones: they are either emblems of the shambles of war or, like Gallant's narrators, figures who pick their way through it. The war, then, formed a certain sensibility in Gallant that was exquisitely attuned to language, and she realized, even at 22, that the article she had been commissioned to write had turned the war into kitsch. Hence it is equally valid to say that Gallant's career has also been a search for a certain shaping discourse without which all the talk of war and its wake would become, as kitsch becomes, gestures of immorality and cynicism.
To neglect Gallant's understanding of language, then, is as careless as it is to overlook her attentiveness to how things fall apart. This is why it is well to remember a comment Gallant made about Yourcenar, that her “subject is not cruelty, but heresy” (“Limpid” [“Limpid Pessimist: Marguérite Yourcenar”] 185), and it is well to remember further that a heresy is a movement away from the official view in such a way as to promote division. But even more, heresy is a special mode of perception (in Greek it is hairein: to grasp [for oneself]). It is a move of power and assertion that takes as its domain suffering and loss; it is at home in the shambles. It is precisely here, in such early pieces as “The Picnic” and “The Other Paris,” those apparently plotless stories, that the themes most readers have noticed in Gallant's work emerge. In the first example, characters never seem to arrive (at the picnic), and in the second, they gradually confuse the real with what “had never been at all” (“Other Paris” 30), and thus manifest themes of something that occurs against or beneath what is being explicitly said. Such are the themes of the heretic; they concern the act that is repressed by the dominant discourse. Gallant's “personal research” has thus been conducted to discover a language appropriate for being in some way apart, whether as exile in the political, social, or personal sense.
No one would suggest, however, that Gallant responds to shambles with shambles—a not uncommon contemporary move. She is an author who appears to know precisely, amid what often are no more than the fragments of a life, where to direct her reader, in such a way that even the sense of loss that dépaysement gathers in is part of the plan. Nor can anyone, even someone with the most random acquaintance with Gallant's work, fail to notice her penchant for wit whose resonance within the narrative almost invariably takes quirky turns. And while it is true that poetry is born with the poet, experience and constant exercise are its only nourishment. Hence, it might be asserted that Gallant's own move to Paris, another heresy, has played a significant role in her use of language. For, as she remarks of Yourcenar, “Writers who choose domicile in a foreign place, for whatever reason, usually treat their native language like a delicate timepiece, making certain it runs exactly and that no dust gets inside” (“Limpid” 189). Such a statement is true, if only in the rarest of instances, and Thomas Mann, James Joyce, and, to choose a contemporary, Milan Kundera, all deserve mention as writers for whom language is the ultimate country.
Why, then, should one make so much of Gallant's statement that she sees herself as Canadian, and a writer, and a woman? Because for Gallant they are words, as I have remarked, that are synonymous, and that together constitute an identity. But beneath her wonderful wisecracks about “national identity” (Home Truths xiii), and about the cultural Philistinism of her fellow citizens, it is difficult for her to escape the fact that for her, “expatriate” is not an apt term to describe a Canadian living elsewhere, for the condition is “a natural product” (“An Interview” 62). A Canadian is, it would seem, by nature of but not in, and thus endowed with attributes similar to those of a woman in a patriarchal world. To accept these conditions is to become, by definition, a heretic, refusing the official version, whose text consequently becomes the articulation of such a state, such a country. Life and history, as Keefer has remarked, happen to Canadians elsewhere (289), such that Gallant's texts, to speak without generalizing, are continual alibis that forever gloss the official account into a condition of irony, playfully shifting and displacing meaning until the shambles constitutes its own economy and polis, and we discover that we are at home wherever we have always been. …
Gallant's character finds herself in a labyrinth—literally mise en abyme—and her task is to come to terms with that subtle, shifting, heretical scene in which the self is to be created from the shambles it finds are the donnés of its existence. For truth, indeed, lies in fiction. The way out, for Gallant, is the way in, and especially the way in to a text that is designed to shatter expectations, subvert our sense of language, find truth in ironic guise, and suggest, finally, that our image on the mirror is often so much the contrary of what we profess to value that we must accept the unheimlich as where we will have to be at home. And all of this is performed with a smile as coolly seductive as that of Leonardo's “La Gioconda”—enthralling, entrancing, and transforming.
Gabriel, Barbara. “Fairly Good Times: An Interview with Mavis Gallant.” Canadian Forum Feb. 1987: 23-27.
Gallant, Mavis. “An Interview with Mavis Gallant.” With Geoff Hancock. Canadian Fiction Magazine 28 (1978) [special Gallant issue]: 18-67.
———. Introduction. Home Truths: Selected Canadian Stories. By Mavis Gallant. Toronto: Macmillan, 1981. xi-xxii.
———. “Limpid Pessimist: Marguérite Yourcenar.” Paris Notebooks: Essays and Reviews by Mavis Gallant. Toronto: Macmillan, 1986. 180-91.
———. “The Other Paris.” The Other Paris. Toronto: Macmillan, 1986. 1-30.
Keefer, Janice Kulyk. “Mavis Gallant and the Angel of History.” University of Toronto Quarterly 55 (1986): 282-301.
Malcolm, Douglas. “An Annotated Bibliography of Works by and about Mavis Gallant.” Canadian Fiction Magazine 28 (1978) [special Gallant issue]: 115-33.
Wilson, Edmund. O Canada: An American's Notes on Canadian Culture. New York: Farrar, 1965.
Woodcock, George. “Memory, Imagination, Artifice: The Latest Short Fiction of Mavis Gallant.” Canadian Fiction Magazine 28 (1978) [special Gallant issue]: 74-91.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6009
SOURCE: Schrank, Bernice. “Popular Culture and Political Consciousness in Mavis Gallant's My Heart Is Broken.” Essays on Canadian Writing 42 (winter 1990): 57-71.
[In the following essay, Schrank examines the influence of popular media on the characters of My Heart Is Broken, highlighting its effects on their flaws, development, and motives.]
Although My Heart Is Broken includes some of Mavis Gallant's best and most frequently anthologized stories, it has received little critical attention. This is not as it should be, given the collection's technical subtlety and political sophistication. Like Dubliners,Winesburg, Ohio, and In Our Time,My Heart Is Broken invites analysis as a unified whole, a work whose meaning and impact derive from the interpenetration of its seemingly discrete and independent parts. Taken together, these short stories create a longer, more complex narrative, different in implication from any single fiction in the collection. Framed by Lily Littel's hankering after the sterile forms of a dying class at the beginning (“Acceptance of Their Ways”), and Peter Frazier's borrowed image at the end (“The Ice Wagon Going down the Street”), the stories collectively illustrate various permutations of genteel angst and lower-class anomy.
Writing about My Heart Is Broken in the only article to date to deal solely with this work, David O'Rourke argues that the book's unity derives from the characters who “have typically taken a wrong turn in life and are unable to go back” (98). It is certainly true that in My Heart Is Broken, Gallant depicts a run-down, secondhand world of deracinated exiles, disappointed romantics, and disconcerted intellectuals, characters who suffer not only from boredom, frustration, anxiety, and an overwhelming sense of futility, but also from persistent ill health. The number of characters with colds and flu (see “Bernadette,” “Its Image on the Mirror,” “The Cost of Living”) would fill a doctor's office. From story to story, characters substitute chatter and gossip for conversation, movies for thought, and vague dreams for active life. At first glance, the characters appear to be victims of their own inadequacies. They are afflicted with weaknesses of feeling that can shrink experience into the clichés of a popular culture so that, to take an obvious example, a brutal rape is expressed and accepted as a broken heart (“My Heart Is Broken”). They also suffer from failures of intellect that can reduce mental activity to the affectations of aging parlour radicals such as the Knights (“Bernadette”), the after-dinner chitchat of a well-meaning liberal such as Jim (“Sunday Afternoon”), or the bluster and prejudice of mindless conservatives such as Jean Price's father and brother (“Its Image on the Mirror”).
Gallant, however, does not view the intellectual, spiritual, and emotional impoverishment of the characters as their sole and exclusive fault. Viewing personality as the product of a malleable individual consciousness and the pressures of society, defined both narrowly as family and more sweepingly as culture, Gallant locates character within a dense sociopolitical matrix. Gallant is particularly interested in exploring the ways by which modern technology and popular culture collaborate in shaping the individual sensibility, often in the direction of social conformity and political quietism. Thus, in studying the foibles of unfocused, unhappy, or unhinged characters, Gallant also investigates some of the machinery of social control, what Gallant has referred to in another context as the authoritarian potential inherent in contemporary life. Viewed from this angle, the characters who populate My Heart Is Broken appear to be significantly, and often unconsciously, influenced by twilight romanticism in the form of a popularized and debased ideology of the individual that, in Gallant's work, comes dangerously close to narcissistic self-absorption (Hatch 93-94). Aroused by expectations of personal fulfilment, Gallant's characters are unprepared for the inevitable disappointments, and they are unable to generate from themselves, their families, or their culture meaningful alternatives to this pattern of frustration and stultification. The most sensitive and intelligent of the characters, women such as Jean Price in “Its Image on the Mirror,” respond to the romantic dream, seek transcendence, and discover only disillusion, a state they accept, however regretfully. Seduced and manipulated by the crude romantic promises of the mass media, characters less penetrating than Jean—Veronica in “Sunday Afternoon” or Jeannie in “My Heart Is Broken,” for example—expect unblemished happiness as their due. That they encounter only failure leaves them in a condition of chronic bewilderment, a state hospitable to the complacent and superficially mild racism that Jean Price's father advocates.
Using a series of references to books and to movies, Gallant, in My Heart Is Broken, explores the complicated relationship between personal inadequacies and the sociocultural conditioning that exacerbates those private deficiencies, that encourages a pervasive mindlessness, and that lends itself to authoritarian political control. The rest of this paper will treat the significance of the references to books and movies in turn.
By their references to books and to authors, and by their interpretations of their reading, the characters in My Heart Is Broken demonstrate how easily literacy can accommodate a sentimental morality and a conservative politics. This is in part because their reading avoids interrogation and doubt. But Gallant also recognizes that modern literary production, aimed at a mass market, often encourages, and may even create, these complacencies. I will return to this point shortly, but, to begin with, I examine how Gallant uses literary references to anatomize the intellectual and emotional self-indulgence of many of her characters. Invariably, Gallant characterizes the literary attitudes of her characters as a series of distorted or meaningless gestures toward the printed page, a habit of mind that selectively retrieves from the text those images and opinions that are most congenial.
Nowhere in My Heart Is Broken is text more obviously pretext than in “The Moabitess.” From time to time Miss Horeham, “a solitary daughter in castoff dresses in the lounge of a third-class pension” (46), recalls her study of the Bible, reciting its familiar phrases to protect and to insulate her from a world she only intermittently understands. Thus, when she overhears the Oxleys, a couple who have the room next door, quarrelling about sex, she recites “at random from Proverbs: ‘A virtuous woman is a crown to her husband: but she that maketh ashamed is as rottenness to his bones.’ It was the first thing that came into her head” (50). Although the words have ironic implication for the situation in the Oxley bedroom, their meaning and relevance are lost on Miss Horeham, who takes sufficient comfort in the familiar sound of the words to be able to go back to sleep. “What came next? ‘He that tilleth. …’ No, that came later. ‘The thoughts of the righteous are right.’ She repeated this until the noise had stopped, and then she fell back into sleep” (50). The Bible is not always such a successful soporific. The story ends with Miss Horeham once again trying “to send herself off with Proverbs, but could not” (52). Unable to calm herself, she sits in front of the mirror, puts on her Sicilian scarf, and disregarding her dressing gown, her advanced age, and her virginal life, she sees herself as a sexually charged Ruth, the Moabitess, “with hoops in her ears and a red-green-black striped veil,” an image that provides her with vast satisfaction (53). Any precise meaning the biblical text might have has been lost, submerged in her amorphous need for consolation and vindication. The same subjectivity that allows Miss Horeham to believe she is Ruth, the Moabitess, informs Robbie Knight's misreading of Orwell in “Bernadette,” and Puss's rejection of Beckett and Yeats in “The Cost of Living.” Because these characters appear more sophisticated and better educated than the simpleminded Miss Horeham, Robbie's unintentional distortions of, and Puss's conscious resistance to the text more clearly indicate how difficult it is to read carefully and critically. Gallant sets Knight's sentimental reading against his servant Bernadette's total incomprehension. For Bernadette, all forms of communication are difficult, but none is more mysterious and alien than the written word. Although the Knights ply her with such classics as Lady Chatterley's Lover and The Red and the Black, their attempts to use books as the agency for Bernadette's betterment fail. Bernadette accepts the books out of fear of offending her employers, wraps them in newspaper to protect the covers, places them in a drawer for a few days, and returns them unread.
The Knights never appreciate that, for Bernadette, reading is a “strange swamp world … in which there was no footing” (29). For them, full as they are of liberal self-congratulation, the bestowal of the books is a demonstration of their good intentions and, incidentally, their intellectual and moral superiority. Gallant, however, is anxious to deflate their pretensions. Thus, when Robbie Knight settles down with a volume of Orwell, one of a set purchased for him by his wife, who mistakenly believes that Orwell and the Knights are compatible political spirits, he reads impressionistically and superficially. Although Orwell's political writing contains much that is antagonistic to Robbie's own beliefs, Robbie lights on a sentimental passage from The Road to Wigan Pier that confirms his own naive view that working-class existence. He accepts absolutely and uncritically the truth of Orwell's description of a working-class kitchen, the “Father, in shirt-sleeves … reading the racing finals,” the mother “with her sewing, and the children … happy with a penn'orth of mint humbugs” (25). It never occurs to Robbie, who has never been inside the kitchen of a working-class home, “that the image he had just been given might by idyllic,” but Gallant makes sure it occurs to the reader (25). Almost immediately, in what is the literary equivalent of a sight gag, Gallant presents Bernadette's memory of her own impoverished kitchen, “a large, crowded room” that smelled of “men's boots” and soiled diapers, a place of unrewarding toil and broken spirit (27). Even these efforts of blinkered reading prove too strenuous for Robbie; the next day he is “reading a detective novel” (37). Thus, while Bernadette is ill equipped to deal with literature, Gallant presents Robbie, despite his intellectual posturing, as unwilling and therefore also unable.
Like Robbie Knight, Puss in “The Cost of Living” is unwilling to accept literature steadily and wholly; and like Robbie Knight, she responds to literature selectively and subjectively. Puss has exchanged the provincial world of her Australian birth for the exploitative, unromantic straitjacket of Bohemian Paris, where she cannot earn a decent living, where she is cut off from human contact by the walls of the hotel room in which she lives, and where, as a consequence, she is sick a good deal of the time. During one of her illnesses, Puss hears Patrick, a French actor who occupies the next room, reciting passages from Beckett's Endgame and Waiting for Godot in English, but using the French declamatory manner so that his voice penetrates the wall and fills Puss's room. At the best of times, Beckett's humour is black, but “can you imagine listening to Beckett when you are lying in bed with a fever?” (172). Puss perceives in Beckett's entropic vision a perfect expression of her own condition. In an effort to escape from Beckett, Puss dumps an armload of poetry on Patrick's bed.
“If you must have Irish misery,” I said, and I gave him Yeats. English had one good effect; he stopped declaiming. The roughness of it took the varnish off his tongue. “Nor dread nor hope attend a dying animal,” I heard through the wall one Thursday afternoon, and the tone was so casual that he might have been asking for a cigarette or the time of a train.
Because for Patrick the words are sounds without meaning, he can listen “to his own voice again and again.” As Patrick's delivery improves, however, Puss's mental health declines. The very naturalness of Patrick's phrasing brings all of Puss's barely suppressed anxiety about mortality to the surface: “‘Nor dread nor hope. …’ I saw the window and heard the rain and realized it was my thirty-third birthday” (172). As with the Beckett, those portions of Yeats that Puss hears remind her of realities she finds unpleasant and wishes to ignore. She does not seek insight from literature. She derives no intellectual satisfaction from the fact that so much in modern literature (“Irish misery”) confirms and universalizes her experience. She ignores the modest stoicism of Beckett's waiting and Yeats's acceptance. Precisely because it has meaning for Puss, literature is an unwelcome intrusion, an unnecessary rubbing of one's nose in the dirt, something imposed on her from without that she is unwilling to accept. It is indeed ironic that the one character who is able to interpret literature correctly retreats from its implications.
Most of Gallant's characters do not, as do Robbie Knight and Puss, make any pretence of having cultivated literary tastes. For these other characters, the existence of what Gallant represents as lowbrow literary pabulum suffices, reinforcing and perpetuating their values and thus, the status quo. Some of the characters merely select adult versions of children's tales. So Mrs. Garnett, in “Acceptance of Their Ways,” “moving her lips over a particularly absorbing passage,” has spent four months “reading the same volume, which was called ‘Optimism Unlimited.’ … a new philosophy, counseling restraint in all things, but recommending smiles” (7). With her “doll eyes” (7), “her moist baby's mouth” (5), her hot-water bottle with “the bunny head” (12), her hysterics and her dependency, she belongs, Lily Littel tells us, to a “race of ailing, peevish elderly children whose fancies and delusions must be humored by the sane” (5), a case of arrested development, an example of decayed and senile gentility. The simpleminded text Mrs. Garnett reads captures both her depleted intellectual resources and the kind of upper-middle-class upbringing that elevates quiet complaint, refined gestures, and tight smiles into a lifestyle.
Other characters read only the outpourings of the popular press, and some limit that to special sections. The horoscope is of particular interest to Lily (“Acceptance of Their Ways”), Sylvie (“The Cost of Living”), and Veronica (“Sunday Afternoon”). Veronica, after considering whether Princess Paola is “sorry she has married a Belgian and has to live so far north” (206), spots a new way of doing horoscopes, a method so complicated “you needed a mathematician's brain” (214). Recognizing that she has to “think of [her] future,” she makes the necessary calculations, only to be left wondering if she's “going to have twins or have rheumatism” (215, 214). Lily, Sylvie, and Veronica surrender their wills and their actions to the opaque uncertainties of the stars as they are represented in the daily press.
Gallant, in short, presents the literary interests of her characters as trivial. The literate characters consistently obstruct any meaningful connections between serious literature and life. The less literate either turn the process of reading into an ephemeral exercise or reject reading altogether. The end product of this tendency is well represented by Veronica and Jim in “Sunday Afternoon.” For Veronica, books are a commodity to steal and resell. For the more intelligent Jim, who has come to Paris to study and to have experiences, “it was easier to talk than read” (211).
Gallant is not only concerned with depicting the lack of literary taste, the abandonment of a critical habit of mind, and the rejection of literacy in adults, she is even more concerned with the ways by which the characters and the culture perpetuate these lacunae. Along with her references to adult literature, Gallant includes references to children's books, a form of writing different in intention toward, although not in effect upon, her characters from the mature statements of Orwell, Beckett, and Yeats. Children's books are written by adults to entertain and, whether consciously or unconsciously, to mould the imagination, the values, and the intelligence of young readers. They thus reproduce the ideology of the adult world in the next generation. Gallant indicates that children's stories and rhymes are among society's most potent methods of indoctrination. Jean Price (“Its Image on the Mirror”) tells us, thus recording the behaviour of a whole social class, that “It was our mother who used to buy those Christmas albums from England—the boys' stories that were supposed to make a man of Frank, and the boarding school tales for Isobel and me” (83).
When, in mature life, the most sensitive of Gallant's characters recall this escapist fiction with its simple patterns of acceptable behaviour and its facile assurances of conventional happiness, the discrepancy between those values and the reality of their lives is painfully ironic. Jean Price is haunted by the vision of her brother, killed in war, reading as a child from The Yellow Fairy Book. She remembers, too, her sister, Isobel, now living in Venezuela with a jealous Latin husband, reading Anne of Green Gables. So attractive and compelling are these books that in adult life she records with pleasure the image of her father rescuing her Elsie Dinsmore books from a pile of rubbish where, Gallant suggests, they might appropriately be placed, as the Price family regretfully prepares to move house.
The same irony is at work when, from the vantage point of an increasingly depressing series of adult failures, Peter Frazier (“The Ice Wagon Going down the Street”) superimposes on his reminiscences of childhood, a time that he now clearly recognizes as sordid (full as it was of “adultery in a guest room,” “murder,” “licking glasses wherever he found them” , “the bailiff's chalk marks” ), the comforting voice of his sister reading a Beatrix Potter story in which “The bad rabbit stole the carrot from the good rabbit without saying please” (253). As past and present family circumstances converge in Peter's mind and reveal a corruption more extensive and perverse than this tale of good and bad rabbits will admit, he is both amused and envious of his childhood ability to accept evil as a breach of good manners, a neglect of polite language.
Gallant's point is not merely that children's books distort reality for the children who read them, but that their stunted values continue to exert a hold on the moral and imaginative life of the characters in their maturity. Some of the individual effects of this reading are unpredictable. Instead of developing the hoped-for manliness reflected in the boys' tales his mother buys for him, Frank pores over the girls' books containing “stories of plucky children named Gillian and Monica. … honest girls, if plain.” And they have Frank's “entire approval” (83). Years later, when Jean meets Frank's bride, she remembers “the girls in the books, their speech, their spines, their upper lips, and saw he had carried his old admiration on into love” (83). Jean, always more creative than her brother, Frank, rewrites her children's stories, casting her sister, Isobel, as her romantic heroine. “She was the little Mermaid, she was Heidi” (84). Later, the texts change, but the childish habit of confusing them with life persists: Isobel was now “Gatsby's Daisy. She was Anna Karenina with the velvet dress and the little crown of pansies on her head” (95).
By encouraging children to interpret life based on the insights and vision of Heidi, society in fact teaches them how to evade reality. Jean, in transforming Isobel into a heroine, hopes to eliminate the boredom of conventional marriage and excessive domesticity. Walter (“An Unmarried Man's Summer”) returns to the literature of his childhood to blot out the violence and terror of the times. Severely disfigured both physically and psychologically by war, he finds solace in his “boyhood books—the Kipling, the bound albums of Chums.” Of course, Gallant is careful to tell us, “He reads, but does not quite know what he is reading” (222). The fictions of his youth create a cocoon of familiar certainties that soothe, mesmerize, and anaesthetize.
This mentally disabling process is repeated in the next generation. Jean's children discover Jean's books and fall on them enthusiastically. Walter's niece, Mary, like Jean's children, is exposed to fictions similar to those that shaped her adult relatives. One of Mary's favourite poems, she tells her uncle at the end of “An Unmarried Man's Summer,” is “From the Dream of an Old Meltonian,” a tired piece that advises its readers, much as Kipling has counselled Walter, that though they “plunge overhead in misfortune's blind ditches,” they “Shun the gap of deception—the hand gate of guile” (243). Along with the mishmash of metaphors, the reader is invited to consider how unhelpful such thoughts will be to a young girl settling down to a stultifying life on a poultry farm.
Gallant represents children's literature as purveying a conservative view of society and a conventional attitude toward morality. There is nothing in what Gallant's children read that might help them to develop a realistic and critical approach to life. Having been conditioned by family and culture, these children, Gallant implies, will become the same sort of readers as Gallant's adults, preferring the soothing certainties of mass culture to the difficulties of scrutiny, interrogation, and practical criticism. For the characters of My Heart Is Broken, close and careful reading is an exotic and unpractised skill.
Like her use of books, Gallant's use of movies reflects both the limitations of the characters and the insidious distortions of their mass culture. Gallant views movies primarily as a form of pop romanticism, escapist in nature, and therefore suspect. Most movies, Gallant suggests, exist at the adult end of the continuum that begins with children's stories. In My Heart Is Broken, the manufactured images of Hollywood's dream factories encroach on the minds of even the brightest characters, conditioning their modes of perception.
One of the more jarring aspects of Jean Price's romantic obsession with her sister Isobel is the wartime background against which Jean plays out her fantasies. While Jean follows her sister around Montreal, dreaming of lush sexual fulfilment, the crematoria belch human smoke. Jean could not possibly have known the full extent of these horrors at the time, but the presence of so many European refugees in the story is Gallant's way of insisting that more information about the crisis in Europe is available than Jean wants. It is curious, too, how emotionally disengaged Jean remains from those aspects of the war that affect her directly. Jean expresses surprise that the death of her friend Suzanne's husband makes so little impression on Suzanne. According to Jean, when Suzanne's husband was “taken prisoner at Dieppe, in 1942,” he simply “vanished from her life” (128). Seeking an explanation for this failure of imagination, Jean speculates that because she and her friends learn about the war from Hollywood movies, the events remain remote and incomprehensible. Suzanne
could not imagine where he was. She had never been out of the Province of Quebec, and her mind's eye could not reach the real place we had seen as a make-believe country in films. She could not see the barracks of a prison camp because she had already seen them, gray and white, with film stars suffering and escaping and looking like no one she knew.
When it is Jean's turn to experience her brother's war-related death, she too is unable to get it in focus. She insists “his death did not occur. What happened was that he was never seen again. He disappeared, like Suzanne's husband, in an unfamiliar landscape under cinema rain …” (129).
For characters such as Jean and Suzanne, who initially have the capacity for creative thought and action, movies have the effect of diminishing their responses to life. For duller or less well-educated characters—Bernadette (“Bernadette”), Mrs. Thompson and Jeannie (“My Heart Is Broken”)—movies are both an opiate and a potent method of mind control. At the end of “Bernadette,” Bernadette finds release from her unwanted pregnancy and the anxious prying of the Knights by escaping to the movies. “Oddly secure in the dark” (41), she identifies with the nightclub patrons in the movie who witness the reunion of hero and heroine after a thirty-year separation. Bernadette “would have liked to have gone to a night club in a low-cut dress and applauded such a scene” (41). Believing that she will never experience romantic love, she is content to watch others act out her fantasies. The movie, in fact, conditions her to take pleasure in passive and numbed detachment.
Suddenly, she is challenged by life. “For the first time, her child moved” (41). But instead of experiencing maternal joy, Bernadette remains as detached as she had been watching the movie, an audience rather than a participant. With terrifying equanimity, Bernadette transforms her unwanted pregnancy into a welcome death. She imagines herself watching her infant die and she is pleased because the infant, “white and swaddled, baptized, innocent” will ascend to heaven and pray for her for all eternity (41). Cinematic detachment and religious doctrine combine and channel Bernadette's response into an easy acceptance of premature and unnecessary death. Gallant's comment that Bernadette is “in the dark” goes beyond the narrowly descriptive to make a moral judgement of Bernadette and the economic, religious, and cultural forces that encourage her destructive placidity.
More exhaustively than “Bernadette,” “My Heart Is Broken” examines the degree to which the popular culture insinuates itself into the emotional life of its characters. Gallant approaches the matter obliquely. The occasion for the story is Jeannie's rape; the focus, the response of the victim and her “best friend,” Mrs. Thompson. At first, the two women appear to be foils—Jeannie, young, attractive, silly; Mrs. Thompson, mature, “plain,” sober (195). Their reactions to the attack are also contrasted: Jeannie seems detached and unnatural as she calmly polishes her fingernails; Mrs. Thompson seems maternal and concerned as she questions and comments. As the story progresses, however, their positions shift. It gradually becomes clear that Jeannie is in shock; far from being abnormal, her behaviour is typical and appropriate. But the more the reader hears of Mrs. Thompson, the stranger she becomes. What at first sounded like support increasingly resembles an attack as she flip-flops from one disjointed statement to another, accusing Jeannie of not being willing to adjust to mining-camp life, offering Jeannie incidental advice on how to cope (“You could have cleaned up your home a bit” ), taking a prurient interest in the details of the rape (“I wonder what it must be like” ), counselling Jeannie to silence (“Don't say the name!” ), informing Jeannie of the legal situation (“Taking advantage of a woman is a criminal offense” ), and blaming her for having provoked the attack (“I could smell Evening in Paris a quarter mile away” ). Her remarks are a jumble of stock responses that range from viewing Jeannie as a victim to judging her the culprit.
Despite their superficial differences, at the end of the story Jeannie's remarks and Mrs. Thompson's thoughts converge. In the final paragraphs, Jeannie, who has made only meagre responses through the story, presents her fullest version of the rape. She tells Mrs. Thompson that if the attacker had been “friendly,” she would not have made “all this fuss.” According to Jeannie, the really shocking part of the rape is that, for “the first time in my life somebody hasn't liked me. My heart is broken, Mrs. Thompson. My heart is just broken” (202). Even taking into account Jeannie's emotional state, this is a bizarre response: Jeannie implies that she might have breezed through the rape if the rapist had smiled. And Mrs. Thompson, who, until now, has had no shortage of punchy comments, responds to Jeannie's words indirectly, “tapping her foot, trying to remember how she'd felt about things when she was twenty, wondering if her heart had ever been broken, too” (202). Abandoning her buckshot anger, Mrs. Thompson identifies with Jeannie as the heroine of a romance with an unhappy ending, a romance that Mrs. Thompson enviously craves as a justification and fulfilment of her own empty life. Using Jeannie's terminology of “the broken heart,” she tries to recall a more romantic moment in her life when a man might have found her desirable. Flying in the face of Jeannie's violent experience, both Jeannie and Mrs. Thompson connect rape with sexual attraction and they both fantasize that rape can be nonviolent. Through the tired appeal to “the broken heart,” the women come to terms with sexual violation and bestow on it a romantic glow.
The story suggests that this perverse romantic attitude is fostered and sustained by movies. The first paragraph establishes a relationship between Jeannie and Jean Harlow in Mrs. Thompson's mind as she announces that the death of the actress Jean Harlow, was simply the “most terrible shock” she “ever had in her life,” more shocking, apparently, than Jeannie's rape. She assures Jeannie that she “never got over it” (195). From the very start of the story, Mrs. Thompson links Jeannie and the rape to Hollywood fantasies of torrid sexual desire in which Jean Harlow stars.
Mrs. Thompson has clearly never gotten beyond her adolescent fixations; she not only gives Jean Harlow abnormal attention, she enjoys listening to dwarfs singing silly songs on antique records, she hangs pictures of herself and her husband as children over beds that are filled with teddy bears and dolls, and she takes her dolls out for walks in a pram. Mrs. Thompson, like so many of Gallant's characters, is an emotional and intellectual pauper. The vast emptiness of northern Quebec, in which she is located, is more than an accurate setting for a mining camp, it is an objectification of her interior state. But nature abhors a vacuum. Thus, Mrs. Thompson fills the spaces of her mind with attitudes and language unconsciously borrowed from a ready-to-hand, commercial Hollywood culture that trades in romantic dreams.
But if Mrs. Thompson is a grotesque example of arrested development, Jeannie, the child bride with Harlow-like peroxided hair and a given name that echoes that of the actress, is a more attractive version of the same condition. Jeannie's attitudes, like Mrs. Thompson's, are derivative. She is a vulnerable, unconscious tease who models herself after the Hollywood image of the dumb blonde in whom assertive sexuality and the appearance of pervasive stupidity are equally represented. And, like the Hollywood dumb blonde, she invariably finds herself in sexually ambiguous circumstances. Before coming to the mining camp, Jeannie and her husband, Vern, stayed in a small-town hotel. “There was this German in the hotel,” Jeannie tells Mrs. Thompson. “He was selling cars. He'd drive me around if I wanted to go to a movie or anything. Vern didn't like him, so we left” (202). But whereas the innocence of the Hollywood dumb blonde is a calculated effect based on sophisticated sexual experience, Jeannie's innocence is a blend of cultural deprivation, excessive provincialism, and authentic sexual inexperience. Jeannie has not progressed much beyond the notion of sex as an impenetrable mystery, an idea she extrapolated from a Lana Turner movie. Turner
had two twins. She was just there and then a nurse brought her in the two twins. I hadn't been married or anything, and I didn't know anything, and I used to think if I just kept on seeing the movie I'd know how she got the two twins, you know, and I went, oh, I must have seen it six times, the movie, but in the end I never knew any more. They just brought her the two twins.
Married now, Jeannie presumably knows where babies come from. What the Harlow-type movies have neglected to tell her, just as they have neglected to tell Mrs. Thompson, is that rape has less to do with sexual desire than with anger, frustration, and the will to power. So strong is the hold of the Hollywood deceptions concerning sexuality that even after the rape, neither Jeannie nor Mrs. Thompson can face its true significance.
Both Jeannie and Mrs. Thompson are trapped in the phoney assumptions of cinema romance that sugarcoats the unacceptable, and thereby eliminates the therapeutic effects of a righteous anger, for themselves and for society. Jeannie's rape is thus simultaneously a criminal act and a persuasive metaphor for the psychological and emotional assault that movies and other manifestations of pop culture commit on the minds and hearts of the characters in My Heart Is Broken.
In a lengthy interview with Geoff Hancock in 1978, Gallant reserves her most extensive and passionate commentary for her reaction to the first photographs she saw of concentration camps.1 Working for a Montreal newspaper, she recalls that she had the unenviable chore of writing their captions, a task at which she failed, absorbed as she was in the nightmare reality of what those pictures signified. She tells Hancock:
I never lost interest in what had happened, the why of it, I mean. Nothing I ever read satisfied me. Yet I didn't go to Germany for a long time. In a story called “Virus X” there is a Canadian girl, a young woman, who goes as far as the Rhine and only a few yards further. That was a part of myself. It wasn't until the early sixties that I began going there, with a purpose. The colonial wars of the fifties and sixties proved that civilization was no barrier anywhere. I had the feeling that in every day living I would find the origin of the worm—the worm that had destroyed the structure.
Taken together, the stories in My Heart Is Broken illuminate “the why of it.” Characters such as Bernadette and Jeannie may appear apolitical, but because they are untrained in thought, they are subject to manipulation by the mass media. Other characters, such as Jean Price's father, are mild but enthusiastic racists. Jean Price offers a humorous view of her father's attitudes, but one that ultimately chills because the story's World War II background surrounds these beliefs with potential menace:
Our father believed that Scottish blood was the best in the country, responsible for our national character traits of prudence, level-headedness, and self-denial. If anyone doubted it, our father said, the doubter had only to look at the rest of Canada: the French-Canadians (political corruption, pusillanimity, hysteria); the Italians (hair oil, used to bootleg in the 'twenties, used to pass right through Allenton); Russians and Ukrainians (regicide, Communism, pyromania, the distressing cult of nakedness on the West Coast); Jews (get in everywhere, the women don't wear corsets); Swedes, Finns (awful people for a bottle, never save a cent); Poles, hunkies, the whole Danubian fringe (they start all the wars). The Irish were Catholics, and the Germans had been beyond the pale since 1914. The only immigrant group he approved of were the Dutch. A census had revealed that although there were a quarter-million of them in the country, they were keeping quietly to themselves on celery farms in Western Ontario, saving money, not setting fire to anything, well-corseted, and out of politics. Their virtue, in fact, was that until the census one needn't have known they existed.
Still other characters are more subtly vulnerable to political manipulation than Bernadette, Jeannie, or Jean Price's father. Jean Price and the Knights, for example, are so self-absorbed that they have dangerously abbreviated all concerns outside themselves, thereby forfeiting their ability to conceptualize independent alternatives to a diminishing culture. Through these and her other characters, and through her presentation of the distorting influence of popular culture, Gallant portrays “the origin of the worm” and implies, with as much force in this early work as in her later German stories, that “civilization was no barrier” and it can easily happen again here.
It is interesting to consider how powerful this aspect of Gallant's interview is. In an article published in May 1986 in the University of Toronto Quarterly, an article I did not read until long after this paper was drafted, Janice Keefer refers to, and quotes this same passage (283-84).
Gallant, Mavis. “An Interview with Mavis Gallant.” With Geoff Hancock. A Special Issue on Mavis Gallant. Ed. Hancock. Spec. issue of Canadian Fiction Magazine 28 (1978): 18-67.
———. My Heart Is Broken. New Press Canadian Classics. 1964. Toronto: General, 1982.
Hatch, Ronald B. “The Three Stages of Mavis Gallant's Short Fiction.” Canadian Fiction Magazine. 28 (1978) [special Gallant issue]: 92-114.
Keefer, Janice Kulyk. “Mavis Gallant and the Angel of History.” University of Toronto Quarterly 55 (1986): 282-301.
O'Rourke, David. “Exiles in Time: Gallant's ‘My Heart Is Broken.’” Canadian Literature 93 (1982): 98-107.
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SOURCE: Illis, Mark. “Partners That Do Not Change Enough.” Spectator 264, no. 8430 (10 February 1990): 29.
[In the following review, Illis comments on the plots and characterizations of In Transit.]
Mavis Gallant's characters, fathers and sons, lovers, husbands and wives, are hopelessly incompatible. They are prone to realise this either with an awareness that quietly creeps up on them, or the opposite way, with a moment of sudden, terrifying clarity:
He accepted this stunning shock: he was 40, he had never been able to earn a living, and in a moment of sexual insanity he had taken on a young, young wife.
Old husbands with young, young wives are a recurring theme in [In Transit], but there are variations on it: there are women who marry disgruntled poets, women who marry Frenchmen when they barely know the language, and men who have mistresses who are much older. Gallant examines these relationships with an analytical eye, for the most part withholding compassion. Her characters are not likeable. Their attempts to understand each other are hindered by their preoccupation with themselves, by their inability to find words to convey their feelings and, most damningly, by their lack of interest in each other. That sudden clarity or that creeping awareness tend to make any struggle to communicate seem futile. At best, acceptance that the relationship is over is simply postponed. A scapegoat is found, such as the weather, money, or the decrepit state of the house.
These stories have been collected from material which appeared in the New Yorker magazine in the Fifties and Sixties. They have been separated neatly into three sections dealing with parents and children, youth, and adults. The result is that a claustrophobic sense of melancholy grows stronger as the collection progresses. Your father or mother may be a mystery to you, but at least you may feel you still have a future, the prospect of a life elsewhere. The failures of the later stories have an irredeemable, defeated air about them. In the title story, an elderly woman is overheard talking to her husband: ‘What I wonder is what I have been to you all these years.’ The eavesdropper, on honeymoon with his second wife, seems to see a vision of the future in the remark. The question of choice is frequently pondered, as it should be since most of the stories depend on a bad choice of partner. Gallant implies that free will is largely useless, rendered irrelevant by factors such as the ‘sexual insanity’ mentioned above. The narrator of ‘When We Were Nearly Young’ believes in free will but it has got her nowhere; she is living in Madrid, paralysed by poverty, so she reads the cards and hopes for circumstances, ‘the imponderables,’ to change her situation. They duly oblige.
Each of these stories is precise and polished. Gallant illuminates emotions as clearly as if they were tangible things. The problem is that the similarity of theme and mood, at first giving the collection a pleasing coherence, gradually detracts from the effect of the individual stories. Faced by yet another dismal mismatch, I began to long for one of these couples to do something other than mourn their lost opportunities. There is some humour, but not enough. An impatient old woman snaps at an unhappy girl:
Love? … What you need is 18 months' travel and some decent dresses.
A little more of this cynicism would have been welcome, as would some characters prepared to listen to it.
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SOURCE: Hatch, Ronald B. “Missing Connections.” Essays on Canadian Writing 41 (summer 1990): 21-5.
[In the following review, Hatch calls the publication of In Transit a watershed event in Gallant's career and surveys the stories in the collection.]
In the present state of commercial publishing, writers who shun publicity run the risk of finding their work out of print, for a book's success frequently depends on “selling” the author. In the case of Mavis Gallant, whose personal life has always remained private, the result has been that some of her finest short stories have never been collected in book form. The publication of In Transit helps to rectify this situation, as it brings together many of the stories originally published in the New Yorker between 1954 and 1969. The editors, however, have made no attempt to be exhaustive; none of Gallant's stories from lesser-known magazines and journals has been included. Still, the recognition that such powerful and insightful stories have been lying unread in back numbers may well prompt some enterprising publisher to bring out an edition of Gallant's collected work.
Such a collection is certainly needed, not only to bring the corpus of Gallant's fiction into print, but also to reveal the development of her style and vision. In spite of two fine recent books of criticism on Gallant by Neil Besner and Janice Kulyk Keefer, she remains a difficult writer to place, in part because she frequently writes about characters who eddy in backwaters, seemingly out of touch with contemporary issues. A complete edition, arranged chronologically, would remind us that Gallant began writing in the 1940s, building upon the typical outlook of writers of the 1930s. As Valentine Cunningham has recently demonstrated in British Writers of the Thirties, writers such as Auden, Isherwood, and MacNeice, were obsessed with the theme of travel, with the desire to move beyond frontiers into new forms of being. Certainly, the title of Gallant's new volume, In Transit, signals her intention to continue that earlier theme, to show what happened to those tireless travellers of the 1930s.
Looking through the eyes of characters who can still remember “when one could get rid of a dull guest by sending him down the coast to Rapallo with a letter of introduction, or up the other way to Mr. Maugham,” Gallant points out that in the period before the war, the upper classes genuinely believed that the world was made for them (256). When problems arose, their sense of station gave them an unbounded confidence that they could cross frontiers, traverse the world, and find solutions. Yet for the generation of the war and after, this confidence was lost. In fact, as Jacques Lacan has suggested, the entire sense of authority in Western culture was undermined. There was no longer a nom du père to sanction codes of obedience; individuals and groups either fled the unpleasant realities of the world for the dubious pleasures of self-enclosed psychoses, or else they floated directionless. While commercial enterprise pushed ahead at a faster and faster tempo people were left with little more than pastel-coloured ideals of fairness and niceness as guides. Consequently, Gallant's characters inhabit the dark side of the postwar period where material affluence hides a loss of direction and primary meaning. Attempting to set course in their own lives after the shipwreck of values that constituted World War II, these people end by being eternally in transit, with no new frontiers to cross.
The opening story, “By the Sea,” offers a paradigm of the situation, with a group of holidayers on vacation in southern Spain, not far from Gibraltar. The sun is too hot, the beaches are “scummy” (3), and the children play amid the garbage floating ashore from cruise ships. While, superficially, the resort might seem to mimic the sophistication of prewar Europe, once the story unfolds, it becomes apparent that the group of holidaymakers lacks a centre. The travelling has led them nowhere. The French cling together in small cliques, “reading the Paris papers and comparing their weekly pension bills” (7). A German doctor, preparing to emigrate to America, jogs up and down the beach, and badgers an American woman about the price of gold. His German mistress fears she will be left behind, and does her best to appear totally dependent, sighing time and again, “America” (6). The American woman waits aimlessly for her husband to collect her, while the husband, engaged with work on the international circuit, wanders the world. Apparently dominating the entire scene is the English Mrs. Parsters, part of the older generation from the prewar expatriate colony in Spain. In true imperial fashion, she refuses to allow anything to bother her. She and her cronies occupy themselves with preparing for “a bazaar—a periodic vestigial activity that served no purpose other than the perpetuation of a remembered rite and that bore no relation whatsoever to their life in Spain” (8). The younger people, however, can only wait for mealtimes, with little sense of a genuine world around them. The resort might well be a prison.
As should be apparent, the story's situation recreates the postwar malaise, the lack of a genuine motivating principle. People are moved either by the search for wealth or the repetitious attempt to recapture the past. Mrs. Parsters has a kind of power because of her indomitable belief that she was made to rule other people, and Spain, with its poverty, allows her to do so. The German doctor has power because he lives in a world where everything is known by its price, and, as a male, he can always find women who are prepared to pay his price. Nowhere, however, does one find any sort of communal standard of value. The American woman wants to be nice to everyone, but she has no direction of her own. At the story's end, they are all seen by the omniscient narrator as they “ploughed through sand on their way to the steps that led up from the beach,” answering the meal gong, but in reality going nowhere (14). The exotic frontier has disappeared.
While Gallant excels in her portraits of the old European gentry circling the edge of the abyss, she also points to the roots of the social disorder through her accounts of young children growing up in a world devoid of parental substance. “An Emergency Case,” in particular, offers a vivid account of a child's sensibility after a car crash in which he is injured and both his parents are killed. The hospital staff prove wonderfully kind in ministering to his physical needs, but their euphemistic accounts of the death of his parents leave him in the dark, and wholly unprepared to face his new life. Gallant delineates the manner in which the hospital routines calm the child's anxiety about his missing parents, all the while suggesting that the child's unconscious fears are gaining ground. Typical of Gallant's stories, “An Emergency Case” points to the increasing control of a dark, mythic underworld. Similarly, in “The Circus,” Gallant portrays a young boy living abroad with his expatriate family. With the aid of his mother, the child copes successfully with his father's ridiculous poses as a would-be-artist. But then his mother announces that she might leave with another man—if she were asked. With this sudden realization that his mother could walk away from the family structure, as if it did not exist, the young boy falls into total uncertainty. The father's inauthenticity is matched by the mother's lack of commitment. In such moments, Gallant suggests, children are ushered into a giddy awareness of the world's unstructured relativity, in which the sustaining poles of mother and father are ripped away. The strength of the stories lies in Gallant's ability to leave the future wholly open, wholly frightening, her suggesting being that the individual will be forced into an endless repetition of mindless violence.
The In Transit stories also take us into the period of the 1960s when Gallant was writing about the German situation. Although most of these stories have already been collected in The Pegnitz Junction, “A Report” was not, and it reintroduces us to the character of Willi from the Pegnitz Junction story, “Ernst in Civilian Clothes.” An ex-soldier from Hitler's war, Willi now lives in Paris, making his living collecting, and sometimes forging, Nazi memorabilia for Parisians who fancy themselves in the role of an SS officer. Here Gallant takes us deep inside the everyday fascist mentality that persists in Western consciousness—showing that fascism was not confined to wartime Germany, and that the impulse can still be found in postwar Europe, with its need for an image of authority. Using the neutral style of reportage, Gallant creates a blackly comic view of Paris society, where, underneath the surface of urbanity and good living, lurks an emptiness that creates insane desires for power, which erupt in business and love affairs. It is a chilling story, made even more so by the fact that the most appealing character turns out to be Willi, a man of no beliefs whatsoever.
In Transit also proves of great interest for its heavily autobiographical account, “When We Were Nearly Young,” a story that fills in a good deal of Gallant's life in the early 1950s, when she first travelled to Europe and lived, virtually penniless, for about a year in Madrid. Gallant, herself, draws attention to the story's resemblance to George Orwell's Down and Out in London and Paris. But there are also some major differences. While the Orwell of the 1930s experienced a feeling of relief, even pleasure, when he was finally down and out, and could denounce the injustice of the class system, Gallant remarks on how easy it was for her to meld with the Spanish poor and adopt their attitudes. Both Gallant and Orwell travelled to a completely different culture in order to separate themselves from their own backgrounds, and so define their characters. Unlike Orwell, however, Gallant does not rise above the system through the use of abstract judgements, but finds that she becomes a part of Spanish daily life, even to the extent of accepting the Spanish passivity towards the future. While Orwell, in the prewar period, revelled in his capacity for judgement, Gallant, in the postwar epoch, uses her own situation to describe a loss of will to judge and change. In the end, of course, Gallant manages to leave Madrid; money arrives and alters her situation. But even this fortuitous solution points to Gallant's focus on an apparent weakening of psychic force in the postwar period.
Readers familiar with Gallant's other work will be pleased to discover that the title story of this volume furthers the plot of the novel A Fairly Good Time, and recounts what happens to Shirley's insanely rational French husband, Philippe Perrigny, after he walks away from their marriage. For all those who laughed their way through A Fairly Good Time, and wondered how Philippe would survive without his sanely irrational Canadian wife, here Gallant supplies the answer.
In conclusion, then, the stories of In Transit confirm Gallant's position as one of the most profound and funny commentators on the postwar world. As an added bonus, the arrangement of stories also allows us to watch Gallant as she extends the mastery of her craft: moving from external observation to internalized renderings of intersubjectivity, these stories reveal the personality displacements endemic to our so-called civilized behaviour.
Cunningham, Valentine. British Writers of the Thirties. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1988.
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SOURCE: Keefer, Janice Kulyk. “Bridges and Chasms: Multiculturalism and Mavis Gallant's ‘Virus X.’” World Literature Written in English 31, no. 2 (fall 1991): 100-11.
[In the following essay, Keefer discusses the problematic representation of multicultural ideology in the story “Virus X.”]
Mavis Gallant's “Virus X” is several different stories all happening at the same time: a story about two young Canadians abroad and the unlikely friendship that develops between them; a story about a sociology thesis that fails to get written due to the incapacitating but ambiguous illness of its author; a story about temporal, spatial, and conceptual dislocations; a story about split subjects that can be read as an allegory of the Canadian sense of self; an homage to Katherine Mansfield; a fairy story, or at least romance, in which the delicate heroine, pining under an evil enchantment, is rescued at the eleventh hour by the most stalwart (if stolid) of white knights. All these stories—and doubtless many others—wander like strangers through a maze, jostling one another repeatedly, but never joining forces in any determinate and definite way. In this paper I follow one of those strangers through the configurations of Gallant's textual maze. This stranger I have chosen to call, anachronistically but conveniently, multiculturalism—one of the most problematic of recent Canadian “isms,” and one which, under various other names and guises, had shaped the Canada with which Gallant would have been familiar in 1965, the year “Virus X” was first published.
The ruling principle of Gallant's text is indeterminacy, and this poses obvious pitfalls for its readers, or would-be producers of meanings. The reproach Vera aims at Lottie—“Why do you think one piece is all of everything?”—could easily be aimed at anyone trying to isolate one strain of a diffuse and variegated text. And yet in my own defence, I will point to Lottie's rejoinder: “What else can you do?”—a reply no more or less authoritative, as far as “Virus X” is concerned, than Vera's reproach itself. What I'd like to suggest in this essay is that by her exposure of the problematic role played by ethnicity in Canada's social formation, Gallant offers us a critique of what has become the ideology of multiculturalism, based as it is on the contention that this country has achieved the harmonious integration of its various immigrant communities by accommodating rather than eradicating the ethno-cultural differences that distinguish them from the established norm: White, Anglo-Saxon, and Protestant.
In some ways “Virus X” is a Canadian version of “The Other Paris,” first published in 1953, the year in which “Virus X” takes place. Both texts deal with North Americans in postwar Europe, specifically France. Yet, whereas the earlier story deals with Americans lodged in the city of light, condescending to, resentful of, and baffled by the war-impoverished but still snooty French, “Virus X” gives us a pair of Canadians who soon quit Paris for the very margins of France: Strasbourg, a host of towns on the French-German border, and, finally, a dismal, war-scarred German village. While the American Carol Frazier and the Canadian Lottie Benz are attracted by the exotic, even squalid “otherness” of the real Europe they inadvertently discover, they are eventually rescued from foreigness and difference by the men they will eventually marry: an all-American boy and a “Conservative Canadian type” (212), respectively.
Yet, there are important differences between “Virus X” and “The Other Paris”—differences that spring from what, after Gallant, we might call a “national sense of self” (Gallant, “Home” xv). In brief, the Americans have too much of one; the Canadians far too many. Lottie Benz and Vera Rodna, the heroines of “Virus X,” spend much of their time in Europe fighting battles that began back in Canada, battles that, since they have to do with whether German Lottie or Ukrainian Vera is more “Canadian,” problematize, if they do not entirely undercut, the thesis topic Lottie has come to Europe to research—a thesis topic that reads like a succinct definition of what we now extol as multiculturalism: “the integration of minority groups without a loss of ethnic characteristics” (Gallant, “Virus” 78).
Lottie's choice of thesis can be related to Gallant's early engagement with ethno-cultural difference. Her first published stories were unsentimental yet sympathetic accounts of Austrian war-refugees in Canada; in 1947 she published an article in The Montreal Standard expressing concern about the consequences of East European immigration to Canada. This article, “Are They Canadians?,” while it does not argue that Canada's lack of a melting-pot is necessarily a bad thing, does hold out for the American method of acculturating non-western European immigrants. Newcomers to the United States, Gallant points out, are not only entitled to free instruction in English but they are also provided with a strongly defined sense of what it means to be an American—an ideological as well as linguistic education, we might observe. Immigrants to Canada, Gallant insists, must be taught that there is no place here for those violent offshoots of (old country) nationalism that had so recently led to catastrophe in Europe. As for Canadians born and bred, we must reject our long-established forms of ethnic or racial privileging and discrimination. As Gallant observes, “When you force a Canadian of European parentage to look upon other Canadians as English or French it is natural for him to cling to his own group, to worry about another country, and the conflicts, hates and prejudices of the old world” (Gallant, [“Are They Canadians?”] 6-7).
Lottie Benz and Vera Rodna are just such Canadians of European parentage, caught up in the prejudices not only of their parents and grandparents but of the dominant social group as well—the English-Canadians, or, as I will refer to them for the sake of brevity, the Anglos. Though Lottie, a graduate student on a research grant, and Vera, exiled because of a now-distant, illegitimate pregnancy, have both grown up in the same city and have even gone to the same school, all they have in common is a shared sense of difference—not so much between their Canadian selves and Europe, as between themselves as Canadians. This difference derives from the fact that they are split subjects, not simply Canadian, but German-and Ukrainian-Canadians—what in our less felicitous moments we have called “ethnics” and what current parlance terms “multicults.”
The Canadians we meet in “Virus X” are all hyphenated, or ethnically situated. Besides Lottie and Vera, we have Dr. Keller, Lottie's thesis supervisor, originally from Alsace, and Vera's current boyfriend, Al Wiczinski. “A Polish friend from home,” as Vera describes him, he ends up living in a “Right-Wing Bohemia” of Polish expatriates outside Paris (184; 201). Kevin, who becomes Lottie's fiancé by the story's end is, we are told, “probably Irish, but being a Protestant, he counted as English” (207). To be “English-Canadian,” of course, is also to be hyphenated, and perhaps this is why, once abroad, even the Anglos have problems establishing who they are. Thus Kevin's churlish diplomatic-corps cousin, whom Lottie sees briefly during her stay in Paris, bemoans his lack of Canadian identity. “He did not want to sound American,” we are told, “but looked it” (181).
Gallant's exploration of ethnicity in “Virus X”—ethnicity as a constituent of whatever it means to be Canadian—is, as one might expect, thoroughly discomforting. Lottie Benz and Vera Rodna, mere acquaintances in Winnipeg, are drawn together by a kind of fatality of circumstance once they situate themselves outside their home and native land. Back on the continent that their families had once fled, they are forced to talk to one another; in this way a discourse of difference (as opposed to silent prejudice) comes into being between them. This discourse is articulated in the text in two interconnected ways: by the creation of a binary opposition between Lottie and Vera as ethnic “types,” and by the interplay of signifiers popularly recognized as the hallmarks of ethnicity—food and dress.1
Lottie and Vera are presented as total opposites: Lottie as small, frail, feminized; either genuinely sickly or emphatically hypochondriachal; Vera as tall, with “mechanic's hands” and a constitution robust enough to let her get by with little or no sleep, breakfasts of red wine and rock-hard cheese, and the cheapest of hotel rooms (178). Obedient Lottie has always been petted and protected by her family, naughty Vera virtually disinherited by hers. Prudent Lottie is fearful and anxious about anything that could change her established situation or condition—extravagant Vera is a “restless pilgrim” (185) and chameleon whose priority is to “feel free” (208). Lottie's primness and coldness are linked to her German father's martinet-like code of behaviour; Vera's sloppy sentimentality and impatience with decorum to the “extreme” behaviour Lottie expects from Ukrainians (202).2
These differences in “character” are confirmed by dress. Whereas Lottie wears New Look dresses her mother has copied from Vogue patterns, elaborate hats, and sensible plastic overshoes—all of which bring amused stares from French passers-by—Vera slouches or lounges about in cheaply dramatic ensembles. Though the Parisian proprietor of Lottie's hotel describes Vera as “très élegante,” “Lottie,” we are told, “couldn't help thinking how hunkie she looked” (177). Vera refrains from launching overt criticisms of Lottie's homemade chic—though she can't resist a stab at the overshoes that sum up all of Lottie's overprotectiveness, her refusal to take risks or make changes in her life—but two of Vera's most significant gestures function as oblique criticisms of Lottie's attitude to clothes—by which I mean something more than a sense of style. For whereas Vera dresses up as though to demonstrate Oscar Wilde's remark that masks are necessary for any authentic exposure of self, Lottie uses clothing to disguise an unstable and incoherent ego dependent upon gardenia bandeaus and plastic overshoes to contain it. Once struck by Virus X, Lottie becomes disheveled, her laughably crinolined skirts giving way, presumably, to limp nightdresses. The virus, in fact, accelerates and completes the process that Vera's influence has already begun—the destabilization of Lottie's sense of self, now not only split but fragmented and somehow defaced. “She was like a wooden toy apart at the joints, scattered to the four corners of the room. Each of the pieces was marred” (207). This is a significant alteration for the Lottie who begins the story as a rigidly fixed subject with no “desire to change or begin a new life” (175).
It is also an enormous threat to the future Lottie has constructed for herself, and this may explain why the convalescent Lottie, out for a walk with Vera, becomes “suddenly wildly angry” (205) at Vera's picking up and keeping a strange glove she finds on a Strasbourg street. Such a transgression of the “each to his own” code is an offence Lottie cannot tolerate because she realizes she no longer has the strength to resist its implications. When soon after Vera makes a more elaborate gesture—taking an absurdly infantile summer frock, a cast-off sent her by her Anglo sister-in-law, and launching it out the window, where it dances on the breeze to strange Arabic tunes—Lottie “range[s] herself … on the side of [the sister-in-law]” with her “one-hundred-per-cent Anglo-Saxon taste in clothes” (207). To reach for clothes that don't belong to one, to refuse to wear the clothes one's elders and betters assign to one is to declare one's personal independence, not only from restrictive social and sexual codes but from the ideology that designs and upholds those codes in the first place.
Lottie and Vera do two things in the course of their time together in Europe—travel about and eat: tepid omelettes at Fontainebleau; mountains of sauerkraut, ham, and sausage at Munster; hot chocolate and almond-stuffed croissants at Colmar; pork and cabbage and kümmel in Strasbourg. Indigenous fine cuisine, of course, is one of the things Canada is said to lack, and one of the attractions of which Europe boasts—on hearing that Al Wiczinski possesses the palate of a gourmet, Lottie remarks, “He just doesn't sound Canadian” (202). Gallant, however, uses food as more than gustatory markers on a complicated textual map. In “Virus X,” attitudes to food betray class attitudes as well. For example, the first thing Lottie remembers about Vera, who has popped out of nowhere into her life in Paris, is that in high-school cooking class, Vera “thought creamed carrots were made with real cream. She didn't know what white sauce was because they had never eaten it at home. That spoke volumes for the sort of home it must be” (176). Vera gets her revenge by inviting Lottie to lunch at an Italian restaurant on the rue Bonaparte. Vera, we discover, has turned into someone who, though she still may not know how to cream carrots, does know the merits of a Chambertin and can expertly attack a plate of rice and marrow—a dish Lottie feels is best left to dogs.
Food is also something that provokes deeply ambivalent responses in a Lottie torn between shame and affection for her German ancestry. Thus we are told that the gingerbread angel Lottie spies in a Strasbourg window at Christmas time “cried of home—not of Winnipeg but of a vestigial ceremony, never mentioned as German, never confirmed as Canadian” (189). The angel and its problematic signification of “home” gives to Lottie the first and perhaps only moment of peace and warmth she experiences in Europe.
Finally, it is through the sharing of food and drink that bear no associations of “home” or high-school cooking class that Lottie and Vera achieve a form of closeness. They first draw together in an expression of animosity towards Americans in a Fontainebleau restaurant; later, by consuming vast amounts of kümmel at Strasbourg's Café Kléber they become “drunk upon friendship” (211) and start at last to make perfect sense to one another. Significantly, Vera's parting gift to Lottie is a parcel of food, which Lottie daren't eat for fear of waking Kevin, who is spending his first night with her. Nevertheless, she opens the parcel and almost lovingly notes its contents: “salami, pickles, butter and bread, half a bottle of Sylvaner” (215).
By paying elaborate attention to forms and effects of food and dress, Gallant foregrounds and also transforms the standard signifiers of ethnicity, opening what I have called a “discourse of difference” in “Virus X.” As to the sites of this discourse, Canada and Europe, they are treated not as discrete entities but as palimpsests, the former inscribed by the history and prejudices brought to it by its immigrants, the latter inscribed by the emigrants's simultaneous longing for and rejection of it as the “old country.” What the displaced ex-European finds on returning to the continent she or her family abandoned disrupts her conception of the country of her birth. Thus, Canada, initially exalted by Lottie as a land of “true winter” (173)—as opposed to the indeterminate atmospherics of a Europe “unmindful of seasons” (185)—quickly loses any privileged or normative status in her eyes. Once in the city of light, Lottie comes to view Canada as located “on the dark side of the globe,” “ransacked” by wind (176).3 In the course of the story, Lottie forgets her very hometown; her memory of Winnipeg, we are told, is “obscured” by “the idea of a city she had never seen”—the idea of Québec as signified by crooked streets, old stone walls, and the dark recesses of a church in which Ursuline nuns tend Montcalm's skull (202-03). Canada is portrayed by Gallant not only as a land of distances so vast they are unthinkable to the European mind but also as a land where difference ceaselessly circulates and where otherness insists itself in any attempt to create a standard trope of familiarity, sameness, home.
This evocation of Québec, a place, like Strasbourg, in which racial, religious, and linguistic difference gives rise to violent prejudices as well as politics, helps create the idea of Canada as a page that is dubiously inscribed rather than innocently blank. If in Europe Vera and Lottie keep bumping into fragments of the Maginot line, disabled soldiers, bombed railway stations, war orphans, and “a metallic clanging that certainly had to do with troops” (186), then in Canada they had also found themselves experiencing the “mean backlash of war” (179). Thus we learn that Lottie's father's career was blocked after 1939, and that the German spoken in his home became so much a “secret language” that when his daughter, in Strasbourg, has to ask for directions in this language, she fears the words will stay engraved on her lips “to condemn her” (189). Ethnicity here becomes a source of victimization, fear, and shame, rather than a cause for celebration.
As Werner Sollors has observed, “ethnicity is typically based on a contrast. … [E]thnic, racial or national identifications rest on antitheses, negativity. … In the modern world the distinction often rests on an antithesis between individuals (of the non-ethnically conceived in-group) and ethnic collectivities (the out-groups)” (288). The constituents of the in-group, as Gallant construes them, are, of course, the Anglos, who, no matter how recent their arrival in Canada, will never count themselves as “immigrants.” Both Lottie and Vera are well aware that there is a hierarchy of hyphens in the area of Canadianness—to be English-Canadian is to be beyond suspicion of shiftless foreignness. Gallant emphasizes this by having Lottie receive a letter in which her quasi-fiancé, Kevin, mentions how his family has adopted a young English-from-England sociology student, with the unexceptionable name of Rose Perry. Like most graduate students, Rose is impoverished and accepts the offers of food and hospitality extended by Kevin's family as no more than her due. Lottie reflects that she, on the other hand, as an immigrant's child, would never dare have a “hungry winter” (208). To the Anglos of Winnipeg, a Lottie Benz will always be one of them as opposed to one of us, unless, of course, she can change her name and status by marriage. In the course of the story we learn that not only has Vera's politician-brother Stan changed his name from Rodna—itself shortened from something “unpronounceably long”—to Rodney but he has also married a woman Vera describes as a “good old United Empire Loyalist … true-blue Tory” (207).
Vera is fully aware of her inferior status as Slav. When Lottie expounds what we might call the the Easter egg paradigm of multiculturalism—that whereas in the United States the Poles quit painting Easter Eggs after one generation, in Canada they never stop—Vera declares: “You crazy or something? Do you even know what a minority is? … You don't. It was always right to be what you are” (178). The barbed delicacy with which the women refer to one another's ethnic origin—Lottie substituting “Polish” for “Ukrainian” when describing the Easter egg theory to Vera, Vera forebearing to refer to Lottie's father by his full nickname, Captain von Hook—gives way to Vera showing Lottie the manner in which Canadian soldiers slit German throats—a piece of information she has picked up from her Polish-Canadian boyfriend. Most importantly, it is Vera who insists on taking Lottie into Germany, that country “loathed and craved and never mentioned … where [Lottie's] mother and father had been born, and which they seemed unable to imagine, forgive, or describe” (195). Vera's reasons for forcing Lottie to acknowledge her Germanness in this way appear to be connected to Vera's resentment of Lottie's superior position in the ethnic hierarchy. “I always felt I had less right to be Canadian than you, even though we've been there longer,” Vera tells Lottie, whose characteristically icy composure has always made her seem far more desirably “English” than Vera could ever be.
“Virus X” constantly foregrounds the social and economic realities of ethnic difference. The following passage, which reads like an exemplum from, and a parody of, Lottie's cherished sociology textbooks, makes this clear:
Suddenly, as if it were Lottie's fault, Vera began to complain about the way streets had been in Winnipeg when Vera's mother was a girl. Where Vera's mother had lived, there hadn't been any sidewalks; there were wooden planks. If Vera's mother stepped off a plank, she was likely to lose her overshoe in the gumbo mud. In the good part of town, on Wellington Crescent, there were no pavements either, but for a different reason. When Ukrainian children were taken across the city on digestive airings—when their parents had at last lost the Old Country habit of congregating in public parks and learned the New World custom of admiring the houses of people more fortunate than they were—the children, wondering at the absence of sidewalks, were told that people here had always had carriages and then motorcars and had never needed to walk.
Vera was passionate over a past she knew nothing about. It was just her mother's folklore. Vera's mother, Lottie now learned, had washed in snow water. Vera herself could remember snow carried into the house and melted on the kitchen stove.
“Well, then, your father moved the whole family, I suppose,” said Lottie, remembering Winnipeg Culture patterns with Dr. Keller.
“That's right.” said Vera, without inflection. “To your part of town.”
If in Canada ethnicity and its effects are shown to involve rather more than the celebration of harmlessly colourful or delightfully exotic “difference” from the “Anglo” norm, what sort of resonances or repercussions does ethnicity have when its bearers, Lottie and Vera, are transported to Europe? The very notion of difference takes on a nebulous but invasive form, becoming the mist that gathers in Lottie's lungs the moment she touches European soil; creating the conditions in which Virus X can take hold.4 The virus itself—described by the newspapers as “an epidemic of grippe that was sweeping through Europe”—attacks Lottie, but not Vera, presumably because Lottie is much more vulnerable, not just to bouts of flu but also to the disjointing, dismembering effects of difference. Thus, though a second-generation immigrant, Lottie is much surer of her credentials as a German than she is of her position as a Canadian. One of the things Lottie seems most vulnerable to, in fact, is the pull exerted by the “old country,” its power to attract and repel with equal force. Lottie's eventual experience of Germany is limited but emphatic: Appenweier, whose name reminds her of those “mysterious childhood railway journeys that begin and end in darkness” (214) is a virtually deserted, “totally gray village” on a “dirty, icy highway.” Lottie and Vera meet a clergyman and a group of war orphans on the road outside the village. “The two groups,” we are told, “passed each other without a glance.” “If that was Germany,” we are told on Lottie's behalf, “there was nothing to wait for, expect or return to. She had not crossed a frontier but come up to another limit” (215).
Not bridges, but borders that turn out to be chasms—this is Gallant's iconic expression of the effects of ethno-cultural difference on hyphenated Canadians, those who do not really belong, who are made to feel like strangers in both their countries, old and new. The implications of this for multiculturalism as political as well as cultural practice are hardly encouraging. Possibilities for the acknowledgement, never mind accommodation, of difference on the part of one ethnic group towards another are variously inscribed in “Virus X”; they range from, at worst, mutual non-recognition (the war orphans and Canadian tourists in Appenweier) to, at best, the momentary perception of what it's like to be on the receiving end of racial prejudice. Near the story's end, when Kevin mispronounces the word “Ukrainian,” Lottie is able to “read” both the insulting subtext of Kevin's speech and Vera's silent response to it; thus, Lottie comes to understand that “the voice from home saying Ukarainian had reminded [Vera] of what the return [to Canada] would be” (214). Nevertheless, Lottie doesn't come to feel any particular solidarity with or affection for Vera. She recognizes that Vera is trapped inside the “labyrinth” of ethnicity, while she herself is “on her way out,” thanks to Kevin, whose barbarous mispronunciation she doesn't dream of correcting (214), for Kevin's ignorance of how to pronounce “Ukrainian” confirms his place at the top of the ethnic hierarchy, and Lottie's beside him, through the marriage that will erase the tell-tale name of Benz and transform her into someone as good, or as safe as a Rose Perry or a Mrs. Rodney.
Lottie's return to Canada strikes the reader as a defeat snatched from the jaws of victory, however pyrrhic. And this is not just because of the personal defeat implied by Lottie's surrender to the egregious Kevin.5 Lottie is also embracing a certain kind of Canada, one defined by the borderlines of prejudice, ignorance, and discrimination. Near the start of “Virus X,” Lottie primly reminds the irreverent Vera that “I love my country … and even if I didn't I wouldn't run it down” (184). Though not perhaps that patriotism that is the last refuge of a scoundrel, Lottie's defensiveness about Canada betrays a refusal to examine critically the implications of the thesis assigned by Dr. Keller, a thesis that will feed the mythos of what we know as multiculturalism. This mythos, of course, concerns our supposed tradition of benevolent toleration and accommodation of ethno-cultural difference, a donné that Vera Rodna explodes with her first appearance on the scene.
What, then, constitutes an authentic response to the problematic reality of this kind of difference? For Gallant's answer we might turn to two moments in “Virus X” when Lottie escapes or at least revises her inscription as that artificially stable subject that Canada and her German background have tried to make her. On the train to Fontainebleau, to which Vera has dragged her off at some unholy early hour of the morning, Lottie glances out the window to find “trees such as she had never seen before, and dense with ivy6 … [that] shone and suddenly darkened, as if a shutter had been swung to” (181). Momentarily, Lottie forgets that she is faint, frail, cold, and hungry. She is absorbed in her perception of an otherness that doesn't threaten or intimidate her and to which she can therefore openly respond in something like a Mansfieldian moment of being. Later in the text, Lottie is given the chance not just to perceive but also to articulate difference in a way that opens conceptual shutters. At this point, a feverish Lottie is stranded in Strasbourg; in the grip of Virus X and Vera's friendship; she is unable to start work on her thesis or to pack it all in and return home. Instead, she composes letters to Kevin, letters which she never dares send, but which come to form a counter-text to her proposed thesis.
These compositions are radically ambiguous, of course: signs of Lottie's disintegration as a graduate student, they also point to her intellectual liberation from the confines of Dr. Keller's ideology, and as such intensify and complicate the discourse of multiculturalism in this story. Her first “composition” describes the opening of the European Assembly in Strasbourg—a historic event supposedly symbolizing the new political harmony possible between nations that had so recently been at war. Though she intends her letter to record an event of great moment, Lottie must admit to the “dry … dull” (199) nature of the ceremony and confesses that the effort required to make sense of the translation service was “more of a strain than just hearing an unknown language” (199). The “new prefab building” in which the Assembly is housed “looks,” she tells us, “like a shack, looks left over from the war” (199). Not surprisingly, it is in this inauspicious site of tedious, near-indecipherable discourse that Lottie feels the start of the chill that is to turn into Virus X.
In another letter written under the effect of the delirium induced by her illness, Lottie tells Kevin what she perceives to be the truth of her relationship with Vera. Read in the context of multiculturalism, with its emphasis on that tolerance, or better still, that warm acceptance we are supposed to feel on encountering ethno-cultural differences between ourselves and other Canadians, Lottie's words are charged indeed. Of Vera she comments, “She offers all the kindness she can in exchange for something I don't want to give because I can't spare it. A grain of love? … It is not my fault. I shrank into myself, cold, cold. We are all like that” (200-01). Is it some immutable indifference to one another, Gallant seems to ask, or is it our recognition that to embrace rather than tolerate difference is to risk the loss of what defines us, confirms our own superior identity? “Even when I am nice to Vera,” Lottie reassures Kevin, “… it doesn't mean anything, because I don't honestly like her.” Do we read into this last phrase the subtext or parapraxis, “Honestly, I'm not like her”?
And what if these ethno-cultural differences have to do not with the furnishings of those rooms that make up a common European home, but rather, with having no place in the house at all? As Linda Hutcheon points out in her introductory essay to Other Solitudes, most of the current discussion on multiculturalism in Canada has to do with the issue of race (7); the fact that in the true north, strong and free, many of us find it harder to accommodate or tolerate Blacks, Muslims, or Sikhs than Poles or Germans, for example. Racism, of course, is hardly a Canadian phenomenon; in Europe on the eve of 1992, grave concerns have been expressed about the upsurge of what can crudely be described as a west-is-best mentality, while exploitation of and often violent discrimination against Blacks and Asians, Arabs and Turks have become an open scandal. Gallant's fiction has consistently registered the existence of prejudice and discrimination against ethnic minorities in France; hence it is no surprise to find her drawing our attention in “Virus X” to the presence of itinerant Arab workers illegally camped outside Lottie's hotel in Strasbourg.7 The cathedral chimes that “evenly punctuat[e] her days and nights” are traversed, we are told, by “strange tunes” heard every night “at a dark, foggy hour,” “tunes that seemed to be trying to escape from between two close parallel lines” (198). The cultural, racial, and economic differences the Arabic music signals are registered but never addressed by Lottie—the Arabs are outside the circumference of the story in which she has inscribed herself, in which there is only room for the considerably less alien difference constituted by Vera.
We, however, are meant to “take in” the encampment of Arabs, the incontrovertible fact of a difference, even an alienness, that cannot be blithely “accommodated.” Two recent observations on the subject of cultural and racial difference may help us to read the implications of the Arab presence in “Virus X.” In an essay on ancient Mexican art, Octavio Paz declares that “the link between ourselves and the other depends not on resemblance but on difference. We are united not by a bridge but by an abyss” (22). And Leon Wiesaltier, after observing that “Toleration is a very weak form of respect, and it has a way of failing,” goes on to insist that “Minorities are not imperfections in the polity, tolerable interferences with the organic life of the nation or the state; they are the very test of the nation-state's moral validity. … [A]lienation is not a punishment or a disgrace; it is a privilege. It has its own uses, its own dignity” (32). One might see in Wiesaltier's revisioning of the concept of alienation an echo of Roland Barthes' articulation that
Au dire de Freud (Moïse) un peu de différence mène au racisme. Mais beaucoup de différences en éloignent, irrémédiablement. Égaliser, démocratiser, massifier, tous ces efforts ne parviennent pas à expulser “la plus petite différence,” germe de l'intolérance raciale. C'est pluraliser, subtiliser, qu'il faudrait sans frein.
[“According to Freud, a bit of difference leads to racism. But many differences lead away from it, irremediably. To equalize, democratize, lump together—all such efforts will never manage to expel ‘the smallest difference,’ the seed of racial intolerance. What's necessary is unchecked pluralizing, ‘subtilizing.’”]
Thus by exposing the realities of ethno-cultural difference as they affect the possibilities of two Canadian girls in Europe, and by using “street-Arabs” to signal, however elliptically, that the integration of certain bearers of difference into the dominant socio-economic formation may prove more difficult than we would like to admit, “Virus X” makes us uncomfortably aware of the problematic nature of what we've come to call multiculturalism. In “Vacances Pax,” a story published soon after “Virus X,” Gallant turns her attention to the ways in which the realities of European ethno-cultural difference are being ideologically obscured or elided. Ridiculing the notion that some kind of “jolly holidays” version of European unity can be achieved by bringing different nationalities together in a transcontinental colonie de vacances, Gallant acerbically shows how aggressive nationalistic prejudices are in fact fed by a forced togetherness that is no more than a hodgepodge of culinary and cultural custom. Her story may serve as a warning to those who are so eagerly pushing the idea of the “new Europe” that will presumably emerge after 1992, a Europe that seems increasingly to be conceived as a Europe-for-Europeans only. Ideologues of multiculturalism at home and of “One Europe” abroad would do well to heed the dissenting discourse that Mavis Gallant's fiction offers us.
The two most common and superficial signifers of ethnocultural difference are, of course, food and dress—these in their most exotic or colourful forms are what Toronto's “Caravan” festival purveys to its customers with their “passports” to an evening's entertaining otherness.
By virtue of gender, however, both women are conditioned to be passive—through Lottie has come to Europe despite Kevin's objections, all she really wants to do once she leaves Canada is to go home again and for that, we are told, she must “wait for someone to come and fetch [her]” (202). Vera, for all that she's a “restless pilgrim” (185), waits around to be summoned by Al.
Yet, though its weather may be barbarous, Canada is also presented as a place emotionally becalmed, in which one can be quite sure that nothing remotely discomforting or indecorous will be broached in conversation, even between intimates (193).
Virus X can also be construed as the tempting foreignness of Europe itself, and as Vera's otherness, too—all the more alarming because Vera represents a possibility that Lottie strenuously denies for herself: the fact that foreignness is not something to be derided, denounced, and avoided in an effort to conform to an Anglo-Canadian “norm,” but something that can be desirable, enlivening, illuminating. Not that Vera is ever presented as a model—Gallant constantly pokes fun at Vera's confusion, ignorance, sentimentality, and dependence. Vera may be the carrier for the Virus; she is immune to its effects because she has already been transformed by it—we know that she has been on her own, drifting through Europe for the past five years, financially supported by the parents who have otherwise written her off—an ironically inverted, female/colonial version of the remittance man.
The immediate sense of closure, the imposition of certainties that transpire with Kevin's eruption into “Virus X” strikes this reader as a calculated violence done to the tissue of indeterminacy Gallant's text has hitherto woven. Kevin arrives as a dual purpose deus ex machina, rescuing not only Lottie but “Virus X” itself from drift and undoing; authority and author, he establishes the limits of what he will and will not tolerate and takes charge by proscribing aimless wandering, imposing destinations, and offering to draw the thick black line that will draw a close to Lottie's European sojourn and a beginning to her life in Canada as Kevin's wife.
The ivy returns in this story rife with sinuous and protracted signifiers towards the end of the text. Vera and Lottie are strolling in the countryside of Alsace when they trip over a remnant of the Maginot line—a historical sign to which Lottie gives only the most obtuse and superficial of readings. Vera, in proper Berkeleyan fashion, ends up kicking the fragment of the Line.
See, too, the Turkish “guestworkers” over which Christine's lover expresses such alarm in The Pegnitz Junction.
Barthes, Roland. “Pluriel, différence, conflit.” Roland Barthes. Paris: Seuil, 1975.
Gallant, Mavis. “Virus X.” Home Truths: Selected Canadian Stories. Toronto: Macmillan, 1982.
———. “Are They Canadians?” The Standard Magazine. [Montreal] 11 Oct 1947: 6-7.
Hutcheon, Linda, and Marion Richmond, eds. Other Solitudes: Canadian Multicultural Fictions. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1990.
Paz, Octavio. “The Power of Ancient Mexican Art.” The New York Review of Books. 6 Dec. 1990: 18-22.
Sollors, Werner. “Ethnicity.” Critical Terms for Literary Study. Ed. Thomas McLaughlin and Frank Lentricchia. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1990.
Wiesaltier, Leon. “Propositions for a Postcommunist World.” Harper's Dec. 1990: 31-33.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6172
SOURCE: Schaub, Danielle. “‘Small Lives of Their Own Creation’: Mavis Gallant's Perception of Canadian Culture.” Critique 34, no. 1 (fall 1992): 33-46.
[In the following essay, Schaub analyzes the representation of a core Canadian identity and its defining values in the “Linnet Muir” narrative sequence of Home Truths.]
A Canadian by birth but an exile in Paris for forty years, Mavis Gallant continues to assert her Canadian identity. This she attributes to the indelible mark left by the first years of education, in her case received in Canada. She explains that “they provide our sense of gravity, our initial view of the world, the seed of our sense of culture,” and adds, “a deeper culture is contained in memory.”1 She sets out to prove this belief in her Home Truths, specifically in her Linnet Muir sequence. In its cumulative evocation of life in Montreal during the 1920s and 1940s, the sequence is the ideal series of stories through which to examine Canadian culture. Indeed, Linnet, the protagonist and narrator, returns to Montreal after years of “helpless migration” (219) in New York. She inevitably starts comparing her memories of her home country with its new reality. Although she acts as a filter, sometimes obliterating the unpleasant memories of her culture, the reader discovers the stable core of Canadian culture and its fluctuating boundaries.
Movement is evoked throughout the sequence because Linnet moves back and forth between the past and the present, as the constant shift in tenses implies. Her past experiences still weigh so much on her that returning home is like embarking on a “journey into a new life and a past dream” (228). With the subtle collage of random memories from her past life and extra-temporal reflections on cultural issues, Linnet evokes a provincial world where emotions, rather than having a positive effect on mores, have to be repressed. As soon as she mentions crossing the border between the United States and Canada, the reader is struck by the spatial and human barrenness, for she meets “a curiously empty country, where the faces of people [give] nothing away” (222). It soon appears, from the accumulation of comments in passing, that “‘like’ and ‘don't like’ [are such] heavy emotional statements” (229) that Canadians keep “their reactions, like their lovemaking, in the dark” (230). Their shameful and unavowed self is thus confined in the dark, which immediately marks the national repression, predominant in all fields. In this respect, Linnet's description of people's reactions while watching a film is quite revealing. In Ontario, “shamed silence” (227) characterizes the audience's response to emotional scenes. In the New York of her teens, laughter and open feelings are the norm. Her astonishment at discovering such a different attitude leads to her disapproval of her compatriots.
What were these new people? Were they soft, too easily got at? I wondered that even then. Would a dictator have a field day here? Were they, as Canadian opinion had it, vulgar? Perhaps the notion of vulgarity came out of some incapacity on the part of the refined. Whatever they were, they couldn't all be daft; if they weren't I probably wasn't either. I supposed I stood as good a chance of being miserable here as anywhere, but at least I would not have to pretend to be someone else.
The succession of questions not only reveals Linnet's surprise at the Americans' expressiveness but also throws light on the prevailing Canadian pre-conceived ideas and prejudice against it. To them it is vulgar demonstrativeness. The next tentative explanation indirectly condemns Canadian refinement as an “incapacity” to happily be one's true self. She then explicitly states her lack of interest in labeling people—a typical trait of provincial Canada—and her confidence about her own normality, akin to the Americans'. Her final comment on her chances of being unhappy in New York indirectly proclaims how unhappy she was in Canada. Happiness, she concludes, is not a concomitant of license but rather involves being oneself—not assuming a pose. With this, she finds her peace. Linnet, the narrator, then proceeds to discuss the advantages of composure, in a detached voice rather like that of an anthropologist assessing the value of social behavior in some far-off country.
Now, of course there is much to be said on the other side: people who do not display what they feel have practical advantages. They can go away to be killed as if they didn't mind; they can see their sons off to war without a blink. Their upbringing is intended for a crisis. When it comes, they behave themselves. But it is murder in everyday life—truly murder. The dead of heart and spirit litter the landscape. Still, keeping a straight face makes life tolerable under stress. It makes public life tolerable—that is all I am saying; because in private people still got drunk, went after each other with bottles and knives.
The initial balanced sentence is aseptic: it considers the impact of countenance in abstract terms and concedes to it a beneficial function. The examples of advantages, emphasized by the loose structures of sentences, shows the tip of the iceberg: they assert with insistence the importance of the facade and relegate feelings to a dark corner. The next purposefully short simple sentence sets out a theorem that the narrator subsequently proves by reducing it to the absurd. By first delaying and preparing the way for the main thought, namely, the ability to behave in cold blood, the next periodic sentence alerts the reader to its assumed importance. However, the following statement brings the reduction to the real crisis: murder. (Playing the momentary crisis against murder in everyday life ironically punctuates the ridiculous attachment to apathy.) The resulting waste invades the emotional landscape. But then, as if to tease the reader somewhat more, impassiveness is praised: it “makes life tolerable under stress.” The concession, though, is short-lived, for it is corrected immediately and restricted to the italicized public life. The correction is then reinforced in the re-statement that suddenly echoes a different voice. Linnet gets involved and recollects scenes of private lives, which annihilate the hypothetical value of restraint, and denounces it.
And indeed the numerous references to behavioral responses interspersed here and there show the negative effect self-control has on human beings. Most of the characters are seen as having “simply snapped the twig” (240) or as about to do so from frustration and repression. Their education succeeds in “making [them] invisible to [themselves]” (243) as it leads to “deprivation of the senses, mortification of mind and body” (245). The resulting anger and its constancy are anything but surprising. “Easily angry, easily offended” (247), bitterness reaches its paroxysm in married women. These, the reader is told, keep “[yelling] to husbands, to children, to dogs, to postmen, to a neighbor's child” (263). The epitome of what restriction does to people is to be found in Mrs. Ireland, one of Linnet's colleagues. Named for that unhappy part of Great Britain—the normative ruler whose inhibiting repression causes discontent—, she is a battered wife. In spite of all her degrees, she does not know any better than to explode in wrath at any moment. One can but appreciate the double pun contained in her name and understand the implicit criticism of the still pervasive constraining British norms.
The effects of those norms are felt throughout. Even the space in which the characters move is felt as shrunken. Perceived at different levels, space can have an impact on interpretation. First and foremost the narrator's use of language reveals his or her personality and outlook on life through his or her perception of the background. Then the characters put on stage may have their personalities reflected in the setting. And finally the reader may introduce partial views of spatial components while decoding the text (Weisgerber 13). This perception corresponds to “the vocabulary of spatialised psychism” (Matoré 90; my translation), which clearly indicates the narrator's attitude to the subject matter and spatial implications. In the Linnet Muir sequence, space as a fictional component is so overwhelmingly present that one cannot overlook it without doing the stories injustice. Indeed, numerous images recurrently call on spatial polarities such as exiguity and openness, smallness and largeness, isolation and company, dark and light or white, openings and prisons, enclosure and escape to name but a few. In Linnet's narration, the spatial terms expose with precision the cultural phenomena that are at stake.
In the representation of the city, which is “not so much … a physical location as a psychological state” (Jarrett 174), the spatial references are colored with numerous psychological undertones. The role memory plays in the process is definitely influenced by the psychological coloration of spatial elements. For instance, while in New York, Linnet is longing for a heavily distorted Montreal.
My memory of Montreal took shape while I was there. It was not a jumble of rooms …, but the faithful record of the true survivor. I retained, I rebuilt a superior civilization. In that drowned world, Sherbrooke Street seemed to be glittering and white; the vision of a house upon that street was so painful that I was obliged to banish it from the memorial. The small hot rooms of a summer cottage became enormous and cool. If I say that Cleopatra floated down the Chateauguay River, that the Winter Palace was stormed on Sherbrooke Street, that Trafalgar was fought on Lake St. Louis, I mean it naturally; they were the natural backgrounds of my exile and fidelity.
Linnet could not describe more clearly how memory works. It starts its work only when actual comparison cannot challenge it. It beautifies the remembered object, place, or person as is exemplified in the second sentence. That sentence sets out to negate the existence of “the jumble of rooms” in which the Muirs used to live, and opposes to it the faithfulness of real memory—the memory generating positive reminiscences. The next simple sentence with its apposed subjects and verbs implying the process of improved memory confirms the modifying impetus, as does the use of the comparative expressing an increase in quality. By comparison with the clarity of perception du vécu hic et nunc—that is of the present experience—the past becomes a “drowned world” whose haziness alters and modifies things for the better. The achromatic purity of the recollection imparts Linnet's will to forget the stronger chromatic, that is unpleasant, components of her past. Actual evidence of modification follows to back up the argument: houses are obliterated. Yet these are supposed to bear “the essence of the notion of home” (Bachelard 5), that is to bring a sheltering and reassuring warmth. That her remembrances are equated with a memorial shows a parallel between them and funeral orations where defects, weaknesses, and shortcomings are not even mentioned. This actually signifies that she had no real home as a child. The following balanced sentence punctuates the earnest yet illusory perception of the past. The first section with its periodic structure paralleling three that-clauses of purely fantastic content postpones the main idea and stresses its importance: no harm is meant; imagination is allowed license. The second section, a shorter and thus more powerful main clause, restates the first in more dramatic terms where “exile” and “fidelity” merge to sharpen the nostalgic yearning for an otherwise disillusioned world. The same correction of reality marks Linnet's memory of Dr. Chauchard's house. The only person who grasps her sensitivity and grants her marked favors, Dr. Chauchard is the closest person to her, bar an old French-speaking Canadian servant.
The house he came to remained for a long time enormous in my memory, though the few like it still standing—“still living” I nearly say—are narrow, with thin, steep staircases and close, high ceilinged rooms.
Her description of her recollection and the actual house again shows how selective—or rather corrective—memory is. This confrontation of remembrance and its object is what confers fluidity to the perception of culture. What is and what might ideally be, thus alternatively evoked, produce the undulating motion of self-inquiry.
With regard to the population, however, the picture is rather one-sided. Whenever memory is at work, whether to evoke past or present situations, Linnet's various comments on her fellow citizens partake of a different approach. The recollection and its object are one and the same.
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. … There was a space of life I used to call “between Zero and One” and then came a long mystery. I supposed that men came up to their wall, their terminal point, quite a long way after One.
The images conjured up in this passage clearly reveal what Linnet thinks of the people around her. A posteriori, the vague reference to age intimates that the narrator is considerably removed from her childhood and teens. It points to the distance between the time when Linnet, the protagonist, perceives facts and the time when Linnet, the narrator, relates them. From the start men's lives are felt as exiguous of their own volition. Linnet's incomprehension of such a narrow choice—their “close limits”—is marked by the opposition between men being “born enfranchised” and. “the obstacles and constraints attendant on women.” The inequality of the sexes is thus immediately alluded to through spatial polarities as is the men's surprise at being limited. Life is also considered in terms of space and numbers, but the latter leave so little scope that it suggests how little Linnet expects of life. She cannot decode the “long mystery” after One either for her age, or for her sex. Its length is all the more ironic as men do not seem to go beyond One, at least if one considers what the male characters do with their lives.
Why didn't they move, walk, stretch, run? Each of them seemed to inhabit an invisible square; the square was shared with my desk, my graph, my elastic bands. The contents of the square were tested each morning. … Sometimes one glimpsed another world, like an extra room (“It was my daughter made me lunch today”—said with a shrug, lest it be taken for boasting) or a wish outdistanced, reduced, shrunken, trailing somewhere in the mind: “I often thought I wanted. …”
The question and its asyndeton reinforce the lack of scope characteristic of men's lives: the succession of negated and noncoordinated verbs of motion reduces their range to virtually nothing. And indeed the next comment defines it as “an invisible square.” Its exiguity is further delineated as not more than a nest. As Bachelard notes in The Poetics of Space, nests go along with “primal images” that “bring out the primitiveness” (91) in man. The men's careful checking of their belongings each morning is indeed not far from a bird's struggle to build a perfect nest for itself and its next of kin. The irony though lies in the totally selfish character of the endeavor stressed by the italicized first-person possessive pronoun. But an opening seems to lead onto another secret room, one whose existence is immediately denied for fear of revealing one's emotions. Emotions cannot come to the fore as is obviously reflected in the meaningless content of the reported speech: all it reveals is an insignificant scene in the life of a free man. Further confirmation of the reproved character attributed to emotions comes in the spatial comparison of this other world to “a wish outdistanced, reduced, shrunken, trailing somewhere in the mind,” namely to a microdimensional corner of one's heart.
If men's lives are limited, women enjoy even less scope.2 Their opportunities are nought for they are, as quoted before, hampered by “obstacles and constraints” not attendant on men. Theirs is the constricted space “between Zero and One,” as marked by their allotment.
A few girls equipped with rackety typewriters and adding machines sat grouped at the far end of the room, separated from the men by a balustrade. I was the first woman ever permitted to work on the men's side of the fence. A pigeon among the cats was how it sometimes felt.
The hopelessness of the secretaries' banishment is stressed by their remote location in the room and the physical separation between them and the men. Further descriptions of their situation in “the darkest part, away from the window” (255) confirm the minimal respect granted them. Linnet resents the separation and equates it to women being “penned in like sheep” (226) or “parked like third-class immigrants” (255)—two phrases proclaiming the spatial constraints imposed on them and her revulsion at their degraded status. The men so deeply resent the uniqueness of Linnet's position “on the men's side of the fence” that they cannot refrain from venting their feelings: “if it hadn't been for the god-damned war we would never have hired even one of the god-damned women” (317). The strikingly short sentence with a reverted order stressing the image calling on the animal world appropriately conveys Linnet's feeling of entrapment in a world that does not grant women any rights.
Even children are no more welcome than women and live in a confined atmosphere. Their situation is so undesirable that Linnet sums up her own experiences as those undergone in the “prison of childhood” (225): parents—or rather adults in general—are inflexibly strict with children, as if to punish them for some primeval sin linked with their actual birth.
Halfway between our two great wars, parents whose 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. Asking questions was “being tiresome,” while persistent curiosity got one nowhere, at least nowhere of interest.
Translated into visual images, the detached sociological comment on educational methods enhances the rigid reality of children's lives. No perspective is granted to children with final adult retorts allowing no opening. Repressive threats and orders permanently mar relations, for children are not allowed to be themselves. Any natural instinct has to be curbed: the overwhelming ban on spontaneous reactions is conveyed by the series of juxtaposed actions that are prohibited. Overpowered, children do not even have a little bright corner to hide in: darkness characterizes their upbringing. No escape is possible; no enlightening discovery can ever be made. Exiled in the 1920s, children are in no better position in the 1940s.
How much has changed? Observe the drift of words descending from adult to child—the fall of personal questions, observations, unnecessary instructions. Before long the listener seems blanketed. He must hear the voice as authority muffled, a hum through snow. The tone has changed—it may be coaxing, even plaintive—but the words have barely altered. They still claim the ancient right-of-way through a young life.
Invited to participate in the sociological inquiry, the reader soon discovers that adults still use their hierarchical authority to sentence children to life imprisonment. The apposition of drifting words and its asyndeton render the forcefulness with which power is exerted. No longer addressed directly, the reader visualizes, indeed physically experiences, the “drift of words” as blanketing. The voice of authority is thus drowned out. This aptly evokes an insignificant change: authoritarian vigor has withdrawn in favor of luring and lament. But the content of the discourse is still the same; parental prerogative cannot be done away with.
In these adverse circumstances, children feel miserable. Linnet indirectly reports her helplessness in the description of the time lapse entre chien et loup.
There was one sunken hour on January afternoons, just before the street lamps were lighted, that was the gray of true wretchedness, as if one's heart and stomach had turned into the same dull, cottony stuff as the sky; it was attached to a feeling of loss, of helpless sadness, unknown to children in other latitudes.
Equated with the distressing atmosphere of winter twilight, children's despair becomes an inescapable fact, pointed up by the loose sentence that echoes their neglect and the emptiness of their lives. The source of Linnet's injured, indeed repressed, sensitivity, her depressing lot bears fruit. Drop by drop, she filters her emotions as if through “the cottony stuff” of the sky, the symbol of her unhappiness engendering her art. Her childhood experiences contribute to the pervading spatial imagery of her stories: her visual rendering of emotions colors her narration of her past anxieties. In her childhood, Linnet often visited a doctor or a teacher on Saturdays, while her father ran his errands or paid visits to friends. Having to meet her father at the station traumatized her for fear she should be late and miss both her father and the train. Her obsession with it is clearly translated in her dreams after her father's death.
… after his death, which would not be long in coming, I would dream that someone important had taken a train without me. My route to the meeting place—deviated, betrayed by stopped clocks—was always downhill. As soon as I was old enough to understand from my reading of myths and legends that this journey was a pursuit of darkness, its terminal point a sunless underworld, the dream vanished.
Darkness, abandonment, deviation, obstacles, declivity, all these dominate Linnet's dreams and pave the route of childhood, another descent into hell.
Just as dreams mirror Linnet's apprehensions, the setting emphasizes the situation the characters are in. The prevalent restrictions on emotional freedom, no doubt perceived by the narrator and protagonist—if not by the other characters—are reflected in the topographical details. The decor in which the action—or rather inaction—takes place is described in spatial terms of restrictive psychological impact. Linnet's experience of the atmosphere at work is quite revealing.
I remember a day of dark spring snowstorms, ourselves reflected on the black windows, the pools of warm light here and there, the green-shaded lamps, the dramatic hiss and gurgle of the radiators that always sounded like the background to some emotional outburst, the sudden slackening at the end of the afternoon when every molecule of oxygen in the room had turned into poison.
The loose sentence, with all its tacked-on ideas reflecting the way memory works, offers a multitude of sounds, smells, colors and heat. Rather than offering comfort in contrast to the unfavorable climate, the interior locale seems to enhance it. In spite of occasional patches of shaded light, the pictures evoke a dark, stifling atmosphere punctuated by the infuriating noises of the radiators. These depressing images are piled up as are the frustrations of the characters with the restraints attendant on their lives. When—if at all—will the “emotional outburst” come to liberate them? One can hardly imagine their lives without the slow moving lift, a symbol for the exiguity, smallness, and limitedness of the characters' world.
I climbed to the office in a slow reassuring elevator with iron grille doors, sharing it with inexpressive women and men—clearly the trodden-on. No matter how familiar our faces became, we never spoke. The only sound, apart from the creaking cable, was the gasping and choking of a poor man who had been gassed at the Somme and whose lungs were said to be in shreds. He had an old man's pale eyes and wore a high stiff collar and stared straight before him, like everyone else.
Imprisoned in the lift as in life with an iron fence preventing emotions from coming out, the characters follow the path society designated them. Its normative rules, symbolized by the lift, dictates the slow pace of the flock. Communication between people who have not been formally introduced is impossible. The only person who departs from the norm is the gassed veteran from the First World War but then his is a message of oppression, a cry for emotional freedom. However, apart from his gasp for air and his choking, which are seen as an incapacity rather than as a symptom of the oppressive social norms, he conforms. His dress is stiff and the look on his face is as blank as a fish's. Clearly, real communication is nonexistent among citizens abiding by the local inhibitions. Bearing the stamp of imported pre-war British behavior patterns, the characters have typically cool, shy, and repressed attitudes.
Strictly adhering to British self-control, English-speaking Canadians have also adopted their model's imperialist attitudes. Whatever is not English meets contempt and rejection as not “part of the Empire and the Crown” (245). Linnet defines their insularism in opposition to her parents' innovative approach.
This overlapping in one room of French and English, of Catholic and Protestant—my parents' way of being, and so to me life itself—was as unlikely, as unnatural to the Montreal climate as a school of tropical fish. Only later would I discover that most other people simply floated in mossy little ponds labelled “French and Catholic” or “English and Protestant,” never wondering what it might be like to step ashore; or wondering, perhaps, but weighing up the danger. To be out of a pond is to be in unmapped territory. The earth might be flat; you could fall over the edge quite easily.
The comparison of bilingual, and therefore bi-confessional, groups in Montreal to a “school of tropical fish” immediately establishes that the “two tribes [know] nothing whatsoever about each other” (245). The piscatorial simile is extended in the localization of each community in “mossy little ponds.” That they are labeled accordingly merely evidences the local ossification and fear of assimilation. The latter prevents any one of them from edging through the tangles of moss towards the other pond. Frightened to be left on their own, they seek the security of a label, that is of the group, contrary to any existential approach to life. “Being” rather than “existing” (Sartre 73-102), they are totally incapable of even considering opening themselves up, for their attachment to the community confers on them assurance, if not arrogance and a feeling of superiority, recalling their fore-fathers when they landed in Canada.
To English Montreal, cocooned in that other language nobody bothered to learn, the rest of the continent, Canada included, barely existed; travellers would disembark after long, sooty train trips expressing relief to be in the only city where there were decent restaurants and well-dressed women and where proper English could be heard.
By postponing the main idea, the sentence increases the impact of its revelation, namely the exclusiveness of English Montrealers. Their ethnocentrism is worsened with the reference to their rejection of the French Canadian cocoon. They have, we hear, “marks of privilege—a blind sureness that they [are] superior to French Canadians, whom in some strange fashion they never [hear] nor [see]” (247). But their “lack of interest … [is] doubly and triply returned” (247). Irrespective of the quarantine French Canadians enforce, their parochialism goes even further: it excludes any form of English culture that is not typical of Montreal.
The rigidity with which everything is set comes out even in art. Like other countries with split-up communities, the titles of art works are “identified in two languages” (299), even when the titles do not call for translation. Moreover, in Montreal, concerts and plays are not in demand; the one museum displays virtually nothing; and to add insult to injury the public library offers only censored books unlike common practice in New York and Toronto (249). Art institutions, unsurprisingly, hand “a folded thought like a shapeless school uniform” that everyone wears “regardless of fit” (258). Modern art has no scope; the closest to it is pornography, a mere outlet for repressed sexual drives. Even journalism is normative: it corroborates the local restraint and insularism.
From behind frosted-glass doors, as from a leaking intellectual bath, flow instructions about style, spelling, caution, libel, brevity, and something called “the ground rules.” A few of these rules have been established for the convenience of the wives of senior persons and reflect their tastes and interest, their inhibitions and fears, their desire to see close friends' pictures when they open to the social page, their fragile attention span. … you must not be flippant about the Crown. … Religions, in particular those observed by decent Christians, are not up for debate.
The “frosted-glass doors,” rather than offering an opening, blur the vision of journalists with the steam of censorship. Linnet's hilarious struggle with a picture whose caption she has to write is quite significant of the agency's ridiculous rules (318-319). Unfortunately such limitations take away the poetical breath of any writer.
I could write without hearing anyone, but poetry was leaving me. It was not an abrupt removal but like a recurring tide whose high-water mark recedes inch by inch. Presently I was deep inland and the sea was gone.
Echoing the orders flowing from a sterile “intellectual bath,” the sea imagery aptly conveys Linnet's progressively declining literary inspiration. It also reverberates with James Joyce's imagery: on land, poetic inspiration is impossible, for paralysis prevails; at sea, paralysis is defeated; for new, and unconstraining, horizons are open. Freedom of thought and lyric creativeness can only be restored through the rhythmic rocking of the waves. But originality is not looked for in Canada: Linnet's audition with Miss Urn, whose name recalls Keats' ode and its celebration of static art (Jarrett 177), is a clear illustration of Canada's attachment to old values.
Miss Urn received me in a small room of a dingy office suite on St. Catherine Street. We sat down on opposite sides of a table. I was rendered shy by her bearing, which had a headmistress quality, and perplexed by her accent—it was the voice any North American actor will pick up after six months of looking for work in the West End, but I did not know that.
The exiguity of the space in which the audition takes place mirrors the narrowmindedness of artistic demand. The location in town is a reminder of prudish maidens venerating St. Catherine in the hope of finding a husband. That Miss Urn and Linnet are facing each other also marks a contrast in their outlook. Free of taboo and open to novelty, Linnet reads a passage of Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth. Her choice of a play then showing in New York is a first offence. That it is a self-conscious play, and therefore a challenge, rules it out in the eyes of Miss Urn, whose choice of Dodie Smith's cozy family play Dear Octopus is unthreatening. To make matters worse, Linnet—on a different wave length—misreads the second play mistaking it for a parody. Genuine creativity is thus annihilated because bigotry and intolerance control art.
In a country characterized by its “national pigheadedness” (261) and rejection of novelty, outsiders have no access to real citizenship.3 Immigrants are easy to spot for origins can never be discarded in a society abiding by strict normative rules. Immigrants are so poorly received that if a Canadian woman of old stock marries an immigrant she had better keep her maiden name, at least if she wants to succeed professionally. As Linnet explains: “in Canada you [are] also whatever your father [happened] to be, which in my case [was] English” (220). This is a characteristic reaction in rural and provincial communities where it is of the utmost importance to know if one really belongs. Once one is part and parcel of the community it is essential to safeguard its cohesion and specificity by protecting it against intruders. To complicate matters some people cultivate their “foreignness.” Linnet's recollections of her father give evidence of his unwillingness to integrate. He refused the process of cultural integration for he was proud of his British origins, as were many British citizens living in the colonies. Indeed when he died after years of residence in Canada, this Englishman by birth was still more British than Canadian. But what was true for him should not necessarily hold for his offspring. Nevertheless, owing to the system, Linnet is considered an immigrant on two counts: her return also turns her into a newcomer for those who are long established. She ends up “being an outsider in her own home” (Howells 102); “she [has] neither the wealth nor the influence a provincial society requires to make a passport valid” (232). The immigrants she inevitably meets are equally trapped. They try to integrate by applying for citizenship, changing their names and eating cornflakes, but in vain. At any time they may be reminded of their alien origins: they cannot escape the effects of xenophobia.
To escape from such a stifling and incomprehensible atmosphere, Linnet starts her career as a writer. “Anything [she cannot] decipher [she turns] into fiction, which [is her] way of untangling knots” (261)—the complex knots of her identity. To the reader's delight her suffering is transformed into art, the art revealed in the stories she casually narrates and defines through an extended metaphor: “every day is a new parcel one unwraps, layer on layer of tissue paper covering bits of crystal, scraps of words in a foreign language, pure white stones” (248). Drop by drop, she filters her recollections and reveals the jewels of her art. The reader follows her meandering path as she looks for herself in others and opens the secret drawer of one character after another. But soon she is seen shutting it promptly: she feels that she should not look “inside a drawer that [does] not belong to [her]” (234), “nor [put] life through a sieve” (281). Her recognition of the local smallness and her latent awareness of her own self tell her why she should not. Throughout her quest, she intuitively senses that in the end she will only find “another variety of exile” (281).
Estranged from her family, her hometown, her country, she is left with only the remedy of writing. Generated by the need to understand herself and anchored in her re-discovery of her native Montreal, her prose eventually discloses the multiple facets of her culture. It emerges from the three layers of memory and historical time involved in her narration: twice removed from her childhood, Linnet, the narrator, looks back on her teenage memories of her childhood. These layers not only reflect her voice but also amplify a chorus of voices—“hushed, muffled, disguised” (230)—which the narrator perceives and transmits. In other words, the reader has to decode the cross-referential images, fluctuating rhythm and incisive style, repeated chronological deviations, and measured detachment to extract the numerous components of Canadian culture. Essentially fixed in the recollections of memory doubly at work, it is on the verge of changing: social and sexual equality as well as improved work conditions are perceived in the narrator's comments on “those days” as opposed to the implied time of the narration. The overwhelming use of spatial images combined with multiple voices suppressing her own voice eventually contributes to the resulting awareness of change and continuity. And because Linnet is, to quote Gallant, “a kind of summary of some of the things that I once was” (Hancock 28), further layers are added with this mise en abyme. A complex picture of Canadian culture—rendering both its fluidity and fixity—thus comes to light.
All the quotations from Home Truths: Selected Canadian Stories refer to the 1981 Macmillan of Canada edition. This quotation is taken from Mavis Gallant's introduction to the collection, p. xv. All subsequent references to the stories appear in the text.
For a more detailed discussion of women's opportunities in Canada see my article “Squeezed ‘Between Zero and One’: Feminine Space in Mavis Gallant's Home Truths.”
My article “Mavis Gallant's Montreal: A Harbour for Immigrants?” offers further views on immigrants and their space in Canadian culture.
Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space. Trans. Maria Jolas. Boston: Beacon, 1969.
Gallant, Mavis. Home Truths: Selected Canadian Stories. Toronto: Macmillan, 1981.
Hancock, Geoffrey. “An Interview with Mavis Gallant,” Canadian Fiction Magazine 28(1978), 18-67.
Howells, Coral Ann. Private and Fictional Words: Canadian Women Novelists of the 1970s and 1980s. London and New York: Methuen, 1987.
Jarrett, Mary. “The Presentation of Montreal in Mavis Gallant's ‘Between Zero and One’ and of Toronto in Margaret Atwood's Cat's Eye,” Canadian Studies (Talence, France) 29 (1990), 173-181.
Matoré, Georges. L'espace humain: L'expression de l'espace dans la vie, la pensée et l'art contempórains. Paris, La Colombe (Sciences et techniques humaines, 2), 1962.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology. Trans. Hazel E. Barnes. London and New York: Routledge, 1958.
Schaub, Danielle. “Mavis Gallant's Montreal: A Harbour for Immigrants?,” Canadian Studies (Talence, France) 29 (1990), 195-201.
———. “Squeezed ‘Between Zero and One’: Feminine Space in Mavis Gallant's Home Truths.” Recherches anglaises et américaines (Strasbourg). 22 (1990), 53-59.
Weisgerber, Jean. L'Espace romanesque. Lausanne: l'Age de l'Homme, 1978.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6105
SOURCE: Schaub, Danielle. “Structural Patterns of Alienation and Disjunction: Mavis Gallant's Firmly-Structured Stories.” Canadian Literature 136 (spring 1993): 45-57.
[In the following essay, Schaub discusses the stories “About Geneva,” “Orphans' Progress,” and “My Heart Is Broken” in terms of a textual correlation between structure and theme that betrays disjunction rather than harmony.]
Gallant once remarked that “style is inseparable from structure” (“What Is Style?” 6), so that both the expression and presentation of events, feelings, thoughts and conversations convey the message of fictional pieces. The correlation between presentation and message would seem to imply that firm textual strategies accompany accounts of well-structured lives. Yet, in Mavis Gallant's fiction, firm structural patterns frame disjunction. The main characters of her firmly-structured stories turn out to be totally alienated from their human environment where they lead marginal lives. Their marginality confirms O'Connor's observation that “in the short story, there is this sense of outlawed figures wandering about the fringes of society … [The] intense awareness of human loneliness” (19) that emerges from short stories in fact results from the organisation of materials, at least in Gallant's case. Indeed, a number of her stories firmly mark out a route to discover human isolation. Thus, an analysis of several firmly-structured stories brings one reality to the fore: their apparent “firmness” conveys patterns of fragmentation, disconnection or alienation. The following discussion of three stories1 with different structural patterns—ranging from a variety of sections with shifting focus through a linear development with temporal and geographical stages to a triangular design—reveals that even within a solid frame, within a chronological narrative, disconnectedness may prevail. Representatives of respectively childhood, adolescence and early adulthood, the protagonist(s) of each story move about haphazardly, evolve without a goal, and end up being totally estranged from one another and/or from the other characters.
Theories on the creation of stories abound. But most writers have their own approach and their views on the process of writing vary considerably. In one of her scarce comments, Mavis Gallant suggests how her stories come to existence:
I wouldn't choose a theme and write about it. A story usually begins, for me, with people in a situation, like that. (Locks fingers together). The knot either relaxes or becomes locked in another way … The situation has a beginning and as much ending as any situation in life.2
One may doubt, however, that her selection and arrangement of details is genuinely spontaneous. Indeed, some of her stories give indications as to how they are built: more often than not, they include comments that can be read on two levels—the purely fictional relation of events and the metafictional interest in the process of creation. Of course, such double reading does not suffice to determine how her stories function. But an understanding can be gained from the temporal succession and causality, the story's (Bal, 5) points of departure and arrival together with the intervening sequences of action, their relations to one another, their locale, and their suggestive significance. Silences, and information held back, too, should be detected: unmentioned relations are often more significant than explicit, and thus less subtle, revelations. Once taken into account, these considerations contribute to the deeper meaning of each story; for it goes without saying that the principles of organisation underlying Gallant's texts and their ways of conveying meaning are interdependent.
“About Geneva” (The Other Paris, 190-198),3 for instance, illustrates how a story built on a firm pattern can nevertheless reflect the characters' disconnectedness: detachment characterises the structure of both the story and the family depicted, though the narration is strictly chronological.4 True, the external retroversions—“about Geneva” as the title indicates—could be said to disrupt the chronology, but in fact the story is based on those very retroversions: the story would not be if it were not for them. The story basically recounts how two grown-ups are fishing for information about two children's first stay at their father's in Geneva. Still in their innocent childhood days, Ursula and Colin go back to their meublé in Nice where their mother and grandmother welcome them. Immediately, the adults start cross-examining the children for facts “about Geneva.” The shifting focus of their enquiry contributes to the increasing detachment between the children and the adults while the implicit tension between the set-ups in Nice and Geneva adds to the chaotic relationships within the family. In its exposition of the struggle for power taking place between the father and the grandmother/mother pair over the two children, the story lays bare, through the text's structure, the fortress of the children's minds and their resistance to infiltration even from close relatives.
The story's tripartite organisation with flashbacks discloses the children's unwillingness to communicate, asserting their determination to rule their lives alone. Divided into three parts of unequal length, the narration discloses an episode in the family confrontation while reproducing the order of the fabula (Bal, 5). Each part focuses on one character at a time, thus emphasizing how divided the family is. The first part gives precedence to the overbearing grandmother: “Granny” not only presides over the opening but also manipulates each character so as to hear just what she wants to. In about four pages (OP [The Other Paris] 190-beginning 195), she manages to exert her control over the entire family and go against her daughter's express request not to be inquisitive openly nor to formulate criticism. By starting the first line with her name—that of a function, not an emotional relation5—the story immediately establishes her power over the family: from the very first minute, she causes the children and her daughter to have feelings of guilt. The family network is immediately highlighted as the children conceal their uneasiness and discontent through misbehaviour, while their mother fakes cheerfulness. The theatrical reception lasts a page and a half before they are allowed in, as if to signify its unwelcoming quality. The selection of minute details makes this explicit:
She (the mother) came in at last, drew off her gloves, looked around as if she, and not the children, had been away.
(OP 191, my italics)
In the lapse of time between their arrival and their entrance, the grandmother hardly allows her daughter to speak. Then suspicion and contempt alternate in a concert of voices whose soloist, the grandmother, sets the tone. She elicits information from the children with her insidious questions and comments and keeps the conversation going, in spite of the children's unwillingness to cooperate.
Unexpectedly the spotlight is then turned on Ursula whose revelations make up the second part of the story (OP 194-beginning 196). But her revelations say less “about Geneva” than about herself. What she has gained from her stay abroad is her newly-acquired literary inclination. Like her father, she has developed a genuine enthusiasm for what she is writing—her play “The Grand Duke.” She has even already suppressed her memories of Geneva and replaced them with her fantasies: “everything about the trip, in the end, (crystallizes) around Tatiana and the Grand Duke. Already, Ursula (is) Tatiana” (OP 196). Whatever she says is waved aside for she takes after her father, the other. “By the simple act of creating Tatiana and the Grand Duke, she (has) removed herself from the ranks of reliable witnesses” (OP 197). And so she ceases to be the focus of attention in favour of Colin whose memories are recorded in the third and final part (OP 196-198). However, he too has already started erasing Geneva from his memories:
“I fed the swans,” Colin suddenly shouted.
There, he had told about Geneva. He sat up and kicked his heels on the carpet as if the noise would drown out the consequence of what he had revealed. As he said it, the image became static: a grey sky, a gray lake, and a swan wonderfully turning upside down with the black rubber feet showing above the water. His father was not in the picture at all; neither was she. But Geneva was fixed for the rest of his life: gray, lake, swan.
What his subconscious retains is a static image without human figures: his grey picture of the place is indicative of his indifference to people. “Having delivered his secret, he [has] nothing more to tell” (OP 196). The revelations “about Geneva” thus reach an end, for Ursula is not a reliable witness and Colin starts inventing. The focus slowly shifts to the children's mother who, now alone with Colin, tries to figure out “why her husband [has] left her” (OP 198). The incursions into her mind show how she has combined the various images of Geneva that her mother, daughter and son have evoked in turn. Totally fixed, the picture nevertheless arouses her envy and resentfulness at being left behind. Her eagerness to know more might lead to another, though unlikely, revealing discussion with Colin. Her final doubts, just before the end, leave a bitter taste of disillusionment, corresponding to her relegation to a position of less than secondary importance:
nothing had come back from the trip but her own feelings of longing and envy, the longing and envy she felt at night, seeing, at a crossroad or over a bridge, the lighted windows of a train sweep by. Her children had nothing to tell her. Perhaps, as she had said, one day Colin would say something, produce the image of Geneva, tell her about the lake, the boats, the swans, and why her husband had left her. Perhaps he could tell her, but, really, she doubted it. And, already, so did he.
Thus the purpose of the trip is disclosed in a final interior monologue that mirrors the utter dissolution of a family whose members cannot and will not communicate. The final sentence (“And, already, so did he”) gives the story a circular character: Colin is about to close the door to communication, which has led the children to be sent to Geneva. Cut off from the others, he reproduces his father's pattern of isolation and transfers the process of alienation into the next generation: an alien to his mother, he is not any closer to his father whom he “kills” in a Freudian sense by erasing him from all his memories. Slowly but surely, the revelation “about Geneva” disclose the vicious circle of the family estrangement. The seemingly linear narration ends up closing in with its external retroversions that emphasize the repeated patterns of alienation.6 The recurrence of short-lived attempts at communicating offers a frame clearly corresponding to the characters' role in the family: authoritative, the grandmother holds the floor before Ursula opposes her in the name of her father whose literary talents she has inherited. Rejected for its literariness, her response is further counteracted by Colin's, which is invented, as is the mother's picture of things. Like a whirlpool, the subsequent round of dialogues of the deaf awaits its turn to end up in the same awareness of the characters' disconnectedness.
Solid structure, it appears, does in no way exclude patterns of alienation. Built on a number of sections with shifting focus allowing the characters to voice their views, the story evidently conveys fragmentation.
Stories based on a chronological succession of sections devoted each to a different character7 enable dissolution to emerge. Linear stories emphasizing various stages in the slow loss of identity of the characters considered together also offer such a possibility. In spite of the various parts announced by temporal and/or spatial references, such stories have a smooth relation for their one and only narrative thread. “Orphans' Progress” (Home Truths, 56-62),8 for instance, follows a linear progression that nevertheless evidences dislocation.9 In fact, bar a long flashback, the linear structure accompanies the slow psychic disintegration of two young girls after their widowed mother has been refused custody for inadequate care. Marking stages in their progress to total dissolution of ties, temporal and geographical references disclose the linearity of the story.
Carried out in stages, the disjunction implies the degradation of blood ties resulting from social restraint. The text (Rimmon-Kenan, 3) seems to suggest that emotional misery comes with affluence. Although every new roof provides the girls with better material circumstances, every move engenders a further estrangement from each other and the past. Prior to the time span covered by the plot, the sisters felt their mother's warmth and loved her, slovenly though she might have been. They were then part of a nucleus and shared everything with her: her presence, her moods, her bed and dirty sheets, her language and even the lack of food. […] At their grandmother's, their past is negated. Defamatory rumours make them look back on it in a different light: their mother was not up to standard, “they were living under … unsheltered conditions” (HT [Home Truths] 57). Yet they never resented them and have retained the memory of a warm and close relationship (so that the elder objects). On the other hand, “what they [remember] afterwards of their grandmother [is] goat's milk, goat eyes, and the frightened man” (HT 56), that is, scrupulous nutrition, no contact, and fear—definitely not loving kindness. Back in Montreal, they are not give any chance to identify with the place nor to feel at home, for the atmosphere and the surroundings are totally different. Their relatives' exhibited wealth and resentment cause fear and darkness to prevail in the girls' lives (HT 59). And they themselves now even resent each other's company: they fight over the blanket on their bed. After this, disconnection is then carried on one step further at the convent school where expressing feelings and making references to one's family ties are offences. Humiliated for mentioning her mother to a fellow boarder and confusing her whereabouts, Mildred no longer relates to her mother: the term “‘Mummy’ had meaning” (HT 61) only until she got punished. Similarly, the bond of sisterhood is broken: no longer sharing a room, let alone a bed, the sisters stop being on the same wavelength. The school system parts them: during breaks, Mildred can only catch glimpses of Cathie, whose age is more appropriate to serious walks. Furthermore, Cathie, who prays for almost unknown relatives and outsiders, “[forgets] Mildred in her prayers” (HT 61). After a seven years' separation, the girls no longer get through to each other (HT 62). Restraining social norms have erased their deviant, yet warm, past life. “Natural,” that is, instinctive and spontaneous sisterly feelings cease to be part of their experience. Their identity is lost. The slow disconnecting process has reached its peak.
The linguistic environment, too, contributes to the girls' gradual loss of affective response and identity. Each stage in their peregrination means rejection of their previous command of language and shows that the process of unlearning coincides with further estrangement from their mother's influence.10 After their easy-going bilingual upbringing with their French-Canadian mother, they become repeatedly aware of one linguistic intolerance after the other. Their silent appraisal of the status of language is first made clear at their grandmother's.
They understood, from their grandmother, and their grandmother's maid, and the social worker who came to see their grandmother but had little to say to them, that French was an inferior kind of speech.
Although they have now become familiar with the linguistic code prevalent in Ontario, their natural language remains French; so spontaneous expressions of discomfort, for example, will come out in French until they recover enough self-control to switch over to English (HT 57). That a foreign language can exclude affectivity appears in the combined announcement of the grandmother's death and of the girls' newly acquired ability to speak with an Ontario accent (HT 56-57). The statement does not make any room for emotions: it denies their existence. Back in Montreal they go through the same linguistic ordeal. The prevailing darkness adequately renders the devastating psychological impact of such narrowmindedness, so contrary to their original bilingual upbringing. Finally, the punishment inflicted upon Mildred at the convent school for uttering three words in English, not in French, also contributes to her detachment from her mother. This only paves the way for her accepting to be swallowed up in her new French-speaking family. As she is referred to as “Mildred's mother” (HT 62), the new mother soon supplants the real mother. Mildred may well be back in a French-speaking environment akin to her mother's, but the pressures endured to adjust split her from her natural background and true origins.
Similarly, through the story, words referring to ignorance and revelations mark the process alienating both Mildred and Cathie from their mother.11 Before being taken away from her, “they loved [their mother] without knowing what the word implied” (HT 56).12 But soon, they are made to consider her in a new light, by virtue of social criteria.
They never knew, until told, that they were uneducated and dirty and in danger. Now they learned that their mother never washed her own neck and that she dressed in layers of woollen stuff, covered with grease, and wore men's shoes because some man had left them behind and she liked the shape and comfort of them. They did not know, until they were told, that they had never been fed properly.
At this stage they still contradict rumours (HT 57). Objecting to the denigration of their lodgings, Cathie reveals other particulars of importance to them (such as their two cats, their mother's pictures and their own drawings on the wall). Some affectional space was given everyone in spite of the material scarcity. But already the little girl does “not remember having screamed or anything at all except the trip from Montreal by train” (HT 58). Once they have moved to their cousins in Montreal “they [do] not see anything that [reminds] them of Montreal, and [do] not recall their mother” (HT 59). The children do not talk about her until their cousins try to frighten them: only then does Cathie speak about her; “Our mother wouldn't try to frighten us” (HT 59), she says still remembering their past feeling of security. A reverse feeling marks the ignorance and revelation of the meaning attached to the shears with which Mildred is “made to promenade through the classrooms” (HT 60) as a punishment for having told a lie.
She did not know the significance of the shears, nor, it seemed, did the nun who organised the punishment. It had always been associated with lying, and (the nun suddenly remembered) had something to do with cutting the liar's tongue.
As to Cathie, she is so worried “about forgetting Mildred in her prayers” that she invents “a formula” (HT 61):
Everyone I have ever known who is dead or alive, anyone I know now who is alive but might die, and anyone I shall ever know in the future.
In other words, the girls go from carefree and happy ignorance to the awareness of their mother's inadequate handling of their upbringing before becoming conscious of their own shortcomings and inability to have any meaningful exchange. Theirs is a story of initiation: brought about by knowledge, their initiation coincides with a kind of fall. As Christian theology has it, ignorance and innocence yield happiness while knowledge and experience provoke unhappiness and evil.
On the stylistic level, abrupt transitions reinforce the existing disjunction. Take for instance the following passage:
“To the day I die,” said the social worker from Montreal to her colleague in Ontario, “I won't forget the screams of Mildred when she was dragged out of that pigsty.” This was said in the grandmother's parlor, where the three women—the two social workers, and the grandmother—sat with their feet freezing on the linoleum floor. The maid heard, and told. She had been in and out, serving coffee, coconut biscuits, and damson preserves in custard made of goat's milk. The room was heated once or twice a year: even the maid said her feet were cold. But “To the day I die” was a phrase worth hearing. She liked the sound of that, and said it to the children. The maid was from a place called Waterloo, where, to hear her tell it, no one behaved strangely and all the rooms heated.
If the first sentence records Mildred's misery upon parting from her mother, it also insists on the shabby lodgings as opposed to the cosier, yet unheated, parlour where Mildred's feelings are considered. After the comment on the locale where the conversation takes place, the maid abruptly comes in, very much as she has come in and out of the room during the meeting. The narration then reverts to, and elaborates on, the temperature of the room, an annoyance which is however more than compensated for by the maid's overhearing an interesting phrase worth repeating. No sooner has she used the expression than another comment on the heating habits at the maid's original home base are voiced. The passage, with its almost exclusive use of the narrative present for loosely reported actions, has a striking impact. It reveals to the reader, as it must have to the girls, that as much importance is attached—if not more—to the temperature of a room and to the use of a new phrase as to the marks of a child's despair. There is simply no trace of compassion. The girls are made to understand that feelings are worth nothing compared with physical comfort and minor intellectual satisfactions. Likewise, events are often announced and followed straight away by asides or retrospective explanations that come in to disrupt the chronology, reducing the impact of emotions. In this way the death of the girls' grandmother is broken to them two pages before they actually witness it: expressions of suffering have no room owing to the interruption. Anachronies take the reader back to the period prior to the Ontario experience, then back to the Ontario period, before combining the recent and less recent past in revelatory speech presentation concerning the girls' acquisition of knowledge at the time. Insidiously, the effect is neglected in favour of external judgements based on material considerations. A similar distance is effected in the passage about Mildred's adoption.
Mildred was suddenly taken out of school and adopted. Their mother's sister, one of the aunts they had seldom seen, had lost a daughter by drowning. She said she would treat Mildred as she did her own small son, and Mildred, who wished to leave the convent school, but did not know if she cared to go and live in a place called Chicoutimi, did not decide. She made them decide, and made them take her away.
The reader is not allowed to rejoice over Mildred's new life. Immediately, an anachrony makes it clear that the adoption is meant as a balm for the aunt and adoptive mother, not for Mildred: the latter is only to replace her lost cousin. The following statement marks the lack of feeling involved in the transaction. And finally, the last step before the actual departure, Mildred shows she has become a master in the art of social interaction: for the sake of restraint, she remains aloof in a decision that involves her future—or rather the extension of her cousin's life. That she is only a substitute for her cousin is emphasized by her denial of her past when confronted with her original “dwelling.” Restraint has first blurred her memories;13 it ends up annihilating the past altogether. The abrupt ending closing in on her past like darkness on the world leaves no hope for the future. The disrupted organisation of the superficially linear third-person narration wipes off affective responses, so much so that it negates the existence of the self. Based on a linear progression and punctuated by temporal or spatial stages, the story thus unfolds the characters' slow disintegration.
Yet another pattern emerges—triangular this time—from Gallant's short fiction. That type of story at first consists of general comments on experiences hardly related to the knot of the intrigue. The latter is only revealed in the story's midst before unfolding minor aspects whose impact on the characters is almost nought for want of understanding. This form of structural organisation comes to the fore in “My Heart Is Broken” (My Heart Is Broken, 194-202).14 The protagonist, Jeannie, sees her own experience reduced to a trivial event in the story's triangular presentation. Raped in the immediate narrative past, Jeannie is first subjected to the endless platitudes of an elderly woman who lives in the same road construction camp. When Jeannie's interlocutor, Mrs. Thompson, opens the dialogue by mentioning the effect the news of Jean Harlow's death had on her when she was about Jeannie's age, she probably unconsciously intends to neutralize the effects of the rape. She virtually puts her own experience and Jeannie's on a par in spite of the drastic emotional differences. Once the rape has been hinted at, Mrs. Thompson carries on lecturing Jeannie about her responsibilities in the crime. The emotional impact of the experience is thus nullified as total lack of understanding separates the two characters on stage.15
The internal organisation of paragraphs also echoes the indifference with which the rape is being met. The initial disclosure of Mrs. Thompson's reception of the actress's death mirrors the lack of continuity in her discourse and the irrelevance of her revelations.
“When that Jean Harlow died,” Mrs. Thompson said to Jeannie, “I was on the 83 streetcar with a big, heavy paper parcel in my arms. I hadn't been married for very long, and when I used to visit my mother she'd give me a lot of canned stuff and preserves. I was standing up in the streetcar because nobody's given me a seat. All the men were unemployed in those days, and they just sat down wherever they happened to be. You wouldn't remember what Montreal was like then. You weren't even on earth. To resume what I was saying to you, one of these men sitting down had an American paper—the Daily News, I guess it was—and I was sort of leaning over him, and I saw in big print ‘JEAN HARLOW DEAD.’ You can believe it or not, just as you want to, but that was the most terrible shock I ever had in my life. I never got over it.
(MHB [My Heart Is Broken] 194-95)
The opening line gives the impression that the matter at stake is the death of Jean Harlow. Yet halfway through the story, the actual reason for the two women's conversation—or rather Mrs. Thompson's monologue—establishes a drastic contrast: Mrs. Thompson's shock is sentimental and even mawkish; Jeannie's is physical and emotional, though suppressed. The former's sterile and incoherent comments are matched by the “canned stuff and preserves” her mother used to give her. Like processed food, Mrs. Thompson's commonplaces should be swallowed without much chewing, for they are insubstantial.16 The reference to her new marital status at the time, more or less comparable to Jeannie's situation in the narrative present, might seem to imply that she finds her feelings equivalent to Jeannie's. In fact, it establishes a close connection between the latter and the famous sex symbol. This parallel amounts to negating Jeannie's severe and traumatic experience. And the allusion to the interwar years in Canada add to the gap between their perceptions. Her transitional phrase taking her back to the issue of their conversation increases the awareness of her comments' non sequitur while her “most terrible shock” provokes a derisive smile in the readers.
Such long soliloquies silence Jeannie whose minimal retorts and careful handling of the nail polish bottle17 confirm her will to distance herself from her unpleasant memories and from the nonsense Mrs. Thompson is talking. The descriptive passages that interrupt the latter's self-centred discourse not only give panoramic information that clarifies the situation but also reinforce the gap between the two women. Where Jeannie is pretty and appealing, Mrs. Thompson is a “plain, fat, consoling sort of person, with varcosed legs, shoes unlaced and slit for comfort, blue dressing gown worn at all hours, pudding-bowl haircut, and coarse gray hair” (MHB 195). Their friendship only results from their being together in a place cut off from civilisation. The description of the Thompsons' interior is also significant of their superficial orderliness contrasting Jeannie's messy and slovenly approach. In short, the descriptive passages reinforce the clash between their outlooks.
Further contrasts are evoked through the attempt at discussing Jeannie's rape and its causes, offered in part two after the climatic revelation. The exchange of ideas is very much like a pingpong match in which Mrs. Thompson's weighty attacks force Jeannie to be on the defensive.18 This prevents Jeannie from scoring any points as, whenever she attempts to strengthen her position, her adversary smashes back. Either aggressive or inquisitive, the latter is anything but comforting contrary to her announced purpose [“I came over here, Jeannie, because I thought you might be needing me” (MHB 198)]. In fact, her aggressiveness and inquisitiveness both correspond to her fear of hearing who the victimiser is, lest it should be her husband whose delight at listening to bawdy songs makes him likely to be lecherous.
Were it not for Mrs. Thompson's report of a conversation overheard just before the narrative present, the story might not be triangular in its structure. Starting on a low with Mrs. Thompson's remembered shock over the death of a Hollywood star, the story reaches its peak with the allusion to Jeannie's rape and then proceeds downwards with Mrs. Thompson's reprimands until Jeannie manages to express her despair. The base of the triangle is then drawn when Mrs. Thompson thinks of her own youth, “Wondering if her heart had ever been broken, too” (MHB 202). The final consideration of her own past ironically takes the reader back to the laughable, “most terrible shock [she] ever had in [her] life” (MHB 194). As throughout the story physical descriptions enhance the similarity between the two Jeans, her friendliness towards Jeannie is made even more blatantly dubious. Punctuated by the motion of her rocking chair, her own life's meaninglessness is perceived in her incapacity to understand and comfort Jeannie. The latter can barely cry out of her despair over her utter isolation because social conventions muffle her own voice. The story opens with the news of a sex symbol's death—whose voice cannot be heard either—and ends with Jean's spiritual death. The two women die victims to the high-heeled peroxided image imposed on them by a heartless and macho society. The image of the canned stuff holds for both.
As Jeannie's response to the rape is not what one would expect, she is not presented as a tragic or even pathetic character. But total desolation emerges from the mixture of trifles neutralising the effect of utter misery and from dialogues made of a minor character's long soliloquies barely answered by the protagonist's short and indifferent repartees. Thanks to the triangular development, the latter is aptly compared to a symbol whose reality shatters all hope.
The preceding consideration of structural patterns found has established a close link between organisation of materials and cumulative effect. In the above examples, the frame corresponds to a structured pattern of disintegration in the characters' experiences. The ultimate significance of their lives is thus reflected in the narrative pattern of the stories. To put it differently, the final effect gained by using a firm structure together with other specific devices is to enhance the general estrangement of the characters. Most of Gallant's stories have a circular twist to them—looping the loop—, a circularity which only reinforces the isolation the characters are trapped in. Like lions in a cage, they are seen going round in circles with no hope of ever escaping. Thus, through the very construction of her stories, Mavis Gallant conveys her theme.
It therefore seems that Mavis Gallant implicitly subscribes to Lotman's views that the structure of any given text shows “how the artistic text becomes a medium of a particular thought or idea, and how the structure of [the] text is related to the structure of this idea” (Lotman, 6). Edgar Allan Poe's assertion that the short story should contain “no word written, of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one pre-established design” (108)19 can easily be applied to the structure of Gallant's short fiction. The message conveyed through structural patterns is, in her case, pretty grim: nothing can be shared, life is to be lived alone, no hope remains. The general oppressive atmosphere that ensues gives rise to two diverging images. On the one hand, the unconnected episodes of the characters' biographies are like sketches of empty bottles hanging on a wall, purposeless and indifferent, so that if one falls no one notices it. On the other hand, the progressive development of a given pattern paves the way for a vanishing sense of self, so that asked who they are, the characters only visualise a black pit for an answer. As the fictional world crumbles down, the reader is left with the disheartening picture of a person whose broken image in the mirror he/she cannot restore.
Originally published in The New Yorker respectively in 1955, 1965 and 1969, these stories were subsequently incorporated into different collections.
Views expounded in her interview with Geoff Hancock (45).
Further references to this collection will be incorporated into the text, using the abbreviation OP.
“Thank you for the Lovely Tea” (Home Truths, 2-16) could also have served for the study of his structural pattern.
The adults are all referred to as functions, not as individuals with essential characteristics. Their names evoke “their relations to each other within the family hierarchy” (Besner, 23).
Winfried Siemerling finds that “the story offers a carefully constructed picture of a maze” (146).
To put it differently, such stories present various narrative threads resulting from a shifting focus.
Further references to this collection will be incorporated into the text, using the abbreviation HT.
In the same vein, “Bernadette” (My Heart Is Broken, 14-41) unfolds smoothly as the title character anxiously counts the days she has not menstruated. Parallel to her concern, he employers' attitudes are seen to evolve as the wife decides to interfere with Bernadette's life. Her interference is such that the latter's pregnancy becomes a family affair.
As Janice Kulyk Keefer remarks, their “emotional dislocation” is attributed to the “symbiosis of language and memory” (15).
For an enlightening interpretation of the voices heard in an earlier version of “Orphans' Progress,” see Michel Fabre (150-160).
Italics mine. The same holds for the subsequent quotations.
As Grazia Merler puts it, she has “[learned] to blot out all memory as a way of protecting” (28) herself.
Further references to this collection will be incorporated into the text, using the abbreviation MHB.
At this stage a graph with the essential components of the narrative might be useful to clarify the triangular pattern:
Mrs. Thompson is indeed “an emotional and intellectual pauper” (Schrank, 68).
The references to the nail polish indeed punctuate Mrs. Thompson's gibberish in the first part before the allusion to the rape as if to brighten things and suppress retrospective considerations of the crude act.
Most of Mrs. Thompson's harangues are substantially longer than Jeannie's replies.
Views expounded as part of a review of Nathaniel Hawthorne's Twice-Told Tales.
Bal, Mieke. Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative. Trans. Christine van Boheemen. Toronto, Buffalo and London: U Toronto P, 1985.
Besner, Neil K. The Light of Imagination: Mavis Gallant's Fiction. Vancouver: U British Columbia P, 1988.
Fabre, Michel. “‘Orphans' Progress,’ Reader's Progress: Voice and Understatement in Mavis Gallant's Stories.” Trans. Eva-Marie Kröller and Michel Fabre. Gaining Ground: European Critics on Canadian Literature. Eds. Robert Kroetsch and Reingard M. Nischik. Edmonton: NeWest, 1985. 150-60.
Gallant, Mavis. The Other Paris. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1956.
———. My Heart Is Broken: Eight Stories and a Short Novel. Toronto: General, 1983.
———. Home Truths: Selected Canadian Stories. 2nd ed. Toronto: Macmillan, 1982.
———. “What Is Style?” Canadian Forum 63 (Sept. 1982): 6.
Hancock, Geoff. “An Interview with Mavis Gallant.” Canadian Fiction Magazine 28 (1978): 19-67.
Kulyk Keefer, Janice. Reading Mavis Gallant. Toronto, New York and Oxford: Oxford, 1989.
Lotman, Jurij. The Structure of the Artistic Text. Trans. Gail Lenhoff and Ronald Vroon. Ann Arbor: Michigan Slavic Contributors, 1977.
Merler Grazia. Mavis Gallant: Narrative Patterns and Devices. Ottawa: Tecumseh, 1978.
O'Connor, Frank. The Lonely Voice: A Study of the Short Story. London: Macmillan, 1963.
Poe, Edgar Allan. The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe. Vol. II (vol. 4 of Literary Criticism). Ed. James A. Harrison. New York: AMS Press, 1965.
Rimmon-Kenan, Shlomith. Narrative Fiction: Contemporary Poetics. London and New York: Methuen, 1983.
Schrank, Bernice. “Popular Culture and Political Consciousness in Mavis Gallant's My Heart Is Broken.” Essays in Canadian Writing 42 (Winter 1990): 57-71.
Siemerling, Winfried. “Perception, Memory, Irony: Mavis Gallant Greets Proust and Flaubert.” Essays in Canadian Writing 42 (Winter 1990): 131-53.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 881
SOURCE: Bemrose, John. “Exile in the Spotlight: Honoring a Master of the Modern Short Story.” Maclean's 106, no. 42 (18 October 1993): 66.
[In the following review, Bemrose evaluates the strengths of Across the Bridge within the context of Gallant's career.]
There is something about Mavis Gallant that embodies the timeless appeal of her finest short stories. The Montreal-born, Paris-based author is 71, but might easily pass for 10 or 15 years younger. Her handsome face has a startling clarity, and her eyes, which seem to subtly change color as she talks, radiate enthusiasm and intelligence. Even her voice is youthful. Touched with the old-fashioned accents of the Anglo Montreal that she left more than 40 years ago, it summoned up lost eras as she talked in a Toronto interview about her latest collection, Across the Bridge. Her favorite story in it is “The Fenton Child,” which is set in Montreal in the 1940s. “When I was writing it, I could see things as they were in the Forties,” she recalled. “I got so involved that I didn't want to water the plants or answer the phone. Then, after a few days I went out, and for a second I was surprised that people were dressed in modern clothes.”
That kind of concentration has carried Gallant to the heights of her art. Critics in several countries have ranked her among the modern masters of the short story. And on Oct. 14, the International Authors Festival in Toronto will honor her with a special tribute. Later in the month, she is travelling to Ottawa, where she will be made a Companion of the Order of Canada. Such accolades from her native land have come relatively late in her long career. When the 28-year-old Gallant moved from Montreal to Paris in 1950, it was an American magazine, The New Yorker, that bought her stories and made it possible for her to earn a living over the next four decades. “The United States was my career,” she said with a certain sharpness. “Canada paid no attention to me until 1979.” That was the year her collection From the Fifteenth District finally introduced her to a broad range of Canadian readers. Two years later, a book of her specifically Canadian stories, Home Truths, won the Governor General's Award.
Gallant's work is particularly good at evoking the hopes and despair of characters who feel displaced or abandoned. Those themes may well have their roots in her own bleak early life. When Mavis Young was 10, her father died and her mother (“She should not have had children,” Gallant once said) shipped her off to a series of boarding schools in Canada and the United States. Then, in her 20s Gallant became a features reporter for the weekly Montreal Standard. When she left her job and her brief marriage to pianist John Gallant to write fiction in Europe, she was ridiculed by many of her friends and colleagues. “People thought I was nuts,” she recalled.
For more than 40 years, Gallant—she never remarried—has lived in Paris. Fluent in French, she often writes with uncanny perceptiveness about the French middle class. The skilful and moving title story of her new collection concerns a young Parisian woman, Sylvie, who refuses to marry the young man, Arnaud, whom her parents have chosen for her. (The tale is set in the 1950s, when family social codes were still very strict.) In the end, Arnaud and Sylvie come to a surprising understanding, and the way Gallant achieves this unexpected result is a demonstration of her great fictional subtlety. At first, the story seems like a depiction of the way a decorous middle class squeezes its young into conformity. Yet almost miraculously, happiness arises out of the repressive situation, like a wildflower thrusting up through a crack in the pavement. “It is a story that men like and that irritates women,” Gallant remarked. “They complain that Sylvie is so passive. But of course it was the times.”
Two other stories in Across the Bridge also pit the freshness of youth against the compromised dullness of an older generation. In “Dede,” Gallant describes a bourgeois garden party in Paris. The atmosphere is one of stifling blandness—until one electric moment when a young man acts decisively to save the guests from a horde of wasps that has descended on the party food. Yet his obvious potential to grow into a vital, original adult seems doomed by the society around him. Similarly, in “The Fenton Child,” a bright, young, self-possessed French-Canadian woman discovers some of the hypocrisy that governs relations between the francophone and anglophone communities in 1940s Montreal.
There is a deep yet controlled sense of embattlement in those stories that finds a more dramatic counterpoint in Gallant's own personality. She is renowned for her quick temper, and during a Maclean's photo session she showed it. When the camera caught what she took to be an unattractive expression, she whirled on the photographer with startling fierceness. “I'll put a curse on you,” she seethed, her finger pointing, “if you give that picture to your photo editor.” But there was already a twinkle in her eye as the photographer tried to reassure her. And a moment later, Mavis Gallant was once again conversing animatedly, her youthful voice recalling the streets and cities she has turned into fiction.
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SOURCE: Gabriel, Barbara. “Gallant Language.” Canadian Forum 72, no. 187 (March 1994): 38-40.
[In the following review, Gabriel explores the linguistic dimension of Across the Bridge, highlighting Gallant's preoccupation with language itself.]
There is a magical moment at the close of the title story of Mavis Gallant's most recent short story collection [Across the Bridge] in which the young Parisian female protagonist is unexpectedly washed by a wave of happiness. Reconciled for the first time with her abandoned fiancé, she sees him off on the train, following a meeting in which, little by little, she has seen the possibility of love. Instructed to call her father to fetch her after the rendezvous, she instead takes the winding walk home uphill in an autumn drizzle, conscious of “moving along, as Arnaud was moving on the train. I would be accompanying him during at least part of his journey.”
It is a bewildering gesture, at once ridiculous and intensely lyrical and, like her mother's earlier breaking of her engagement at her behest, in which her wedding invitations are left to float down into the Seine from the top of a bridge, it captures in a fresh and unexpected image the emotional intensity that Gallant almost always chooses to render obliquely in fiction.
These are Chekhovian moments, simultaneously understated and faintly hysterical, but they are made coherent in the fiction by a reading of character against a precisely rendered social landscape. In “Across the Bridge,” Sylvie's own journey involves a retracting of steps in the contemporary French bourgeois version of the arranged marriage, one in which families size each other up, like hawkers and buyers of geese in the marketplace at Christmas, the advantage shifting from one to another with the shortening days of December. Dissuaded from any meaningful pursuit of either education or vocation (though she has some talent as an artist), she is innocent by the standards of her future husband as well as those of her magistrate father, who does not want his daughter to seem too “needy or plain” by doing anything particular in life. Her dreams instead construct idylls of domestic life, first with a fantasy suitor she has met only once, then with the cast-off fiancé, who looks decidedly better the second time around. But these ripples from her unconscious do not escape the constraints of her social class; its rules and regularities inform even the language of her dreams.
Mavis Gallant's own unique formation as an English Protestant Montrealer sent off to a French Catholic convent school at an early age is now widely known. It was an experience that would make her something of a sociological voyeur for all of her life; almost certainly it established her comfortableness in the split linguistic and cultural world she would continue to make her own. For over four decades now she has lived in Paris, in an almost exclusively French daily universe, turning out stories for The New Yorker (she is one of their most frequently published writers) in an English of remarkable purity and elegance.
Curiously, what has rarely been commented on by her readers is her near obsession with the question of language itself, evident in both the fiction and her introduction to Home Truths, where she felt compelled to set the record straight in a parochial nationalist climate that had prematurely disowned her. In fact, Gallant's Quebec beginnings are integral to her whole way of seeing and never more clearly than in her persistent return to themes of language.
In the great symphonic stories of From the Fifteenth District, like “Potter” and “Baum, Gabriel, 1935-()” language is seen as the repository of a whole field of culture and shared history, stubbornly resistant to translation. Here, in “Over the Bridge,” the closed, solipsistic worlds of Sylvie and Arnaud augur poorly for their future life together, for while he seems oblivious to her art, she is merely irritated by his own constant allusions to music and literature, which float over her like a foreign language.
In fact, the protagonist of the story “Kingdom Come” is, himself, a linguist, specializing in the vocabulary and structure of the ancient Saltnatek tongue. Missierna is at a crossroads in his life, having failed to earn either the respect of his academic colleagues or the affection of his children. Predictably, he tries to understand the vagaries of domestic life in terms of the only language he knows. For, if Saltnatek has been like a child to him, he has failed “to observe the patterns of exchange among his real children. … He could have taken them as an independent republic and applied for entry.” Yet, to enter one's own family, too, one needed to fill out forms: “all he would have to understand was the slant of the question.”
Across the Bridge is Gallant's first collection of new short stories since Overhead in the Balloon, an anatomy of European moral decay, whose ironic theological resonances make it a kind of cartoon Wasteland. The adjective is one Gallant would not resist; she has written appreciatively of both the creators of Walter Mitty and Sarah Binks, and once told this writer tongue-in-cheek that her most important influence might have been the thirties' comic strip heroine, Little Orphan Annie.
But there is something of the earlier volume's critique of a soulless consumer society in the closing imagery of “Kingdom Come,” where Missierna brings the Saltnatek children white plastic crash-helmets, fetish objects of the “everlastingness” once promised by European white missionaries:
Some of the village women turned the helmets into flower-pots, but the helmets were airtight, there was no drainage, the plants died. The helmets would never rot. Only the maimed giant snails thrown back into the ocean, could decay. Missierna, the day he resolved that helmets do not die, and so have no hope of resurrection, wondered whether the time had come to stop thinking.
The critique of a contemporary throw-away society (even Missierna's ice cream cone at the end of the story is plastic) hints at a Europe on the way to becoming a vast landfill site. But these fictions trace another level of moral rot in the daily racism and xenophobia that plague the emerging new European community.
The Browningesque “Mlle. Dias de Corta” maps the fears of an inward-looking France in a first person narration that has the feel of a tour-de-force dramatic monologue. Its speaker is a lonely Parisian widow, writing to her former tenant, a Portuguese actress, and vainly soliciting her return after many years. Its gossipy tone uncovers family, but also national secrets.
Weaving in and out of this narrative of foolish longing is the haunting of France by a rising immigrant class whose strained vowels and consonants will always betray them. It is a fictional record of an historical moment whose real-life counterpart is the rise of the National Front of Jean-Marie Le Pen (the locale of Marseille in Gallant's story becomes a kind of code for the burgeoning North African population that has been the focus of right-wing French sentiment) as well as the recent Neo-Nazi resurgences in Britain and Germany.
But what are we to make of the comic hilarity of this story, not to mention its sympathetic first-person telling? Something of the answer lies in Gallant's own well-known account of her postwar journey throughout Europe after the first shock-waves of the concentration camp photographs. In the German stories of The Pegnitz Junction, she would later tell interviewers, she had set out to convey the small, daily acts that came to constitute the Fascist moment in history. In Across the Bridge, these more recent fictions convey more than the banality of evil; they refuse moral cliché by even more disjunctively turning it into farce.
As always in Gallant, the main protagonist in these stories is history itself. Readers who have followed her as one of the great chroniclers of the human fallout of World War II and its redrawn borders, will see the special ironies in the new twists and turns of fate inaugurated by the fall of the Berlin Wall. Among other things, Across the Bridge dramatizes the way in which “two generations displaced and dispossessed had come to a stop” with the collapse of Communism in eastern Europe. The title figure of “Forain” is publisher of European intellectuals, notably the Polish Jew Tremski, whose funeral evokes the memories at the centre of the story:
The truth was that the destruction of the Wall—radiant paradigm—had all but demolished Forain. The difference was that Forain could not be hammered to still smaller pieces and sold all over the world. In much the same way Vatican II had reduced to bankruptcy more than one publisher of prayer books in Latin.
“A State of Affairs” describes a moment in which Polish political refugees no longer officially exist. Caught in a limbo between their adopted countries, in which they have remade themselves as intellectuals-in-exile, and the nations of their birth, they remain trapped in the mudslide of history, a sociological genus and species slowly fading into oblivion.
This is familiar Gallant territory in terms of its subject matter, yet there is also a curious sense in which many of these later stories also mark a stylistic return to the manner of Gallant's earliest work, leaving behind some of the psychological complexity of her best middle stories. The grand sweep of history is always there, but in fiction from “Saturday” to “The Moslem Wife,” Gallant is more concerned to trace the language of the unconscious itself, in an often cinematic vocabulary of jumpcut and montage that seldom moves forward in a straight narrative line.
By contrast, many of the stories in Across the Bridge operate more like brilliantly captured friezes and none more explicitly than the opening Quebec sequence, a four-part narrative tableau. The opening is “1933,” a year in which Europe saw the National Socialists rise to power, but which finds the life of the Carette family of Montreal changed in more subtle ways. With the death of her husband, Berthe, her little sister Marie, and their mother move to a small place on Rue Cherrier, only a stone's throw from their old flat over a furniture store in the Rue Saint-Denis. It is a delicately etched portrait, framed by a child's eye point-of-view. The children learn “to say in English ‘I don't understand’ and ‘I don't know’ and ‘No, thank you.’ That was all the English anyone needed between Saint-Denis and Parc Lafontaine.”
The story “The Chosen Husband” is set 16 years later, in the year Mme. Carette comes into a tidy inheritance from her brother-in-law. In fact, it is the Quebec of the Duplessis era and Marie comes home with “a story about Fascist views” that she cannot understand. Theirs is a world circumscribed by the ritual passages of birth, marriage and death, a religious world-view coaxed into shape by Uncle Gildas' version of a God “who kept the dreams of every living person on record, like great rolls of film.” Marie's dream of marriage to her would-be suitor, Louis, returns the story to a moment of unconscious intensity. She imagines herself a nun, naked under a robe of coarse brown wool: “All that kept the dream from sliding into blasphemy and abomination was Marie's entire unacquaintance, awake or asleep, with what could happen next.” In the end, the reluctant Louis promises marriage to avoid being shipped off to war. Something of the frozen tableau effect of the story is summed up in the narrative itself: “Berthe saw the street as if she were bent over the box camera, trying to keep the frame straight.”
In “From Cloud to Cloud,” Louis is dead and his son Raymond traces the return of his Aunt Berthe, an unmarried career woman with a penchant for sleeping with married men. For Raymond's generation, English is the language of commerce, no longer spoken in hushed whispers. It is a split world, engraved with precision on Marie's own burial-stone for her husband: “She ordered a bilingual inscription on the gravestone, because he had spoken English at the office and French to her.” But the new generation, torn from its traditions as well as its language, can only throw up the likes of the feckless Raymond, “homesick for the summer of 1969 for the ease with which he jumped from cloud to cloud.”
By the time of “Florida,” Raymond has staked out a future in the motel industry in “the stretch of Miami known as Little Quebec, from the number of French-Canadians who spend holidays there.” His wife is a skinny, dark-blonde American named Mimi, and he has all but forgotten his own language: “His past had evaporated. It annoyed him to have to speak French. On one of his mother's other visits he had criticised her Montreal accent, said he had heard better French in the streets of Saigon.” The story closes with an image of electricity that sums up the death of a whole way of life: “We've got to make sure we're grounded.”
By setting her last frame in the tawdry tourist gaze of the Florida sun, Gallant provides a reading of an endangered culture that may prove more prescient in its analysis of the final historical antagonists than all the internal language wars of the last few decades.
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SOURCE: Betts, Doris. Review of Across the Bridge, by Mavis Gallant. America 1170, no. 8 (5 March 1994): 28.
[In the following review, Betts examines the unsentimental tone and perspective of Across the Bridge.]
Aristotle describes the “great-souled man” as one who, moving others, is himself unmoved. In these 11 stories that make up her 11th book, [Across the Bridge,] Canadian native Mavis Gallant writes with the skill of a great-souled woman whose calm narrative style seems to keep her, like her character Blaise Forain, “at a remove” from painful events so understated that the reader's heart may already have broken before he felt it crack.
Gallant is not, of course, “unmoved” so much as unsentimental. Her protagonists are mostly decent people in Paris and Montreal doing the best they can and not doing very well. Like Tremski, an unread and unappreciated author, their windows look out on “the sort of view that prisoners see.” In another story, a suitor being checked out by his prospective mother-in-law coughs on a candy while the Carette family looks away “so that he could strangle unobserved.” A three-month-old child is first seen “in a long room filled with cots and undesired infants” by a nanny who cannot make the child's family love him and must tell herself in the end, “I'll try to remember him. It's the best I can do.” A man sent to St. Mâlo to rest visits the grave of Chateaubriand on which Sartre had urinated and thinks “of other violations and of the filth that can wash over private lives.”
The stories may sound grim, but they contain unexpected radiance. Gallant's distinctive prose causes some of these break-through moments. “There was a wife-and-children air to him.” “She was warm and friendly and made him think of a large buttercup.” “I had never been inside a Protestant church before. It was spare and bare and somehow useful-looking, like a large broom closet.” But the characters trying to muddle through their desperate lives shine brighter through their circumstances.
My favorite story, “Forain,” contains minimum plot but maximum character. Though Forain feels abstracted during his friend's funeral Mass, he behaves in his daily life like a clumsy Christian with a not noticeably blessed vocation. As publisher of struggling literary writers behind what was then the Iron Curtain, he has struggled to bring art and culture to readers who prefer cheap entertainment. His profits have been small; when he is publicly honored for his achievements he longs to have the money be spent on manuscripts rather than squandered on dinner and wine. At Tremski's funeral, in the moment the mourners turn to their neighbors to exchange the kiss of peace, he finds “unfocused, symbolized love positively terrifying.” Afterwards, he overtips the inept waiter, overpays the irritable cab driver, summons an ambulance for an injured old woman “in an attempt to promote Cartesian order over Slavic frenzy” and generally behaves like a Good Samaritan in spite of himself.
Sometimes witty, often detached, Mavis Gallant in these masterful stories generates pity and terror—but below the surface, between the lines, inside the reader.
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SOURCE: Krauss, Jennifer. “Family Secrets.” New Republic 210, no. 13 (28 March 1994): 43-5.
[In the following review, Krauss discusses the family tensions that motivate the characters and inform the style and structure of Across the Bridge.]
Family is an embattled country surrounded by moats in Mavis Gallant's precarious world. The characters in her stories who escape its confines—castoffs or deserters committing acts of treason—are wary adventurers, uncertain if they are being rescued or taken prisoner. When her younger sister gets married and prepares to embark on a new life in “The Chosen Husband,” one of four linked stories in the latest collection, [Across the Bridge,] Berthe Carette looks on the wedding party as if she were composing a photograph, and in the process captures her creator's worldview: “It was an important picture, like a precise instrument of measurement: so much duty, so much love, so much reckless safety. …”
That final oxymoron perfectly encapsulates the fundamental tensions of Gallant's work, between audacity and shyness, insolence and politesse, openness and suspicion, pride and prejudice. From “Madeline's Birthday,” the first story that she published in The New Yorker in 1950, about an American girl and a German boy adrift in a foster family's country house, to “In Plain Sight,” published in the same magazine last fall, about a fading French writer and the advances—and retreat—of his upstairs muse, all of Gallant's short stories concern the barriers that separate us and the bridges, treacherous or untried, that stand before us to be crossed.
The first four stories in her new book, which collects Gallant's work from 1980 to 1992, are set in Montreal, where Gallant was born and raised, before making her home in Paris in the '50s. They follow the bereft women of the Carette family from 1933 to 1977 as the men in their lives vanish or die. In “1933,” the just widowed Mme. Carette is forced to move with her two young daughters, Berthe, 6, and Marie, 4, to a smaller apartment in the poor end of the city. On moving day—the day when the Carettes become “déclassé” (the story's original title)—“soft snow, like graying lace, fell.” Later to be tracked onto the rug by French and Irish alike, snow (in Gallant's icy Montreal as in Joyce's Dublin) is a leveler; general, it seems, all over Canada. But it is, for Gallant, a leveler of a bleaker sort—dirty and endlessly melting—and it fails to bring her solitary pilgrims into harmony with one another.
Upstairs the French Mme. Carette mourns her husband and her former life, while downstairs the Irish (and childless) Mme. Grosjean, the landlord's wife—with whom Mme. Carette won't deign to communicate—calls vainly into the night for Arno, the Airedale whose whereabouts are as unsure as her errant husband's. The pair have run off unannounced to Parc Lafontaine, the omniscient narrator soon reveals, where they are “trying to play go-fetch-it in the dark.” For this is what Gallant's characters do: they repel and beckon one another in a kind of half-light, passing judgment, making pronouncements and then waiting, contrite, in the shadows, hoping to regain their victims' sympathy.
Human interaction is plagued by mystification and misinterpretation in Gallant's short stories—as, indeed, are her readers, who are alternately made to feel that they are in the know and in the dark. A master of shifting sympathies, Gallant throws us constantly off balance. The character we start out despising is the one we find most poignant by the end, and vice versa. Villains and heroes do not exist in her chilly wasteland, heavy on eccentrics and pariahs; instead she chronicles the alacrity with which congeniality can turn to betrayal, with which bigotry can metamorphose into loneliness and need.
In “The Chosen Husband,” when Louis stops calling on (the now grown) Marie Carette and then, after a prolonged absence, reappears and proposes to her so that he can avoid the draft, we are predisposed not to like him—especially since he's been chosen for her to replace the pagan Greek boyfriend of whom her mother disapproves—but as soon as Marie says yes, and they escape even briefly the family fortress, we see that he's her salvation.
In the title story, set in Paris in the early 1950s, Sylvie Castelli breaks off her loveless engagement to Arnaud Pons, arranged by her parents, to pursue a delusional infatuation with the presumably more prosperous Bernard Brunelle, who she decides wants to marry her. When it turns out that she has misread his letters to her, Sylvie goes back reluctantly to Arnaud and finds, to her surprise, that she has misread him.
Throughout this intricate story Gallant plays skillfully with our assumptions. Early on, we look back with Sylvie and her narrow-minded, chauvinistic, social-climber parents at Arnaud and his family and their seemingly seedy, rent-controlled apartment—and we see, with them, an unappealing lot:
All the mirrors were stained with those dark blotches that resemble maps. Papa often wondered if the Ponses knew what they really looked like, if they actually saw themselves as silvery-white, with parts of their faces spotted or missing.
What we don't realize until later is that the unreflective Castellis are seeing themselves, and that the Ponses, like the old furniture that surrounds them, are treasures.
And in what is perhaps Gallant's most disconcerting story, “Mlle. Dias de Corta,” the narrator who appalls us at the start garners our pity by the end. Exhibiting the hypervigilance of the paranoid, this embittered Parisian widow, who embodies prejudice in much the way that Athena embodies wisdom in Greek mythology, is a first-person narrator with delusions of omniscience. The story is presented in the form of an open letter to Alda Dias de Corta, the Portuguese actress who presumably became pregnant by the widow's son when she was a tenant in their apartment and then disappeared (or, more likely, was banished) from their lives. Adopting an appropriately surreal perspective—the widow decides to contact the actress, she says, because she's just seen her in an oven cleanser commercial—Gallant shows us the absurd and sometimes convoluted behavior that prejudice can inspire.
At once antagonist and protagonist, this most unreliable of narrators begins her elliptical address with a combination of imperiousness and carping blame and concludes it with a touching vulnerability. Lonelier now, since her son has married and had three children (with a woman of “mixed descent” whose “temperament is Swiss”), she issues a plea (thinly veiled by a toting up of the money the actress owes her) for Alda to come “home.”
And so ultimately the widow does see everything, even her own shortcomings. But this knowledge doesn't change her: her magnanimous invitation is double-edged. While she urges Alda to surprise her and divulges the combination that will let her into the building, she furtively adds:
Be careful not to admit anyone who looks suspicious or threatening. If some stranger tries to push past just as you open the door, ask him what he wants and the name of the tenant he wishes to see. Probably he won't even try to give you a credible answer and will be scared away.
Prejudice, for Gallant's characters—rooted in stubbornness rather than offensiveness—is a natural armor, a posture that they cannot relax; to shed it would be to let down their guard, to make themselves vulnerable to attack. It's an us-and-them kind of world, Gallant seems to be saying over and over again. We are all fundamentally strangers. In “The Chosen Husband,” Louis announces to Marie's family that “the whole world is engulfed in war”: “Marie looked out the kitchen window, at bare yards and storage sheds. ‘Not there,’ said Louis. ‘In Korea.’” But Gallant's war is there—behind the calm, immaculate exteriors, beneath the terminal propriety that prompts a character in another story to substitute the phrase “a state of affairs” for words such as “problem,” “difficulty,” “catastrophe.”
Louis dies not on a battlefield but of emphysema, having been slowly choking on provincialism since he first met the Carettes. Virtually upon introduction,
Louis began to cough and had to cover his mouth. He was in trouble with a caramel. The Carettes looked away so that he could strangle unobserved. ‘How dark it is,’ said Berthe, to let him think he could not be seen. Marie got up, with a hiss and rustle of a taffeta skirt, and switched on the twin floor lamps with their cerise silk shades. … Louis still coughed, but weakly. He moved his fingers, like a child made to wave goodbye.
Such hauntingly bizarre scenes—more prevalent with each collection—have become a Gallant trademark. It is the mundane, she deftly implies, that pushes us, paradoxically, to our limits; it is in the ordinary that we most often discern the extreme.
Yet several of the stories here reverse this equation. Reaching beyond her usual domestic canvas, Gallant has national and international confusion stand in for family strife. In “Kingdom Come,” we are shown estrangement on a global scale, while being given oblique clues to the domestic estrangement that it parallels. Dominic Missierna, a linguist whose professional life has been devoted to conducting pathbreaking research into the indigenous tongues of obscure peoples and whose name, he tells us with disingenuous modesty, is often mispronounced by the natives as Messiah, has been sent home to Europe after twenty-four years in the Republic of Saltnatek—his grant money rescinded—with little to show for his missionary zeal but the blighting of innocent souls, or the corruption of the religious notion of immortality into the secular notion of manifest destiny (Kingdom Come into the coming of the King). It also happens that he is a divorced and neglectful father who hasn't communicated with his children or grandchildren in recent memory. Missierna, in short, is a guilty imperialist with no place to go for Christmas: “To enter one's family, he supposed, one needed to fill out forms.”
This is a smart, evocative political fable that serves as a nice counterpoint to many of the other stories in the collection, but its easy correlation of the political and the personal is stated rather than shown, and as a result we feel estranged from the story in much the way that its protagonist feels estranged. Two other political fables exhibit similar strengths and weaknesses; they lure and fascinate, but they fail to fully move. Their central characters are so disconnected from human life that they seem mere fictional tools for some larger theory. “Forain” is about a morose and detached publisher whose stock in trade is Eastern European and/or dead writers for whom the destruction of the Berlin Wall is a commercial disaster. His hollowness is meant to mirror the hollowness of the contemporary world, but he's too shadowy a figure to bear the weight of such a lofty theme. In “A State of Affairs,” Gallant introduces a Warsaw couple living in Paris whose status as Polish political refugees is nullified, and their special passports revoked, when communism collapses. More French by now than Polish, they are disoriented in time and place; cultural amnesiacs who must face not just their own mortality, but the mortality of their history, too.
Gallant's collection itself may seem disoriented in time and place, moving back and forth as it does between Canada and France, past and present, thwarting all notions of progress. But this is entirely appropriate. Gallant's characters, never sure whether they're coming or going, often conflate “here” and “there,” “now” and “then,” or find themselves stalled somewhere in between, teetering on that fine line between daring and cowardice. Her most recent short story, “In Plain Sight,” which was published after the appearance of this book, features a writer who might very well be Gallant's alter ego, infused by Paris's air-raid siren with “a mixture of dread and unaccountable nostalgia: the best possible mixture for a writer's psyche.”
And yet Gallant's unventuresome characters are sometimes lucky. Once in a while they find unanticipated solace in their predetermined fates, their already “chosen husbands.” People bear getting to know, she seems to be telling us, foibles and all. Across the Bridge, more than any of Gallant's previous collections, is about perception, about the inscrutability of human nature. We see her characters, as they see each other, through a complex prism of prejudice and longing. From the myopic close-up to the all-encompassing, undiscriminating longshot, from the exaggerated zoom-in (the suitor choking on a caramel) to the distant zoom-out (the political allegory), Gallant's work is often Dalíesque or didactic. But if her portraits are blurred, they are precisely blurred: as we slide from close-up to longshot, we briefly hit that moment of clarity in between, when everything is miraculously in focus.
It is in those moments of clarity that we see Gallant's frightened but obstinate creatures standing their ground—often alone (the price they pay for intransigence). Aggressively entrenched, recklessly safe, they rarely walk “across the bridge” that her uncompromisingly clear prose holds out to them—so ominously, so wistfully—between dread and nostalgia.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 431
SOURCE: Elgaard, Elín. Review of Across the Bridge, by Mavis Gallant. World Literature Today 68, no. 3 (summer 1994): 579.
[In the following review, Elgaard argues that Across the Bridge is thematically redundant and derivative.]
In the eleven stories of Across the Bridge, Mavis Gallant's eleventh work, there are few surprises, though, once past the first four (of which “flowers from an earlier wedding banked on the altar rail” may serve emblematically for tired and tested territory), things brighten somewhat. But whether Montréal or Paris, Across the Bridge is a pitiless survey of humanity—Katherine Mansfield at her burlesque worst (“Germans at Meat”) comes to mind.
The aged anthropologist of “Kingdom Come” is—if typically caricatured—allowed some inner life in his terror of being cast off, by his audience as by his adult children, in a New Europe, to which “he had brought back one more system, and no one knew how to make the old ones work.” When, as in the title story, intensity of emotion occurs (a young girl about to be married off against her will), it quickly goes parodic: “I think that for the rest of my life I'll be listening to records and remembering Bernard—all I have to look forward to, because it is what you and Papa want.” Only in “A State of Affairs” is sorrow, even a little heroism [handled] with a certain tenderness (my italics quoting Henry James on Maupassant, the nearest we come to the blurb's linkage with the former!), in the Jewish immigrant and former Nazi death-camp prisoner, now severed from friend and wife alike: one is still in Warsaw, the other sinking into senility. The dirge of “Nous n'irons plus au bois” (one is reminded here of Jean Rhys's superb Left Bank stories of 1927)—i.e., the felling of trees and lives—is beautifully thematic, exposing a chill, postmodern world where “the miracle” is a cash credit of fifteen thousand francs, “infinity” a computer's azure screen, both of them hoodwinks.
The other stories only sporadically attain such fluency of tone, sundry character insights vitiated by the apparently necessary stabs at “pet noirs”: nuns whose “hair died early for want of light and air” (though they get “all the women's things”!); midcentury Montréal, where “male sins are lightly borne” and Protestants “another race”; or present-day Europe, whose general tawdriness makes “freedom from care” an over-cleaner commercial. Writers like Mordecai Richler and Rhys covered such ground(s) decades ago. The other blurb connective, Chekhov, was surely Mansfield at her best, in affectionate mastery. That was then; this is now. Why rehash?
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SOURCE: Schinto, Jeanne. “Maps Can Only Show So Much.” Belles Lettres 9, no. 4 (summer 1994): 14.
[In the following excerpt, Schinto summarizes the major themes of Across the Bridge.]
The stories in Mavis Gallant's 11th book, Across the Bridge, take place in three separate countries—Canada, France, and the United States; they also span several decades, taking into account such events as World Wars I and II, Korea, and Vietnam (or “the War in Indochina,” as it is called in Paris). Gallant never tries to portray such global cataclysms directly, however; instead, her gift is to show how local lives are inevitably transformed in their wake or else keep on going, gloriously oblivious. In this way she can illuminate the inner lives of her characters, as fiction is supposed to do, at the same time as she creates the illusion that she has captured on paper the very rock and swivel of the planet itself.
The rush of Canadians to the altar that the Korean War inspired in 1952,—since the army would be calling bachelors first—acts as a convenient plot device in her story, “The Chosen Husband.” “Marie had not understood that the mention of war was a marriage proposal,” Gallant tells us at the crucial moment, “but her mother grasped it at once.” A few sentences earlier, we had learned that “Marie and her mother had never heard of the place”—Korea, that is—and that “Mme. Carette took it for granted that the British had started something again.” This passage also gives us a glimpse of Gallant's ever-present humor.
Woman-to-woman relationships are one of Gallant's special provinces, and the motif amounts to a major theme in this particular book. In the aforementioned piece, as well as in three others that are connected by recurring characters, Mme. Carette and her two daughters share clothes and desires and griefs; throughout, sisterly, not married, love is celebrated. In the title story, another mother-daughter duo with marriage on their minds strolls arm-in-arm “like two sisters who never quarrel” across one of the bridges that spans the Seine. When daughter admits to mother that she is not in love with her fiance but with another young man, named Bernard, with whom she has been secretly corresponding, mom takes the satchel of wedding invitations she is carrying and dumps them over the railing:
“Papa will know what to do next,” she said, altogether calmly, giving the bag a final shake. “For the time being, don't write any more letters and don't mention Bernard. Not to anyone.”
The tyranny of social conventions is another of Gallant's obsessive themes; she is especially interested in the ways adherence to strict mores warps women's lives. Two pieces that deal most directly with this issue also encompass the sisterhood theme. In “1933,” a young French-Canadian widow refuses to make friends with her Irish land-lady, whom she regards as beneath her, and so is terribly lonely as a result. In “Mlle. Dias de Corta,” a Parisian widow, who rents out rooms in her apartment house, regrets not having made friends with a tenant whom she later sees on television in an oven cleanser commercial. The story is in the form of a letter, unwritten perhaps, that mixes tragedy and comedy so successfully, it is one of the best renderings of pure poignancy I have ever read: a relief map of the human heart itself.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 573
SOURCE: Ware, Tracy. Review of Across the Bridge, by Mavis Gallant. Studies in Short Fiction 32, no. 2 (spring 1995): 239-40.
[In the following review, Ware evaluates the style of Across the Bridge, highlighting the ironic elements of several stories.]
The important point about Mavis Gallant is that she writes magnificent short fiction. In Across the Bridge, she is at her best: the book seems destined to join The Pegnitz Junction (1973), From the Fifteenth District (1979), and Home Truths (1981) on the short list of Gallant's major collections. Nine of these 11 stories originally appeared in The New Yorker, with which Gallant has had a long association, and some will be familiar from their inclusion in the annual Best American Short Stories anthologies. Gallant's credentials are as impressive as her talents, yet the admiration she receives is strikingly restrained. In Reading Mavis Gallant (1989), Janice Kulyk Keefer notes that Gallant “is a writer who must be savoured in small doses: reading the entirety of her fiction can be like downing a bottle of the finest vinegar.” Though I enjoyed reading this book, I followed Keefer's advice.
These stories are primarily set in Montreal and Paris; the mordant irony is constant. As always, Gallant has a keen eye for the details that illuminate the undirected lives of so many of her characters. In “Across the Bridge,” for instance, the Castelli family first cancels then attempts to renew the engagement of their daughter Sylvie to Arnaud Pons. So the two meet for a “fixed-price meal” in a cheap restaurant, complete with hard-boiled eggs, liver, and poor service. This splendid scene culminates in a dessert that is ordered because it “was included, and it would have been a waste of money to skip a course.” When Sylvie, who narrates, is unable to eat her flan because it arrives covered in parsley flakes, Arnaud “began to eat the flan, slowly, using my spoon. Each time he put the spoon in his mouth I said to myself, He must love me. Otherwise it would be disgusting.” To the reader, it is disgusting, and Arnaud's thrift is more apparent than his affection. As the story ends, we are convinced that Sylvie is both vacuous and happy. Gallant is harsher on the narrator of “Mlle. Dias de Corta,” a story in the form of a letter from a woman to her former boarder. Every line reveals the pettiness and bigotry of the letter writer, especially her belief in a secret report predicting that “by the year 2025 Asians will have taken over a third of Paris, Arabs and Africans three-quarters, and unskilled European immigrants two-fifths.”
Gallant treats the citizens of Montreal with similar irony. Both the opening sequence of four stories on the Carette family and the concluding, previously unpublished “The Fenton Child” are set in Montreal. In the characters of Berthe in the sequence and Nora in the concluding story, Gallant creates two of her most memorable and substantial women.
I must not omit the remarkably funny “Kingdom Come,” which sustains the humor of the opening sentence:
After having spent twenty-four years in the Republic of Saltnatek, where he established the first modern university, recorded the vocabulary and structure of the Saltnatek tongue, and discovered in a remote village an allophylian language unknown except to its speakers, Dr. Dominic Missierna returned to Europe to find that nobody cared.
It is a story that improves with rereading—but then so do all the other stories in this book.
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SOURCE: Gallant, Mavis, and Daphne Kalotay. “Mavis Gallant: The Art of Fiction CLX.” Paris Review 41, no. 153 (winter 1999-2000): 192-211.
[In the following interview, which originally took place in August, 1996, Gallant discusses her literary influences, writing habits, and life as an expatriate author.]
This interview was conducted outdoors at Le Select in Paris on a late afternoon in August, 1996. Gallant had suggested the café, which is not far from her apartment in the Montparnasse neighborhood. Surrounded by street bustle and occasionally interrupted (Gallant has lived in the neighborhood for decades and knows a number of regulars at the café), the conversation continued well into the evening. Gallant's voice is strong and girlish; her laugh youthful and frequent, often following the most deadpan of comments. The remainder of the interview took place through correspondence.
[Kalotay]: You've lived in France for almost fifty years, making your living as a writer in English. Obviously you thrive in this circumstance. Why?
[Gallant]: Other writers have done the same. Marguerite Yourcenar and St.-John Perse lived for years in the United States but continued to write in French. The French novelist Michel Deon lives in Ireland. Elias Canetti lived in England but never wrote a line of English. W. G. Sebald has lived in England since the 1950s but still writes in German. Although I live in French—that is, in the course of a day I speak more French than English—anything that occurs in mind, the writing part of my mind, occurs in English.
My first school was a French convent school in Montreal. If one adds those years to several decades lived in France, I've spent most of my life actually living in French. But I can't make myself write in French, except letters to friends. Fiction arrives in my mind by way of English. Writing is English. Writing and English are inseparable. It may be the reason why the first flash of a story takes the form of a still, like a film suddenly stopped and, of course, perfectly silent. When the sound comes it is in English. I don't think I'm explaining it well.
Do you think of yourself as a Parisian? An expatriate?
I am a writer and, of course, a Canadian. Once, in Switzerland, emerging from a long anaesthetic, I had no idea where I was, or why. I knew only that I was a writer and from Quebec. I could hear someone speaking French and I thought I had been in a driving accident somewhere in Quebec. Finally I remembered my name.
Do you still travel much outside France?
I go to Canada once or twice a year. Something I'd like to do is go back to every city I ever knew well in Europe, traveling by train. Every time I get back to Paris, I realize it is my favorite place and I decide I will never pack a suitcase again. But then something comes up and I haul it out again.
You've said that you feel comfortable in any milieu—at home in any situation. Has there ever been a time when you felt uncomfortable—that you couldn't suss out the situation?
Yes. I felt it when I visited the Soviet Union; I felt then that there was no contact possible. It was under Brezhnev. And, oddly enough, I felt that there was no contact possible once when traveling in Finland. I used to travel a lot alone by car: I'd fly somewhere, rent a car and go around by myself. But in Finland I had no language contact—French was a dead loss, and I was surprised how many people didn't speak English. It's the only country where I cut my traveling short. I was used to just talking to strangers. I wasn't afraid at that time to pick up hitchhikers. I used to go places where I didn't know a soul and I'd come back with a notebook full of addresses. It was something I liked doing—I adored driving. I always liked to be on my own. I don't mean that I never traveled any other way. But there were other situations where I couldn't connect and not only because of having no common language. It can happen in one's own country, too.
When you say your own country—
Canada. I had no trouble fitting in once I arrived in Europe. I think now that I adapted very quickly to an imaginary place, as one might go through the looking glass or walk into a novel or painting.
In what way? Intellectually?
Oh, intellectually, entirely. This was a long time ago, and Canada in the early fifties was an intellectual desert.
I had no problems. When I first came to Paris from Canada, somebody said, “Oh, Mavis goes out with French people all the time.” And somebody else said, “Yeah, but she goes out with cops.” She'll go out with anybody; she goes out with cops. My attitude at the beginning was never to refuse an invitation—at the beginning. Well, unless it was something absolutely hopeless.
You went to Europe to make your living as a fiction writer in 1950, when you were twenty-eight; you gave yourself two years to make a go of it—if you couldn't make a living from your writing, you would quit. Did you have any doubts during those first two years?
It's difficult to live on writing, especially the kind I produce. I set off without the least idea of what the difficulties would be. The only time I felt that I had made a terrible mistake was near the beginning, when I was living in Madrid. I had taken an agent in New York, someone who had written me when my first story appeared in The New Yorker. I looked up his name in a book called something like The Artists and Writers Yearbook in the USIS library in Salzburg. I thought it would be a good thing to have an agent in America because I was moving around all the time; it didn't occur to me that someone with his name listed in such a book might not be respectable—it still puzzles me. I sent him stories, which he said he was unable to place. The truth was that he did place the stories but kept the money. To keep The New Yorker from finding out he wasn't paying me, he had told the magazine my address was Poste Restante, Capri. The letters The New Yorker sent were returned, of course, but no one there knew much about me, and they might easily have thought I was some sort of lunatic who did not pick up her mail. The result was that by the spring of 1952, in Madrid, I was destitute. I don't mean hard up; I mean lacking in everything from food to paper to write on. But the worst of it was my belief that no one wanted to publish my work—I believed the agent when he said he appreciated the stories, but no one else did.
Then one day in Madrid, I came across a copy of The New Yorker (I don't remember where or how, for I could not have afforded to buy it) that to my intense astonishment contained a story of mine. I had met William Maxwell, my editor, in 1950, before I left for Europe, but we were still “Mrs. Gallant” and “Mr. Maxwell”—or would have been if I had received any of the mail he was trying to send me. He was my first fiction editor, a relationship that lasted for twenty-five years. Having him was an incredible stroke of luck. So I wrote, just saying that I wished I had been shown the galleys. I remember that his answer began, “Thank God, we now know where you are” and that my agent had said I was in Capri. I hadn't mentioned money—I seemed more upset that a story had been published without my being told—but he went on in the letter, “More important, did you get the money for the two stories?” Two stories? There were stories in other magazines as well. I shall spare you the rest of it, except to say that one day I read, I think in The Herald Tribune, that the agent had been killed in a motor crash.
The greatest damage, as far as I was concerned, was my loss of confidence. The feeling of hopelessness and dismay I experienced when I believed every story I sent him was a dead failure never really left me. Actually, almost every writer I've known has something of that. It is not uppermost in one's mind. If it were, no one could ever write anything.
What was your relationship with Maxwell like? What, if any, influence did he have on your writing?
Our relationship, to me, was the best possible. I had read his work before I ever met him but I didn't realize at our first meeting that he was the same William Maxwell. He made no attempt to influence his writers.
You dedicated your Collected Stories to him.
And to Daniel Menaker, who took over when William Maxwell retired. The book is called Collected Stories, but it contains only about half the published work.
Will there ever be a complete collected stories?
You wouldn't be able to pick it up. I wrote about 120 pieces for The New Yorker alone. There's no point in a book that size—you can't carry it, you can't read it in bed; you have to put it on a table. I had that novel by Vikram Seth, A Suitable Boy, for a year on my kitchen table because I couldn't carry it anywhere. I left it on the table, and whenever I went for a cup of coffee I'd open the Vikram Seth and read a bit. It took me a whole year.
That's true, if you can't take it with you on the train or—
You can't take it on a bus. I read in cafés and I like small books. I always have one in case I get stuck somewhere. I usually have a notebook, too, and I write letters.
When you Collected Stories was published, reviewers seized the chance to reassess your entire body of fiction. How did their attention and praise affect you?
I was grateful no one said, “She has wasted her time and ours as well.” And I thought I was fortunate to have been allowed the collection and the assessment in my lifetime.
What do you like most about your writing?
I don't think I can answer that. I don't think that one is impressed with one's own work. I can't imagine such a thing. It's a question of getting it right; it's not a question of admiring it.
Would that be your answer then? That you can read it and say, This is right.
No. Even then one isn't sure. I don't think that writers look at their own work that way. In fact, I think that I've only written one thing that on rereading I thought, This is fine, and I like it. The long story “The Pegnitz Junction”—it reads exactly as I wanted it to. I wrote it in a tearing hurry. It was as if it was all in my head and waiting to be written—almost like taking dictation. It was extraordinary.
Is writing generally an enjoyable experience?
It's like a love affair: the beginning is the best part.
What is a typical day? Do you organize your day around writing or do you not need a schedule?
I write every day except when I am traveling—I gave up trying even to keep a travel journal years ago; it always sounds artificial. When I'm here, chez moi, I write every day as a matter of course. Most days in the morning but some days anytime, afternoon or evening. It depends on what I'm writing and the state of the thing. It is not a burden. It is the way I live.
Has it ever been impossible to write? Have you never not had something in mind to write?
I can't imagine not having something in mind.
Do you have any habits that help you write?
Reading some poetry early in the morning is a habit—I read it before I start to work. Whenever people say, “Nobody reads poetry anymore,” I think, Well I do.
Do you read in French or English?
I read French and English about equally. Out of habit, I read only English in the morning.
How do you work? Do you still write in longhand?
I begin anything new by hand. Then I type it. Then I correct it by hand. Then I type it again and rewrite and correct again by hand. And so on. I'm often surprised at how many other people write by hand—I'm talking about fiction. I also start reviews and articles by hand but move rather faster into typing. I am not in the least anti-computer—it would be stupid. But the way I write works for me, and I would be reluctant to make a radical change just to see what happened next. It might stop me cold.
When you begin writing do you know whether it is a story or a novel?
I know from the beginning.
What do you have in mind when you begin writing: the first sentence, the ending, the main theme, whether it will be in first or third person?
I think that I have the whole thing in mind. But I nearly always shorten.
Before you moved to France you worked as a reporter. Do you think that your experience in journalism influenced your fiction writing?
Journalism did not influence my writing fiction. I worked on a newspaper—The Standard in Montreal, which disappeared a long time ago—and I wrote fiction at home. That is how I spent six years and three months of my twenties. It was my apprenticeship. I liked the work and I liked the life, but it wasn't the life I wanted. I wanted to live in Paris, and write nothing but fiction and to be perfectly free. I had decided all this had to be settled by the time I was thirty, and so I gave up my job and moved to Paris at twenty-eight. I just held my breath and jumped. I didn't even look to see if there was water in the pool. I didn't write any nonfiction then for eighteen years, except for a journal I kept, just as a sort of record, for myself. Then I started writing nonfiction again, not steadily, just this and that, and I went back to it easily. I saw that one kind of writing didn't interfere with the other. They were like parallel railway tracks. I still sometimes dream I am a reporter, trying to interview strangers who speak a language I don't understand. The circumstances are never the same, but that is the essence of it. I suppose that is the difference—anyway, one of the differences—between fiction and journalism. In fiction one not only knows what everyone is saying but their reasons for saying it. Nonfiction, by the way, is not easier to write. It's just different.
Does it bother you that there are true stories that you'll never put down?
It depends on what you call a true story. A journalism student in Germany once told me she was bothered by the fact that the most plain and simple and ordinary news stories could conceal an important falsehood. She gave me an example, say, a couple celebrating their seventieth wedding anniversary. They will sit holding hands for the photographer and they've had their ups and downs over the years, but the marriage has been a happy one. The reporter can only repeat what they say. But what if the truth is that they positively hate each other? In that case, the whole interview is a lie. I told her that if she wanted to publish the lie perceived behind the interview, she had to write fiction. (She became a critic, by the way.)
You've been working on a nonfiction book about Dreyfus for some time. What is the status of the book?
The status is that it's a huge pile of manuscripts and research on the shelf: a real shelf, in my linen closet between bath mats and towels, the only place where I could find room.
Does it bother you to have an unfinished project?
No. It is not permanently unfinished.
You took a different approach in researching that book. A lot of historians had just looked at documents. You went out and talked to people.
I am not a historian. My training was as a journalist. When I was asked if I wanted to write about the Dreyfus affair (I accepted partly because no women had done it, except Hannah Arendt, and because I thought, foolishly, that I could do most of the research in eighteen months) I read what had been written and was dissatisfied. I felt as though I were reading about paper dolls. I decided to begin by finding people whose friends or relatives had in some way been connected to the case, even indirectly.
So I did what I would have done as a journalist: I got out my Paris address book and called everyone in it. Less than a month later, I had an introduction to Dreyfus's daughter, Mme Jeanne Lévy. Then, I had the luck to meet many direct descendants of people who actually figured in the case. I did not meet anyone descended from Esterhazy—the villain of the story. His two daughters died without leaving children. One, an actress, drowned herself in the Seine. The younger daughter died in poverty in a charitable institution of some kind. I discovered that a family I knew had known them, as well as Esterhazy's wife, after he abandoned her and their small children and fled to England. During the Second World War the family took the daughters and their mother in. The girls were grown women by then, but they had no money and nowhere to go. They went down to Nantes, from Paris, and there their friends met them at the railway station. Esterhazy's widow was dressed in old-fashioned widow's weeds with the black veil blowing all over. She came down the steps outside the station, with her two daughters, repeating over and over, “I am Countess Esterhazy, the unhappiest woman in France.”
Living in France, do you miss the support of a local writing community?
Is a writing community “support?” Has it ever been? Support comes from readers, surely? In my experience, writers do not talk about their work to one another.
With whom do you talk about your work—anyone?
Not if I can avoid it.
Do your French friends read your work?
My work was not translated into French until the late 1980s. For many years a number of my friends in France had no idea what I was up to—I did not make a mystery of anything, it was just like that. They knew I wrote; but it wasn't until they actually had a French translation in hand that they understood.
Have you found the French translations successful?
You mean, how do I feel about them? It depends entirely on the translator. Whatever it is, it isn't what you've written—that can't be helped. I knew that my work would be different in French, because I don't think in French when I'm writing; I think in English. Just as a French conversation is utterly different from a conversation in English, French translations can't reflect what one writes in English. I want a translation to be good French, and not word-for-word English. I once wrote a piece about Marguerite Yourcenar, criticizing her English translations. I said that it was hard to impress on Americans that she's a great writer because the translations are so awful. I had a nasty letter from one translator and then a nice one from the poet Richard Howard, who said, The trouble is you don't realize how hard it is to translate “La Grande Mademoiselle” because she insists on word-for-word translation. She had said she didn't want to be betrayed, but if you translate word for word into English, it reads like cement.
What do you think about the state of the short story?
With few exceptions, books of short stories seldom sell well. Short-story readers are a special kind of reader, like readers of poetry. Many novel readers don't like collections of stories—I think that they dislike the frequent change of time, place and people. Of course, stories should not be read one after the other. A book of stories is not a novel. Someone once said to me, “Katherine Mansfield died before she was ready to write a novel. Perhaps she would never have been ready.” I thought that was just stupid.
What about your audience? Do you have a specific reader in mind when you write?
Never. All I think about is making everything clear.
Your stories are as fully realized as novels—they encompass entire lifetimes and histories, yet remain stories. I'm not referring simply to length, but to the density of writing. That density of writing recalls Tolstoy's stories and novellas.
I don't think I was influenced by Tolstoy's stories. Chekhov would have been more likely. I always have had a tendency in fiction to boil down, to shorten, to get rid of anything extraneous. I wish I could help you, for I do see what you mean; the trouble is that I really and truly do not analyze my own work. I want a story to be perfectly clear and I don't want it to be boring. C'est tout.
It could be said that you break every rule of the short story: your stories have lots of characters and not much action; they are long and full of description, detail and background history rather than plot. Have you consciously thought about breaking the rules?
I wish I could persuade you to believe me when I say that I don't analyze my own work.
In the past you've said that Anton Chekhov is the writer who most strongly influenced your writing and Eudora Welty the contemporary writer you most admire. Could you elaborate?
Because one is asked the same question all the time one almost unconsciously develops answers that are passe-partout but undoubtedly incomplete. About Chekhov: I have nearly no idea what influence was brought to bear. I discovered Chekhov young, in the Constance Garnett translation. I still read him—there seems to be always some volume or other lying about with a marker in it. But the same is true of Proust. I wonder if any writer can say where an influence came in. I now think influence is almost anything one admired when young. Perhaps one was influenced, without knowing it, by writers one later ceased to admire. Not long ago, I heard a writer say he disliked Hemingway when, in fact, his work wouldn't exist in its present form if Hemingway had not come first. About Eudora Welty: I discovered her work in my twenties. I reread her now with the same pleasure and admiration.
Have you ever met her?
No, I have not met Miss Welty. I have never been in her part of the world and even if I had I would never have bothered her.
Do you have a favorite story by either writer?
I don't think that I have favorite stories. The work is the work.
You've written a number of linked stories: the Henri Grippes stories; the Edouard, Lena and Juliette stories; the Linnet Muir sequence. What compels you to stay with characters for more than one story?
The Henri Grippes stories are fun to write. I write one whenever I want a break. I don't reread what has gone before, because if I begin to take them solemnly, then I'll lose interest.
The Edouard stories began in my mind as a novel about a man whose life is occupied, like an occupied country, by two women. But then I found that it would be better to describe just a few incidents in his life and theirs. I don't know where those three characters came from, but after the stories appeared in The New Yorker, an American architect wrote to his son in Paris, who was also an architect, that I seemed to know all about their family history and could the son find out where I had heard about the family. The father was an American officer who during the war met and married his first wife in London. She was Jewish and a bit older than the officer. They had a son. The father then met another woman, in France, who was Protestant, like Juliette. The mother would not hear of a divorce, but eventually he was able to divorce her. The father's name was Edward. There were a number of other coincidences, some of which I've forgotten. I don't think this anecdote is the least use to you, but I've been thinking about it for the past fifteen years.
The Linnet Muir stories are fiction, but as close to autobiography as fiction can be.
Linnet Muir is fiction, but people who knew me then have said, “That's you. Every gesture, every word, every everything is what you were like.” So I got that right. I was careful because when I was writing the stories, people who had known me as a child were still alive. I didn't feel that I should deliver my parents over to readers because, as they had died, I couldn't consult them. My father died when I was a child; my mother rather later. My mother married again as soon as my father died, and she didn't have much to do with me after that. She went off to another life. That happens, you know. I still have feelings about it, but I don't think I have the right to exploit those feelings—or her. I've taken only certain aspects of her character. There's a story called “The Wedding Ring” that is absolutely my mother. I read it again when it was translated into French, and it's exactly what she was like: very calm and then suddenly making a dramatic gesture. Or writing a letter from a country cottage—I've invented the letter—going over her marriage and taking it apart, then sending it to her husband, who works in the city, saying, “P.S. Bring a roast of lamb when you come for the weekend.” That was her to a T.
The Linnet Muir stories are based on things that actually did happen: anything based directly on memory arrives in one's mind in the form of fiction. The girl who comes back to Montreal where her father has died and tries to find out what happened—that was real. There I needed to be accurate. All that is exactly right: she finds her French-Canadian nurse; she gets a job; she starts off alone with no family and no money, and somehow makes her way.
Will you write your memoirs?
No. No question. Other than those few autobiographical stories in Home Truths, the only thing I've written about anything personal is the introduction to The Collected Stories, where I tried to explain where my writing came from. I had to go back to my childhood.
I had a lot of trouble writing the introduction because I'd never written much about my early childhood. I thought, I'm going to have people trying to treat me like a character in a soap opera. If you write anything truly personal, some people are bound to turn it into a soap opera with you as a character.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1496
SOURCE: Dorris, Michael. “A Gallant Storyteller.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (6 October 1996): 1, 12.
[In the following review, Dorris surveys the contents and arrangement of stories in The Collected Stories of Mavis Gallant, noting that the collection is “far too short.”]
Some writers have all the luck: They possess a name so intrinsically right, so appropriate to the quality of fiction they create, that their signature alone demands serious literary attention.
Mavis Gallant's name is intimately connected with the august imprimatur of the New Yorker—as well it should be, since she has been published consistently in that magazine's pages for more than 40 years. Her stories occupy a particular niche: Finely honed, deeply psychological, precise and compact in their language, they examine with an astute, objective eye the peculiar situations of characters who exist outside the expectations of their contexts: English-speaking Quebecois, foreigners in France, Canadians in Florida, artists who have failed to attain their potential.
Her protagonists and narrators are forever peripheral to their surroundings, though they themselves may not realize this fact; that's but one of the qualities that makes them so interesting. Gallant observes a category of persons who might be termed lay ethnologists, men and women who are either caught up with their ultimately futile attempts to comprehend the rules of the game or who have, in fatigue or exasperation, abandoned the quest and settled for permanent estrangement.
The Collected Short Stories of Mavis Gallant is a hefty doorstop of a volume, the kind of book one might take along to a desert island (where, in fact, I read it last August). Arranged by the epoch of their content rather than by the chronological date of their publication, the pieces collectively form a kind of social history, a gallery of portraits that veer from impatient and passionate youth toward an increasingly mature, acquiescing perspective. Over the course of its hundreds of carefully culled pages (and Gallant, in her eloquent introduction, informs us that these are by no means all of her published works, just the ones that fit this book's conceptual schema), infatuations cool, angers adjust and ambitions are tempered with hard-won wisdom.
Some critics suggest that we writers each have but one archetypal story to tell, one central abiding question that we need to solve through our imaginations, and that we continue to approach it over and over from different angles and in varying voices. If this is true for Gallant, her canvas, like her output, is inordinately large and rich, making the search for some common denominator a daunting task.
She writes heartbreaking stories about the impossibility of enduring love. She writes stories of confusions, rumors, ultimate disappointments, about the indignity of aging, the saving graces of patience and forgiveness. She writes about the unattainable lifelong dreams inspired by a single dared moment of passion—the aftershocks and the long, slow decline into bitterness or, worse, neutrality. She explores the justifications people make to themselves, the excuses that constitute a skewed form of courage, of will over fact.
War and its aftermath are central to the lives of many of her characters. The wreck of nations forms, on the personal level, the defining experience, directly or indirectly, of dazed Europeans and North Americans. It is the source of their primary losses and sorrows, the reference point that can be cited as the event when their safe and promising worlds began to go wrong.
Writing in what might be termed a direct and reportorial style (Gallant started out as a journalist), her sentences can suddenly explode into Nabokovian insight with a line that nails a character to a page. This technique—a lulling, quiet prose suffused with detail, unparenthesized anecdotes and asides that initially don't seem to lead anywhere very significant—accumulates depth and weight with its steady pull. We come to recognize that for many of her men and women it is the minuscule facts of retained memory that act as proof that they've been alive at all.
Inventories of actions, objects, recriminations and small triumphs are maintained with fine and fierce exactitude, as though the person in whose recollection they reside is composed of, rather than the ultimate instigator of, their happening. Artists, forgotten by a once-doting or about-to-dote public, dwell among the detritus of their unfinished work. Missed opportunities constitute experience just as surely as actual accomplishments or failures. Nothing, Gallant suggests again and again, is wasted or irrelevant in the course of a life—or, conversely at her most bleak, everything is.
Organized into nine groupings (sets of decades: “The Thirties and Forties,” “The Fifties,” “The Sixties,” “The Seventies,” “The Eighties and Nineties”; cycles that involve related or developing characters: “Linnet Muir,” “The Carette Sisters,” “Edouard, Juliette, Lena,” “Henri Grippes”), the 52 stories Gallant has chosen are of varying length and ambition, ranging from the short, incisive sketches of “Kingdom Come” (1986), “April Fish” (1968) and “From the Fifteenth District” (1978), to virtual novellas, dense in meaning and resonance, such as “The Moslem Wife” (1976), “Potter” (1977) and “The Pegnitz Junction” (1973). It is no exaggeration to say—and I do so somewhat in awe and envy—that amid all this variety there is struck not one false note, penned not one ill-fitting or excess word. Gallant makes stories the way another kind of master craftsperson builds violins, honing and polishing until only the purest tones are allowed to emanate.
Of particular interest are her excursions into related story sequences. The section titled “Linnet Muir,” for instance, contains five stories that feel every bit as autobiographical (“faction,” as some have called it) as the later novels of Philip Roth or the recent work of Paul Theroux. Do these bravely introspective memoirs cast light on Gallant's own life, her own attitude toward parental love and betrayal, her gained wisdom about the nature of survival? Or are they instead flights of imagination (sprung perhaps from “real” experience) so astutely captured, so artfully and yet offhandedly presented that they seem to carry a truth rooted in blood rather than brain? In the end, of course, it matters little, for they—as well as the intricate and evolving relationships of “The Carette Sisters”—stand wholly and magnificently on their own, whatever their instigating genre.
The Collected Stories stymies a reviewer's natural impulses in two respects: In the first place, it's impossible to choose a favorite story because the bounty offered is simply so disparate that it defies relative comparison. It sounds absurd to say, as one does with one's children, “they're all my favorite,” and yet the temptation to do so is overwhelming. Similarly, it is frustrating and probably disrespectful to tease out for quotation individual or especially brilliant passages. Gallant's language is so seamless (a much overused word in popular criticism but one which aptly applies in this case) that to lift an extract from its proper place within the body is to do even the most startling juxtaposition of words an injustice. Mona Lisa's smile, when deprived of the rest of her facial expression, looks bland.
That said, I can't resist the urge to tease with a few phrases. Gallant can be wickedly ironic. In “Varieties of Exile” (1976), a young and idealistic character speaks of her naive infatuation with political exiles in Canada: “I was entirely at home with foreigners, which is not surprising—the home was all in my head. They were the only people I had met until now who believed, as I did, that our victory would prove to be a tidal wave nothing could stop. What I did not know was how many of them hoped and expected their neighbors to be washed away too.”
She can be poignantly perceptive. In “In Youth Is Pleasure” (1975) she writes, “… At 18 all that came to me was thankfulness that I had been correct about one thing throughout my youth, which I now considered ended: Time had been on my side, faithfully, and unless you died you were always bound to escape.” She can be caustic; in “Voices Lost in the Snow” (1976), Gallant throws away a devastating line: “She was the daughter of such a sensible, truthful, pessimistic woman—pessimistic in the way women become when they settle for what actually exists.”
And she can be inexorably moving. In “Potter” (1977), a character, reacting to disillusionment, observes a telling photograph: “A casual happiness suffused this picture. Piotr was looking at people who did not know or really understand how lucky they were. A sun risen for the lovers alone shone in at the window behind them and made Laurie's hair white and sparkling, like light seen through an icicle. Those were Piotr's immediate, orderly thoughts. He sensed the particular eroticism of the clothed man and the naked girl and only then felt the shock, like a door battered in. The door collapsed, and Piotr saw whatever he had been dreading since he had dared to fall in love—solitude, cruelty, the loneliness of dying. All of that.”
At 887 pages, The Collected Stories of Mavis Gallant is far too short.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2012
SOURCE: Finkle, David. “Mavis Gallant: An Oeuvre Extraordinaire.” Publishers Weekly 243, no. 41 (7 October 1996): 46-7.
[In the following essay, Finkle provides an overview of Gallant's life and career through the publication of The Collected Stories of Mavis Gallant.]
Not every expatriate writer in France likes to sit at La Coupole, the clean, well-lighted Boulevard Montparnasse brasserie. Some like to while away their off-writing hours across the wide thoroughfare at the smaller, darker Cafe Select. Mavis Gallant, a Montrealer who's lived permanently in Paris since 1960, is one of them. That's where she decides she'll be most comfortable talking about her fiction and particularly about The Collected Stories that she and Random House have put together.
A shortish woman, all rounded lines, with hair pushed back in two cropped russet wings on either side of her head, she's waiting at a small outside table. She has an umbrella, equipment anyone accustomed to local weather always has on hand, and she's watching a street person—a man dressed as if on a safari—obstreperously attempting to direct traffic from the middle of the boulevard. If you know anything about Gallant's work and the cast of keenly observed everyday people crowding it, you immediately wonder if this type, so serendipitously handy as a symbol of Gallic folly, will show up in a future story.
Of past yarns there's no small supply. And almost all of them have appeared in the New Yorker. “The New Yorker has published 119 of my short stories,” Gallant reckons with a certain amount of visible pride. “Not counting seven excerpts from novels,” she adds in a light, sweet voice, holding seven fingers in front of her face like a schoolgirl with important information. “I have never believed there was such a thing as a New Yorker story—I don't write like Nabokov or O'Hara or Updike,” she insists. (There is no question, however, that she is a stellar member of the literary pantheon.)
In addition to those 119 stories, the New Yorker has published excerpts of two novels—A Fairly Good Time (Random House, 1970) and Green Water, Green Sky (Houghton Mifflin, 1959)—since 1951, when her first piece, “Madeline's Birthday,” was accepted under Harold Ross. When asked why that debut piece is not included in the new collection, Gallant replies, without further comment: “a fetish.” There are 52 in her compilation, however, the basic criterion for selection being: “if I thought they could be republished.” She adds: “Then friends say, be sure and have that story and make sure you have that story. They may not remember the title, but I know which one they mean.”
A more inclusive volume, Gallant declares, “would be too expensive to buy, and I don't like a big book myself.” (What she means is that at just under 900 pages, her new collection is still much less than the 1500-page foundation stone it might have been had her entire oeuvre been rounded up.) She expresses concern that readers assuming the book contains all her stories will be dismayed to learn otherwise. Then, seeming intent on finding something to worry about, she asks: “Do you think anyone will read it?” Assured there will be readers, she goes on to pooh-pooh the idea of a second volume to accommodate at least some of the remaining stories. “I don't think that anybody would dream of bringing out another.”
Gallant's stories almost all take place in Paris—many of them in the Left Bank's 15th arrondissement near where she's currently chatting—or in her native Montreal. A fair number of the latter involve a young woman called Linnet Muir, whom the storyteller is quick to admit is “90٪ me.” She explains that just as Mavis is a bird, so is Linnet. “I thought I might use Merle, because a merle is also a bird, but it made me think of Merle Oberon.”
MONTREAL IN THE '30S
The Montreal about which Gallant writes has been and will continue to be the Montreal she knew as a child in the 1930s. “I can see St. Catherine Street as it was, with street cars.” She makes a point of returning every year, but “when this generation dies,” she says, “the young don't interest me. The young ones are like Americans living in Canada. I think [the cause is] television. I'm sure they make love like porn movies.”
Conversation is interrupted when a sudden shower makes sitting outdoors a bad idea. Reseated inside, Gallant looks out the window at the rain running down in haphazard streams and says, “I like Montparnasse. The people are raffish.” She scans the boulevard. “Grippes lives just down there,” she notes. Grippes, as it happens, is not an actual human being but a character who began appearing in her stories around 1981 and who will show up in the novel Gallant is to publish next year, called Clowns and Gentlemen. “That wraps up the male race,” she quips.
Given the precise language and exacting ironies of her prose, one wonders just how rapidly she writes. Surely, there must have been times when Gallant was publishing so frequently she had to turn pieces out with great speed. “Oh, no,” she says, laughing, but also shocked at the very idea. “It's fragile, fiction. It takes me a long time to write a story. From three months to three years.” She likes to let them sit awhile before she goes back to them. “Then what is dead, you'll see it immediately,” she explains. “You have to be ruthless. When in doubt, cut it.” She also says: “I write every day. I get up early in the morning and do it. People say it's discipline. It isn't.”
The content of those long-simmering stories undergo a metamorphosis from her original inspiration, she says. She finds that fictionalizing an incident or a character gets closer to the truth she wants to convey than merely reporting unadorned observations. “It's better to sound plausible than merely in touch with the facts,” she comments.
Fiction, which she composes on an old Brother AX 15 typewriter, isn't all she takes her time about. “I've been writing a book on Dreyfus for 20 years,” she says. “The New York Review of Books has been waiting 10 years for my piece on Celine, because I want to get it right.”
Gallant, now 74, prefaces her personal history by remarking, “I'm simplifying, because it's too complex to tell one's life, really.” She was born in Montreal to a mother who was “basically American” and a father who was “a would-be artist,” though he had a job his daughter only became aware of much later.
Raised a Protestant, she spent most of her student years at a Roman Catholic boarding school. She whiled away her early career as a journalist on the Standard, a weekly English-language newspaper. After ending a brief marriage, she recalls: “I decided I had to do something before I was 30.” Never having written fiction, she determined she'd be a fiction writer. At the paper, she says: “Everyone thought I was completely nuts, and if I saw a young woman today, I would tell her it's completely nuts.” But she knew what she wanted—“I can't remember a time when I wasn't writing, or making things up”—and she knew she wanted to do it in Europe. Just about the time the New Yorker started buying her stories, she headed for the Continent.
Her first submission was rejected, she recalls, on the ground that its subject matter—wartime marriages and breakups—had become “threadbare” by the early 1950s. Her second, however, was bought, and the good news came with a complimentary note from William Maxwell. “I read it and I re-re-re-read it,” she says. “No living editor, I think, could add an iota to its original charm and humor.”
That kind of encouragement was the beginning of decades of shared admiration, and now Gallant characterizes Maxwell as a man “not in competition with other writers—and that is rare. He didn't interfere, or if he did, one didn't notice it.” What did she think of Maxwell's own writing? “I think he should have won the Nobel Prize. I can think of two people who should have won—Maxwell and Eudora Welty.”
Gallant also has nothing but kind words for subsequent editors like Daniel Menaker, who once said that tending her prose “was like editing ice cream.” (She dedicates her collection to both Maxwell and Menaker.) About Joe Fox, her Random House editor, she remarks: “We were together for 35 years, and we never had a cross word.” She's also grateful to Kate Medina, who became her editor when Fox died last year. “Did you know that editors are a legacy?” she asks, commenting with some quizzical delight on the unexpected ways of the publishing industry. Her association with agent Georges Borchardt has lasted more than 25 years. “I don't like changing,” she says in typical understatement.
Almost no one who's crossed Gallant's path provokes harsh criticism. For instance, she chuckles when she thinks about Janet Flanner, the New Yorker colleague who, under the pseudonym Genet, wrote a regular letter from France. Gallant does a gruff-voiced imitation: “‘You don't know what you're talking about,’ she would say, and I would say, ‘I do, too.’” Gallant, who's known them all—or at least many of them—remembers a letter she had from statesman Pierre Mendès-France, whom she'd written when trying to collect information on the Dreyfus case and French anti-Semitism. She'd been told that over time it had abated, but Mendès-France wrote her he “couldn't understand how someone had told her that.” (She claims she's finally ready for the Dreyfus book and jokes that she'd only resume research if “people come along and tell me one of two things—that he was guilty or that he wasn't Jewish.”) Her opinion of Celine? She replies quickly: “What I don't like about him is that he attacked Jews when they were down and out. He raved away at people who couldn't defend themselves. That's what I think is swinish.”
Gallant is prepared to comment on myriad subjects, and that includes revealing the details on many another real-life story she knows—“Most of them were told to me on this terrace,” she says, gazing around the Select. Among stories she won't divulge, though, are reminiscences swapped by concentration camp survivors belonging to a local association called L'Amicable de Auschwitz, whom she often encounters at the cafe. They gather, she explains, because “they are afraid of being forgotten.” Why does she remain silent on this topic? “Because I wasn't there,” she says with finality. She pauses a moment. “My friends are a very mixed thing,” she says. “You name it. I don't like being in a milieu. It's confining.”
A waiter arrives to straighten out a tab that got confused after the table-shifting. Gallant confronts him about the outside waiter's bad behavior: “Il pleuvait—on grincait [it was raining—he made a fuss].” Despite her perfectly rolled French, Gallant almost never writes in the language. “I have to protect my written English. I can write, ‘Thank you for the exquisite lunch’ or ‘Thank you for the flowers.’ But that's all I will do.” Is she at all well-known in her adopted country? “No.” She rethinks and revises: “The FNAC [a popular chain of discount stores] always has six or eight of my books, and they wouldn't if they thought it was wasting shelf space.” She can and will elaborate on the subject. She considers that one of her French translators was foisted on her by an editor at her French publisher, Fayard, and that another, Suzanne V. Mayoux, gets “as close to the original English as one can get without being English-speaking.”
It's time for Gallant to leave the Cafe Select. She retrieves her umbrella and starts to the streets, which are now drying in the late afternoon sun. Would she ever leave Paris for good? “Americans always go home,” she replies, leaving an unspoken thought hanging in the rain-washed air as if it were a subtlety in one of her stories: she, of course, is not American.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3344
SOURCE: Bell, Pearl K. “Rara Mavis.” New Republic 215, no. 22 (25 November 1996): 42-5.
[In the following review, Bell details the autobiographical aspects of The Collected Stories of Mavis Gallant, spotlighting Gallant's affiliation with the New Yorker.]
More than forty years ago, Mavis Gallant, then 27, was working on a Montreal weekly and struggling to write stories which only a close friend or two were permitted to read. Restless and ambitious, she came to a bold decision: she would give herself two years to see whether she could support herself entirely by writing, and if at the end of that time the foolhardy plan had turned to ashes, she would renounce the literary dream altogether—the notebooks, the good and false starts, “every scrap, every trace.” As she tells us in the preface to [The Collected Stories of Mavis Gallant,] this huge assemblage of the stories that she has published with prolific steadiness since the 1950s, “What I was to live on during the two years does not seem to have troubled me. Looking back, I think my entire concentration was fixed on setting off.”
Gallant was aching with impatience to get away from “hushed, muffled, disguised” Canada. Fortunately for her, The New Yorker accepted one of the three stories that she nervously submitted, and the magazine has continued to be her appreciative lifeline in the four and a half decades that followed. With the ＄600 that she received for “Madeline's Birthday,” Mavis Gallant moved to Paris (“no city in the world drew me as strongly”), where she has lived ever since. All but one of the stories in this new collection, the first published in 1953, the last in 1995, have appeared in The New Yorker.
As we learn from the facts that Gallant has revealed mainly in the five autobiographical stories grouped under the fictional name “Linnet Muir,” Mavis de Trafford Young was born in 1922, in Montreal, to English-Canadian Protestant parents. (She acquired the French-Acadian surname Gallant in an early and apparently short-lived marriage to a fellow-Canadian “from the West,” which is all she chooses to tell us about the husband or the marriage.) “For reasons never made plain,” her parents shipped their child off, at the inconceivable age of 4, to board in a convent school in Quebec, where only French was tolerated. Gallant is characteristically restrained about the anguish and the desolation that she must have felt. What she gained from this harsh schooling, however, was a flawless command of French, which gave her an enormous advantage over so many other literary dreamers from the New World pursuing the grail of literary glory on the Left Bank. French has been the language of her quotidian life in Paris, but perhaps it was too entwined with childhood pain, for English is the language that has remained the instrument of Gallant's creative sensibility. “English was irremovably entrenched as the language of imagination. Nothing supposed, daydreamed, created, or invented would enter my mind by way of French.”
There were further traumas that the young Gallant endured even after the convent years, and they had nothing to do with language. Her father died in his early 30s, but his young daughter was told only that he was in England, and she did not learn of his death until several years later. To compound the scarcely credible callousness of Gallant's upbringing, her decidedly chilly and eccentric mother remarried not long after her husband's death and moved to the United States, leaving her 8-year-old daughter behind with strangers. (We are reminded with a shudder of Kipling's early years, bitterly remembered in his story “Baa, Baa, Black Sheep.” When he was 6, he was sent away from his beloved birthplace and Amah to England to live for several years with an abusive and stupid woman in Southsea, while his parents remained in Bombay. As Kipling's story makes clear, this was a trauma he never forgave.)
Unsurprisingly, the intense antagonism between a mother and daughter was the bitter essence of Gallant's first novel, Green Water, Green Sky, which appeared in 1959. Gallant has always been reticent about her personal history, but we can infer that the theme of that novel was drawn from her troubled adolescence in the United States, where her mother had brought her later on. At 18, Gallant decided to return to Montreal. Why she did so is not made clear in the autobiographical stories, but we learn from one of them, “In Youth Is Pleasure” (1975), that she arrived in Montreal without money or family ties. What she does vividly describe is her feeling of liberation from “the prison of childhood,” her exhilarated sense of independence and the loneliness that nourished her determination to be a writer. “Having no one to listen to, I could not have a thought without writing it down.” And write it down she did.
In the years between the founding of The New Yorker in 1925 and his death in 1951, the authority and the quirky taste of Harold Ross defined the criteria for fiction published in its pages. The “typical” or formulaic short story of the magazine was as unambiguously recognizable as the top-hatted and monocled dandy by Rea Irvin that appeared on the cover of each anniversary issue. At an imperturbable pace, a New Yorker story moved from beginning to middle to end, its point as unmistakable as that of a homily, but anointed with the gloss of high sophistication. The characters were cozily familiar, men and women with whom the reader could identify—yes, yes, that's just the way he behaves, that's exactly the way she talks, that's precisely the way it is—without feeling disturbed or forced to exert any great intellectual or moral or imaginative effort.
The prose was bright, stylish, witty, undemanding, but never experimental or formally bizarre, and never, never obscure. Obscurity, for Ross, was the unforgivable sin. He called short stories “casuals,” which neatly conveyed the place that short fiction of suave banality occupied in the editor's grand design. In the work of Sally Benson, John O'Hara, Edward Newhouse, John Cheever (early Cheever) and many women with three names, the prescriptive rules were never violated, and the magazine's readers did not have to scratch their heads and wonder what the writer was driving at. It was all as transparent as a freshly washed window pane and as predictable as the setting of the sun.
In the early years of Mavis Gallant's long sojourn in The New Yorker, we can feel the influence of the casual formula. In “The Other Paris,” written in 1953, she acquiesced to convention by taking on the Jamesian theme of New World innocence stalked by the squalid and unsettling actuality of Europe. A naïve young woman from the Middle West, working for an American government agency in Paris, is shaken when she wanders by chance into a quartier grimly devoid of the postcard grandeur she confused with the real Paris—“Although it was on the Left Bank it was not pretty, not picturesque. … It was simply down-and-out and dirty, and everyone looked ill-tempered.” Here Gallant rams the point home too insistently.
But after William Shawn took over, and the magazine became increasingly receptive to varieties of storytelling that Harold Ross would have rejected out of hand, Mavis Gallant began to trust her own strong and original voice and soon discovered her own great theme. It found its most complex form in her work of the '70s and '80s. This theme is the terrible price of displacement and deracination paid by the victims of tyranny and war since the 1930s, and especially in the aftermath of 1945, in the “old, unwilling journeys” of refugees dislocated by the cold war.
As we learn from one of her autobiographical stories—called, appropriately, “Varieties of Exile” (1976)—Gallant's creative dedication to the plight of refugees had been kindled in her youth, during the war, while she was still a journalist in Montreal. “I could not get enough of [the refugees],” she writes.
They came straight out of the twilit Socialist-literary landscape of my reading and my desires. I saw them as prophets of a promised social order that was to consist of justice, equality, art, personal relations, courage, generosity. … That the refugees tended to hate one another seemed no more than a deplorable accident. Nationalist pigheadedness, that chronic, wasting, and apparently incurable disease, was known to me only on Canadian terms, and I did not always recognize its symptoms.
Traveling through the rubble of postwar Germany and France, Gallant came face-to-face with the more virulent forms of “nationalist pigheadedness,” and she soon shed the optimistic naïveté that had blurred her vision of refugees in Canada. She could now confront the shocking actuality of a Europe that was as unstable and dangerous as the tectonic plates grinding destruction in an earthquake. In her most powerful stories about the postwar and cold war exiles, she proved herself capable not only of the cold certainties of judgment but, even more important, of grasping the crucial difference between knowledge and pity, especially self-pity. If we also sense the presence at times of an unmeltable sliver of ice in these stories, that, too, seems essential to the truth-telling solidity of her perceptions.
By the late '70s, Gallant had mastered the difficult art of capturing a moment of history in a web of flawlessly observed details. The details in themselves seem sometimes slight, but in the intricate texture of the story they acquire a disturbing resonance and fix an unforgettable image. In one story, set in Paris, a young, newly demobbed soldier notices an exhausted woman crossing the courtyard below his window, and he reflects that “she has wrapped a tatty fur around her neck, like an old Russian countess. Her handbag seems the old displaced-person sort, too—big, and bulging with canceled passports.” The story “An Alien Flower” (1972) seems at first like little more than the spiteful, inconsequential babbling of an insensitive German woman about the death of Bibi, her former servant, but gradually it draws us into the tragic fate of that servant, a Silesian refugee who was the sole survivor of her family. “She was alone, swept clean of friends and childhood myths and of childhood itself.” Bibi claimed that she had acquired a first-class education in mathematics and physics from distinguished professors who were fellow-prisoners in the camps. But the bitchy narrator cannot refrain from sneering that “in those days [right after the war] so many papers and documents had been burned that people like Bibi could say anything they liked about themselves.”
In “Questions and Answers” (1966), a haughty and snobbish fortune-teller explains why she does not want Romanians in her clientele, for they are “notoriously marked by delusions of eminence and persecution.” In another story, we are told of a Polish sculptress whose knowledge of Paris, though she has lived there for years, “was only knowledge about bus stops.” And in the stories—some biting, some poignant—which deal with the chronic anxiety that afflicts the displaced Poles in Paris, we hear the tired lament: “Every day I wonder what I am doing in Paris. I have no real friends. I have enemies who chalk swastikas on my staircase. I speak seven languages. … Perhaps I should go back to Poland.” In the days before the disintegration of the Soviet Union, this was gallows humor.
When Gallant turns her unblinking eye on the literary exiles, the comedy and the pathos of their homesick desolation are conveyed with inescapable power. “Forain” (1991), the best of this group of stories about displaced poets and novelists, demonstrates, with Gallant's cunning subtlety, how little difference the shifts of political power can make to the Eastern and Central European intellectuals banished from their homeland long ago. Even in the 1990s they are unable to sever the ties with a world and language lost in their tattered suitcases of memory years before.
They are now too old, too close to death, to reverse the betrayals and the resignations of the past. At the funeral of the Polish poet Adam Tremski, the dwindling mourners “sat with their shoes in puddles. They kept their gloves on and pulled their knitted scarves tight. Some had spent all these years in France without social security or health insurance, either for want of means or because they had never found their feet in the right sort of employment.” What little support they have found in France has come from Blaise Forain, a highly unsuccessful French publisher who specializes in translations of these Central and East European writers, rarely reviewed in the French press. His tiny firm “had not been able to attract the leviathan prophets, the booming novelists, the great mentors and tireless definers.” Confined almost entirely to the ruminations of the intrepid Forain, who is perpetually on the brink of bankruptcy, his story sounds a melancholy and sardonic farewell to the dwindling world of exile that has engaged Gallant for so long.
It would be misleading, however, to think of Gallant solely in terms of her obsessive concentration on the perplexities of exile. Looking back to the novella-length “The Remission,” which appeared in 1979, we are plunged into a many-layered tale of loss and celebration—of the sunlight and lush natural abundance of southern France, of the importunate magic of love and the ways in which the rituals of mourning can defy the tenacity of grief. A young English family, the Webbs, early in the reign of the second Elizabeth, has migrated to the Riviera to ease the seriously ill father's descent to death. They expect the natives, as Gallant dryly remarks, to be “classless and pagan, poetic and wise, imbued with an instinctive understanding of lightness, darkness, and immortality.” Of course nothing, certainly not the fantasy about the natives, brought with them from England, turns out as they expected.
Nor does Gallant's treatment of the family's expatriate neighbors—colonial types who have for years wrapped themselves complacently in the comforting foreignness of France—conform to our preconceptions. The acerbic satirist who, in a less serene context, would show no mercy to snobs clinging to habits fossilized in “the last days of the dissolving Empire” now bestows unusually warm affection on a Blimpish army major. And the potential comedy of the dying father, close to his last breath, who insists on standing respectfully while he watches the coronation on television, is touching, not funny. Even Wilkinson, the bit-player of stage Englishmen in films set on the Riviera, spouting “By Joves”s and “I say”s as he adjusts his monocle, escapes all taint of ridicule.
And when love rears its head, Gallant surprises us. She usually brings to this slippery subject a mocking tone that roils the sentiment in its wake. We are accustomed to Gallant's wonderfully wry put-down of romance. Thus the cynical Parisian art-dealer in “Speck's Idea” (1979), published in the same year as “The Remission,” sourly dismisses the sanctity of love: “In his experience, love affairs and marriages perished between seven and eight o'clock, the hour of rain and no taxis. All over Paris couples must be parting forever, leaving like debris along the curbs the shreds of canceled restaurant dates, useless ballet tickets, hopeless explanations, and scraps of pride.” But such irony is absent from “The Remission” (1979), whose title is double-edged: it refers to the temporary abeyance of the dying father's cancer, and more profoundly to the remission, or forgiveness, of sin—in this case, the sin of survival.
Several years after Gallant published this marvelous story, she turned with her usual dexterity from solemnity to laughter. In a series of linked stories—they make up the final group in the present collection—she took on the hilariously devious Henri Grippes, “Parisian novelist, diarist, essayist, political journalist, and critic.” In other words, an industriously clever hack. For years this invincible charlatan had received generous stipends from an American foundation run by a wealthy spinster, who never suspected that the allegedly hard-up littérateur owned three apartments in Paris that brought in some very handsome rent. This well-hidden cushion was also unknown to the students who, during the “events” of 1968, thought Grippes “was Herbert Marcuse and tried to carry him on their shoulders to Le Figaro's editorial offices, which they hoped he would set on fire.”
By the 1980s his American benefactress has died, and the crafty Grippes is locked in finagling combat with an income-tax bureaucrat appropriately named Poche, who raises embarrassing questions about Grippes's literary income. For one thing; the gimlet-eyed Poche finds it hard to believe that an American translation of a schlocky novel that Grippes wrote about his affair with an American student in California had earned as little as the author claims. To which Grippes retorts that the French critics had also panned the book and ruined its sales because “its sociological context [was] obscure. [The heroine] seemed at a remove from events of her time, unaware of improved literacy figures in North Korea, never once mentioned. …” When Grippes loses the skirmish over his novel's royalties, he unblushingly tries another tack. Can't his many cats be considered dependents, and the cost of their food a legitimate deduction? At which point the harried tax inspector gives up. A rich and tantalizing lode of absurdity runs through all the Grippes stories. (Among other things, Gallant slyly and splendidly punctures the left-wing pieties of literary France.) The misadventures of this endearing phony are splendid proof that Gallant in her 70s has not lost her touch.
Since Gallant's forte has been the short story, even when it lengthens to what James called the “blessed nouvelle,” she has often been compared, in pedestrian homage, to earlier masters of short fiction such as Chekhov and Katherine Mansfield. She certainly can be as sharpedged and unsparing as Chekhov, with something of his irrepressible comic vitality; but the distance between the cultures, the eras, the temperaments, is vast, and Chekhov's trapped souls have no discernible resemblance to Gallant's deracinated exiles. Mansfield's stories, by contrast, are often streaked with indulgent sentimentality, for all their stylistic glitter; and so the analogy with Gallant is highly imperfect.
It is more useful to consider Mavis Gallant in the company of some younger short-story writers—Donald Barthelme and Ann Beattie, among others—whose work began to dominate the fiction of The New Yorker in the 1960s and 1970s. By then, the glossy epiphanies of the “casual” had long since been consigned to oblivion, and these new storytellers introduced styles and attitudes indebted to a radical cultural and political climate that had never before been welcomed in the magazine. The hermetic, anti-rational highjinks of Barthelme appeared more and more frequently alongside the luxurious advertisements representing an America that he despised. Barthelme's stories offered a relentlessly gleeful send-up of a world that he regarded as a junkheap—one of his favorite images of the way we live now (or lived then) was “the trash phenomenon”—and attacked with flamboyant derision.
It didn't seem to trouble the magazine's editors that Barthelme's hallucinatory vision of the apocalypse to come would engulf The New Yorker, too, and the cozy ironic (and, for its insurgent satirists, abominable) America in which its readers lived. But the radical indictment of “the system” gradually leached away, and the newly modish kind of storytelling, by so-called minimalists, invaded the magazine's fiction pages. The foremost exponent of minimalist randomness was Ann Beattie, who turned her affectless gaze on shabby disaffected relics of the 1960s burn-out, on post-everything dropouts and aging hippies, in short stories littered with brand names and discount tawdriness, told in a voice as flat and dissociated as her characters' egos.
It is against this background—which is also, to a large extent, the background of recent American fiction—that the steadiness and the subtlety of Mavis Gallant looms very large. Gallant has remained a scrupulous observer of the world outside the self, of the harsh actuality of history's real victims, tossed and torn by the hurricane wreckage of war and politics. Over the long span of the stories brought together in this collection, her sober commitment to reality has not wavered.
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SOURCE: Allen, Brooke. “Brownout in the City of Light.” New Criterion 15, no. 4 (December 1996): 69-72.
[In the following review, Allen evaluates the settings, themes, and tone of The Collected Stories of Mavis Gallant in relation to the stories's autobiographical significance.]
Postwar Paris is a mythical place, dear to the hearts of a whole generation of Americans. Art Buchwald's recent memoir, I'll Always Have Paris, blends the familiar ingredients once again: Sartre and de Beauvoir at the Deux Magots, The Paris Review, Alice B. Toklas, Harry's New York Bar (located at 5 rue Daunou, pronounced by American visitors “Sank Roo Doe Noo”), A. J. Liebling and Janet Flanner, Irwin Shaw, James Jones, Romain Gary. It was Hemingway's moveable feast, extended well into the 1950s. Thanks to the G.I. Bill, brilliant young Americans could shake the dust of Brooklyn or the Midwest off their feet while taking in the pleasures of Paris. These pleasures were their due as members of the conquering army—as winners.
There was another postwar Paris, of course, one that has not been romanticized and that most people have been eager to forget: that of the losers. The losers were bereft of their homes, their families, their money, their nationalities, often their self-respect. They were German, East European, Russian, Jewish, even French. To them World War II had been anything but the “good war” celebrated by American veterans: it comprised a historical moment of great collective shame, and left behind armies of dispossessed, displaced people.
Few writers have written of this other Paris, this other Europe, with the clear and unromantic vision of Mavis Gallant, the seventy-four-year-old author whose short stories, many of them first printed in The New Yorker, have recently been brought together for the first time [in The Collected Stories of Mavis Gallant]. In Gallant's postwar Europe,
no person was ever to blame for his own poverty or solitude. You would never have dreamed of hinting it could be his own fault. You never knew what that person's past might be, or what unspoken grudge he might be hiding. There was also a joint past that lay all around us in heaps or charred stone. The streets still smelled of terror and ashes, particularly after rain. Every stone still held down a ghost, or a frozen life, or a dreadful secret. A social amnesty had been declared.
The speaker is German, but she might almost as easily be French or Italian. The continent had become a moral minefield and everyone, whether innocent or guilty, was implicated.
Some of the survivors amount to little more than human wreckage. For instance young Thomas, in “The Latehomecomer,” has spent five years in a prisoner-of-war camp in Rennes, then five more being shuttled around France, a victim of bureaucratic muddle, before his eventual repatriation to Germany. He is well aware that his very person represents a truth of which Europe, busy reconstructing herself, has no wish to be reminded. “My appearance, my survival, my bleeding gums and loose teeth, my chronic dysentery and anemia, … all said ‘war’ when everyone wanted peace, ‘captivity’ when the word was ‘freedom,’ and ‘dry bread’ when everyone was thinking ‘jam and butter.’” Reconstruction is not simply a matter of economics but a subtle psychological process, a recreation of national identity and a new, carefully adjusted version of the past. For Germans, the war is now “the conflict” and the Nazi era “the Adolf-time.” For the French, the process of self-justification becomes almost an academic exercise: in “Speck's Idea,” for instance, Sandor Speck, an East European art dealer long resident in Paris, reflects, decades after war's end, that “there was right and right. … Nowadays the Paris intelligentsia drew new lines across the past, separating coarse collaborators from fine-drawn intellectual Fascists”—though Speck could “not quite remember why pure Fascism had been better for civilization than the other kind.”
“The Other Paris,” written in the 1950s, is thematically characteristic of Gallant. Carol, a naïve girl from a “nice” Midwestern family, comes to Paris in the late Forties to work as a secretary in an American government agency. While there she becomes engaged to Howard Mitchell, a thoroughly appropriate young man. She is not in love with him, but feels that in Paris, the most famously romantic spot in all the world, it is only a matter of time before love comes. Yet the city's romance eludes her.
It was a busy life, yet Carol could not help feeling that something had been missed. … When she rode the Metro, people pushed and were just as rude as in New York. Restaurant food was dull, and the cafes were full of Coca-Cola signs. … Traveling through Paris to and from work, she saw only shabby girls bundled into raincoats, hurrying along in the rain, or men who needed a haircut. In the famous parks, under the drizzly trees, children whined peevishly and were slapped.
Carol's only French friend is Howard's secretary, Odile, an unappealing, impoverished woman ten years her senior. Carol finds herself becoming inexplicably agitated by Odile's down-and-out young lover Felix, an Austrian orphaned by the war, who has come to Paris without papers. Carol deflects her unacknowledged attraction to Felix with gusts of annoyance against him. Why does he hang about doing nothing? Why doesn't he get a job? “For Carol, the idea that one might not be permitted to work was preposterous. She harbored a rigid belief that anyone could work who sincerely wanted to.” Through Odile's and Felix's sad lives, Carol is finally accorded a vision of the “other,” real Paris, but it is a vision of such loneliness, almost despair, that she immediately rejects it. By the time she returns to the States as Howard's wife she will have invented, and come to believe, her own conventionally romantic, Paris-in-springtime version of their courtship.
If Mavis Gallant writes of displaced persons, perhaps it is because she herself is one. She was born Mavis de Trafford Young in Montreal in 1922. Her parents were English and Protestant, but flying in the face of Montreal custom they did not isolate themselves among their own kind: plenty of their friends were French. “This overlapping … of French and English,” Gallant writes in her autobiographical study “Linnet Muir,” included in this collection, “of Catholic and Protestant—my parents' way of being, and so to me life itself—was as unlikely, as unnatural to the Montreal climate as a school of tropical fish. … My parents and their friends were, in their way, explorers.”
The Youngs were a flighty, sexy couple far more interested in their social lives than in the company of a small child. At the incredible age of four, Mavis was packed off as a boarder to a French convent school, the first of seventeen schools she was to attend. Her parents were self-involved and pleased with themselves, and Gallant writes that, to her own young self, their lives had “seemed so enchanted, so fortunate and free that I could not imagine lesser persons so much as eating the same kind of toast for breakfast.” Parents who mythologize and glamorize their lives were to become a recurring theme in Gallant's fiction: in “The Remission” a selfish, beautiful mother keeps an unloving grip on her daughter in order to retain her as a sort of moral hostage, proof to the world that she is beloved by her children; in “The Ice Wagon Going down the Street” a good-for-nothing Canadian couple on a rapid downwardly mobile trajectory congratulate themselves on their glamour and joie de vivre while implicitly criticizing their cautious, colorless children.
Gallant's own father died when she was a child; her mother remarried and moved to the United States, and Mavis was left with strangers. With a chillingly precocious sense of survival, she dissociated herself from her unsatisfactory mother and at the age of eighteen, quite alone in the world, she landed a job at a Montreal newspaper as their first and only woman reporter.
Nine years later Gallant decided that if she were ever to realize her ambition of writing fiction, she would have to leave the routine work of journalism and the security of a paycheck. “I believed that if I were to call myself a writer,” she says, “I should live on writing. If I could not live on it, even simply, I should destroy every scrap, every trace, every notebook, and live some other way.” The intransigence of this position is puzzling; many writers, after all, have produced first-rate work without supporting themselves with it.
Gallant left Canada for Paris. “No city in the world drew me as strongly as Paris. (When I am asked why, I am unable to say.) It was a place where I had no friends, no connections, no possibility of finding employment should it be necessary.” She gave herself three years to make a paying venture of fiction. The New Yorker rejected the first story she sent, but accepted the next, thus beginning her long, happy association with the magazine.
Gallant's youth in Canada, and the jumble of cultures to which she was exposed there, provide her work with a richness that is especially apparent when she writes of her compatriots. In one of her most memorable stories, “The Ice Wagon Going down the Street,” two Canadians, one on the way up and the other on the way down, meet in the middle. Peter Frazier comes from an upper-class Ontario family, but his inheritance—both financial and moral—had already been wasted before he grew up. “Peter's father's crowd spent. … Peter and his sister and his cousin lived on the remains. They were left the rinds of income, of notions, and the memories of ideas rather than the ideas intact.”
And Peter spends in his turn; he and his wife have squandered every job and every friendship that has come their way. Landing in Geneva, he becomes a clerk at an international agency, where his boss is Agnes Brusen, a lower-middle class young woman from a Scots family in Saskatchewan. Peter recognizes the family type: “the iron-cold ambition, and every member pushing the next one on.” “In the real world,” he reflects, “he would not have invited her to the house except to mind the children”—a brilliant touch, for what is the real world? Agnes and Peter, for all their mutual antipathy, represent something powerful to one another, and in fact Peter, looking back on his life years later, recognizes Agnes as the most vivid and mysterious part of it.
Gallant is an uncompromising writer, and of all the cruel portraits in her work, perhaps the most unflattering of all is the one she paints of the British living in self-imposed exile on the Mediterranean. Such characters are often Fascist sympathizers: “The Four Seasons,” the second story in the collection, gives a brutal picture of a third-rate crowd of English expatriates in Italy before the war, trusting in the Duce to keep them, and their pounds sterling, safe from harm. “In the Tunnel,” written in the 1970s, depicts an extroverted Canadian girl who is befriended by an insidious but superficially attractive trio of Brits, charming as long as the girl amuses them but ice-cold when she ceases to do so.
Despite Gallant's chosen subject, her work is not—at least not usually—depressing, for it has a strong satiric streak, which has grown with the years. The purely satiric fiction is not really the most effective: the Henri Grippes stories, for instance, whose place in Gallant's work and life correspond roughly with that of the Pat Hobby stories in Fitzgerald's, consist of irony to the exclusion of everything else, and so get quickly dull. But the majority of the stories balance irony and emotion and are effective on several levels. Even Gallant's potentially tragic characters often display a certain absurdity. In “Baum, Gabriel, 1935-( ),” Gallant gives a sharp, amusing picture of the marginal existence of a group of German refugees in Paris who make their living acting in stereotyped war movies.
Dieter spread the paper on Gabriel's table, sat down, and told him about the film. It would begin with a group of Resistance fighters who were being deported jumping out of a train. Their group would include a coal-miner, an anti-Semitic aristocrat, a Communist militant, a peasant with a droll Provencal accent, a long-faced Protestant intellectual, and a priest in doubt about his vocation. Three Jews will be discovered to have jumped or fallen with them: one aged rabbi, one black-market operator, and one anything.
The one anything will be me, Gabriel decided, helping himself to chestnuts. He saw, without Dieter's needing to describe them, the glaring lights, the dogs straining at their leads, the guards running and blowing whistles, the stalled train, a rainstorm, perhaps.
The aristo will be against taking the three extra men along, Dieter said, but the priest will intercede for them. The miner, or perhaps the black market man, will stay behind to act as decoy for the dogs while the others all get in a rowboat and make for the maquis. The peasant will turn out to be a British intelligence agent named Scott. The Protestant will fall out of the rowboat; the priest will drown trying to save him; the Communist—
“We know all that,” Gabriel interrupted. “Who's there at the end?”
Gallant, in short, never perceives her world one-dimensionally. She points to the essential humor in the dreariest and most aimless lives; she is adept at seeing the cold kernel of egotism within the warm swell of patriotism or parental love; she will find a few lost, pathetic strands of goodwill in the most debased people. Her stories, taken together, summarize the history of mid-twentieth-century Europe: not the great events themselves, but the small lives they dislocate.
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SOURCE: Rubin, Merle. “New Yorker Writer's Miniature Novels.” Christian Science Monitor (15 January 1997): 15.
[In the following review, Rubin comments on the narrative strategies of The Collected Stories of Mavis Gallant, observing the effect of the disinterested tone common to them.]
The short stories of Mavis Gallant might well be said to epitomize the spirit of The New Yorker at midcentury, although in fact her contributions to that magazine have continued on into the century's last decade.
Born in Montreal in 1922, Gallant began writing for The New Yorker in 1950. The payment she received for her first story enabled her to go to Paris, where she has spent most of her time ever since. All but one of the 53 stories she has selected for this collection of her work [The Collected Stories of Mavis Gallant] first appeared in The New Yorker.
Like much of the writing that was featured in The New Yorker in the 1950s and early 1960s, Gallant's stories address a readership that is intelligent, discriminating, and genuinely adult. The “adultness” of these stories has little to do with risque subject matter, but a great deal to do with the quality of disinterestedness that they expect of their readers and embody in themselves.
Gallant's achievement invites us to consider the concept of disinterestedness—not in the sense in which the word is currently misused to mean uninterested or bored, but in the word's proper sense, meaning impartiality, the ability to contemplate an idea, a person, or a situation apart from one's personal preconceptions, passions, and prejudices.
To be disinterested is to be capable of a certain amount of objectivity, to be able to take an interest in matters that do not directly involve one's immediate personal experiences.
Unlike so many stories and novels that practically seem to help the reader to “identify” with the characters or the author, Gallant's stories presume reader's who are prepared to make a substantial investment of attention, imagination, and empathy in order to gain insight into characters who are considerably different from themselves.
Gallant's fiction is not, strictly speaking, “difficult.” There is no Joycean word-play to puzzle over; no ingenuous narrative slight of hand; no weighty philosophical or metaphysical baggage to ponder. Gallant writes fairly straightforward, realistic accounts of ordinary men, women, and children, whose behavior is observed with detachment, but in intimate, close-up detail.
They are difficult stories in one sense, however: They are complicated, like miniature novels, full of characters, social nuances, and a good deal of back round.
From the account that Gallant provides in her preface of her method of composing a story, it's not surprising that hers should resemble novels. For, what she does is to work very slowly, beginning with an image or scene in her mind's eye, then setting down bits of dialogue or description, waiting—sometimes for months—for the right elements to fall into place before shaping them into their final form. “I still do not know what impels anyone sound of mind to leave dry land and spend a lifetime describing people who do not exist,” she wryly remarks of her vocation.
In assembling this collection, Gallant has left out many stories that did not seem to her to stand the test of time. Rather than arrange them in the order of their composition, she has grouped them according to the decade in which their actions unfold.
Thus, the first group, all set in the 1930s and 1940s, features three stories that were written in the 1970s and 1990s. Following the section of stories set in the 1980s and 1990s, Gallant concluded her collection with four sets of “linked stories,” each set featuring a common, recurrent group of characters.
The story that opens this collection, “The Moslem Wife,” has the makings of a small-scale novel, examining the rocky course of a marriage over many years, including a wartime separation. It amply demonstrates Gallant's impressive ability to capture a highly particularized milieu, in this case a hotel-boarding house in the south of France run by English people who've lived there for generations.
Perhaps the archetypal Gallant story is “The Other Paris,” which was also featured as the title story of her first collection in 1956. The heroine is a young American working for a US agency in post-war Paris.
She is engaged to one of her colleagues and calmly looking forward to her wedding: “The fact that Carol was not in love with Howard Mitchell did not dismay her in the least. From a series of helpful college lectures on marriage she had learned that a common interest, such as a liking for Irish setters, was the true basis for happiness, and that the illusion of love was a blight imposed by the film industry, and almost entirely responsible for the high rate of divorce.”
Carol assumes that the love she does not yet feel will flourish naturally, “like a geranium,” given the right conditions, and she drags her fiancé all over Paris in the hope of catching a whiff of its fabled romantic magic.
What most of these stories reveal is the surprising oddity of seemingly ordinary people, the peculiarities of background, temperament, and perception that make each person unique.
Gallant's preface offers her prospective readers some excellent advice as to how they may best approach her book: “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.”
The stories that await the reader in this fine collection are as civilized and urbane as their relentlessly observant, unobtrusively clever, discreetly self-effacing author.
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SOURCE: Farr, Judith. Review of The Collected Stories of Mavis Gallant, by Mavis Gallant. America 176, no. 4 (8 February 1997): 33-4.
[In the following review, Farr assesses the literary accomplishments of The Collected Stories of Mavis Gallant, noting the characterizations and linguistic implications of the text.]
I first read Mavis Gallant when I was 16, studying French while boarding for the summer in the Woodmont section of Montreal with a dignified Anglophone lady. Over tea each afternoon, this woman complained that “English Quebec” was being overwhelmed by “foreign speakers,” often pausing to address her maid, a Quebecoise, in an accurate but brutally inflected French that seemed to say “I disdain this language but am forced to use it.” One day, while reading Gallant's acutely observant story “The Fenton Child,” I overheard two children chattering together. One spoke French, the other English. But their identical sing-song cadences, composing a kind of patois bred of amity and necessity, made me suddenly realize the multiple significances in Gallant's tale. Like so many of the stories in her Collected Stories, this one was ordered by the theme of communication and, indeed, of communions—failed or achieved—through language.
Gallant's Collected Stories is a 900-page volume that gathers together selections from eight books written from the 1930's to the 1990's. Although each story is memorably distinct, the fictional world Gallant creates has recognizable characteristics that have remained the same throughout six decades. Her characters mostly inhabit European or Canadian cities, where they are for various reasons not quite at home and where perils, great and small, await them—in a false lover's smile, from a parent's treachery, with the disillusionments caused by the bright expectations of Christmas or vacation time or changes in state such as marriage. In this fragile world of shifting accents, polyglot speakers and people with or without passports, language and its uses assume vital importance.
Thus, in that early story “The Fenton Child,” as in her other fictions of Montreal, Paris, Italy, Switzerland and the rest, Gallant seizes on those divisions, hostilities, unions and affections stimulated or even produced by speech. Her story, s fictional character—the plucky teenage Nora, with her French-speaking Catholic mother and English, instinctively Protestant father—has been, she claims, equally “raised in two languages.” That is, like Mavis Gallant herself, Nora has been equally exposed to the two cultural currents that nourish, divide or unite the citizens of Montreal. Vulnerable as Nora is, lied to and kept in the dark (like so many of Gallant's poignant servant girls), she listens for truth in the nuances of French or English diction used by the devious adults who hire her to tend a horribly neglected baby. The baby, son of a mysterious brief liaison between an English father and a French Canadian mother, has been exiled to a foundling hospital and comes “home” at the story's end. But Nora recognizes in his speechless wails the metaphor of lasting alienation.
At the heart of “The Fenton Child” is the silence of the child's mother and foster-mother, a withholding of communication that results from suffering and hatred and in turn creates deprivation and sorrow. This silence that casts out love is, like language in all its forms and deficits, a metaphor in Gallant's oeuvre, one that, as she declares in her Preface, was shaped by her “regional beginnings”—“wholly Quebec,” “English … with a strong current of French,” that “left me with two systems of behavior, divided by syntax and tradition” and steadily enriched and complicated her imagination.
This imagination creates through definition. A dry, almost repellent prosaicism often shapes Gallant's fictive atmospheres, corresponding to her character's limitations. The reader gets used to careful notations of “linoleum-covered floors on which scatter rugs slipped and slid underfoot,” of “white lateral blinds,” and “cardboard suitcase[s] with … rope strap[s].” Such unsentimental realism, however, can also yield to moments of near-poetic description: “The girls took no notice of the Colonel. He was invisible to them, wiped out of being by a curtain pulled over the inner eye.” Sometimes it leads to philosophy: “The illusion of love was a blight imposed by the film industry.” Often, it ushers in the comic: “Her teeth are like leaves in winter”; “Berthe couldn't hand her a teaspoon without receiving a shock, like a small silver bullet. Her sister believed the current was generated by a chemical change that occurred as she flew out of Fort Lauderdale.”
But almost invariably it is by means of language—its uses and disuse, how it is regarded, learned, avoided or even transcended—that we approach Gallant's troubled, travelled but never serenely urbane men, women and children. So the Nora of “The Fenton Child” discovers a man's egoism by his mispronunciation of the English th. “You'd like him,” his shallow lover tells Piotr in the brilliantly specific “Potter,” “he speaks three different languages.” The peculiarity of the Colonel's wife in “New Year's Eve,” suggested by the observation that “she could not read any Russian and would not try,” is summarized by the fact that she has stopped talking to the Colonel altogether after their daughter's death. The Colonel, on the other hand, one of Gallant's sad, well-intentioned strivers, is “able to learn the structure of any language.” That is, in “the heart of [his] isolation,” he tries to understand: people, situations, the past and present, himself.
Though it results in a sort of dulled or sometimes desperate knowledge, urbanity—or at least living in different places—does not often lead to happiness in Gallant's fiction. Those of her heroes who endure preserve the living memory of their roots. This gives them a humanity that sustains them as well as others. Like young Carmela in “The Four Seasons,” “mute and watchful” among “the powerful and strange,” Gallant's heroes instinctively retain the pleasure in nature, in sheer existence, that is proof against the world's blows. Others, like the poor, dying, middle-aged Piotr, are able to find a sort of “slow happiness, like water rising” from giving “tenderness” where it is needed. So—following out the theme of communication and communion—we are told of him that Laurie “could not pronounce ‘Piotr’ and never tried; she said Peter, Prater, Potter, and Otter and he answered to all. Why not? He loved her.”
That both speech and silence can be forms of love in these Collected Stories seems itself metaphoric of the supreme value of words to a writer as clear-eyed and assured as Mavis Gallant. in the capaciousness of this volume, to which the author invites us to turn as to a house that can be entered and left as we like, there is a largesse of sympathy that recalls both fluent speech and compassionate silence.
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SOURCE: Baele, Nancy. “A Climate of Mind.” Canadian Forum 75, no. 858 (April 1997): 35-7.
[In the following review, Baele offers high praise for The Selected Stories of Mavis Gallant, but criticizes the collection's publisher for how they released the work.]
“I have lived in writing, like a spoonful of water in a river, for more than forty-five years,” Mavis Gallant writes in the preface to this landmark edition of her work [The Selected Stories of Mavis Gallant]. And because this year's winner of the Molson prize lives in writing with such intensity, such subtlety, such wide vision, she offers her readers the chance to experience the world differently, to have their own vision enlarged and clarified.
Reading this heavy book (she jokes in the preface that it finally had to be restricted to its present 887 pages because any larger and it “would have become one of those tomes that can't be read in comfort and that are no good except as a weight on sliced cucumbers”) can be done in two ways. The method Gallant recommends is not to treat the stories as chapters of novels. She advises: “Read one. Shut the book. Read something else. Stories can wait.” The alternative is to ignore her advice, be a Gallant gourmand and read the stories as they are presented: in groups of linked portraits or as many collections of several stories reflecting specific decades.
Greedy, I read the 35 stories that cover the thirties and forties, the fifties, the sixties, the seventies, the eighties and the nineties in one sitting and the 17 stories grouped under the titles of Linnet Muir, The Carette Sisters, Édouard, Juliette, Lena and Henri Grippes in another. Although all were familiar, from other collections and from The New Yorker, where all the stories (except “1933”) were initially published, they have a freshness and an added resonance that come from their arrangement in this book and from the added bonus of Gallant's autobiographical preface, describing her upbringing as an only child, her schooling in English and French, how English became the language of her imagination and how a story takes shape.
An intensely visual writer, she says that “the first flash of fiction occurs without words. It consists of a fixed image, like a slide or (closer still) a freeze frame, showing characters in a simple situation. … Every character comes into being with a name (which I may change), an age, a nationality, a profession, a particular voice and accent, a family background, a personal history, a destination, qualities, secrets, an attitude toward love, ambition, money, religion, and a private centre of gravity.” The slow process of transforming her material from image to fiction is compared to editing a film, until it “seems to tally with a plan I surely must have in mind but cannot describe, or when I come to the conclusion that it cannot be written satisfactorily in any other way; at least not by me.”
The satisfaction that comes from reading and re-reading Gallant's work lies in the lucid illuminations that arise from her compassionate portrayal of that inescapable junction where the political and the personal are indivisible. A Gallant story gives a sense of living in history, of understanding what it means to be in Time and in our time. Her characters are acutely aware or bewilderingly unaware of change and event. The knowing and unknowing, under her pen, are of equal complexity, worthy of our attention and respect. In “Kingdom Come,” the language scholar, Dr. Domini Missierna, muses on what he will do professionally with the rest of his life: “he could watch Europe as it declined and sank, with its pettiness and faded cruelty, its crabbed richness and sentimentality. Something might be discovered out of shabbiness—some measure taken of the past and the present, now that they were ground and trampled to the same shape and size.” In “1933,” the French-Canadian child Berthe, trying to understand what is happening to her world, “felt tears along her nose and inside her ears. Even while she sobbed out words of hope and comfort (Arno would never die) and promises of reassuring behaviour (she and Marie would always be good) she wondered how tears could flow in so many directions at once.”
Often the stories are shot through with a dazzling incandescence. Netta, in “The Moslem Wife,” meeting her husband for the first time after the Second World War in a café they used to frequent, turned to look for the waiter and “saw the last light of the long afternoon strike the mirror above the bar—a flash in a tunnel; hands juggling with fire. That unexpected play, at a remove, borne indoors, displayed to anyone who could look without blinking, was a complete story. It was the brightness on the looking glass, the only part of a life, or a love, or a promise that could never be concealed, changed or corrupted.” Reading Mavis Gallant, we expect to be shown how to look without blinking, to have light shed. That is not to say reading a Gallant story is to arrive at clear-cut meanings. Rather, it is to be immersed in lives, situations, to experience on a visceral level, to view from multiple angles.
Some stories—“Linnet Muir,” “The Carette Sisters,” “Edouard,” “Juliette,” “Lena,” “The Moslem Wife,” “The Four Seasons,” “The Fenton Child,” “Across the Bridge,” “The Remission”—needed much time to pass before they could be written. The rest, written contemporaneously to the decades they document, may refer to topical events, but they are not journalistic. Gallant, who worked on a Montreal weekly for several years as a feature writer before she left for Europe to write fiction, defines the difference between journalism and fiction as being “without and within.” She writes in the preface that “Journalism recounts as exactly and economically as possible the weather in the street; fiction takes no notice of that particular weather but brings to life a distillation of all weathers, a climate of the mind.”
The climate of the mind that Gallant offers in this book is like no other in contemporary fiction. She stands among the best writers of the century, the equal of Nabokov. Her fiction is polyphonic in its blending of voices and thoughts, Proustian in its sensate memory, Chaplinesque in its love of the absurd, like Cannetti in its social observations. Her stories leave the overwhelming impression of being close to Rembrandt's unsparing, wise gaze when he painted his late self-portraits.
Gallant's geographical canvas is Europe and Canada. Her emotional terrain is that of the interior journey, whether that journey is from innocence to experience, or rooted in assessment and recollection, or redefining the ground on which one stands. Many stories are told from the vantage point of the refugee or exile. Several are recounted by men.
The wonderfully gifted American writer Elizabeth Spencer, an admirer of Gallant's once said that stylistically she wants in her own writing a “beautiful spine of language,” neither hobbled like Hemingway's nor inflated like Faulkner's. In contrast, Gallant's style, which has deepened over the years but not changed, does not aim for the transparency Spencer seeks. Her sentences are like heavy water, richly lucid, classically balanced. There is a weighted fullness of equality and contradiction in her writing that is supple, playful, profound. Her use of the semicolon and colon to separate clauses of equal importance or to show the almost imperceptible progression of thought, or cause and effect, is masterly. The sensation for the reader is of traveling, of learning new cardinal points, of pausing for a view, of going on.
In 1953, Gallant wrote “The Other Paris.” She described the kind of domesticity an American in Paris is baffled by when she visits Felix, a refugee, and his older lover Odile—the dirty cheap hotel room with its alcohol stove, its gaudy plastic coffee bowls. In 1993, she wrote “In Plain Sight,” the last story in The Selected Stories. It, too, describes a Parisian domestic scene. Henri Grippes, a Montparnasse man of letters, is alone, at his writing desk, late on a rainy June night. “A radio lying flat on the table played soft jazz from a studio in Milan. A cat slept under the desk lamp. Moths beat about inside the red shade.” Radio waves across Europe and the Middle East, down the length of Africa, in India, in Singapore, in Western Samoa, link the bachelor to a community of “Men and women who had their own cats, moths, lamps, wet weather and incompetent goddess. …” These still-life scenes that are embedded in so many of the stories are truly peace offerings. For if Gallant writes about life's tragedies, the ravages and aftermaths of wars, of what they do to human lives, she is also full of pleasures, of wonderful comforts, of laughter, of a wonderful capacity to enjoy, to savour, to rejoice in light.
Gallant ends her preface with a tribute to her first editor at The New Yorker, William Maxwell, who she says “seems to me the most American of writers and the most American of all the Americans I have known; but even as I say this, I know it almost makes no sense and that it is undefinable and that I am unable to explain what I mean. I can get myself out of it only by saying it is a compliment.” Similarly, reading these stories, one is left with the impression there is something indefinably Canadian about Gallant. A climate of the mind that goes beyond narrow boundaries, definitions, geographies.
The one sad note about this handsome book with its red and black cover is the way it was distributed by McClelland & Stewart. Few copies were in the bookstores at Christmas, and it was not reprinted. Gallant fans were forced to buy the American edition, if they could get it, at a much higher price. Ironically, although much in demand, its Canadian sales became fictions.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1156
SOURCE: Gardam, Jane. “The Language of Her Imagination.” Spectator 278, no. 8805 (3 May 1997): 42-3.
[In the following review, Gardam appraises the literary merits of The Selected Stories of Mavis Gallant.]
It is odd that Mavis Gallant, for decades publishing fiction in the New Yorker, widely translated, winner this year of the Canadian prize for a life dedicated to the arts, is not better known here. Maybe it is because in Britain we are wary of short stories and she has remained faithful to them for over half a century; or at any rate faithful to intense novels from four to 40 pages long, which is not necessarily the same thing; but short stories we call them.
She is also geographically mysterious. Born in Canada she disappeared to Paris as a young woman at the end of the second world war and it is rumoured has stayed in the same apartment and arrondisement ever since. She does not write about England. In these pages of beautiful Centaur print and ruffled edges that might have been cut by Henry James's ivory paper knife—her publishers have done her proud [with The Selected Stories of Mavis Gallant]—there is only one story set in England and the characters in it are all Free French.
Yet she has always written in English and still speaks English every day until noon, French after le dejeuner. The child of English-speaking Canadian Protestant parents she was sent at four to a French-speaking convent boarding school (‘Well, I give up,’ said her grandmother) and by the age of eight, by reading English children's books, maybe in revolt, she had ‘absorbed once and for all the rhythms of English prose,’ and ‘English was firmly entrenched as the language of imagination.’
She left Canada at 27 frightened and ashamed. The fright was that she had inherited a flawed legacy from her father who had described himself as an artist but, she later discovered, had made his living by importing office furniture. (He died very young and she was told he had gone on holiday; this horror appears in one of her few biographical stories.) The shame was because she knew that as a successful journalist she was beginning to allow her real work of writing fiction to slide into second place. She says she has no idea why she chose Paris. She was friendless there, without connections and no job to go to if fiction failed. But having perfect French must have helped. And she can't have been unaware of the compulsion that had sent Katherine Mansfield and Christina Stead and V. S. Pritchett to Europe before her on much the same quest. And maybe, like the innocent Canadian girl in her Fifties story, ‘The Other Paris’ she was expecting, like Christina Stead, a Paris of the imagination; warm breezes and violets on street-barrows, shadows under bridges.
If so the illusion died for ever, as fast as it had done for Pritchett, who says, ‘As my French improved, Paris grew worse. It amazed me that the crowds in the streets had survived the night.’ Mavis Gallant's post-war Paris was a lot worse still. The people were hungry, cynical, threadbare and hundreds of dubious refugees and illegal immigrants lurked in squats in dark alleys trying to forget the mass slaughter in their past. Bold Americans and uneasy Canadians took charge of offices where the French were given a menial status they suffered out of poverty, observing the conquerors with intellectual disdain.
However, she stayed to describe it, and nearly 50 years on is describing it still. At the end of the collection are four brilliant and funny stories of Henri Grippes, man of letters, literary if now mangy lion, still living in the archetypal tenement with cats, fighting the equivalent of the inland revenue over minuscule royalties and expenses, doing battle with his detested English counterpart, the Francophile critic, Prism, and the cockroaches under the sink. Lunatic intellectual Paris is alive and well.
Between the Fifties and the Nineties Gallant must have travelled in Europe and back home. There are stories of what must be experience of post-war Germany and central Europe, Canada (never nostalgically—she returned once to look for roots and found she was thought to be dead) and there are many stories of the south of France and the border with Italy.
These southern stories seem to me her very best. She almost always writes of the displaced, of wanderers and here they are thick on the ground, ex-patriot communities endlessly discussing who and what they really are and where they belong—but seldom truthfully. Even in the most terrifying times, the creeping edge of war, she sees the ridiculous alongside the pathetic. The riff-raff sip their drinks, stroke their dogs, ride up and down their steep stony gardens in electric lifts like coffins, dining with one another to the same old shrieking jokes (‘Walter, it could only happen to you!’), waiting for the telephone to ring. They are all really asking, ‘What is nationality? Patriotism? Europe? Where shall I be buried and who will see to it?’ Peasant servants observe this rag-bag and cannot comprehend.
When wages fizzled out they disappear. Country people see Anglo-Saxon faces, their badinage, as sinister. An Italian child, maid-of-all-work to a demented English couple who live on a bald hill and admire Mussolini, is ditched by her employers when war comes and they run for Britain. They drop her at the (wrong) bus stop for her remote village and she curls up by her cardboard suitcase like a tired animal, but already forgetting them.
The stories are printed in historical sequence from the Thirties to the Nineties, not in the order they were written, and except for a few wispish ones from the Sixties and sometimes rather dated titles, they are remarkably even. She seems to have been in full control of her craft from the start. The latest are the best of all. Totally contemporary, witty, vigorous, very sharp indeed, a grand fusion of French and classic English.
In her preface she says:
There is something I keep wanting to say and I may never have another opportunity … Stories are not chapters of novels. They should not be read one after another. Read one. Shut the book. Come back later.
She's right. Though there's no bravura in her, no devices to excite, no formula aimed at twitching the heart-strings and her settings are all realistic, almost bleached (she's not like Chekhov or Mansfield) she is very exhausting to read because of the depth of her understanding of her characters. In the intensity of her comprehension of them she herself disappears. Love informs even the worst of them, and some are terrible, but the drabbest bore, the most impossible peacocking male (read ‘The Ice-Wagon Going down the Street’) are inhabited by an immortal soul.
She's also thoroughly enjoyable to read. Enjoyable is an unlikely word for this grim half-century, but it is so.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7552
SOURCE: Gallant, Mavis, and Leslie Schenk. “Celebrating Mavis Gallant.” World Literature Today 72, no. 1 (winter 1998): 19-26.
[In the following interview, originally conducted on May 6, 1997, Gallant discusses her literary milieu, its autobiographical dimension, and the French response to her body of work.]
Prior to requesting an interview with Mavis Gallant, deservedly and universally recognized as a master of the short story today (which means of all time), I undertook to read her new Collected Stories.1 Easier said than done. I can take on an 887—page novel with the greatest of ease, but taking on fifty-two short stories amounting to the same number of pages turned out, in this case, to be the equivalent of taking on fifty-two entire novels written by anyone else. For Gallant's stories burst through the limits of what many critics dismiss as the minor art of short-story writing and become indisputably major works of art, thereby elevating the genre itself into higher realms than ever attained before, rather to our consternation and bewilderment but certainly to our heartfelt admiration. I couldn't help wondering how she has managed to do this.
It should be noted from the start, however, that the book's title is a misnomer. I don't know by what aberration fifty-two stories by an author who has already published more than twice that number can be called “collected stories.” Surely “selected stories” would be more appropriate? It is, in fact, published in the U.K. and Canada under that more accurate title.
More noteworthily, perhaps, as I read story after story and found each so vastly different one from the other, I began to ponder whether I could come up with a working definition of “short story” that could possibly cover them all, let alone those by Chekhov, Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, Dorothy Parker, et alia. Most dictionaries were of no help whatever, presumably on the assumption that any fool can figure a short story is simply a story that is short. The Shorter Oxford gives us: “A story with a fully developed theme but shorter than a novel.” Do Gallant's stories have a common theme? Not that I could tell, as I read. Do other authors' stories? Having a theme does not strike me as a predominant, let alone a commonly shared characteristic. I spare you my frustrating researches into dictionary definitions of fiction in general or the novel in particular, but I will share the upshot with you, a startling discovery: one of the potentially and, as here, actually one of the greatest genres of belletrism has not yet been adequately defined. I find this odd, unacceptably odd. As far as Gallant is concerned, her stories do share certain common threads—threads impossible to label as “themes”—but how to sort them out? I managed to collect three rather prickly definitions, not culled from dictionaries, and set off to meet Ms. Gallant as prearranged.
On 6 May 1997, a miserably gray and rainy afternoon in Paris, we were to meet in the nonsmoking section of the Dôme in Montparnasse, near her home. I arrived first, and as I laid out my recording equipment, the garçon-serveur bet me he knew which habituée of the café I was going to interview. When she arrived, he nodded his head at me in typically Gallic body-language to communicate the accuracy of his prediction.
Mavis Gallant approached my table scattering charm like so many droplets from her raincoat. She reminded me of Botticelli's figure of Spring spilling flowers as she proceeds. That the pert, spry, youthfully alert creature before me should bear a few faint liver spots on her hands and brow seemed to me as incongruous as Proust's illusion, in The Past Recaptured, that his friends were disguised under cotton wigs to look old. Mavis Gallant immediately impressed me as ineffably young, whatever her age. In any event, we two relics of quondam Saint-Germain-des-Prés immediately hit it off and chattered away so intently on shared interests that we occasionally had to prod each other into remembering why we were here. Things either of us said set the other off on tangents, zigging and zagging, so that raps on the table from opposite sides were sometimes required to return us to the subject at hand.
I began by checking how her last name was properly pronounced.
“Like the English word, but with the accent on the last syllable,” she told me. “I was once married to a Mr. Gallant. The name is Acadian.”2
I thereupon plunged into the heart of my problem. “I have had great trouble in pinning down an acceptable, overall definition of the short story as a genre, a definition that would not only include other writers' short stories but all of yours. It seems to me no two of yours could fit any one definition.”
“Well, let me give you some stabs at definitions I have come across, for your reactions. Beryl Bainbridge has said, ‘A short story is a waste of a good idea.’”
“Oh, that's flip,” she instantly replied, with a dismissive laugh.
“You agree then that expanding any of your stories into novel-length would not improve them? To me, one of the most admirable constituents of your stories is precisely that not one word needs to be added or changed.”
“Which kind of stories?”
“That's what I'm trying to pin down. For example, how does this next relate to your stories? Ambrose Bierce has said, ‘A novel is simply an easier way of writing a short story.’”
“Ah, that's flip too, but it's not all that wrong. Because almost any story could be a novel. It's not laziness that keeps mine short.3 It's that they have a natural size, length I mean, that arrives with them. They arrive with their luggage.”
I must quote a most significant passage from Mavis Gallant's preface at this point:
The first flash of fiction arrives without words. It consists of a fixed image, like a slide or (closer still) a freeze frame, showing characters in a simple situation. … The quick arrival and departure of the silent image can be likened to the first moments of a play, before anything is said. The difference is that the characters in the frame are not seen, but envisioned, and do not have to speak to be explained. Every character comes into being with a name (which I may change), an age, a nationality, a profession, a particular voice and accent, a family background, a personal history, a destination, qualities, secrets, an attitude toward love, ambition, money, religion, and a private center of gravity.
Over the next several days I take down long passages of dialogue. Whole scenes then follow, complete in themselves but like disconnected parts of a film. I do not deliberately invent any of this: It occurs. Some writers say they actually hear the words, but I think “hear” is meant to be in quotation marks. I do not hear anything: I know what is being said. Finally (I am describing a long and complex process as simply as I can), the story will seem to be entire, in the sense that nearly everything needed has been written. It is entire but unreadable. Nothing fits. A close analogy would be an unedited film. …
Sometimes one sees immediately what needs to be done, which does not mean it can be done in a hurry: I have put aside elements of a story for months and even years. It is finished when it seems to tally with a plan I surely must have had in mind but cannot describe, or when I come to the conclusion that it cannot be written satisfactorily any other way; at least, not by me.
Back to our table. “Your stories often strike me as compact novels.”
“Well yes, many are.”
“I say this, not because some of them come in chapters, but because you know your characters so well, there are so many of them, and they so come alive on the page, and especially because of your stories' thought-provoking impact, the necessity to mull them over at length in order to extract all they contain, the sheer impossibility therefore of simply turning a page as though proceeding from one chapter of a novel to another. Readers are not used to getting all this in short stories, not to this degree, so that the idea of novels' being more difficult to write, as most people would expect, does take on a different light, no?”
“Well, who is on tiptoe all the way through novels, apart from Proust? Whereas in short stories you have to be on tiptoe the whole time, because one word can throw the whole thing off.”
“Le mot injuste can disappear more easily in a novel than in a short story?”
“Yes, that's what I mean.”
“But there's a third definition of a short story I'd like you to comment on.” I passed her the following, typed out in advance:
The protagonist in a short story should have a goal and have obstacles to overcome before reaching it. The obstacles are internal in a literary story and change the protagonist. The obstacles are external in a commercial story and require action on the part of the protagonist. A resolution is desirable in all cases, even one resulting in a compromise.
“Saint George and the dragon, cut and dried,” she scoffed. “What story by Chekhov has a protagonist who has changed? The tragedy is exactly the same at the end as at the beginning. Where on earth did you find this?”
“It's by an editor of one of America's foremost literary reviews.4 It came with a rejection slip. I was shocked. The only occasions I can think of where it might fit would be in a ‘boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-gets-girl’ movie.”
“Well, it's very hard in a movie to show an internal struggle. This man ought to be shot for sending you this. What a pompous ass.”
“I would imagine he is Academia speaking. You agree it fits none of your stories?”
“In an ‘Authors’ Guild Bulletin' Daniel Menaker said that tending your prose was ‘like editing ice cream.’ What did he mean by that?”
“That there was practically nothing for him to edit. He was much happier with other writers, where he could have a field day. But returning to your editor, you know, such editors in general don't really care about us. You remember when the Greek colonels were in power, in the seventies, and they put all the poets on an island? Well, I thought to myself, the Greek population must be relieved, pffft! all those tiresome dissident poets are out of the way, hooray!”
I will spare the reader our many digressions this brought on, until I returned to the charge. But this may be as good a point as any to provide some examples of the gems studding Mavis Gallant's short fiction which have made me so enthusiastic an admirer of her work.
I've discovered something. … It is that sex and love have nothing in common. Only a coincidence, sometimes. You think the coincidence will go on and so you get married. I suppose that is what men are born knowing and women learn by accident.
(From “The Moslem Wife”)
Where was the Paris she had read about? Where were the elegant and expensive-looking women? Where, above all, were the men, those men with their gay good looks and snatches of merry song, the delight of English lady novelists? Traveling through Paris to and from work, she saw only shabby girls bundled into raincoats, hurrying along in the rain, or men who needed a haircut. In the famous parks, under the drizzly trees, children whined peevishly and were slapped.
(From “The Other Paris”)
His wife had been born a Catholic, though no one was certain what had come next. To be blunt, was she in or out? The fact was that she had lived in adultery—if one wanted to be specific—with Tremski until her husband had obliged the pair by dying. There had been no question of a divorce; probably she had never asked for one. For his wedding to Barbara, Tremski had bought a dark blue suit at a good place, Creed or Lanvin Hommes, which he had on at her funeral, and in which he would be buried. He had never owned another, had shambled around Paris looking as though he slept under restaurant tables, on a bed of cigarette ashes and crumbs. It would have taken a team of devoted women, not just one wife, to keep him spruce.
The waiters are patient, except when a customer's reaction to a slopped saucer is perceived as an affront. …
Most of the old ladies at other tables … make a mess with crumbs, feed piecrust to their unruly lapdogs, pester the waiter with questions … repetitive and tedious: Why is that door open? Why doesn't someone shut the door? Well, why can't you get somebody to fix it? …
A man he knows of is said to have filed an affidavit that he was too badly off to be able to pay his yearly television tax and got away with it; here, in Paris, where every resident is supposed to be accounted for; where the entire life of every authorized immigrant is lodged inside a computer or crammed between the cardboard covers of a dossier held together with frayed cotton tape. …
Under a streaming umbrella he walked the ramparts again and when the sky cleared visited Chateaubriand's grave; and from the edge of the grave took the measure of the ocean. He had led his students here, too, and told them everything about Chateaubriand (everything they could take in) but did not say that Sartre had urinated on the grave. It might have made them laugh.
(From “A State of Affairs,” as examples of pinning down whole worlds in few words.)
It will be appreciated, I think, given these strictly narrative excerpts, that Gallant writes for Stendhal's and Shakespeare's “happy few.” But back to our dialogue.
“It would be infinitely easier for me to review your fifty-two individual stories than to write something on your book as a whole, not only because your stories are so vastly different one from the other, but also because the characters are on such different levels of interest … and intellect too.”
“Well, they were written over a long period, over forty years. Don't forget I started publishing in the early 1950s, so there are bound to be various things one has concentrated on. For some years I was interested in Germany and a lot of that is in the book, but then I lost interest. It's funny.”
“How much of what you write is biographical, or even autobiographical?”
“The only things really autobiographical are the five Linnet Muir stories. Those things did happen to a young woman, as I can vouch for, but there is also fiction. If it had been straightforward autobiography I would have used my own name. I used Linnet because it's the name of a bird, and Mavis is the name of a thrush. At this distance, it all becomes fiction.”
“Are there Linnet chapters missing from this selection?”
“No, they're all there. When I wrote them I was rejective of that kind of life and now I am more tolerant. That's funny, too. Now I don't even mind that I had those experiences. When I was Linnet's age I couldn't bear to look at the artifacts of the Catholic Mass, the wafers of the Eucharist, and so on. I was very small and very frightened. I was told that if I opened my eyes during the elevation of the Host I'd go blind, so I sat there.” She squinched her eyes together. “I would never have dreamt then that at my age now I'd have friends who were priests and nuns, which I do. I don't mean I'm about to convert to Catholicism. This is outside the way my mind works. But I do think I would never inflict all that environment onto a child. But still, without it, I would have become just like any other English Canadian, unable to express my feelings.”
“Are you able to say in your own words what you are trying to do when you are writing a short story?”
“No, not at all. The one thing that hasn't changed since I started doing it seriously is that I want to be clear. I don't want to be ambiguous. I want to be clear, absolutely clear.”
“Well, not only do you succeed in that, but it seems to me you manage to bring in additional truths that equally clearly revolve around your central truths.”
“I don't want someone reading to think, ‘I don't know what this is about.’ Forget it. And I would like it not to be boring.”
“No question of that.”
“No, I'm serious. I think it's important. There are many writers who impose being bored on you. People often don't know when they're being bored any more.”
“Many writers give a great deal of importance to the first sentence of their stories; the first sentence should whisk them off into interest in the subject.”
“Well, it shouldn't be a barrier. It has to be an open gate.”
“Have you always been conscious of this?”
“I'm not sure. Certainly the first paragraph is something I often change. It has to be an open door that you want to walk into.”
“Have you noticed that many young people today will start a story in the ‘had’ tense?”
“I loathe them.”
“All apostrophe d's, I mean, even in narration, so that you can't immediately know whether they mean ‘he had’ or ‘he would.’”
“People talk like that. There's nothing one can do.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, to stop it. Except going on doing your work. The language is badly taught. Even the teachers don't know, any more. A great many published books I try to read I can't cope with at all.”
“Is there any common factor in all your stories, even generally speaking?”
“I really don't know. I'm not trying to be uncooperative. I really don't know. If I tried to analyze my work, I will have had it. I don't analyze it. This book has just come out in England and everyone who has reviewed it so far mentions exile, scenes of exile, everybody's an exile, and I got so fed up with this that I took the book and classified each story. Among the fifty-two stories, thirty concern people living in their own country, who have never moved and who are still living in their same neighborhood and street. These are the Canadian stories, the German stories too, except for one where the main character is a prisoner of war. But that happens. And those of my characters who are abroad have jobs; some are on holiday, so of course they're away from home; and there are others who have perfectly plausible political or historical reasons for being away. Relatively very few of them are really in exile. You can count them on one hand.”
“Yes, but there is a possible explanation for that. You are able to get inside people who are of different nationalities from your own, which is quite unusual. In fact, it is very rare.”
“Well, not if you know about them. I don't think I'd be able to write about Albanians getting on a boat and going to Italy. I could not put myself into the skins of people in Hong Kong. I could not put myself in the place of a Vietnamese farmer. It's true people are very much the same the world over, each different and distinctive, but my characters live in places I've been to and can make my way through, and I have lived amongst them.”
“Still, don't you think most fiction writers are provincial compared to you?”
“They write about their milieu, about where they live and work, and it can be fabulous. Look at Alice Munro.”
“Do people ever compare you two, simply because you share Canadian citizenship?”
“Oh, constantly, continually.”
“Who comes out on top?”
“Depends who's doing the comparing. We're very different. We've led different lives. She comes from a small town. What she makes of it is very good. I've been abroad, mostly. She doesn't travel. She doesn't like it, she says. I couldn't do that. My instinct about small towns is to run away from them. But Alice Munro has enormous appeal, believe me. As for me, even as a child, when we went to the country, summers, I loved coming back to Montreal. I even loved the streetcars. I loved the lights of the cinemas where I was not allowed to go.”
“We both seem to have thought that Paris was the only place on earth we could live. What about the France of today, and the general dégringolade5 of the last few years?”
“Well, I still like city-living, and this city is the most livable to me. I also like New York.”
“To live in or to visit?”
“It's too late for me to live there. I wanted to live there for a couple of years, no more, in the 1950s and 1960s, and was turned down because I didn't have a regular income and it was just too difficult. I would have had to ask someone to sponsor me, and what if something happened and that person would have been responsible? But I like going there; I was there a couple of months ago; it's much better than it was, cleaner.”
“Look, I'm still keen on identifying some common factor that underlies your stories. In my notes here I've come up with a tentative statement. May I try it out on you?”
“‘Mavis Gallant discovers or uncovers a set of characters, sometimes as many or more than appear in other writers' novels, and she explains what they are, where they are, and what they may or may not become, which is usually to continue to be what they are.’”
A long pause while she reflected. Then with a smile as bright as a rising sun, “That's probably so, I should think.”
“Really? It was very difficult to come up with even this little.”
“But I'm thinking of how you say there are a lot of characters, but in my stories of Edouard, Juliette, and Lena there are only three characters, there aren't more, and they really remain pretty much what they were, except that Juliette loses that girlish side which Edouard is just as glad she loses because it's so boring, but he's exactly the same as a young man as he is as an older one.”
“Often, too, your characters increase their self-knowledge.”
“Oh well, if they don't they're zombies.”
“Yes, but there are a great many zombies in the world, after all.”
“Or, as Bernard Shaw put it, there are more chumps than geniuses. In any event, there's nothing derogatory in saying that the level of your stories varies, and it seems to me this is a function of your personages or cast of characters, and a question I insert here is: are they sometimes based on real people, as a beginning, as a point of departure?”
“No, no, no. No. And if they are, I wouldn't always know it. It functions exactly as I described it in the preface. It's the only time I've ever tried to describe it, and I did it because William Maxwell said, ‘Keep it personal’; so I did. It's kind of an image that comes to me, and I don't want it to sound like hallucination, because it isn't, but it's like an image of people and I seem to know all about them. That really is so.”
“You seem to know all about them as you set out, or do you uncover them as you go?”6
“I know all about them right off.”
“That's most extraordinary.”
“Well, I know what they're like, let's say. I have written stories where there were real people, but I learned very early not to do it, because I really hurt someone's feelings very much when I was young. She recognized herself and was really hurt, and I never did it again. But apart from that, you must know this yourself, you write about people and you don't know when you are using some people you know and you discover it only when the thing is in proof.”
“Oh, I very often know in the beginning.”
“Oh, my god!”
“And then they take on lives of their own and change completely as they go.”
“Oh, dear. I had one story called ‘Luc and His Father,’ a French story, and when it was translated into French and I came to Luc and his father in the book Overhead in a Balloon, I said, ‘My god, that's the so-and-sos with their son and he was such a dumbbell, and he couldn't get into any of the engineering schools; they had to send him to that primer in Fontainebleau; that's the one who got mixed up with that girl, and they were so upset at the time, and oh! the only thing to do,’ I said to myself, ‘is to send them the book, with a fond dédicace, and no mention of anything.’ And I did, and they didn't recognize themselves. The mother said to me, ‘You know, there are a lot of people like that; we know people like that, with stupid children.’”
“I made my previous comment because the Carette sisters are such smaller people compared to a great many of your others, who are wider in scope, wider in interests, with basically more interesting minds.”
“No, but people like that exist, and the French Canadians of that era were very much like that; they didn't travel much, but I did know them. Take the street I used in “The Chosen Husband.” I asked an elderly French Canadian woman I knew, a very old lady, to help me relocate that street and a certain house on it. We went for a walk, and I said, ‘I think it's the Rue Saint-Hubert that I want.’ We went down that street together (I gave her a very good lunch in a restaurant), then we stopped and I said, ‘Look, a widowed mother and her two daughters are standing at a window. They are to meet for the first time a young man, a caller, who may turn out to want to marry the younger daughter, Marie. They've got to see this suitor coming up from Sherbrooke Street, so they have to be able to see him walk up from where the bus stop is, and the window has to be large enough so they can see en retraite. So what do you think? And they're paying rent like this and like that.’ We stopped again and she said, ‘That's the place.’ She took the matter very seriously. She wasn't a reader, you know. She said, ‘C'est captivant.’ Then she looked up and said, ‘That's the window,’ adding, ‘Look at the beautiful glass [i.e., the windows' heavy glass panes with beveled edges]; you know they don't make that any more.’ And she was right. And I said, ‘Well, who did live there?’ because she knew the whole history. And she said the so-and-sos and their daughter married a notary from Outremont, and she went to live in …’ So I said, ‘That's perfect.’ So I had everything right. Then we went to a church together, where the weddings take place in the story. I didn't do that out of imagination. I wanted it really set, anchored.” There was great emphasis on that last word.
“Another story of yours I found absolute bliss was ‘The Four Seasons.’”
“Ah, yes. The core of the story was an incident I was told about. An English family, living on the French side of the Italian frontier, had decamped in 1940, leaving behind their Italian maid, who was a child, without paying her several months' back wages. After the war, they returned and paid her the exact sum, but not the exact equivalent. So she actually received next to nothing. It was just awful. They were at once so awful and so respectable, so respectable you just couldn't believe it.”
“Yes, but the marvelous thing about it is the way you captured it all. It's all there. I was wondering, and you must excuse me, I hope I'm not being impertinent, but I think it was a mistake to open the collection with ‘The Moslem Wife’ immediately before ‘The Four Seasons’; they are such different stories.”
“Oh, completely different.”
“‘The Moslem Wife’ begins with pages of narration, whereas ‘The Four Seasons’ plunges immediately into the mêlée; every reader is immediately swept off into the action, no doubt raring to read through the whole book, whereas ‘The Moslem Wife’ is more difficult to read. Unless one has to read a certain amount of Mavis Gallant to catch on to what she is getting at, which may be the case.”
“It's a story that men usually like, ‘The Moslem Wife.’ And I've often wondered exactly why. They certainly wouldn't identify with that man. Oh, after all, they might, you never know.”
“A story that rather mystified me, on the other hand, is ‘The Other Paris.’ I liked it enormously, and this was the first but not the last time I asked myself, ‘What is this writer aiming for, exactly?’ I also thought ‘New Year's Eve’ was tremendous.”
“Oh, ask me about the ones you don't like. That will be easier.”
“There were none I didn't like.”
“There must be some you didn't like.”
I had to think hard. “I did wish ‘The Latehomecomer’ had been expanded into a full-fledged novel. I wanted more.”
“It's a German word. Spätheimkehr is ‘latehomecoming,’ and Spätheimkehrer or ‘latehomecomer’ is the word for any late-returning German prisoner of war, though most of these were returning from the Soviet Union. You mean because it was written from a man's point of view?”
“No, I don't think that matters. I have no preferences as to whether a thing is written from a man's or a woman's point of view.”
“I always have a man read it through when I write from a man's point of view. Any man. Not a writer, just someone. And I once did change something because the person who read it said, ‘I've never seen a guy do that.’ I forget what it was.”
“In ‘Across the Bridge’ I was wondering about the opening sentence.”
“‘We were walking across the bridge from the Place de la Concorde, my mother and I—arm in arm like two sisters who never quarrel.’ You couldn't get into it? You found the girl tiresome? I wouldn't blame you.”
“Look, if so it would be no reflection on the writer but on the reader. Maybe I just wasn't up to snuff that day.”
“Listen, Nureyev once said something very true in an interview in Le Monde, which I cut out, in fact. He said there are nights when something goes wrong, and you have to take the blame and not say it was a bad audience. I agree with that.”
“How about the Henri Grippes stories?”
“Ah, I love Henri Grippes. He lives just down here.” She laughed, with a wave of the hand westwards down the Boulevard Montparnasse.
“Now wait a minute; is there somebody who ‘is’ Henri Grippes?”
“He's a mixture.”
“Were there other Grippes installments that are not in this collection?”
“No, but there's one I'm writing now.”
“You can go back to them just like that?” The first Henri Grippes story was published in 1981.
“He's my détente, my complete détente. I can do just as I like with him.”
“Do you have men read those stories too before you send them out?”
“No, for some reason. But don't forget, he is not involved with anyone at all. He is not a sexual person; he's not homosexual; he has a woman now and then. The reason for that is I don't want to do a Madame Maigret; I don't want to create a character who exists for no other purpose but to simplify the plot. I really just want a scheming writer and a slum landlord and the twists and turns of someone in Paris. In the current one he's trying to sell some property that he's never officially declared.”
“Are the Henri Grippes stories known in France?”
“They've all been published here, in French.”
“What are typical French comments on them?”
“Oh they like them well enough.”
“They don't resent une sale étrangère7 knowing so much about them?”
“No, and I was afraid of that. My first book published here was Overhead in a Balloon, and that had a couple of Grippes stories in it. Practically all the characters are Parisians, all French, and I was very frightened. I thought they were going to say dreadful things. Sometimes they do say, ‘O, vous n'êtes pas tendre avec nous.’”
“So they do turn the screw a little bit?”
“Not really. The reviews certainly don't. I was afraid in Germany of the same thing, but it didn't happen.”
“What would you think of a Frenchman going to live in Canada and writing about Canadians?”
“I'd be fascinated.”
I had to laugh at the unexpectedness of that retort.
“It's true. Unless he was going to write the same old clichés about Québec and the red maple trees.”
“I'd like to read aloud an example of one of the many passages in your writing that for me lift right off the page and become life. It's from ‘When We Were Nearly Young’ [set in 1951-52]”:
I sat nervously smoking, and Carlos sat with his head in his hands. Thought suspended, fear emerged. Carlos's terror that he would soon be thirty and that the effective part of his life had ended with so little to show haunted him and stunned his mind. He would never be anything but the person he was now.
“It seemed to me a cutoff edge then.”
“There are gems like this throughout the book, though sometimes in completely different ways.”
“I'm glad I wrote that and the one called ‘Señor Pinedo’ too, because there are things I've forgotten about the Spain of that time, and when I reread them for this selection things came back I would never have otherwise remembered, how television used to sign off with ‘¡Arriba España, Viva Franco!’ and all that.”
“Did you ever revise for this book, as Henry James did for his New York Edition?”
“Oh no, I didn't touch anything.”
“For the danger there, as with him, might be killing the spontaneity?”
“Yes, when it's done, it's done. É fatto. When you're done with it, if you don't like it, write something else, forget it.”
“I find very often you give more information about your characters in one paragraph than many novelists would do in several chapters.”
“Well you have to, because this is condensed. On the other hand it mustn't be like a block of concrete either. It has to be done in a certain way.”
“You say in your preface that you have to wait a few months and then reread, and then you can cut out what has gone dead.”
“Yes, things do go dead.”
“But how can you tell on which occasion your judgment can be trusted, the first time around or a few months later?”
“The first time around there's heat. When you're cool, well, sometimes there is some deadwood that has to be cut out, in fact nearly always.”
“There isn't a possibility that not everything can bear being read five times, ten times?”
“Oh, I do it over and over again. In fact, most of the work is in the rereading.”
“Certainly the most time-consuming part of writing is revising.”
“Yes, rereading and revising.”
“But there comes a time when you're out of it.”
“Ah, when you're out of it, then it's finished. Then you know it's finished. It's just like the surface of this table.”
“Well then, how can you go back years later?”
“Oh well, then it's because it wasn't finished, obviously. It's very surprising, you probably have a thousand folders, as I have, of unfinished work, and sometimes you look at something again and you say either, ‘Well you know, this wasn't bad at all, why did you ever put it aside?’ or, ‘This is never going to be any good.’”
“Do you ever regret having settled in Paris?”
“No. Really and truly.”
“Even when you're cussed out?”8
“You can be cussed out anywhere. What bothers me here is the way people can jostle you on the street, and that's more and more, and sometimes it seems they're doing it on purpose. Just coming over here, I walked, and I had my umbrella up, and a young man, not a kid but a young man, walked by, and of course the whole world is taller than I am, and he just pushed the umbrella in such a way that it turned in my hand, and he walked on.”
“He didn't say anything?”
“Oh, they never do.”
“And if they do they scream at you.”
“But they do scream at each other, and it's not written on you or on me that we're not French. They are still taught good formal manners and so forth, but they are not taught consideration, consideration for others, and that's the difference between the French and other people.”
“Another story I liked enormously was ‘A State of Affairs.’”
“Oh you liked that, did you?”
“Well, it's not every day that tears come to my eyes when I'm reading prose. As a child did you ever read the Oz books?”
“No, I didn't, oddly enough. I read them as a curiosity when I was older.”
“They were the books that first opened my mind to things imaginative.”
“When I was a child in Canada, there were more English books than American books around. If I had American books, it was because my mother had basically American connections, and that's why I had Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer. My mother gave it to me.”
“Have you never written a story that was simply true, that was not fiction or fictionalized but was just a simple récitation of something as it happened?”
“I don't think I've ever done that, no. I would try and fit such a thing into something else, maybe a study of the complete ignorance of people about other people.”
“I have purposefully not pried into your private life because I am convinced, especially after having read Hermione Lee's biography of Virginia Woolf, that finally there is an unbridgeable gulf between the life and the work.”
“I entirely agree.”
“And really, for the outside world, it's only the work that counts. But just to make sure, my final question to you is this: do you think there are any events in your own private life that do have bearing on your creativity?”
“Just what I put in the preface. I thought about it a lot last year when I was writing that preface; I spent three months on it, not working on anything else; it's the first time I ever talked about my work, and I wanted to get it right once and for all. I think the essential point is having books very young. I was taught to read very young, and nobody has ever written who doesn't read.”
“Oh there are people nowadays who have hardly read, people who think any words they spill on a page make a poem.”
“But I think the reading I did young in English and in a French environment triggered something. I don't really know.”
“Surely reading someone like Proust at any age eggs you on into loving literature, seeing the magic that's possible, and tempts you to try it out yourself?”
“Well, I already loved literature before I started reading Proust. There's always a volume of his hanging around someplace that I dip into …”
At which point the second side of my recording tape wound out. We continued conversing—one can hardly call it an interview—and when we finally separated, expressing hopes we would see each other again, Mavis Gallant walked off in the direction of Henri Grippes's residence, firmly anchored in place and in her mind, and I thought: one day perhaps there will be a plaque on his door.
Since then I have gone through the stories all over again, earnestly seeking a typical piece to analyze here, but to no avail. There is no typical story. Mavis Gallant seems to reinvent the foundational structure of the short-story form each time she launches herself into a new one. Still, a general critique can be made, a critique which is not a criticism: it is that she demands a great deal from her readers. This is not dispraise; it is praise of the highest order. As readers, we have to be “on tiptoe” as with only the greatest writers, those who have as many things or more to tell us between as they do inside their lines—Henry James, Virginia Woolf, Shakespeare himself—where our attention must be glued to the sticking point at all times, or we risk missing essentials. If I were forced to point out anything negative, I might say that narration sometimes comes too early in some of the stories, before the fully dramatized bits, so that the reader has to work really hard to get into the swing of the tale; but even there, juggling narration and dramatization is a problem for all writers of fiction, and in Gallant, at least, the struggle is worth the effort.
Another general characteristic, and one which I take as exemplary and positive, is that she often deals with characters who are not from the same milieux as those of her putative readers, characters they would not run into by turning a corner in their town, city, or farm where they live and breathe, characters who are not necessarily even speakers of English. Yet, through her unique touch, these foreigners repay our undivided attention by becoming as real (or more real) to us as (or than) do our neighbors next door. This is a most extraordinary achievement.
A call for total attention is, moreover, not a requirement she shares with many other North American writers of short stories, most particularly those who hail from the United States, where in general attention is increasingly paid to the lowest common denominators, also known as “ordinary people,” who if anything are even more inarticulate than their creators, whose hold on the language is increasingly wobbly. True, many of Mavis Gallant's extensive cast of characters are ordinary people, but there is always one telling difference: they have extraordinarily interesting minds, exemplifying what conscious awareness of self, others, and society as a whole can attain: they are sooner or later capable of seeing themselves.
What finally has to be said and even underlined is that Mavis Gallant has not only written wonderful short-story masterpieces but has thereby advanced the form itself. That alone makes her Collected Stories a book to cherish, for years, to be dipped into only when the reader's receptivity is at its highest. As she puts it in her preface:
There is something I keep wanting to say about reading short stories. I am doing it now, because I may never have another occasion. 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.
Normally, short-story writers are given short shrift when literary prizes are being handed out, lazy minds having settled that the genre is a minor one—which, after all, it often is. Well, in my opinion here is a writer who has singlehandedly expanded its scope into a major art, and has “contributed to international understanding” as well. If I had anything to say about it, Mavis Gallant would be nominated for the next Neustadt Prize.
Mavis Gallant. The Collected Stories of Mavis Gallant. New York. Random House. 1997. xix + 890 pages. ＄45. ISBN 0-679-44886-1.
Gallant is Canadian.
The stories in this selection are from five to sixty pages in length.
John Weber, an editor of Potpourri.
Things falling apart, a collapse, by which I meant the difficulty of coping with everyday life despite constant strikes, bombs in subways, inept politicians yapping on unconnectedly, everything wrong in France being blamed on us foreigners, et cetera.
Apologies for my having on occasion, during this conversation, forgotten some elements from the preface, which I had at the time read only once and even then all of three months and over 800 pages previously.
Currently, many of France's troubles are blamed by the far-right Front National on us “filthy foreigners,” the very words.
Etre engueulé: to be told off in no uncertain terms, to be sworn at—a Parisian specialty, particularly with perfect strangers.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2120
SOURCE: Coe, Jonathan. “The Life of Henry Grippes.” London Review of Books 19, no. 18 (18 September 1997): 13.
[In the following review, Coe applauds the literary achievements of The Selected Stories of Mavis Gallant in terms of the volume's “Henri Grippes” narrative sequence.]
This enormous volume [The Selected Stories of Mavis Gallant]—beautifully designed, bound and typeset by its publishers—represents the merest sliver of Mavis Gallant's lifelong achievement. Even discounting the two novels and the books of essays, what we have here can amount to little more than half the content of her nine published short-story collections. Gallant has made the selection herself, rejecting ‘straight humour and satire, which dates quickly … stories that seemed to me not worth reprinting, stories I was tired of, and stories that bored me.’ It sounds like a haphazard and subjective methodology, but the resulting sequence does have an awesome cohesiveness.
Most of the stories assembled here were first seen in the New Yorker, where Gallant has been offered a regular platform under the benign aegis of William Maxwell and, later, David Menaker. Although they span almost half a century—the earliest was published in 1953, the latest in 1995, Gallant's 73rd year—they are nonetheless eerily consistent in voice and preoccupation. Gallant writes about exiled people: characters in exile from their country of birth (she herself left Canada in 1950, and has lived in Europe ever since) and characters in exile, more damagingly, from their emotions. She delineates these characters with an incisive cruelty that is never judgmental, and her narratives tend to resist closure or easy resolution. Gallant insists in her punchy Introduction that ‘stories are not chapters of novels,’ but some of these might almost be, since each one implies so much history before the opening sentence, and gestures towards so much more incident after the final full stop. Like one of her earliest heroines—a prematurely disillusioned bride-to-be, shocked to hear her fiancé working up his account of their miserable evening together into an amusing anecdote—Gallant resists the falsifying process whereby her stories might be wrenched into ‘a coherent picture, accurate but untrue.’
This is not the only comment on the nature of storytelling to be found in these pages. One of this collection's many pleasures is that it can be used, if one chooses, as a user's manual to different forms of writing, good and bad. Among Gallant's more recent creations is one of her most memorable: the work-manlike but patently mediocre novelist and man of Parisian letters Henri Grippes. Grippes flits through the book's last four, caustic stories. A shallow, opportunistic writer, he still somehow manages to elicit the reader's sympathy by virtue of his rotten luck and his chronic unpopularity with the book-buying public: there's a mordant, redeeming humour here which is given freer rein than in Gallant's weightier stories. This, for instance, is Grippes's experience of the événements of the late Sixties:
10 May 1968. Clouds of tear gas. Cars overturned in Paris streets. Grippes's long-awaited autobiographical novel, Sleeping on the Beach, had appeared the day before. His stoic gloom as he watched students flinging the whole of the first edition onto a bonfire blazing as high as second-storey windows. Grippes's publisher, crouched in his shabby office just around the corner, had already hung on the wall the photograph of some hairy author he hoped would pass for Engels … Grippes, pale trench coat over dark turtleneck, hands clenched in trench coat pockets, knew he was ageing irreversibly, minute by minute. Some of the students thought he was Herbert Marcuse and tried to carry him on their shoulders to Le Figaro's editorial offices, which they hoped he would set on fire.
But it's not enough for Gallant simply to offer us jokes at Grippes's expense. If the jokes are to have substance and bite, he must be more than a booby: and in fact they become even more delicious, seasoned with sadness and the tragedy of thwarted aspiration, if Grippes is made to appear not entirely talentless, but gifted—as 99 out of 100 published writers are—with just enough talent to bring his literary output within a hair's breadth of being worthwhile. And so, running coolly through the list of surrogate heroes Grippes has devised for himself during his writing career, Gallant offers us this revealing insight into his methods:
It was at about this time that a series of novels offered themselves to Grippes—shadowy outlines behind a frosted-glass pane. He knew he must not let them crowd in all together, or keep them waiting too long. His foot against the door, he admitted, one by one, a number of shadows that turned into young men, each bringing his own name and address, his native region of France portrayed on colour postcards, and an index of information about his tastes in clothes, love, food and philosophers, his bent of character, his tics of speech, his attitudes toward God and money, his political bias, and the intimation of a crisis about to explode underfoot.
The curious thing about this is that it's close—very close—to the account given by Gallant herself in her Introduction, when she describes the process by which her own stories ‘occur’ to her. ‘The first flash of fiction,’ she assures us, ‘arrives without words. It consists of a fixed image, like a slide or (closer still) a freeze frame, showing characters in a simple situation.’ There seems to be no particular resemblance here to Grippes and his shadowy young men, until she adds that ‘every character comes into being with a name (which I may change), an age, a nationality, a profession, a particular voice and accent, a family background, a personal history, a destination, qualities, secrets, an attitude toward love, ambition, money, religion, and a private centre of gravity.’
Far from satirising Grippes, then, Gallant is actually ascribing to him much the same creative capacity that she recognises in herself. The crucial difference, as in so much of her writing, lies in the detail. There's something crashingly literal about Grippes's approach to fiction, evident not just in the obvious put-down about each of his characters arriving with ‘his native region of France portrayed on colour postcards,’ but in the bureaucratic fussiness with which he demands ‘an index of information’ and in the simplistic insistence on ‘tics of speech’ and a ‘political bias.’ Compare Gallant's professed approach to her own characters she listens for ‘a particular voice and accent rather than tics of speech,’ seeks ‘qualities’ and ‘secrets,’ while phrases like ‘a destination’ and ‘a private centre of gravity’ are both exact and wildly, endlessly suggestive. On one level, it seems, Gallant is being generous to Grippes, making it clear that he is more than a mere charlatan or hack. Nevertheless, the qualitative difference between what he does and what Gallant knows the real writer to be capable of is at once tiny and momentous.
If Gallant's account of her own creative process is shot through with both suggestiveness and exactitude, we can observe a similar tension running throughout the whole of her fiction, and giving her stories their peculiar dynamic. To my mind, the finest work on display here is also the most closely autobiographical: the four-story sequence called “Linnet Muir,” written in the Seventies. Although they display correspondences with the contours of Gallant's early life (upbringing in a rural suburb of Montreal, daughter of an English painter who died very young and so on), these stories put up a vigorous resistance to the claims of nostalgia. This is not to say that they're cold, or that Gallant denies us the occasional indulgence in the sort of pastel, soft-focus tableau we like to associate with remembered childhood: she writes raptly of the interior of a doctor's house with rooms and passages ‘papered deep blue fading to green … so that the time of day indoors was winter dusk, with pools of light like uncurtained windows.’ But generally such descriptions are held in check by a chastening level-headedness. Looking back to Montreal in the Thirties, she tells us that ‘the end of the afternoon had a particular shade of colour then,’ but goes on to insist, adamantly, that this memory is ‘not tinted by distance or enhancement but has to do with how streets were lighted.’ A few lines later in the same passage, she describes ‘the reddish brown of the stone houses, the curve and slope of the streets, the constantly changing sky’ not as ‘beautiful’ or ‘splendid’ or ‘heartbreaking’ but as ‘satisfactory’; and not just satisfactory, but ‘satisfactory in a way that I now realise must have been aesthetically comfortable.’
There are no thoughtless repetitions in Gallant's writing: even across almost 900 pages, you can't tease out mannerisms or ‘tics of speech.’ There is, all the same, something characteristic about her use of the word ‘satisfactory’ in that sentence: something that tells us a little about how her stories work. It's not that it deflates, exactly, the poetic lustre of the descriptions that surround it, but it does somehow keep the reader anchored, injecting a slightly jaded, qualifying note: as if to remind us that, however precious our memories might seem, however lovely things might look when viewed in the warm glow of recollection, the world is really nothing to get too excited about. This is not a common-sense viewpoint, either: it goes beyond that, into a kind of cosmic impatience with all things human, and quite often Gallant will achieve this effect by dropping in a single word like a lethal bomb. It happens in the very first sentence of her Introduction, when she mentions Samuel Beckett's response to a ‘hopeless’ question from a Paris newspaper; it happens again in Linnet Muir, when she refers to a grandmother who made her sit at meals with books under her arms so she would learn not to stick out her elbows, and adds: ‘I remember having accepted this nonsense from her without a trace of resentment.’ More subtly, we find it in an early story called ‘An Unmarried Man's Summer,’ in which the hero finds that his Riviera home becomes quite intolerable during the summer months when the nearby hotel is busy, and the sheer scale of his discomfiture is conveyed by the single word ‘tons’ in the sentence, ‘Its kitchen sends the steam of tons of boiled potatoes over Walter's hedge.’
Gallant's impatience with the world is nothing more than the inevitable cross to be borne by anyone who observes it with such scrupulous accuracy; but it also co-exists and fertilises with an extraordinary patience when engaged in the task of giving her observations a fictional shape. ‘An Unmarried Man's Summer,’ she tells us, grew from one of those freeze-frame images which constitute ‘the first flash of fiction’: in this case, the image of a young Italian boy called Angelo following the hero, Walter, through the streets of a ‘shadeless, hideous town,’ begging for coins. It's easy enough to imagine what most short-story writers would have done with this idea: the first exchange of angry words, the slippage into conversation, the beginnings of a relationship. How agile and adventurous, then, to have bothered with none of that: to have allowed one's mind to fast-forward any number of years to the point where the relationship is well established, crystallised into a dependency between master and valet; to have foreseen the master's aloofness and irritation, the valet's plucky capacity for masking his own deep-rooted sense of lovelessness. From the starting point of this relationship Gallant imagines an entire milieu, in which the unmarried Walter becomes the lapdog of a circle of lonely, doting women, mainly widows and divorcées: to them he must always be ‘naughty Walter’ or ‘wicked boy’ because ‘part of the memory of every vanished husband or lover or son is the print of his cruelty,’ and Angelo must always be ‘the comic valet,’ ‘his hilarious and unpredictable manservant’—reduced to the status of an anecdote, and denied the inner, independent life for which this very unpredictability is an obvious groping. All this complexity, and history, and bleak, unconsoling truth from one freeze-frame image: no sooner glimpsed than registered and swiftly left behind. The generous brilliance of Gallant's method is almost intimidating. These stories are the product of a daunting talent, and this is in some ways a daunting book. Enthusing to friends during the time I've spent with it, I've found that, in this country at least, Mavis Gallant is not well known, or widely read. Perhaps people sense a superficial froideur in her writing that puts them off, or they simply don't realise that you can be brainy and have feelings at the same time. Wrong on both counts, anyway: and this book is the triumphant proof.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1268
SOURCE: Hatch, Ronald B. “Selected Gallant.” Canadian Literature 160 (spring 1999): 159-61.
[In the following review, Hatch assesses the merits of The Selected Stories of Mavis Gallant, but regrets the volume's uneven distribution in Canada.]
That [The Selected Stories of Mavis Gallant] is beautifully produced, a fine selection of her stories, and a bargain at ＄39.95 for almost 900 pages is the crucial point to make in this review about one of Canada's most eminent fiction writers. Yet there are also a number of oddities about the publication that require mentioning. The volume appeared in late 1996 to the sort of hype we have come to expect from a major publisher like McClelland & Stewart, but within a short time many bookstores were complaining that they could not obtain stock. Canadian Literature's copy arrived only recently. Part of the problem seems to have been that McClelland & Stewart opted for a split run with Random House in the United States, and the Canadian publisher apparently experienced problems in wrestling the required number of copies away from their bigger partner. In this regard, one can also note that McClelland & Stewart received funding for the publication from the Canada Council, money which the Council normally expects to be spent in Canada.
The split run between the two nations resulted in another anomaly, this time in the title. The US edition appears under the title, The Collected Stories which it clearly is not. While the size of the book—887 pages—might lead anyone to believe that it is a “Collected,” avid Gallant readers will find a number of their favourite stories missing, and Gallant herself comments in the Preface that she was forced to omit many stories, some of which she said she no longer liked, but also a dozen or so stories which she still liked, which had “stood up to time,” but for which there was not sufficient room. Clearly the Canadian title of Selected Stories is much more accurate.
Another feature that will at first strike many readers as curious (perhaps even annoying) is the ordering of the stories. The volume does not print the stories chronologically or by theme, but begins by arranging them by the decades of their setting. Thus the first group of stories is set in the 1930s and 1940s, the next set in the 1950s, and so on. Beyond the 1990s this method of organization breaks down, and we are presented with four sets of linked short stories: the “Linnet Muir” series, the “Carette Sisters,” “Edouard, Juliette and Lena” and the highly satirical “Henri Grippes” series. Moreover, the “Linnet Muir” stories are largely based on events in Gallant's own life and take us back into the 1920s. This ordering assumes much more significance when Gallant explains in her Preface that the editors left the selection and ordering of the stories up her. That being the case, it is evident that Gallant wanted to draw attention to her historical settings.
Why this should be so is not difficult to determine. For years now, reviewers in magazines and newspapers have stressed Gallant's superb stylistic abilities, but have had little to say about her content. Indeed, of all our major fiction writers it would seem that Gallant is the most difficult to label. Occasionally a reviewer will mention the large number of expatriates in her world, might even go on to mention a few of the well known facts about her life, such as the many schools she attended, or the fact that she was brought up speaking both English and French in Montreal, or that she was a successful journalist for the Montreal Standard for many years. Yet there is little mention of Gallant's topics or themes.
In drawing attention to her historical settings, it is likely, then, that Gallant is pointing her readers to an important feature of her work: that her characters are immersed in history and time. In saying this I am not suggesting the old canard about foreground and background—brilliantly lit characters in the foreground set against a darkly shadowed background of time and place. In a Gallant story, characters embody as part of their own individual personality, their will, if you like, historical public forces—or the lack of them. Often, in fact, Gallant shows protagonists drawing on ideals and motivations from the past that do not relate to the present, and leave them unable to deal authentically with the present, as in the early story “The Other Paris” or in her brilliant novel composed of linked stories Green Water, Green Sky (not represented here).
In other Gallant stories, she portrays characters who continually recreate their own versions of the past to take advantage of present circumstances—as in the story based lightly on the life of Jerzy Kocinzski. In other stories—and especially in her superb series about post-war Germany—Gallant portrays characters who are part of a collective national amnesia, as when Germany in the Adenauer era embraced a philosophy of “no experiments.” As Gallant saw it, the result was an entire nation of people living as though the past had been passed over, even though it continually erupted in their post-war lives in nightmare and, more importantly, in the sorts of social patterns that had led to the Hitler years. In this respect, it is good to see that the novella The Pegnitz Junction has not been omitted because of its length, for it represents Gallant at her most experimental and her most telling in the presentation of the past-in-the-present.
As always with Gallant, her prefaces are to be treasured, for it is here that she allows us a glimpse of her formative influences and her method of writing. Of particular interest is what she says of her present editor at The New Yorker, Daniel Menaker, who replaced William Maxwell. In this context, she explains that it was because she and her new editor shared the same sense of humour, and that she knew she “could make him laugh,” that she began to “write straight satire, which gradually evolved into stories, such as the stories about Henri Grippes, the Montparnasse author and slum landlord.” This connection not only helps to explain the many short-shorts that Gallant wrote for a brief period in The New Yorker, but also something of her satiric intention in the Henri Grippes series with which she ends this Selected Stories.
The Grippes stories are some of the most densely written of all Gallant's work. They contain both a sadness and brilliant wit that sit ambiguously side by side. It is in these stories that she tackles the plight of the artist who discovers that his deepest thoughts are quotations from earlier authors. Nowhere can he find the originality that he so desperately seeks. Indeed, much of the time he does not know what are his own thoughts, for he lives in a world of recurring media images and has been “carried along the slow, steady swindle of history and experience.” In her creation of the writer Henri Grippes, Gallant both delineates and satirizes the postmodern historical condition. Equally important, she points to the weaknesses of its origin.
The Selected Stories of Mavis Gallant was undoubtedly a mammoth undertaking, but it is clear that an even larger edition, multi-volumed, is required: a “Collected Works” that will include all her stories, her novels, her play and her non-fiction pieces. Mavis Gallant has shown time and again that she can unpack our history and our lack of history, in language that is both nuanced and funny; we need all the works of a writer of this stature in print.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5253
SOURCE: Besner, Neil. “Reading Mavis Gallant's 1940s in the 1990s: ‘The Fenton Child.’” University of Toronto Quarterly 68, no. 4 (fall 1999): 898-908.
[In the following essay, Besner explicates the “Canadian” perspective in the story “The Fenton Child,” correlating its literary achievement to contemporary Anglo-French Canadian life.]
Fiction, like painting, consists entirely of more than meets the eye; otherwise it is not worth a second's consideration.
(Mavis Gallant's ‘The Moslem Wife’ has more going on in it than five novels).
Mavis Gallant and Alice Munro both published their Selected Stories in 1996. These handsome volumes, one largely jet black, the other mostly cream white, seem to stand like magisterial bookends on a long shelf capable of accommodating Gallant's and Munro's previous work—including, between the two of them, some seventeen books of stories—and held up at either end by the twinned supports of two of our major readings of the short fiction written in Canada from 1950 on.
Looking along that shelf would open a perspective not simply onto an immobile past—any vital sense of the past, and especially across the several eras as conflicted as these last fifty years, calls insistently for revision—but also onto the present, calling for a more current reading of the short story in Canada. Such a reading could begin by generously bracketing ‘Canada’ in order to read ‘story’ among the most plural and indeterminate contexts we have ever had available to us. The old dualities, those twinned supports—binaries beginning with nation and region, geography and history, Europe and North America, realism and (post)modernism, theme and form, or substance and style—are no longer so insistently with us.
Because these dualities do not resonate as they once did, it now seems commonplace, but also distorted, to observe that the volumes at either end of that shelf represent two of the finest achievements of the modern Canadian story. The first commonplace dislocates Canada internationally. In this reading, throughout her career Gallant has represented ‘Canada’ in her fiction, when she does so at all, as absent from or ignorant of a larger vision of North American and Europe. Traditionally, that perspective was one assigned in Canada to the writer in exile, the expatriate, or the disaffected: Norman Levine in his short fiction, Mordecai Richler in some of his novels, among many others. (Gallant has remarked that she finds it revealing that ‘expatriate’ is often misspelled in Canadian newspapers as ‘expatriot’; Home Truths, xii.)
From this perspective, Gallant's ‘Canadian’ stories could be separated out and collected under a title such as that of her award-winning book, Home Truths: Selected Canadian Stories (1981)—a title that points, misleadingly, to their national venue as their central theme. But for Gallant, the subject of Canadian identity, lost or otherwise, was always an invention, something that sounded ‘tense and stormy and romantic’ as she put it in a 1978 interview (Hancock, 26). To read Gallant's stories through this lens, understanding ‘Europe’ as the larger domain in which ‘Canada’ becomes almost precolonial, is to diminish and restrict both contexts. More significantly, this focus actually veils the kind of attention vital to reading Gallant's short fiction.
A related argument could be made about the volume at the other end of the shelf, but that is the opening of another discussion. A focus on Munro's loving attention to southwestern Ontario might lead to an exaltation of her writing as the finest regional achievement in Canadian short fiction, but that reading is equally distorting; under the counterpoint intensity of such a gaze, the bookshelf might crumble and collapse. It already has. Better to allow the spectra of long views, long bookshelves, and the majesty of two large volumes to fade out for the moment; better to look more closely at one book, one story.
The fifty-two stories in Gallant's volume, representing much less than half of her published short fiction, have been arranged in nine sections. The first five represent decades, with the first and the last of these, ‘The Thirties and Forties’ and ‘The Eighties and Nineties,’ doing double duty. The last four sections collect some of Gallant's linked stories; the best-known of these groups, justly, is the Linnet Muir sequence, which in this selection collects five of the six Linnet Muir stories (the sixth and slightest, ‘With a Capital T,’ was first published in a book in Home Truths).
The arrangement of part of the selection into decades was an inspired idea. Many of Gallant's finest stories (among them, ‘The Moslem Wife,’ which opens this book) evoke a historical era—often, the volatile and fragmented era before or after one of the world wars. By opening the book with a section of three stories that create this kind of retrospective on the same era, but from widely different stances, the volume begins by offering a fine representative version of Gallant's fictional world in the space of ninety-two pages. These three stories each mobilize the wide but intricately connected array of detail, allusion, gesture, and echo that has become Mavis Gallant's signature. And each story rediscovers a past—here, the 1930s and 1940s in one part of Europe, and the later 1940s in Montreal—by showing, and in effect re-enacting, the conditions that create the era.
‘The Thirties and Forties’ is at once the shortest section at three stories, and one of the richest, given that two of the three stories are arguably novellas. Of the three stories, two, ‘The Moslem Wife’ and ‘The Four Seasons,’ are from Gallant's finest book, From the Fifteenth District: A Novella and Eight Short Stories (1979). The last, ‘The Fenton Child,’ is the final story in Gallant's recent book Across the Bridge: New Stories (1993). Gallant has often reminded us that the date of publication, either in the New Yorker or in a book of stories, does not of course correspond to the dates when she began or finished a particular story. But regardless of when she wrote ‘The Fenton Child,’ its appearance at the end of Across the Bridge (where it appeared for the first time, unlike almost all of Gallant's stories, which are usually published first in the New Yorker) and at the beginning of the Selected Stories serves as an apt sign of both the consistency and the evolution of Gallant's fiction. A reading of ‘The Fenton Child’ also can serve both to retrace and reformulate the contours of her fiction. Ondaatje's comment about how much is ‘going on’ in ‘The Moslem Wife’ (xv) applies equally to ‘The Fenton Child’; in both stories, a particular past comes alive both as it was, and, more uncannily and instructively, as it lives with us now.
From its title onwards, one of the central literal intrigues in ‘The Fenton Child’ concerns the three-month-old baby that a trio of characters picks up from a Catholic orphanage in Montreal. Answers to the literal questions about the baby, however—our uncertainty, for example, about its real parents—become both increasingly evident and increasingly irrelevant. Many of the story's less explicit, more subterranean and more powerful suggestions about the public and private culture of Montreal in the late 1940s rise up around the baby and its various adoptive adults. The relations between French and English in Montreal—cultural and linguistic, financial and familial, religious or bureaucratic; the shadow of male nostalgia, twinned with male desire, for the recent war; the repressive power of the Catholic church and its call to a celibate life for women; the meanings available to us now and to the culture of the late 1940s for the institution of marriage; the sexual mores of the time, and the avenues open or more often closed off to a woman's sexual awakening; these elements pass through and qualify the characters' conflicted apprehensions of the baby and the meanings of its presence.
The first and most immediate level at which a Gallant story compels and delights is from sentence to sentence, and a brief analysis of the opening page of ‘The Fenton Child’ confirms how that is so. It is characteristic of Gallant's narrative technique that the representation of the baby is riddled with ironies and layers of meaning that multiply, but become increasingly transparent to an attentive reader. ‘Fiction … consists entirely of more than meets the eye,’ Gallant remarks in ‘An Introduction’ to Home Truths. What first meets the eye in this story is her recurring deployment of striking assertions that read as if they were uncontested fact. At one level they are. But they silently and insistently signal their instability, open out their unreliability or their foolishness, and introduce a host of other qualities, all of them undeclared, all of them significant and available, all of them shaping the conditions for the story. Consider the opening sentence:
In a long room filled with cots and undesired infants, Nora Abbott had her first sight of Neil, who belonged to Mr. and Mrs. Boyd Fenton.
To place the cots ahead of the infants sets in motion an order of significance governing the contents of the impersonal and bare ‘long room’; to ‘fill’ the cots with ‘undesired infants’ signals a mechanical, passive, and as yet unknown agency. Although we do not know who or what the agents are, we would like to, and we will by story's end. The active core of the sentence is the embedded declaration that is less simple than meets the eye: ‘Nora Abbott had her first sight of Neil.’ Nora Abbott alone and in relation with others (including, vitally, Neil Boyd Fenton) will be this story's mostly silent protagonist; many of the qualities of her character will be conveyed through the differences between what she gains sight of, what she imagines, and what she thinks, says, or perceives. Central among the objects of her gaze are, on one hand, the baby in all of his changing aspects and significance, and on the other, men; both are at once desirable and repellent mysteries.
In the opening sentence, Neil ‘belonged’ to the Fentons, but the impersonality and detachment of the opening prepositional phrase has already inflected ‘belonged’ with conflicted meanings: how does Neil, one of the ‘undesired infants’ filling one of the cots in that antiseptic long room, ‘belong’ to the Fentons? As a legal possession? By filiation or affiliation? By blood? For love, or to replace lost love? The revelation of the several senses in which the baby belongs to the Fentons, to Nora, or to others is one of the story's burdens, and one of the wonders of the story is that it seems to bear this burden as a matter of fact. Another is how tensile each strand of revelation will prove to be, so that ultimately the whole structure will at once hold and yield meanings that continue to proliferate before our eyes.
While the narration sets in motion questions such as those about the status of the Fenton child, another vital element makes the first of its recurring appearances. The rhythms of declarative assertions that dissolve under their own apparently forceful solemnity trace one prominent structural element in Gallant's style. At the same time, series of apparently more static layers of description enter the narration. The first series clothes the baby—clothes and exposes him at once. Consider the second, third, and fourth sentences:
The child was three months old but weedy for his age, with the face of an old man who has lost touch with his surroundings. The coarse, worn, oversized gown and socks the nuns had got him up in looked none too fresh. Four large safety pins held in place a chafing and voluminous diaper.
The story will multiply conflicting descriptions of the baby, presented from the point of view of this first narrator (a point of view that itself will multiply and qualify its modes of detachment, as we will see); from the interior and explicit thoughts and pronouncements of other characters; and from their gestures as well. The opening descriptive gestures signal dissonance and dislocation. ‘Weedy,’ the most striking adjective in the paragraph, prepares for the unsettling suggestion that a three-month-old child could have the ‘face of an old man.’ This opening description of the child's countenance is one of many that will allude to its gaze, which will seem to call back to the perceived, imagined, or actual responses to the child such as Nora's ‘first sight.’ Here, the baby's gaze appears disoriented, and the child's ‘coarse’ outsized clothes are uncomfortable, not its own; the story's first mention of the nuns suggests they have dressed him for a performance—‘got him up in’ these clothes.
In the short space and time of a paragraph, readers have had their first sight of the Fenton child and of Nora. The story will uncover Nora's several dilemmas as a young woman of her time, placing her firmly in a detailed evocation of her milieu, the Montreal of the late 1940s, and showing how that milieu defines and constricts her, how it enters and in a sense becomes her own constrained consciousness.
The story's second paragraph sets the exploration of Nora's conflicts in motion, and its opening sentences provide fine examples of how narrative voice in Gallant's fiction can seem at first to hover overhead, producing an effect at once direct, ironic, compassionate, and judgmental: ‘Nora was seventeen and still did not know whether she liked children or saw them as part of a Catholic woman's fate’ (163). What is communicated here? At the surface, a reader might greet this assertion as an ironic judgment on a naïve girl. But the alternative presented to Nora are themselves ludicrous, and their provenance is indeterminate. Furthermore, presented in this way, the alternatives go beyond simply suggesting that Nora is young and naïve, Catholicism stupidly severe. The simplistic equation that would assign responsibility for Nora's ignorance of her own attitudes about children either to Nora or to the culture is itself flawed. While we contemplate these mock-rigorous alternatives, the narrative voice modulates: Nora's still not knowing what she feels about children provides the narrator with one of many opportunities to angle towards a vantage point no longer hovering above Nora, or wholly within Nora, but not entirely complicit with a knowing reader, either. Who narrates the next sentence? ‘If they had to come along, then let them be clear-eyed and talcum-scented, affectionate and quick to learn’ (163). This is a perspective that is at once Nora's, a dewy-eyed parent's, or a dewy-eyed culture's, and after reading the first sentence, we might now be quicker to condemn these silly strictures than we were to pass judgment on Nora. We might also be less certain about precisely who is being judged, and from what quarter.
Meanwhile that weedy, ill-dressed baby is still before us in that long room because by now we have entered fictional time and space, by which I mean verbal time and space; in this setting, narrative voice and gaze can move ‘back’ to the Fenton child, and readers can move from a moment's reflection on the shifting narrative stance to a deeper immersion in the story as we are returned again to the baby's eyes and then to Nora's thoughts, which, like most of her thoughts, are uttered to herself: ‘The eyes of the Fenton baby were opaquely grey, so rigidly focused that she said to herself, He is blind. They never warned me’ (163).
The sinuous movement in narrative vantage point from a perspective detached from Nora, to one alongside her, to one that can enter her thoughts, narrate them, or reflect on them, is a rhythm that Gallant will deploy throughout this story as she does throughout her fiction. Its meanings are related most closely to the revelation of character, as is most evident in Nora's depiction. Another of this story's marvels is its many-voiced and many-layered creation of Nora, inviting readers to adopt different perspectives on her as the story grows around her.
I am not aware of a Gallant story that more subtly and effectively conveys the suppressed female erotic than does ‘The Fenton Child,’ and this in a story that so powerfully depicts men's sexuality as arbitrary and predatory. Significantly, the erotic is most powerfully associated with women's hair, and significantly, its first mention connects Nora more intimately with the Fenton baby. Nora's yearning to care for a baby and her confusion over her emergent sexuality are bound together, and they indicate the paucity of meanings available to her as a woman. The nuns and nuns in training in ‘The Fenton Child’ suppress, conceal, or cut their hair; Geraldine, Nora's older sister, had beautiful red hair before she went to a convent, and Nora imagines restoring it to its former beauty (170). The story's second paragraph closes with this passage following directly upon ‘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.
Nora is enclosed by concentric circles of repression and constraint that begin with her bilingual, allegedly bicultural family and that can be gauged to an extent through her perceptions of the relations between the two official languages. Nora's cliché-ridden father, Ray Abbott, is English and from the Maritimes, while her mother is French, Catholic, and from Quebec. From her father Nora has imbibed a series of catch sayings; indicting Ray's facile phrase-making, the story opens a window onto the scarred landscape of French and English conflicts in Montreal, and onto the many ways in which characters and the culture reveal themselves through apprehensions of language, spoken and written. Gallant's lifelong fascination with the crossed codes of French and English in Quebec has informed several of her finest stories (see, for example, ‘Saturday’ in Home Truths), often figuring as a central element in a character's confused perceptions of herself. Nora is Gallant's most recent, and to date her finest creation in this tradition; ‘The Fenton Child’ draws on English and French names, idioms, and patterns of speech, mistranslations, and misguided perceptions of both languages to unveil cultural prejudices.
This element in the story originates in the opening scene in the orphanage, where Nora is accompanied by Boyd Fenton and Dr Alex Marchand, a French-Canadian doctor who is Fenton's wartime pal. Looking around the room, Marchand speaks, and the narration slides from him, to Nora's response, and then moves away from Nora sufficiently to observe her again:
‘Some of these children, it would be better for everybody if they died at birth.’ His English was exact and almost without accent, but had the sing-song cadence of French Montreal. It came out, ‘Most of these children, it would be better for everybody …’ Nora held a low opinion of that particular lilt. She had been raised in two languages. To get Nora to answer in French, particularly after she had started attending an English high school, her mother would pretend not to understand English.
It is interesting that the syntax of the doctor's remark also leans more towards a literally translated French sentence than an original English one. Throughout, the doctor prides himself on his fluency, while Nora passes silent judgment on him. But Nora is no more a reliable witness to the subtleties of the language wars than is Marchand or any other character. They are all subject to its assumptions, immersed in them, and the assumptions are exposed as at once transparently racist, transparently gendered, and pervasive. Their effects are so powerful as to govern Nora's interpretations of others' worth. Thus when Dr Marchand reveals that he could immediately identify an Italian from Montreal by the way he spoke English (unilingual Boyd thought the man spoke ‘straight, plain Canadian,’ 169), Nora quickly revises her opinion of Marchand; he is ‘a man of deep learning,’ although readers are quickly alerted to the status of Nora's new perception by the tone and tenor of the passage's closing comment: ‘So Nora decided’ (169).
The intolerant views of idiom and utterance that bind Marchand, Nora, and her father as well as virtually all of the characters in ‘The Fenton Child’ are expressions of particular attitudes towards French and English specific to the Quebec of their time, and Gallant weaves these attitudes into the plot of ‘The Fenton Child’ to comment silently on the larger cultural confinements at play. One example will suffice: as Nora and Dr Marchand stand at the doorstep to Boyd Fenton's house, ready to deliver Neil, Marchand corrects Nora's use of ‘anyways’: ‘On ne dit pas “anyways.” C'est commun. Il faut toujours dire “anyway”’ (177). Now Nora changes her opinion about the doctor for the third time; the change is presented to us in that language of plain and forceful assertion that Gallant reserves to present and simultaneously undercut Nora's judgments:
The heat of the day and the strain of events had pushed him off his rocker. There was no other explanation. Or maybe he believed he was some kind of bilingual marvel, a real work of art, standing there in his undertaker suit, wearing that dopey hat. Nora's father knew more about anything than he did, any day.
Not only is this latest assessment of Nora's undercut by what we know of her already; the pronouncements on proper and improper uses of ‘anyway’ culminate deftly and ironically on the story's final page. Deflecting Nora's persistent questions about the baby, Marchand, the Fenton family and household, and all the signs of concealed relationships she has now perceived, Nora's father remarks: ‘It's a small world. … Anyways, I've got some money for you’ (198). The ironies cut several ways at once, all of them unremarked.
The story's many silent comments on language extend, of course, to characters' names, most obviously via the Fentons' names. But beyond these fairly transparent gestures, names also signal the approaching changes in the French-English equation in the Montreal of the story's era. Nowhere is this aspect of ‘The Fenton Child’ more evident than in the story's middle section of three, where Nora's mother's family, the Cocheferts, occupy centre stage. Victor Cochefert, her maternal grandfather, is waiting for his own name to appear on the stationery in the English engineering firm where he works, ‘Macfarlane, Macfarlane & Macklehurst,’ (180). But standing at the head of many of the prejudices that Victor nurtures against the English are his assessments of ‘English’ names such as ‘O'Keefe, Murphy, Llewellyn, Morgan-Jones, Ferguson, MacNab, Hoefer, Oberkirch, Aarmgaard, Van Roos or Stavinsky’ (180). All are ‘English’ to Victor: ‘Language was the clue to native origin. He placed the Oberkirches and MacNabs by speech and according to the street where they chose to live’ (180).
At the centre of ‘The Fenton Child’ stand Nora's painful bewilderments about men, sexuality, and relationship. Many Gallant stories early and late have traversed this territory (most famously, perhaps, ‘My Heart Is Broken’), but none with as sophisticated and many-minded a perspective as here. ‘The Fenton Child’ represents Nora's emergent consciousness about men largely through her mostly silent responses to Boyd Fenton's and Marchand's comments and views about women. At this level the story unfolds as a dark catalogue of misogyny, of half-veiled aggression and menace that gains a double edge because it is filtered through Nora's naïve apprehensions.
Early in the story, we are given a sketch of Nora's naïveté at seventeen about men, lovers, and husbands (typically, it includes digressions into Nora's consciousness) that establishes a point of departure for understanding how her encounter with the two men, with the baby Neil, and the Fenton household will affect her:
She could not have been the mother of anyone. She had never let a man anywhere near her. If ever she did, if ever she felt ready, he would be nothing like Mr. Fenton—typical Anglo-Montreal gladhander, the kind who said ‘Great to see you!’ and a minute later forgot you were alive. She still had no image of an acceptable lover (which meant husband) but rather of the kind she meant to avoid. For the moment, it took in just about every type and class. What her mother called ‘having relations’ was a source of dirty stories for men and disgrace for girls.
Part of the poignancy of ‘The Fenton Child’ lies in the growing recognition that Nora's attitudes are hopelessly categorical, but that at the same time the men and women who surround her perpetuate her ignorance and rigidity. Boyd Fenton exemplifies the composite, cartoon-like menace that a man can represent, not only to Nora, but within his family and the culture. Postwar Montreal is changing under Fenton's feet, and his marriage is threatened as well; like Marchand, he is more comfortable recalling wartime stories and friends, and these, like his constructions of the present, are imbued with a barely masked predatory sexuality, paraded as jocularity. As Nora silently fends off Boyd's imagined and real advances, we perceive that her fantasies, her constructions of men are at once unrealistic and justified. Even though her categories for men are almost comically rigid and insufficient, the men themselves are shown to be caricatures of themselves, carried along on uncontrolled currents of desire. When Marchand asks Boyd about an alleged rape that took place in a lane by Fenton's house on Crescent Street, Boyd's description of the incident indicts the girl but, like many of his comments about women, implicates him. His perspective, the story shows, creates the conditions for Nora's apprehensions about men, for the unnamed discord in the Fenton household, and, perhaps, for the adoption of the Fenton child. He is in his way as unmoored as Nora, depending on a rigid and shallow confidence that things shall remain as they were between men and woman and within families, even as the story uncovers the effects of these thin certitudes.
‘Boyd’ Fenton's mock-genial solicitude towards Nora always barely masks a mock-genial paternalism that in its turn barely masks illicit desire. Marchand's more stolid and philosophical posturing—as revealed in his correction of Nora's ‘anyways,’ for example—is only another kind of front, more clinical and detached, for his misapprehension of women and of babies, as it turns out. The scene in Fenton's car as the men and Nora drive to his house with the baby nicely illustrates how the story conveys the men's attitudes and Nora's responses. It is ‘a hot and humid morning in late summer, real Montreal weather’ (164), and as he gets into the car, Fenton takes his jacket off; his every gesture, like Marchand's, is by now already imbued with its significance to Nora, even when she is a passive or silent observer. While he takes his jacket off, he and Marchand are reminiscing about a wartime friend whose English bride got pregnant after he left for Canada; the story is typical of their war memories. Fenton's and Marchand's gestures seem to enact Nora's silent appraisals of the men: Fenton ‘struggled out of his jacket and vest and threw them on the backseat, next to Nora. His white carnation fell on the floor. The doctor remained fully dressed, every button fastened’ (171).
With the baby in her arms, Nora seems to fulfil several roles for the men—among them, another possible mother or nurse for the child, and another young and naïve girl to violate or instruct. The baby itself fares no better; as Nora holds him in the back of the car, he becomes the subject of a lunatic discussion between the men, with Marchand opining about the lifelong struggle for the brain ‘to catch up with the soul’ (173) while Fenton remarks that when babies are born, ‘they've got these huge peckers … I mean, really developed’ (173). In embryo, the scene matches Fenton's adult condition. His questions and remarks to Marchand about babies' development are transparent code for his own condition: ‘How about the brain? … When does the brain start to work?’ (172). And Marchand's reply seems to apply to humanity (male humanity?) as much as to babies: ‘“The brain is still primitive,” the doctor said, sounding sure. “It is still in the darkness of early time”’ (172). Fenton's inability to regulate sexual desire permeates his character here and throughout, but the Doctor's philosophizing, like Ray Abbott's phrase-making, is also ineffective. It is as if at the level of the individual, the unregulated and apparently lifelong disjunction between pecker, brain, and soul creates the cultural conditions Nora inhabits, not only in the conflicted community in the car, but also in her own Montreal family and in her experience of herself.
Like many Gallant stories early and late, ‘The Fenton Child’ does not offer a resolution to the dilemmas it reveals. Rather, the story brings Nora to the brink of adulthood as she poses a series of charged questions to Boyd Fenton and to her parents about the baby, and then, momentarily, arrests her there. The story is shaped into three sections that are not chronological: the first depicts the baby being taken to the Fenton house; the second section loops back in time to fill in the history of Nora's mother's family, the Cocheferts, and to take us through Ray Abbott's role in manufacturing official papers for the baby; and the third and shortest section returns us to the chronology of the first section, picking up where Nora has entered the Fenton house and, to Fenton's amusement, reluctantly surrendered the child to the woman she mistakes for its mother.
Like Ray Abbott, Fenton parries all of Nora's questions about the baby and its real mother, but Nora's questions serve as signals that she will not be able to live any longer with the veiled explanations of the Fenton child's identity. By extension, she will not be able to live much longer under her parents' roof, where Ray airily dismisses her questions and her mother orders her to forget the baby. But ‘The Fenton Child’ has uncovered too much reality for Nora to be satisfied with her parents' reassurances. She will now enter adulthood, which means more fully encountering the culture that has produced the conditions for the Fenton child to be conceived, orphaned, given a new identity, adopted, and variously explained. Reading ‘The Fenton Child’ in the 1990s shows at least two seemingly contradictory aspects of this culture: one, that it cannot endure, and the other, that it is still very much with us. The Montreal of the late 1940s abides with us like a dimly visible, semi-articulate ghost; the more we lose the sight and sound of it, the more it haunts our present. ‘The Fenton Child’ is much more than a history lesson; it is a recovery of the past that, like so many of Mavis Gallant's stories, discovers us there.
Gallant, Mavis. ‘The Fenton Child.’ Across the Bridge: New Stories. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart 1993: 163-98. All page numbers in parentheses in the text refer to this edition of ‘The Fenton Child.’
———. From the Fifteenth District: A Novella and Eight Short Stories. Toronto: Macmillan 1979
———. Home Truths: Selected Canadian Stories. ‘An Introduction.’ Toronto: Macmillan 1981, xi-xxii
———. ‘My Heart Is Broken.’ My Heart Is Broken: Eight Stories and a Short Novel. New York: Random House 1964
———. ‘Saturday.’ Home Truths
———. The Selected Stories of Mavis Gallant. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart 1996
Hancock, Geoffrey. An Interview with Mavis Gallant. Canadian Fiction Magazine 28 (1978), 19-67
Munro, Alice. Selected Stories. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart 1996
Ondaatje, Michael. From Ink Lake: Canadian Stories. Introduction. Toronto: Lester and Orpen Dennys 1990, xiii-xviii
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11913
SOURCE: Wilkshire, Claire. “‘Voice Is Everything’: Reading Mavis Gallant's ‘The Pegnitz Junction.’” University of Toronto Quarterly 69, no. 4 (fall 2000): 891-916.
[In the following essay, Wilkshire analyzes the point of view and characterization of the story “The Pegnitz Junction,” surveying the critical response to other narrators of Gallant's stories and positing an archetypal voice that highlights the centrality of voice in short fiction.]
Voice is everything. If I don't hear the voice, I can't write the story. One has to find the exact tone, and it has to hold from beginning to end if it is to be true.
Mavis Gallant has written plays, novels, and non-fiction, but the short story remains her most important genre. While it is impossible to characterize the entire body of any writer's work, Gallant's short fictions lend themselves to description more readily than some. Gallant is a writer's writer, which is to say that her stories tend to appeal to readers accustomed to reading with care; her stories are subtle—nuanced rather than exuberant, witty rather than comic; strong emotions and desires may be evoked, but they are evoked coolly, often from the perspective of a detached observer. Her characters, as is frequently noted, suffer various forms of alienation, often living or staying in foreign countries, speaking languages not their own—or, as is the case in ‘The Pegnitz Junction,’ always on their way home but never arriving.
‘The Pegnitz Junction’ (1973) is one of Gallant's most complex and challenging texts. The complexity and the challenges both arise from the sophisticated manipulation of voice and point of view. Narrative voices shift constantly in ‘The Pegnitz Junction,’ at times with a fluidity that renders their alternation barely perceptible, occasionally in such a manner as to disconcert or even to confuse the reader.1 The skill with which these narrative modulations take place leads Danielle Schaub to characterize ‘The Pegnitz Junction’ as ‘one of the richest examples of Mavis Gallant's polyphony’ (234). Indeed, it is this polyphony, the strategic deployment of voices, that makes ‘The Pegnitz Junction’ one of Gallant's most intricate and densely textured fictions. It has been described as a novel (Davies, 70), a novella (Gallant and Hancock, 37; Besner, Light [The Light of Imagination: Mavis Gallant's Fiction], 93), and a story (Gallant and Fabre, 97); but it was published in the collection of stories to which it gave the title, and it is as story that it will be considered here. In any case, the ability of a work of fiction to sustain such a variety of voices appearing and disappearing, interrupting one another and then falling silent, constitutes one of the text's most compelling features.
‘The Pegnitz Junction’ is a story made up of stories2—Christine, the protagonist, hears voices whose stories intrude relentlessly on her consciousness. Gallant begins with the story of Christine and Herbert and, through numerous interjections, broadens the scope of the narrative so that in the end it is at least as much about a period in German history as it is about one German couple, at least as much about telling as it is about the tale.
‘The Pegnitz Junction’ opens, with characteristic Gallant irony, at the beginning of the end of a holiday: Christine, just twenty-one, is returning to Germany with her lover, Herbert, ten years older than she, and his son, little Bert. This is a peculiarly static journey, though, marked not only by long periods of confinement in the overheated train compartment but also by apparently interminable interruptions during which the characters wait—for another train to arrive, for a new destination to present itself, for something to happen. Christine is engaged to marry a theology student, and one might expect the narrative to centre on the choice she will presumably have to make between him and Herbert. (This choice is by implication a political as well as a romantic one: we know little of the theology student beyond the fact that Christine is reading his book of Bonhoeffer's essays—Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran theologian known for his opposition to Nazism and his martyrdom at Buchenwald. Herbert, on the other hand, is associated with official authority.) But the student remains a shadowy figure throughout, and while Herbert and his son frequently occupy Christine's thoughts, these are just as often punctuated by what Christine refers to as ‘interference’—the interpolated thoughts of other characters transmitted by some mysterious process through her.
A careful examination of voices and their interweaving provides a useful point of entry into many short stories, particularly those of Mavis Gallant, in which voice is an unusually unstable construct.3 While the interplay of voices in a novel may generate many subtle effects, the short story allows voice a prominence it rarely achieves in the novel, where plot drives the narrative forward. The story is a relatively plotless genre—only so much can happen in a small space—and in the absence of domination by plot, other characteristics of the fiction become more conspicuous. In ‘The Pegnitz Junction’ voice is central to the reader's understanding of character; the first two sections of this study deal with voice and characterization. Intimately bound up with questions of voice and character is the issue of identifying the narrator's voice; the last two sections address the critical reception of Gallant's work and the role of her narrative voices in that response, and suggest a reading strategy which posits a ‘prime voice’ as a means of understanding the workings of voice in short fiction.
I. ‘THE PEGNITZ JUNCTION’: HERBERT—ISSUES OF SPEECH AND AUTHORITY
The first paragraph in which he is mentioned makes two important points about Herbert and speech:
Unlike the student of theology, he had not put up barriers such as too much talk, self-analysis, or second thoughts. In fact, he tended to limit the number of subjects he would discuss. … He often said he thought he could not live without her, but a few minutes after making such a declaration he seemed unable to remember what he had just said, or to imagine how his voice must have sounded to her.
First, then, Herbert appears from the outset as a character whose speech is limited to a certain ‘number of subjects.’ This characterization is not without irony: Herbert's preferred topics may be few, but he can go on about them at considerable length. Second, the authority of Herbert's voice is undermined by its impermanence even in his own mind. Authority is a key issue in Herbert's characterization—his own authority (as a man, as a parent, as Christine's older lover, as a member of the professional class in postwar Germany), as well as his response to authorities of various kinds. He defers meekly, for example, to the French hotel porter's bullying, whereas Christine launches a verbal defence; he composes in his head letters of complaint to the editors of newspapers and journals, but in these letters he is careful not to criticize the government. In ‘The Pegnitz Junction,’ Herbert is characterized principally through voice, through the particular qualities of his own speech (or its absence) as well as his response to the voices of other characters.
Herbert's utterances often serve either to reify or to undercut his authority. When Herbert explains to his son, little Bert, why they must have a substantial meal in Strasbourg, the narrator intervenes with a direct translation:
… because the German train would not have a restaurant car, Herbert went on calmly. His actual words were, ‘Because there will be no facilities for eating on the second transport.’
This last statement receives a double emphasis: it is set off in quotation marks and described as ‘His actual words.’ Both devices reinforce the directness, the seeming authenticity, of his speech. The statement is a curious one, though; Herbert's ‘actual words’ are supposedly in German (although a German rendering of his phrasing might sound equally odd), presumably translated by the narrator into English. The excessive formality of the diction and expression evoke the foreign in Herbert's words. The effect of the utterance, then, is first to signal the foreignness of Herbert's speech (and only his—other characters could speak in this manner, but Gallant does not have them do so). Second, the explanation, with its substitution of ‘transport’ for ‘train’ and ‘facilities for eating’ for ‘restaurant car,’ gives an impression of the imprecise and pedantic wordiness one might associate with the language of bureaucrats or politicians. His diction and syntax here align Herbert with decision-makers and other such figures of authority, and it must be remembered that, in the context of a story which deals with postwar Germany and its people, there is nothing innocent about authority.
The incident with the woman referred to as an ‘American army wife’ heightens Herbert's credibility as a voice of authority in a surprising way. Christine is the one who, throughout much of the text, has insights into people's characters. Unless Christine fabricates all the information she collects (the text does not support this interpretation, and neither does Gallant herself),4 then she stands in a particularly privileged position in terms of her ability to assess character. But it is Herbert who, without any special knowledge, recognizes immediately the deception practised by the young German woman who tries to pass herself off as American.5 This recognition functions in several ways. It allows Herbert to state definitively and, as it turns out, accurately, in the face of Christine's protests, that the young woman is German. This reinforces his credibility, and it also suggests that he too is capable of insight and perhaps sensitivity. Her voice gives the pregnant woman away:
[She] said in her haughtiest English, ‘Sir! Vare iss ze boss to Buttonshtah?’ which was enough to tell any careful census taker (Herbert, for one) her nationality, schooling, region, village—what part of village, even, if one was particular over details.
Herbert tricks her by responding in German (‘with the accent of their train conductor’), which she is not supposed to understand. ‘She had been deceived by the look of Herbert,’ the narrator tells us, just as Christine was deceived by the look of the pregnant woman. Herbert ignores the visual, concentrating on the auditory, and this approach enables him to make inferences which turn out, in this case, to be accurate: whereas appearances are misleading, voice, here, serves as an avenue to the truth. It is worth noting, however, that while Christine receives ‘information’ from a variety of sources (the French hotel porter, for example), Herbert's insights are limited to Germans and generally pertain to the identification of class differences. Despite Herbert's ear for dialect, the suggestion that his understanding is restricted by culture and by a sense of social superiority sets Herbert apart from Christine, whose receptivity remains unrestricted.
At times Herbert's ponderous habits of explanation, his propriety, and the overall impression that he seems much older than his thirty-one years combine to create the impression of a cardboard character, a dogmatic buffoon. Robertson Davies calls him ‘the reasonable Herbert,’ ‘a man without faith but full of remorseless principle’ (70). The incident with the ‘army wife,’ though, alerts the reader to the fact that he is to be taken seriously, that his character is more complex than one might suppose.6 Thus, when Herbert warns Christine that the man whose story she intercepts at the border is a policeman, we are more inclined to believe him, although Christine has not suspected it, and there is little evidence to support his claim.
Another trait one would not expect to find in Herbert is his sense of humour; this characteristic manifests itself exclusively through voice. When strains of the train conductor's Bavarian accent reach Christine's compartment, we are told,
The voice was very like Herbert's, imitating a celebrated Bavarian politician addressing a congress of peasants. But Herbert was not unexpectedly being funny out there in the corridor, and the voice belonged to the conductor, now seen for the first time.
Although Herbert's sense of humour is noted a few times in ‘The Pegnitz Junction,’ it never strikes the reader as one of his more prominent qualities—hence the use here of ‘unexpectedly.’ Later on we discover that Herbert occasionally begins phone conversations by imitating a political figure or television announcer, a custom Christine finds ‘strange for a man as busy and practical as Herbert’ (47). In both instances, it is not what Herbert says but the substitution of another's voice for his own that creates a comic effect. Furthermore, the voices he tries out are those not of friends or family but of celebrities, generally politicians—figures of authority. Herbert undercuts their authority by exploiting their regional dialects, although he would not publicly criticize the government in his letters to the editor. Herbert's manipulation of voice serves as a means of quiet critique, a private rebellion against those in power. The passivity of his dissent, however, itself implies a kind of collusion with the very authority he opposes.
Herbert's speech at times distinguishes itself by its absence. The incident with the French hotel porter underlines the differences between Christine's and Herbert's responses to authority. When Christine runs a bath on the morning of the last day of their holiday, the porter bursts in, screaming about the noise made by the hotel's ancient plumbing. The sudden violence of his response to the noise, the calculated malice of his actions (‘The scented tub no one would ever use steamed gently; the porter pulled the stopper, finally, to make sure’ ), and the fact that he evicts the travellers from their bathroom, locking the door, conjure images of cruelty and confinement and, by implication, the war. The text reinforces this evocation in its description of Herbert. Herbert is disturbed chiefly by the inaccuracy of the porter's statement that it is too late to make such a noise; ‘He meant too early—Herbert, drawn by the banging and shouting, kept telling him so’ (7). But the porter's slip resonates with historical implication.
Christine berates the porter, but ‘That was all Herbert had to say’; he responds to intimidation with compliance:
He really seemed extraordinarily calm, picking up toothbrushes and jars and tubes without standing his ground for a second. It was as if he were under arrest, or as though the porter's old pajama top masked his badge of office, his secret credentials. The look on Herbert's face was abstract and soft, as if he had already lived this, or always had thought that he might.
Although Herbert was only a child during the war, Gallant suggests through his reactions in this passage the collective memory of a population. Herbert might just as well have ‘already lived’ this episode of packing and fleeing, an episode which prefigures the story later in the narrative of Sigi, the child whose parents woke him in the middle of the night to make their escape. Herbert's response to order and potential danger, real or imagined, is obedience, and it is difficult to determine whether the implied criticism of his submission (‘without standing his ground for a second’) comes from Christine or the narrator, although the former alternative is the more likely.
The war, however, is far enough in the past for Christine and her generation to have escaped witnessing it directly, and the difference in the characters' experiences affects their behaviour. Christine, who feels, perhaps, that there is less to fear, less to lose, fights back with a threat to the porter even as Herbert tries to smooth things over:
She said, ‘You are going to be in trouble over this.’
‘Never mind,’ said Herbert. He did not want any unpleasantness in France.7
Here Herbert's thoughts take precedence over those of the narrator so that his motivation may be distinguished from that of Christine, who doesn't mind a little unpleasantness if it serves a purpose. In one of Gallant's most often quoted statements, she articulates her vision of The Pegnitz Junction as an exploration of Fascism's ‘small possibilities in people’ (Gallant and Hancock, 41). One might well particularize this comment to argue that ‘The Pegnitz Junction’ is about such possibilities as they are manifested by the ways in which people respond to authority.
Herbert's voice appears in italics for the first time near the end of the text (84). At times, Herbert's thoughts and memories have been transmitted through Christine's point of view (as when she thinks about Herbert thinking about his mother ). Here, however, Herbert's voice gives the appearance of being channelled directly to the reader, and the italics emphasize the clarity of the signal. This technique exemplifies the layerings of illusion in ‘The Pegnitz Junction’: the italicized section seems to present Herbert's voice in an unmediated form, whereas the narrative clearly establishes that all such interpolations are routed through Christine. Italics function intermittently in the text to pinpoint one voice or another. When Herbert's voice is italicized, the typeface accentuates the impression of directness created by the first-person narration. The passage combines humour with an emotional intensity we have not heretofore witnessed in Herbert. Even as he struggles to answer, over the telephone, a question concerning one of the most important relationships in his life, the narrator mocks his caution:
One night I heard, ‘Do you still love me?’ I thought for a long time, wanting to give her a complete answer.
This excerpt demonstrates the complexity of the story's narrative transmission and transactions. The omniscient narrator is undermining Herbert in a passage apparently narrated in the first person by Herbert himself, while technically it is Christine who hears Herbert's story and through whose point of view it is focalized and contextualized. ‘Occasionally within Christine's inner monologue,’ Schaub explains,
one can hear Herbert's voice, as if one heard a voice within a voice. … Episodes of people's lives … are thus recorded as if by an omniscient narrator whereas it is Christine who decodes such information.
Christine's role as decoder is underlined by brief passages in which she comments on the information she has received, so as to demonstrate that she is the medium, that the information has not arrived in the text without her having channelled it.8
At first glance, Herbert seems very much in control; this position of power is established principally through contrasts between him and Christine. He is an engineer, whereas she appears to do nothing in particular. She has accompanied him to Paris and not the other way around. As a parent, Herbert acts as an educator; the fact that he is constantly imparting information makes it seem as though he has a lot of it. As a man, Herbert is the object of the attention of the girls from summer camp, who ignore Christine but ‘would have murdered one another for the sake of being [Herbert's] favourite’ (21). As a mimic, Herbert finds a means of expression for such defiance as he is capable of.9 And the fact that he himself is the object of mimicry (as when little Bert says, ‘Oh, en quel honneur?,’ unwittingly parodying his father) testifies to Herbert's own influence. These power relations play themselves out through voice and dialogue. Ultimately, though, Herbert fades out. Christine indicates the ephemeral quality of his voice when, at the end of ‘The Pegnitz Junction,’ she closes the waiting room door. She shuts out the voices of the other characters, Herbert's included, and, left at last in peace, begins her story to little Bert.
II. VOICE AND POINT OF VIEW: CHRISTINE AND RESISTANCE
In most third-person fictions it is possible to discern a narrator, an implied author, a persona whose presence, at times effaced, at times controlling, determines, among other things, the tone, diction, and mode of expression of the narrative—determines, then, how things are said, and often what is said. The quintessential Gallant narrator of this kind is detached, sophisticated, ironic, judging not overtly but through the implication of the sharply observed detail. It is not the voice of the narrative persona only, however, which structures textual observation and expression: much of ‘The Pegnitz Junction’ comes from Christine's point of view. This text is particularly complex in terms of its narrative layering—in terms, that is, of who is saying or thinking what, at what point, and through whose point of view these thoughts or utterances are expressed.
The controlling presence in ‘The Pegnitz Junction’ fluctuates: in some places the narrator's appears to be the guiding voice, while in others it is Christine's, or that of another character. In the opening pages of the story the narrator's voice predominates. In the seventh paragraph, however, the hotel porter makes his frenzied entrance into the room and demands that the water be turned off: here, things begin to change, and the text makes its first foray into Christine's mind:
At first, of course, she thought that the man was drunk; then the knowledge came to her—she did not know how, but never questioned it either—that he suffered from a form of epilepsy.
The shift from the narrator's point of view to that of Christine is clearly signalled by the phrase ‘she thought’; in addition, this sentence provides the first indication of Christine's telepathic sensitivity, which will be exploited throughout ‘The Pegnitz Junction.’
A little later on, once they have boarded the train to Strasbourg, the narrative voice becomes more obviously and decisively Christine's. Herbert, Christine, and little Bert have been having breakfast and talking in the dining car; the paragraph opens:
Oh, he was so foolish with the child! Like a servant, like a humble tutor with a crown prince. She would never marry Herbert—never.
By this point, Christine's voice has taken over almost entirely from that of the narrator. The interjection and exclamation point, the repetition—all of this is not only Christine's point of view but her voice: her opinions and mode of expression.10
In the opening pages of the story, where the narrator's voice prevails, Christine is presented as passive and acquiescent. As the narrative progresses, however, Christine becomes more of an active participant in it. The narrative voice more often merges with hers, so that as the polyphonic qualities of ‘The Pegnitz Junction’ begin to emerge, so does Christine as a central figure. While the story of Christine, Herbert, and little Bert is interrupted more and more often by the voices of other characters, Christine's role expands. As the one who channels these voices, she becomes a focal character. Her capacity for receiving information casts Christine in a stereotypical female role: that of the sensitive, intuitive woman, listening to the difficulties of others without speaking of her own. But this is after all a Gallant story, and such a characterization cannot be sustained without paradox. Christine is by far the most defiant and rebellious character in the text. She consistently challenges authoritarianism and refuses roles she does not want to accept in both the domestic and the political spheres, as well as in her role as story-teller.
Christine's main act of domestic resistance is to refuse the easy equation of woman with mother. Christine persistently rebels against acting in loco parentis. Although some of Herbert's parental rules seem unnecessarily unyielding, she refrains from questioning them, from appearing to situate herself as a familial equal. At times she is not sure how to deal with the child:
Christine supposed that it was up to her to behave like a mother. Perhaps she ought to pick up the sponge, go out to little Bert, stoop down until their faces were nearly level …
But she does not. Much later, Herbert asks whether Christine thinks little Bert should be allowed a comic book. ‘But she was not the child's mother: she would not be drawn’ (63). Christine refuses the role of mother because she is unwilling to compromise herself by dissimulating. Born after the war, she remains, ironically, the character whose actions most often take the form of resistance. Herbert adheres to a strict code of principles, sometimes only because they are principles; he will not alter them to suit circumstances. Christine's is a morality of contingency: she faces questions of principle in the context in which they arise.
Christine confronts abuses of power, whether they are directed against her or others. She challenges men in uniform—the French hotel porter, and, later, the train conductor.11 As the former disappears and the latter backs down, some of their authority is transferred to Christine. She also upbraids those she feels to be in the wrong. She tells the scarred man who searches for the site of his childhood escape, ‘Besides …, you know this was not the place. It must have been to the north’ (60). And when he asks directions of an old man and is rebuffed, Christine confronts the latter:
‘His feelings are hurt,’ said Christine, as the stranger drifted away. ‘Look at the way he hangs his head. … Now, why did you answer that way?’ she asked the old man. ‘I'm sure you are not a refugee at all. What didn't you like about the poor creature?’
Christine may not narrate ‘The Pegnitz Junction’ but she is a story-teller, and the choices she makes about the stories she tells demonstrate her independence. Gallant's extended narrative constitutes a fine example of Bakhtinian heteroglossia, including as it does a variety of voices and languages, as well as such genres as the letter, the biography and the embedded fiction.12 Many of the incorporated genres are stories issuing from other characters through Christine, but on occasion she herself plays the role of narrator. When Christine tells stories, her audience usually comprises Herbert and little Bert. Herbert, finding them unsuitable, tends to interrupt the tales before they get underway. But Christine does not change the story she has been creating for little Bert. When Herbert objects to it, she stops her simulated reading:
‘“It was the fourteenth of July in Paris. Bruno put on his blue-and-gold uniform with the tassels and buttons shining …”’
‘No, no,’ said Herbert. ‘Nothing military.’
‘Well, you read then.’ She handed the book across.
Christine uses the pretence of reading to little Bert as a means of goading Herbert: she offers to read little Bert stories with titles she knows Herbert will not accept, such as ‘Bruno and the wicked stepmother.’ When she suggests to little Bert, ‘Bruno goes to an anti-authoritarian kindergarten,’ Herbert responds, ‘Don't tease him’ (38); Herbert apparently does not realize that he is himself the object of the teasing.
Christine's oddest story is the one about Bruno's five brothers, all named Georg. Herbert objects on the grounds that it is silly and confusing, but Christine insists with unusual vehemence that it is a true story, that her father knew the five brothers, only one of whom survived the war. (This is rather a peculiar assertion, given that ‘Bruno’ is a character Christine appears to have fabricated on the basis of the name little Bert gives his sponge.) Circumstances interrupt the narrative, but when ‘The Pegnitz Junction’ closes, Christine, alone in the waiting room with little Bert, is able to resume it:
She had been hoping all day to have the last word, without interference. She held little Bert and said aloud, ‘Bruno had five brothers, all named Georg. But Georg was pronounced five different ways in the family, so there was no confusion. They were called the Goysh, the Yursh, the Shorsh …’
Here is a defiantly non-closural point of closure—overdetermined, ambiguous, laden with contradictory implications. Christine is on a journey, but stalled in a waiting room while she waits to board or not to board the train that will take her home; she has escaped Herbert but knows he is not far away; she is telling his son a story, but a story Herbert has already vetoed; she seeks respite from the intrusion of other narratives but fills that space with a story. Janice Kulyk Keefer has discussed the ‘helices and spirals’ of Gallant's plots, and her unconventional endings (163-64). In this case, the omniscient narrator opens ‘The Pegnitz Junction,’ but in the end Christine is granted her wish and given the last word, although, if she is to be believed, these are probably the words of her father, and Gallant's complex work, refusing to close with any degree of finality, pivots on its final ellipsis, directing the reader backward into the text and forward into its largest lacuna.
‘The Pegnitz Junction’ begins with the story of Christine, Herbert, and little Bert; gradually its scope expands to encompass the voices and histories of a broad range of German people. One might expect that the effects of this expanding scope—fragmentation, interruption, ellipsis, polyphony—would diminish the intensity of the focus on Christine, especially since the omniscient narrator's voice is strong and confident enough to upstage that of the protagonist. But this does not happen: Christine if anything gains substance and credibility through her repeated verbal opposition to intimidation, injustice and deception. If ‘The Pegnitz Junction’ is about Fascism's ‘small possibilities in people’ (Gallant and Hancock, 41), then Christine represents the people in whom its possibilities are small indeed.13
III. AUTHORIAL JUDGMENT AND GALLANT'S NARRATORS: WHAT THE CRITICS SAY
Mavis Gallant is a peculiar kind of moralist.
Janice Kulyk Keefer
Critical discussion of Mavis Gallant's stories returns again and again to one key point: judgment. ‘Judgment’ is a broad and perhaps an excessively juridical term to use in a literary context but it is appropriate because of its connotations of authority, power, control, hierarchy, and decision-making. The issue is narrative control: do Gallant's (often but not always omniscient) narrators speak so forcefully as to close off the possibility of the reader's disagreeing with them, or do the obliquity and indirection which characterize their expressions of opinion allow for a range of interpretative responses? Voice is crucial here, since it is to the voice of the narrator that readers turn for judgments of character and action. A consideration of three sets of critical positions will suffice to illustrate the nature of the debate.
Two contradictory complaints about Mavis Gallant's fiction recur repeatedly in the critical commentaries. The first is that her judgments are too harsh: characters and their actions are treated in a disparaging manner; the opinions of the implied author are clear and nasty. The second major objection is that Gallant does not judge enough: the stories lack authorial direction; as a result, readers can't decide what they mean. Critics who occupy what one might call a middle ground see Gallant's characterization as ironic without being unsympathetic; authorial opinion is suggested rather than pronounced.
EXAMPLE ONE: RUTHLESSNESS AND INDIFFERENCE
Critics who feel that Gallant judges her characters too harshly include Herbert Grabes and Danielle Schaub; they represent what one might call the Mean Mavis school of thought. In an article entitled ‘Creating to Dissect: Strategies of Character Portrayal and Evaluation in Short Stories by Margaret Laurence, Alice Munro and Mavis Gallant,’ Grabes punctuates his critique of ‘Acceptance of Their Ways’ with the kind of diction one might expect to find in a report on the activities of a cruel pathologist (124-26). He examines ‘the continuous and ruthless dissecting of character which is the most prominent feature of this story,’ noting Lily Littel's ‘ruthless analyses’ and the presence of ‘an omniscient narrator who is just as merciless and devastatingly ironic.’ Grabes points to ‘scathingly satirical’ narrative strategies and concludes that ‘the characters seem to be created only in order to be viciously dissected. Mavis Gallant's scalpel continuously touches to the quick.’ Danielle Schaub perceives in ‘The Pegnitz Junction’ not so much an obsession with incision as a sense of pervasive and uncharitable gloom. She reads the omniscient narrator's opening description of Christine and her home town as an indictment of character and place. ‘The entire narrative is critical,’ Schaub writes. ‘None of the characters is spared by Mavis Gallant's disparaging pen: they all come out in a rather dismal light’ (235-36).14 Grabes and Schaub place an unwarranted emphasis on viciousness and gloom. It is true that only the most misguided of commentators on Gallant's fiction might describe it as happy-go-lucky,15 but ambivalence is a powerful element of her writing.
Some reviewers have accused Gallant not of castigating her characters but on the contrary of maintaining a profound indifference towards them. ‘Critics have blamed Gallant for not judging more, for not smiling on the good or frowning on the bad more overtly,’ wrote Timothy Foote in a 1979 review of From the Fifteenth District. Eve Auchincloss's review of My Heart Is Broken in the New York Times Review of Books (1964) doubtless represents the kind of objections Foote is referring to. Gallant's ‘discretion,’ Auchincloss claimed, ‘often wanders on into an ostentatious withholding of judgement that begs the question: why then write the story?’ William Pritchard made the following comments in his 1973 review of The Pegnitz Junction:
That Mavis Gallant refuses to … speak as a thoughtful omniscience behind her characters, might be admired as indicative of her belief that life's oddities mustn't be ironed out into the orderly understandings of fiction. Yet by cultivating incongruities, juxtaposing voices and memories that fit together in only the craziest way the author might seem to evade responsibility for saying or caring very much about her characters and their situation.
(4; emphasis added)
Pritchard sees Gallant's narrator as maintaining a studied indifference towards the characters, while Grabes and Schaub argue that narrators go out of their way to find fault. It may be instructive to invoke Wayne Booth at this point: he writes in The Rhetoric of Fiction that ‘it is difficult to see why there should be any connection between neutrality and an absence of judgement … But if I am right in claiming that neutrality is impossible, even the most neutral comment will reveal some sort of commitment’ (76).
Repeated charges of Gallant's ruthlessness and indifference reveal the moral standards against which her fiction has often been assessed. Morality, for Gallant, is not the same as niceness. The morality which expresses itself through her stories has to do with contingency, ambivalence, and particularity; it does not deliver sweeping and unambiguous generalizations but emerges through the presentation of detail, through the way in which the narrative voice reveals itself in that presentation.
EXAMPLE TWO: ORIGINALITY AND CONTROL
Some criticism manifests a greater tolerance for ambivalence and ambiguity, and shows itself more willing to read into the gaps left in the stories. Helmut Bonheim says of ‘Acceptance of Their Ways’ that the ‘text contains no explicit formulation to help us open the door to its treasures’ (72). But that's fine with him. In his detailed analysis of ‘Orphans' Progress,’ Michel Fabre describes the children's progression towards alienation:
L'horreur n'est pas nommée, elle doit être perçue, suppléée par le lecteur dans le non-dit de l'énoncé qui se garde bien de prendre ouvertement parti. C'est en ce sens que l'originalité de la stratégie narrative de l'auteur se caractérise davantage par son utilisation de la voix que par un quelconque refus de respecter les exigences du genre de la nouvelle.
Thus, for Fabre, it is the responsibility of the reader to fill in the gaps left by the narrator; this is part of the reading process,16 the ‘originality of the narrative strategy,’ and not a flaw in the fiction; such a responsibility, moreover, is a direct result of the writer's manipulation of voice.17
The effects of Gallant's use of voice remain a subject of debate. Whereas Fabre concludes that ‘Le ton de Mavis Gallant indique une sorte de refus d'un discours totalisateur’ (63), Janice Kulyk Keefer, in her vigorous study, Reading Mavis Gallant, argues the opposite. Gallant, she says,
is good at doing different voices … Yet so strong is the reader's sense of the omniscient narrator's manipulation and control of the various voices within the text that any convincing discourse of opposition to the narrative line is exceedingly difficult to hear.
The arguments exemplified here are subtler than those cited above; they take into account to a greater extent the complexity of Gallant's writing. But the issues raised remain essentially the same: is it the case, as Fabre submits, that Gallant's stories are radically open-ended, refusing any ‘totalizing discourse,’ or is Kulyk Keefer right to hold that Gallant's narrators express their opinions if not directly at least so effectively as to swamp any readerly dissent? One final set of critical responses will provide some insight into the means and extent of Gallant's narrative control.
EXAMPLE THREE: STRANGE MAGIC AND STRONG IMPLICATION
The mode of narrative expression complicates the debate over the extent to which the implied author of a Gallant story judges her characters. Things are not made easy for the reader—Gallant's narrators do not come out and say, for example, ‘Sometimes Christine is paralysed by indecision,’ or, ‘Frau Schneider is a greedy old bigot but she did have a hard life.’ Instead, as Fabre points out, much is left unsaid. One way of understanding Gallant's apparent restraint is to follow I. M. Owen, who, in a review of In Transit, writes:
That's perhaps the key to Mavis Gallant's strange magic. She doesn't seek to explain the inexplicable; it happens, and she shows it happening.
Owen's laissez-faire approach differs from that of Fabre in that the latter highlights the calculated effects of Gallant's narrative strategies. For Owen, Gallant is a teller with a tale in mind: she lays it out, we put it together, and, somehow, it works. The ‘it happens’ reading appeals because of its simplicity and the element of what might almost be called mysticism, the incomprehensibility of the process whereby some people write stories and other people read and appreciate them. But Owen and Fabre share the notion that the inexplicable and the unsaid (‘le non-dit’) constitute a significant component of Gallant's narrative: we read into the gaps.
The term ‘gap,’ applied to fiction, sounds like an empty space, a small piece of nothing separating something from something else. But precisely because of its position before B and after A, the gap is not a vacuum; it contains the wake of that which precedes it and the anticipation of that which follows.18 We do not read just anything at all into gaps; they fulfil specific functions, and in Mavis Gallant's stories the reader is often guided to fill them with particular assessments, judgments, conclusions. This is where Owen's take on Gallant falls short: ‘it’ may happen, but what exactly happens, and how?
Wolfgang Iser explains the ‘it,’ the reading process, as the interaction between the reader's mind and the text; such a process is affected but not determined by both the ‘individual disposition of the reader’ and the ‘different patterns of the text’ (212). The reader follows the text's sequent sentences: one sentence raises an expectation, while the next modifies (rather than satisfying) that expectation.19 Thus the reader's progress through the narrative is characterized by a constant shaping and reshaping of expectations. When it comes to dealing with gaps in the fiction, Iser claims, they ‘may be filled in different ways. For this reason, one text is potentially capable of several different realizations, and no reading can ever exhaust the full potential, for each individual reader will fill in the gaps in his [sic] own way, thereby excluding the various other possibilities; as he reads, he will make his own decision as to how the gap is to be filled’ (216).
Lawrence Mathews's article on From the Fifteenth District provides a concise illustration of the way in which one critic reads a Gallant gap:
When, near the end of ‘The Remission,’ Barbara Webb thinks, ‘Alec gave me three children. Eric gave me Lou Mas’ (115), the reader is brought up short. Lou Mas is the house that Barbara and Alec have lived in. Paid for by her brothers and owned by them in all senses except the technically legal, it was given to her by Eric (her lover) only in that he has arranged for her to swindle her brothers out of it. For Barbara to think of this as somehow parallel to her husband's gift of three children is to reveal a breathtaking moral illiteracy. But these sentences end the paragraph. Gallant does not waste so much as a phrase in underlining for the reader the nature of the judgement of Barbara that is so strongly implied.
According to Mathews, then, Gallant fills the gap for us: the space following the end of the paragraph resonates with Gallant's judgment of Barbara, a judgment which, if not directly stated, is ‘strongly implied.’ Strong implication may indeed be one of the most important phrases to bear in mind as one considers how Gallant evaluates her characters. In the case of ‘The Remission,’ it is not that Barbara is consistently judged and found wanting (nor is that Mathews's point); rather, one of the story's main concerns is her quirky morality, which is explored through Barbara's specific decisions and actions and their effects (at times apparently wholesome, at times not) on her life and the lives of other characters. Janice Kulyk Keefer might as well have been writing about Barbara when she describes Gallant as ‘a peculiar kind of moralist’ (20).
Kulyk Keefer explains how that morality operates in Gallant's stories with respect to judgment and the omniscient narrator:
One of the principal targets of Gallant's irony is the belief that we can make clear and sweeping judgements of people and situations: she shows us not only that we do not know more about a certain character than that character knows about her or himself, but also that we do no know nearly as much as we think we do about our own responses to others and the desires that provoke those responses. Again, the uncomfortable principle of extension operates here: not only Gallant's characters but also her readers are revealed as self-deceived and imperfectly aware.
This discomfort at being implicated in her irony is matched by an equally unsettling sense of Gallant's ‘invisibility’ within her fictions. Authorial impersonality and the obliqueness it engenders are crucial to the very project of her fiction.
Here is the difficult part: if ‘not only Gallant's characters but also her readers’ (and, I would add, her narrators) are to be ‘revealed as self-deceived and imperfectly aware,’ then Gallant must strike a very delicate balance. The issue is power: Gallant's narrator grows more powerful as s/he exposes the flaws in a character's perception of the world. The act of passing judgment confers authority on the judge. But if ‘[o]ne of the principal targets of Gallant's irony is the belief that we can make clear and sweeping judgments of people and situations,’ then the narrator's (and the reader's) judgment must be called into question. Hence the need both for the narrator's critique of character and situation, and for the measured detachment which provides a space for readers to construct their own evaluations—hence the charges of ruthlessness, then, and of indifference.
Ultimately, the difference of opinion between Fabre and Kulyk Keefer is not one which can be resolved, at least not in general terms. If, as Iser argues, ‘The convergence of text and reader brings the literary work into existence, and this convergence can never be precisely pinpointed,’ it is because the convergence does not occur in the same place in all cases. If the convergence takes place between Iser's two poles, the artistic and the aesthetic,20 then the locus of the convergence will be in one instance closer to ‘the individual disposition of the reader,’ and in another closer to ‘the reality of the text.’ Kulyk Keefer and Fabre are both alive to the possibilities of Gallant's work; they differ not because they are unsophisticated critics but because they are not the same reader.
IV. THE PRIME VOICE
The concerns raised by Gallant critics about meaning, judgment, and the narrator/author are intimately bound up with voice. In some stories, ‘meaning’ (the conclusions readers draw about characters, action, the function of a particular text in a body of work) may be construed on the basis of, for example, a pattern of symbols, metaphors, or images; these may resolve themselves in a significant closural figure. Or the key event, one which involves a character making an important decision or undergoing some kind of epiphany, might provide a narrative locus from which the reader can work backward and forward into the story. Such generic conventions, however, rarely find a place in the Gallant canon. Although certain images and ideas do recur, Gallant as a rule avoids weighted devices such as symbol and metaphor; each individual incident in a story seems important in its own right. Indeed, the detail and sense of precision accompanying the description of apparently minor events create a pattern of fictional development which is unusual in modern short fiction and yet a hallmark of Gallant's work. In so far as it is possible to construct a schematic narrative line, what emerges is not what one anthology refers to as ‘the classic contours of situation, complication, rising action, climax, falling action, and dénouement’ (Stone et al, 17). Rather, Gallant's plotting may be imagined as a series of more or less equally weighted incidents.
Where ‘meaning’ is not to be found in or made of traditional narrative devices such as plotting strategy, symbolic patterning, and metaphor, it must be sought elsewhere, and in Gallant's work that place is voice. And if one of the more productive ways of reading Mavis Gallant's fiction has less to do with analysing structure and symbol than with listening attentively to the voices that tell the stories, then issues of interpretation centre on what is heard, how it is heard, and who is speaking.
VOICE AND CREDIBILITY: ‘ITS IMAGE ON THE MIRROR’
Much of the information presented in a story arrives, as it were, in a mediated form. That is to say, the illusion we as readers maintain implies, among other things, that the narrator selects certain incidents as worthy of mention and recounts them. The character of the narrator determines what is significant and why. The ‘credibility’ of the narrator means, basically, the degree to which the narrator's opinions might be expected to coincide with those of the reader. Credibility is important because it affects the reader's position in relation to that of the narrator; it affects the perspective from which the reader receives information.
The credibility of Jean Price, the first-person narrator of ‘Its Image on the Mirror,’ is the subject of a critical dispute between D. B. Jewison and W. J. Keith. In Jewison's view, the contradictions in Jean's account of her family history are compounded by repeated references to the limitations of memory (and of Jean's memory in particular). Consequently, ‘Jean's authority is severely undermined’ (102). Providing a series of examples of questionable assertions on Jean's part, Jewison concludes ‘that Jean's assessments must always be regarded with suspicion and sometimes with contempt’ (104). W. J. Keith, by contrast, disputes some of the contradictions Jewison finds in Jean's story. ‘As a narrator,’ Keith contends, ‘Jean may be “unreliable” in the way that we all are, but we cannot, I think, properly regard her unreliability as in any way culpable or excessive’ (159). According to Keith, Jean's ‘assessments should certainly be regarded with “suspicion”—only an impossibly naïve reader would accept them all at face value—but I would argue that we should not, with Jewison, regard them, even “sometimes,” with “contempt”’ (159).
The difference of opinion between Jewison and Keith is instructive in three ways. First, it shows the magnitude of the difficulties involved in determining credibility, shows this indeed as the very discussion becomes implicated in the process of assessing and evaluating trust worthiness. The credibility of the critics themselves is at issue: does the reader believe Jewison and distrust Jean, or side with Keith and accept (with some reservations) her version of the story? Second, it illustrates the centrality of voice to any reading of the text. Third, the debate raises the question of how credibility is determined.
WHAT IS A PRIME VOICE?
One way of envisioning the dynamics of credibility is to imagine that every reader constructs a prime voice—a voice the reader trusts, one which tells the truth, which states, for example, ‘Jean Price said X but of course she was lying.’ The prime voice is not that of a narrator, character, or author, although it may approach any or all of these at times; it does not exist except in the reader's mind's ear. Its function is to tell not The Truth but a particular truth, or set of truths, about a particular story, the necessity of those truths being dictated by the reader, who evaluates the other voices and finds them, in one way or another, wanting. (The concept of the prime voice may be applied to novels as well; in the story, however, where voice generally carries a greater weight, it may prove even more fruitful as a critical perspective). The prime voice tells the real story, in so far as the notion is conceivable—recounts a version of the story, let us say, which the reader chooses from among the many versions possible, because it seems more plausible, fitting, or interesting.21 The prime voice is not the ultimate or the best voice (‘prime’ here implies primacy only in terms of its appeal to a particular reader); rather, it is like one of a series of yardsticks, the one you end up buying, although none of them might measure exactly one yard. William Pritchard, in the review cited above, claims that ‘Mavis Gallant refuses to … speak as a thoughtful omniscience behind her characters’ (4). Spatially, we may situate the prime voice alongside other voices in the story; temporally, it speaks simultaneously with and in between them.22
To a reader operating within a critical framework which allows that there is or was a person who performed the physical act of writing but does not admit, for example, intentionality as a unproblematic clue to understanding stories, the idea of a prime voice can be liberating. It is not a question of saying, ‘I believe the Author meant X,’ but of a different conceptualization of the way in which information communicated in a story is received and understood. The reader hears a prime voice which is different for each reader and at each reading. The prime voice is an illustration of the dynamic interplay between reader and text which constitutes reading.
THE PRIME VOICE IN ‘THE PEGNITZ JUNCTION’
The prime voice operates chiefly in one of two situations. In the first, it speaks in conjunction with the voice of the narrator. For example, in the opening lines of ‘The Pegnitz Junction,’ the omniscient narrator uses such epithets as ‘bony,’ ‘slow moving,’ and ‘tall’ to describe Christine. Danielle Schaub understands this to mean that Christine is unattractive, although the narrator does not say so. One might say that Schaub interprets the narrator's comments in a certain light. Alternatively, one could argue that Schaub is in effect hearing another voice, the prime voice, along with that of the narrator, and that the prime voice is saying things like, ‘Bony means too thin; too thin is not attractive.’ For another reader, because this is the opening section of the text, the narrator's voice might dominate. Such a reader would perhaps not hear the prime voice until that of the narrator has been more firmly established (that is, the prime voice and the narrator's voice might for the moment be saying the same thing).
In another set of circumstances the prime voice takes on a more active role. When the narrator is temporarily absent from the text, and a character-voice dominates, the prime voice takes the place of the narrator. The extensive monologues of Mrs Schneider in ‘The Pegnitz Junction’ illustrate this dynamic. The character is not speaking but thinking, so her ‘speech’ is not direct but reported. Her monologues differ from most instances of reported speech, however, in that they are presented with the appearance of intactness. Italicized so as to be distinguished from the surrounding text, they contain no interpolations from Christine, who hears them, or from the omniscient narrator, who, supposedly, passes them on. Like other italicized passages in ‘The Pegnitz Junction,’ these create a sense of immediacy, suggesting both through typography and through the use of the first person that they represent a character-voice which is being transmitted directly to the reader, without the intervention of a narrator or another character.
‘This was the beginning,’ says Mrs Schneider,
Two first cousins from Muggendorf married two first cousins from Doos. Emigrated to the USA, all four together. … The men got work right away in Flushing. … Arrangement was that they would come to us for their evening meal. Had every evening meal together for forty-seven years. … I cooked around seventeen thousand suppers, all told. Never a disagreement. Never an angry word. Nothing but good food and family loyalty.
Mrs Schneider recounts the lives of the four German émigrés in New York state, often in a brisk, clipped, journalistic style, as if she were in a hurry to get her story out. The brevity of the sentences and the omission of articles and subject pronouns (‘Emigrated to the USA … Arrangement was … Had every evening meal …’) underline the sense of urgency. Equally often, though, Mrs Schneider provides long lists of the food she has prepared, as if to suggest that the couples' lives were significant chiefly because of what they had for supper. There is a tension between the impression of speed created stylistically and through the rapid succession of events and social changes Mrs Schneider chronicles (the Depression, the war, the postwar period, the alterations in the social make-up of the neighbourhood), and the monotony of an existence marked by a relentless progression of dishes.23
The principal tension in Mrs Schneider's monologues, however, arises from the conflict between her voice and the prime voice. At times they appear to concur, as when she states that she has cooked seventeen thousand suppers—there is no doubt the woman has worked hard. But her assertions are more frequently suspect. For example, she repeatedly refers to familial harmony in sentences that open with a negation (‘Never … Never …’; ‘Nobody … Never …’).24 Mrs Schneider's insistence on the positive in sentences structured around negatives gives rise to an opposing voice. The prime voice in this instance emerges from the contradiction between what the character seems to want to say and how she says it; the prime voice tells the reader she is lying.25
The prime voice expresses itself in opposition to that of Mrs Schneider: where she says ‘family loyalty,’ it replies family loathing. Later, when she suggests pride, it indicates pathos. Mrs Schneider describes the restrictions placed on the families during the war:
During the conflict we were enemy aliens … Police had orders, had to tell us we couldn't go to the beaches any more. Big joke on them—we never went anyway, didn't even own bathing suits! Were given our territorial limits: could go into Jackson Heights as far as the corner of Northern and 81st. Never went, never wanted to … The men … had three stations from home to work, were warned not to get off at the wrong one. They never did. The thing was we never wanted to go anywhere except the three blocks between our two homes. The only thing we missed was the fresh bratwurst. We never went anywhere because we never wanted to! The joke was on the whole USA!
The dominant tone of this passage is Mrs Schneider's defiant glee at outwitting the authorities. But the prime voice tells a different story, that of the meanness of the life of a woman who chooses to spend her time only with people she clearly despises, of the lives of two couples who have no desire to go anywhere beyond ‘the three blocks between our two homes.’ Here again, the persistent repetition (‘Big joke on them … The joke was on the whole USA!’) and the reliance on negative constructions (‘We never went … didn't even own … Never went, never wanted to … We never went anywhere because we never wanted to!’) create a counter-voice.
One of Mrs Schneider's most unattractive traits is her blatant racism:
There was a plan to save some German cities, those with interesting old monuments. The plan was to put Jews in the attics of all the houses. The Allies would never have dropped a bomb. What a difference it might have made. Later we learned this plan had been sabotaged by the President of the USA. Too bad. It could have saved many famous old statues and quite a few lives.
Here, the anti-Semitism Mrs Schneider expressed earlier in her condemnation of President ‘Roszenfeldt’ (39) masquerades as a desire to save statues and lives. There is no need for the oppositional syntactical strategies developed earlier: the prime voice does not have to work very hard to show the ethnocentrism behind the appearance of prudent pragmatism.
The prime voice speaks from the space between that which is said and that which is not. It opposes the dominant voice by pointing to something outside or on the other side of it. And dominance is crucial because ‘The Pegnitz Junction’ is a sequence of voices, a competitive polyphony, in which ‘narrative voice’ constitutes not one thing, not one narrator or one voice, but a complex web of relations among different voices, each of which maintains a temporary position of power before relinquishing that position to another. The idea of a prime voice is an image of the interaction between reader and text, an image that attempts to take into account the importance of voice in the dynamic which constitutes the reading process.
Mavis Gallant's ‘The Pegnitz Junction’ is a fragmented fiction, a story whose narrative voice is constantly interrupted by (or, to put it a different way, often comprises) a variety of voices telling other stories. In a story such as this one, where the authority and credibility of utterances are so vital to the constructions of meaning involved in the reading process, voice is particularly significant, as it is through the identification of voices and the assessment of their credibility that judgments about meaning are made. Although some readers may have difficulty reconciling the concept of prime voice with a reader-response perspective such as that articulated by Wolfgang Iser, that reconciliation is only problematic if the prime voice is seen to inhere in the text. I would suggest that the prime voice is a reader's construct, and one which may illustrate the reading process as it pertains to voice. The prime voice is a mildly deconstructionist image in that it seeks to allow entrance to the aberrant trope, the aberrant voice, to create a space for reading (or listening) against the grain. In the language of feminist theory, it is the process of allowing the ‘other’ voice in what Elaine Showalter calls a ‘double-voiced discourse’ to speak.
Ronald Hatch, for example, who in an insightful early essay pronounces ‘The Pegnitz Junction’ ‘quite an extraordinary work,’ ‘was puzzled on first reading, not really understanding the increasing fragmentation, yet feeling strangely the sinister element behind even the most trivial event. … By the end of the novella, so many stories have been introduced within stories that everything seems to be flying apart’ (101).
Barbara Godard's comment on A Fairly Good Time applies equally to ‘The Pegnitz Junction’: she describes Gallant's novel as ‘an eternal braid of story within story moving to the vanishing point’ (43).
Neil Besner, one of Gallant's most thoughtful readers, points out some of the challenges of assessing voice in his article on ‘The Fenton Child’: ‘What first meets the eye in this story is [Gallant's] recurring deployment of striking assertions that read as if they were uncontested fact. At one level they are. But they silently and insistently signal their instability, open out their unreliability or their foolishness, and introduce a host of other qualities, all of them undeclared, all of them significant and available, all of them shaping the conditions for the story’ (‘Reading,’ 900-901).
In an interview with Geoff Hancock, Gallant makes the following comment on Christine's unusual receptivity: ‘You see, a great deal of conversation in it [‘The Pegnitz Junction’] is cut off, short circuited. When the young woman hears the older woman thinking about her life in America, she really does hear her thinking. She is not inventing or making up stories. Everything that the young woman sees when she looks out the train window, she really does see. A kind of magic, if you like. To my mind, a short circuit. She really does know all these stories. She really does know what happened to everyone. Someone wondered if she was schizophrenic. No. There is a German expression, “I can her him thinking.” I've always liked that. I could hear him thinking. Because one does very often (Gallant and Hancock, 65).
Danielle Schaub indicates the irony of this situation when she points out that in Paris, ‘Herbert feels so embarrassed about it [the war] that he only speaks French in public so as to pass himself off as French’ (239).
Other episodes which reveal the Herbert-beneath-the-surface include those involving his ex-wife (84-85) and his mother (13-14).
The specificity of ‘in France’ here carries a certain weight: for Christine, France may be merely a foreign country, but for Herbert it remains enemy territory.
See, for example, the dialogue which follows the intercepted letter to Ken:
‘Is it finished?’ said little Bert.
‘I suppose so. Though nothing is ever finished,’ said Christine. She had been disappointed by both the substance and quality of this information.
Or, a page later, the section which follows Herbert's italicized description of his wife's departure:
This fell like dirty cinders. As information, it offered nothing except the fact that Herbert was not far from the waiting room. Perhaps it had no connection with him; in this particular game no one was allowed an unfair advantage. It was old and tarnished stuff which had come to her by error.
Homi Bhabha has often discussed the importance of mimicry as a strategy for rebellion against authority. Bhabha's focus on the colonial context does not translate here, but the issues of power, rebellion and mimicry do. See, for example, ‘Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse’: ‘Mimicry is, thus, the sign of a double articulation; a complex strategy of reform, regulation, and discipline, which “appropriates” the Other as it visualizes power. Mimicry is also the sign of the inappropriate, however, a difference or recalcitrance which coheres the dominant strategic function of colonial power, intensifies surveillance, and poses an immanent threat to both “normalized” knowledges and disciplinary powers’ (126).
This is precisely what Mikhail Bakhtin describes as one of the means of incorporating heteroglossia into a text: ‘an intrusion of the emotional aspects of someone else's speech (ellipsis, questions, exclamations)’ (319). ‘The Pegnitz Junction’ is a polyphonic text not merely because it includes a variety of voices but because of the ways in which those voices are incorporated, the ways in which they intersect and echo one another.
Note that these challenges frame the narrative, the first occurring very early on, before the start of the train journey, and the second close to the end of the story. Christine's impugnment of the conductor is particularly significant because she undertakes it on behalf of a group—little Bert and the women in the station waiting room—in a passage redolent of intimidation (‘panic,’ ‘fright,’ ‘power,’ ‘authority,’ ‘testify,’ ‘scaring,’ ‘frightened,’ ‘ill with terror,’ ‘escape’ [80-81]).
See Bakhtin on incorporated genres and heteroglossia (320).
That a woman, and a young woman at that, should serve as the figure for resistance to oppression may not be accidental. In the Hancock interview, Gallant has this to say: ‘We had no way of knowing then or for a long time that there had ever been any German resistance. If the Resistance in other countries has sometimes been inflated out of all historical reality, the German resistance has been played down. If you want to learn anything about it you have to take trouble, search out the books—very few—and try to find witnesses, first hand accounts. Ask people, in Canada, today, if they have ever heard of Sophie Scholl, decapitated at nineteen for distributing anti-Nazi tracts at the university of Munich. Her brother, aged 21, was beheaded too. Of course, we didn't know that’ (Gallant and Hancock, 40).
Schaub does contend, however, that Christine undergoes at the end of the narrative a transformation that signals an optimistic outlook on the future. In a curiously contradictory interpretation, Schaub claims that Christine ‘decides to stop pretending’ and that ‘she starts acting as a real mother would’ (244). Christine ignores the arrival of the train, Schaub explains, in a move away from social convention and towards independence. For a more convincing account of the story's final pages, see Hatch, 103.
See, for example, Herbert Leet's 1956 review of The Other Paris: ‘there is a wistful, humorous quality in these simple tales of how a young American girl became disenchanted with Paris’ (Leet, 832). Janice Kulyk Keefer quotes a later fragment of the same review, in which Leet concludes: ‘Enjoyment is limited to feminine special readers in larger public libraries’ (Kulyk Keefer, 155).
Reception theorist Wolfgang Iser argues that the gap (the interruption, the hiatus) is vital to the narrative: ‘Indeed, it is only through inevitable omissions that a story will gain its dynamism. Thus whenever the flow is interrupted and we are led off in unexpected directions, the opportunity is given to us to bring into play our own faculty for establishing connections—for filling in the gaps left by the text itself’ (216).
Fabre underlines the importance of gaps in Mavis Gallant's short stories and relates them to narrative voice: ‘Or, Mavis Gallant, par son recours répété à l'ellipse ou à la litote, semble refuser l'implication de l'auteur/narrateur qui s'efface bien plus qu'il ne se laisse entrevoir dans la plupart de ses nouvelles. Et, paradoxalement, c'est lorsqu'il semble se manifester le plus ouvertement que le narrateur se trouve le plus loin de la voix, qu'il prend le moins en charge la vision profonde de l'auteur’ (60).
In his analysis of Katherine Mansfield's ‘At the Bay,’ W. H. New explores various implications of textual gaps and silences; here he considers the paradoxical way in which speech and silence—presence and absence—implicate one another: ‘Repeatedly, the story asks not just that the reader listen to sounds, but that the reader mark how sounds break durations of silence: sound, that is, makes us aware not just of itself but also of the expressiveness of silence, of the presence of silence. Hence speech makes us aware of the unsaid, and action of what has not taken place: the effect of the form is oblique, drawing attention to a present other’ (213).
Iser's conceptualization of sequent sentences, each of which modifies the expectations created by its precedent, approaches Bakhtin's understanding of sequent words: ‘every word is directed toward an answer and cannot escape the profound influence of the answering word that it anticipates’ (280).
‘The artistic refers to the text created by the author, and the aesthetic to the realization accomplished by the reader’ (212).
It follows that the meaning of such terms as ‘truth’ and ‘real’ is utterly relative.
‘In between’ here implies a temporal as well as a spatial component: the prime voice may be that which is heard in the space which follows the end of a paragraph, or in the temporal space which begins where a reader stops reading and ends when she resumes.
‘I cooked fresh chicken soup, pea soup with bacon, my own goulash soup, hot beer soup, soup with dumplings, soup with rice, soup with noodles, prepared my own cabbage in brine, made fresh celery salad, potato salad our way, potato dumplings, duck with red cabbage, cod with onions, plum dumplings, horseradish salad, sweet and sour pork our way, goose giblets with turnips’ (24).
‘Never a disagreement. Never an angry word. Nothing but good food and family loyalty’ (24); ‘Nobody was ever as close as we were … Never a cross answer’ (25).
This is one of many possible constructions of a prime voice—my prime voice at this reading. Different readers will feel varying degrees of sympathy (or none) for Mrs Schneider, depending on the extent to which the prime voice opposes her account.
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———. ‘Reading Mavis Gallant's 1940s in the 1990s: “The Fenton Child.”’ University of Toronto Quarterly 68 (1999), 898-908
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