Mavis Gallant Gallant, Mavis (Vol. 18) - Essay

Mavis de Trafford Young


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Gallant, Mavis 1922–

Gallant, a Canadian novelist and short story writer, has said that most writers emerge from a "solitary childhood" ridden with the "shocks of violent change." In her own expertly crafted fiction, the characters are often lonely and alone, driven almost to madness by the apathy and antagonism of others. (See also CLC, Vol. 7, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 69-72.)

William Peden

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Most of Miss Gallant's characters [in the stories in "The Other Paris" are] … unhappy because of the disparity between reality and their dreams. The heroine of the title-story finds that Paris falls far short of her expectations; she forces herself to forget the "rain and her unshared confusion and loneliness" and creates a myth of her own which is "accurate … but untrue."…

Miss Gallant, like Henry James, is fascinated by the idea of the American in Europe; the best of her stories delineate the contrast between American and European values, mores, states of mind. She does not present a flattering or a pleasant picture; her Americans are futile, predatory, or unhappy; they fail to understand, or they are misunderstood. Fortunately, Miss Gallant avoids the stereotyped caricatures of the provincial American in the Old World; even her least admirable characters have their moments of tenderness and half-realized understanding. The author creates no monsters; for the most part her people are likable in the way that a trained pony or a performing puppy is likable. They have simply failed to grow up. Lacking in either maturity or a sense of humor, they can never distinguish between the trivial and the significant, and therein lies their undoing.

Miss Gallant writes with sureness, grace and understanding. Without exception, these are superior stories.

William Peden, "The Gulf between Reality and Dreams," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1956 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 26, 1956, p. 28.

Constance Pendergast

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In this subtle, disturbing, beautifully-written novel [Green Water, Green Sky], Mavis Gallant writes of the disaster that results from a relationship founded on the mutual need and antagonism of a woman and her daughter, where love turns inward and festers, bringing about inevitably the disintegration of both characters. Imagery of decay and corruption convey to the reader a vivid sense of the destructive power of this ruthless love, the hollowness of its victims, and the symbolic wasteland that Europe becomes for them.

The mother and daughter are two homeless Americans drifting without purpose about Europe, belonging only to each other, their roots down in nothing but the barren soil of an effete family tradition, and no more solid ground under their feet than the shifting sands of their own fantasies…. The deterioration is complete when both women are reduced to the level of hallucination in the ordinarily unimaginative mind of a solid young cousin.

Miss Gallant has an astonishing talent for evoking a time and a place by the use of a single sharp detail: the parasols "askew in the hot wind" at the beach on the Lido, the sandy floors of the white-walled, shuttered room in Cannes. She has with remarkable skill conveyed a sense of the passage of time as it appears to human beings—events that are separated by years seen in juxtaposition, the past often more substantial than the present. Thus, time past, the green water and sky of Venice, can be resurrected by a single glass bead, and the present—a moment of unity on a bridge, for instance—looked at from some future point of observation.

The grim, tragic story is related with great technical ability and in a prose style marked by an economy rare in novels of this kind. Shrewdness of insight, exactness of imagery, an illuminating wit make it a novel that will be of interest to readers of serious fiction. The author's effects are the more startling for having been created by implication, the devices of foreshortening and suggestion used in poetry.

Constance Pendergast, "Love's Grim Remains," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1959 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. 62, No. 42, October 17, 1959, p. 19.

Martin Price

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Miss Gallant's characters [in Green Water, Green Sky] come out of a world that recalls the fine, delicate novels of Isabel Bolton. But here everything is made hard and bright. Bonnie is a foolish woman who has fled a scandal and spent her life in Europe. She is full of pretensions and shallow selfishness, a woman who cannot survive without devouring others' lives, particularly her daughter's. Between Bonnie and her daughter, Florence, there exists a mixture of "love and resentment … one reflecting the other, water under sky." They are imprisoned by each other, tied together by their lack of a real home, surrounded through their lives by people who seem to embody their aspirations….

Bonnie's life is filled with the image of a past she has lost and tries to hold on to for its uses; she has a shrewdness and adaptability, the shrewdness of the sentimental egotist, that her daughter does not. She uses the past, but Florence is overcome by it—by her sense of guilt, her loss of identity, her resentment of Bonnie…. One can imagine that these characters might have made a novel rather than these overwrought little episodes. One feels the author's arrangement at every point. One admires her command of settings, her ear for snobbish inflection, her eye for a crisp detail. Perhaps mannequins serve her purpose.

Martin Price, "Dreams and Doubts: Some Recent Fiction," in The Yale Review (© 1959 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Vol. XLIX, No. 2, December, 1959, p. 283.

Eve Auchincloss

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The cri de coeur [of My Heart Is Broken] could not be more astringently ironic, coming as it does—in the brief story to which it also gives a name—from the lips of a hare-brained waif married to a construction engineer in a Canadian wilderness, who out of witless boredom gets herself laid in the woods by one of her husband's work mates…. "He wasn't even friendly. It's the first time in my life somebody hasn't even liked me … My heart is just broken."

But hearts are not broken in Mavis Gallant's stories. The people she writes about, all of them transplanted from somewhere else, have been taught "to go blank in the presence of worry and pain, and … that it was foolish to weep." Their roots are cut, and her subject is the nature of the life that is left when the roots are not fed. (p. 17)

Mavis Gallant writes with admirably feminine discretion, tact, humor, self-confidence, and kindness. Her characters—especially the women—are real people with moral volume. But her discretion often wanders on into an ostentatious withholding of judgment that begs the question: why then write the story? She sorts out "the truth" scrupulously, but to what end? When she says, "I'd better explain about that bicycle. It was heavy and old, a boy's bike left by a cousin killed in the war …" one wonders why she need explain. The bicycle in fact doesn't really matter. This characteristic, unnecessary, irrelevant over-explaining suggests that something else, something important, is being passed over. What is it? Why aren't the stories painfully moving, though the people are so recognizably decent, so stoic in their disappointment, in their lonely plights so jauntily sad? Because none of them wants to take the risk of getting involved, even the author really. She is a wonderful observer of the ordinary grotesqueries of human encounter that leave hearts bruised and obscurely aching. But not broken—nothing is really changed by these encounters; nothing is added to the sum of life. (p. 18)

Eve Auchincloss, "Good Housekeeping," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1964 Nyrev, Inc.), Vol. II, No. 10, June 25, 1964, pp. 17-18.∗

Robert Fulford

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

You are supposed to admire authors for what is universal rather than what is local in their work, but it is hard to avoid admiring Mrs. Gallant for something she probably regards as a minor aspect of her writing: her ability to evoke precisely the lives of Anglo-Saxon Protestants in Montreal in the 1930s and 1940s. In fact, her best stories and her new short novel amount to a unique chronicle of the Quebec Anglo-Saxons, and for this reason, among others, she should be valued by Canadian readers.

Her new book, My Heart is Broken, contains eight stories and a novel of one hundred pages, Its Image on the Mirror. The narrator of the novel is a woman, Jean Duncan, who has grown up inside a suburban Montreal Anglo-Saxon world and who sees this world with both affection and self-criticism….

Its Image on the Mirror suggests a new direction in Mrs. Gallant's work. In the past her writing has fallen into two types. Her stories, or most of them, have had the best qualities of New Yorker fiction—an effortlessly graceful style, a precise attention to detail—but they have also tended to keep both the reader and the writer at a safe, cool distance from the characters…. But her one earlier novel, Green Water, Green Sky, was precisely the opposite. It was so introspective that it amounted to a rejection of her best qualities: a sense of place and a sense of the differences between her...

(The entire section is 442 words.)

Ann Hulbert

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The stories in From the Fifteenth District] show a novelist's imagination at work, spanning a large public world and penetrating many private ones. Gallant ranges over the European scene since the mid-1930s, but never strays far from World War II. That war haunts almost every story; it is an approaching conflict, an upheaval which has just ended, leaving the world in disarray; or a distant but persistent memory which still undermines the postwar era of peace.

Most of the characters who inhabit this unsettled international world are exiles from their homelands, not by force or by design, but by virtue merely of circumstances, dire and not so dire. Gallant traces their personal histories in stories that proceed at an unhurried pace, accruing details and nuances about pasts, places, relationships, and inner lives. The most telling details are those that reveal what her characters selectively remember or forget about their pasts. (p. 38)

The usually unheroic drama between personal and public histories which takes place in many of the stories is played out most clearly in one of the longer stories, "The Remission." Englishman Alec Webb, once a prisoner of war and now unsuited to life in the fast-paced, crowded postwar world, retreats to the Riviera to die a very slow death. While he declines, his wife, uprooted there with their family, instinctively and none too nobly finds a "foothold in the nineteen-fifties." Gallant starkly contrasts these two characters' accommodations to the passage of time. In other stories, her characters variously adapt to and resist their circumstances…. Gallant's characters lose and find one another as they cross and recross national borders, live through wars—travels and trouble usually beyond the scope of short fiction. (pp. 38-9)

Ann Hulbert, "Books and the Arts: 'From the Fifteenth District'," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1979 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 181, No. 8, August 25, 1979, pp. 38-9.

Anne Tyler

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["From the Fifteenth District"] is billed as "a novella and eight short stories," but it's not clear which is the novella…. Each is densely woven, wide-ranging, rich in people and plots—a miniature world, more satisfying than many full-scale novels….

Nearly everyone in these stories is expatriated—figuratively if not literally….

Foreigners either in geographical terms, or in terms of time or slant of view, these people provide the sense of distance that makes Mavis Gallant's writing so coolly, dead-center accurate. They seem surprised to find themselves in their particular lives. They describe their surroundings with a clarity that appears to have been startled out of them….

They are afflicted with bizarre handicaps that they treat as normal—a tendency to suspend one's breathing, for instance, or the audible, inner commands of a younger self requesting "a child's version of justice … an impossible world." In the title story, the dead are haunted by the living. Their survivors are inquisitive, intrusive, anxious to impress upon the dead their own versions of the truth, while the dead (expatriates, too, of a sort) buck and chafe at the imposition….

Most collections of short stories must be read in several sittings. Otherwise, the rise and fall of one writer's voice, repeated too often in too small a space, lessens the effect. But this book is not so fragile. There is a sense of limitlessness: each story is like a peephole opening out into a very wide landscape. The characters will go on with their lives, you feel, even when their slim allotment of pages has been exhausted. They have only briefly, graciously consented to allow us in, persuaded by the skill and tact of Mavis Gallant.

Anne Tyler, "European Plots and People," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 16, 1979, p. 13.

I. M. Owen

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

First of all, let's get the title story of Mavis Gallant's [From the Fifteenth District] out of the way quickly, and then try to forget it. It's a brief jeu d'esprit about three ghosts who complain to the police that they are being haunted by living people, and when I first saw it in The New Yorker I expected to find the name of Donald Barthelme at the end. It's not the kind of thing Gallant does well….

What Mavis Gallant does do well is the reality of living people, and she does it so very well, so wittily, so convincingly, and with such unfailing grace that it makes me want to cheer, or weep, according to my mood and the particular story I'm reading.


(The entire section is 451 words.)