I am reading Mavis Gallant on Malibu Beach. Sleek and sunset-lit, surfers weave around one another, a small army in their glistening black uniforms. They lean and swerve until walls of crumbling foam swallow them. Behind me, Porsches and Jaguars zip past on the Pacific Coast Highway below a clutch of glass mansions wedged into the crevices of the cliffs. I squint up at all the glass and cactus, trying to figure out which multi-million dollar Malibu shack was recently sold by Brad and Angelina. The faintest whiff of sewage is carried on the intermittent breeze.
My husband, Steve, and I are on a road trip through Southern California. Steve has fast-talked his way into an upgrade on the rental car. He picks me up from a small airport in Carlsbad in a black and white sporty convertible with the top down. I read Gallant as we zoom down the highway, speckles of light from my big-brimmed straw hat jittering on the page.
Days later, at the Comfort Inn, a franchise that emblematizes middle America (biscuits and gravy at the buffet breakfast, a promotional card on each table that begins with the statement “I love this country” and goes on to describe the new dining ware the Comfort Inn is so proud of), it’s hard not to look at my fellow travellers as Gallant characters—people in transit, penny-pinchers, or fallen aristocracy (although American-styled), all sliding down the back of an economic wave that might send everyone crashing.
An extremely large, middle-aged, and ginger-haired woman in a mauve hoodie embroidered with Disney’s Tinker Bell sits a few tables away. She speaks in a faux-sweet, slightly elevated voice to her husband. It becomes apparent that they are newlyweds on their honeymoon.
She asks if he remembers their first date, just a few months ago.
You took me to a drive-in movie, she says.
There are plaid couches and an electric fireplace, and outside the patio window a Latino man sweeps a net through the swimming pool. A hot tub roils. A young Mexican-American family has settled into the big table next to mine. The mother speaks to her husband in Spanish, and their children—a toddler and twin boys of about ten, pudgy and handsome with gelled Mohawks, crisp plaid button-down shirts, legs swinging above the floor—ask her to translate what she’s saying.
I certainly do remember the drive-in, the husband says. He has a pitcher of syrup raised over a plate of waffles. After a moment, he asks his new wife if she has read The Hobbit.
Because that’s something I look forward to discussing with you, he says.
The new wife glances wistfully at the twins sitting at the next table and says, Honey, you wore your sweater on the plane all last night and I thought to myself, all those layers must have been constricting. You had so many layers!
I have never read a story by Mavis Gallant set in California—and in some ways the desert we just drove out of, with its bronze light and utter stillness, its Vaseline haze and dun-coloured rabbits, all camouflage and grit, is Don DeLillo’s domain, or the DeLillo of Point Omega, where scary expanse and weirdness reign. Or, I think, Didion or Kerouac or Steinbeck. But the microcosm of this upper low-end but cheerfully clean motel, the representations of race and status and grasping economic instability, the overlapping layers of voice, point of view, and what these people (myself included) reveal without meaning to, the hinted secrets and trysts and brief precarious moments of human connection—all of it strikes me as quintessentially Gallant.
This particular Comfort Inn is in Oceanside. The town has a large military naval base, and there’s a barbershop on every street corner, and each chair in each shop is occupied, on this Sunday afternoon, by a caped man, head bowed, submitting to the buzz of an electric razor sliding up his neck. On the street, all the closely-shaven young men wear army fatigues and one sports a T-shirt that says Peace Through Superior Firepower. Steve sees a bumper sticker that says Freedom Isn’t Free. I remember the flight attendants on the plane from L.A. thanking everyone on board who was a member of the military for his service to “our” country.
What I love about Mavis Gallant is how her fiction threatens the notion of nationhood. Canadians want to claim Mavis Gallant as a Canadian writer, of course, but more than most writing, her short stories resist any kind of claiming or any sort of border—political, sociological, or even spiritual.
Throughout her work, especially in the stories set in Europe after the war, visas run out, refugees seek asylum, the political carpet is pulled from under everybody’s feet, villas give way to dampness and mould and bombing, walls come crumbling down. Ghosts abound. In the short story “The Four Seasons,” set in Italy during the war, a young local girl named Carmela can see the ghost that roams the gardens of the villa where she works as a domestic servant for an English expat couple. The Unwins have inherited the property from a deceased uncle, who died in the bedroom where Carmela sleeps. The war breaks out, and the Jews in the village are sent back and forth over the Italian and French borders, seeking refuge. The English ghost who roams the property where Carmela works becomes a metaphor of displacement. He is also trapped, unable to leave the grounds of the villa.
While driving along the Pacific Coast Highway, my husband pulls over to take a picture of an emerald field of produce that stretches in all directions without border or end, its irrigation system casting out plumes of shuddering white froth. It’s a Dole farm and, at the edge of the highway, the migrant workers gather. They wear protective gloves and kerchiefs cover their faces. Some of the mist floats into the car and I ask, Do you think it’s just plain water in those sprayers?
And Steve says, I think we’ve probably just been genetically modified.
That evening I reread “The Sunday After Christmas,” a Gallant story set in an equally eerie setting. A young man named Harold is travelling with his mother and a young woman they’ve picked up along the way. Harold’s mother and the beautiful young woman are buying coffees inside a skiing chalet, where they will rest before descending back down the mountain. Harold watches the women through a window from a veranda outside and thinks he can hear his mother’s thoughts. He eavesdrops through the walls and glass and crowded restaurant dining room while his mother tells a story about him.
Harold was, the mother supposedly explains, touring a hospital with a group of university students when he was taken aside by a nurse, who told him “that the place is run by a most eccentric doctor who did experiments on children and young people, and that Harold and his friends are the new victims.”
Harold sees the girl laugh before picking up the tray with their coffees and gathers his mother has told the girl to laugh because she has guessed her son is watching them and doesn’t want him to intuit the confidence she’s shared with the girl.
This imagined conversation, Harold’s certainty that his mother is trying to pretend she is not talking about him, the hairpin twists of logic in the young man’s racing thought, the adroit switches of point of view that surf over each other, and the nightmarish, apocryphal quality of the story from Harold’s past—all set in the ambiguous, cool, and isolating space of a foggy mountain top reminiscent of Mann’s mountain sanitarium—all of this is harrowing and uniquely Mavis Gallant. And it is delivered to the reader in a fever flush, a luminous wave.
This is the kind of control over language and form that has earned Gallant the mantle of “a writer’s writer,” which does not mean that the prose is too lofty for the ordinary reader. It means the craft is invisible and inimitable, no matter how much other writers would like to imitate it. A young, unsuspecting female picks up a tray of coffee and so begins a controlled flood of sensation, thought, emotion, history, and insight, as well as what is perhaps the beginning of a psychotic episode. The scene casts a net so wide that it catches impressionistic bits and pieces of each of the three characters—not just their thoughts and feelings, but more like moments of being, or coming into being. Harold’s mother is cloying and charming at once; she seems to have ensnared the young woman as a companion by wheedling and being steadfast. The girl is escaping her own family for the Christmas season (to teach her mother how to be on her own), and will not, ultimately, fall prey to Harold’s mother. But no one in this story is able to be on his or her own.
In the claustrophobic atmosphere of a chalet on a peak, the only way out is down. The story is full of emotional entrapment and charged fear, a desperate need for love and for what is fashioned as the opposite of all that, independence; all of it implied with the lightest touch, each line taut and steel strong—and deeply, well, weird. It is at least as anxiety-charged and strange as any DeLillo.
Always with Gallant, insight is born of suffering, marginalized characters: those who seek visions or are plagued by them, those who have been thrown on the mercy of others, those who strike out for freedom despite the costs, those on the move, travelling in foreign cities and towns. Her characters, especially in the stories set in Europe, are disenfranchised and articulate, often fiercely intelligent but warped by war, by poverty, by abandonment. Everything is crumbling and no ground is sure. There are bombed-out landscapes, scraps of food where there had been feasts, a makeshift scrounging for employment, the dire need to get by on wit and luck.
But what is most moving in Gallant’s stories is that, despite these circumstances, the characters don’t give up on hope, or even love. They are clear eyed; they don’t accept second best or a false version; they eschew the decoy for the real McCoy.
Gallant’s prose is accused of being cool because the sentences are elegant, because the wit eviscerates, and because her intelligence shows. But these critics are tone-deaf to humour. Gallant is the kind of writer who can wring a wry smile out of a question mark or a fast, slick aside. Here is satire, but Gallant does something very difficult and rare—her satire is neither cruel nor condescending but, against odds, compassionate.
Gallant never spares her characters insight into their own situations. She is not a writer who hovers above, though sometimes an authorial distance or gap opens up between the narrator and the author—a chink or wink, a difference in diction between how the narrator would think and what we are being told or asked to infer by the author. Gallant can’t help herself, it seems: she parts the curtain with a finger, voyeur-like, and pokes a little fun at small vanities, or at those moments when the starched and pompous give way to soft-boiled mysticism or pretension.
Take, for instance, “Potter,” the story of a Polish poet who has been jailed and tortured due to a mistranslation of his poems. Discharged from jail, and the holder of a short-term visa, Potter is visiting Paris. He has left his wife because he is tired of Polish women who “set aside a little bit of each day for spells of soft muted weeping.” He has, instead, fallen in love with Laurie, a Canadian girl half his age whose “idea of history began with the Vietnam war; Genesiswas her own Canadian childhood.” Laurie is in Paris for no apparent reason. Potter knows that sadness is contagious and wonders if happiness might not be as well.
This young Canadian tells Potter (she has Anglicized his real name, Piotr, because it’s too hard to pronounce and he’s willing to answer to anything she cares to call him) that though he is “not exactly her first lover he is certainly among the first, and the first ever to please her—a preposterous declaration he accepted on the spot.” How I love that word preposterous. This is Gallant slipping out of the third-person point of view, closely limited to Potter’s perception, and allowing for a little authorial intrusion. It’s Gallant who believes the declaration preposterous. She shows Potter up for the hapless innocent he really is. It’s not exactly cruel because the folly feels familiar to the reader. How much we all want to please!
“Potter” is one of the sweetest, saddest love stories I have ever read. Full of both mild and devastating ironies, and a raw unironic sense of loss—how does Gallant inhabit the male skin so convincingly?—it’s a story that captures a political reality so minutely detailed and far reaching its breadth is stunning. All this and funny besides.
Gallant’s stories are full of women on the cusp of losing youthful charms, who have gambled security for love, who have misjudged men and suffered for it, or made them suffer. And there are men who prove to be calculating or emotionally stunted or self-preserving; who are capable of cold withdrawal, even cruelty; who are punished by staggering loneliness or a wife who has stood by and witnessed a husband’s unforgivable betrayals.
“An Alien Flower” isa story about the lives of two young German women—both left without family or means after the war, drawn together because of a powerful man and set against each other despite an inclination for friendship. The story is told from Helga’s point of view, Julius’s jealous and guarded wife. Julius starts a relationship with Bibi, a young woman with “no past” who comes to the couple’s home as a maid. Bibi proves to be a talented scholar and scientist with a “bright future” and becomes a lifelong threat to Julius and Helga’s marriage. She quickly outstrips Helga in terms of intellect and ability, and is emotionally open and vulnerable in a way that Helga is not. Julius is cruel to both women and must come to live with himself reflected in his wife’s eyes.
The alien flower of the title refers, not only to Bibi, but also to a powerful and uncanny image of floating lilies. Bibi has an idea that allows Julius to grow lilies in the swimming pool. She encases the roots of the flowers in spheres that float beneath the surface. The spheres are full of a chemical mixture that keeps the flowers alive artificially. One evening a visitor tries to turn on the lights in the garden and hits all the electrical switches at once, by mistake, “causing the gate in the driveway to slide back and forth, the garage doors to open and shut, and the pool in the garden to blink like a star. The lilies on the surface of the pool flashed negative-positive-negative.” Helga thinks that the pool looks sterile. She doesn’t like lilies because they attract dragonflies. And then she has a kind of premonition. “I had a vision that cramped my stomach, of Bibi facedown among the negative-positive lilies, with dragonflies darting at her wet hair.” How disturbing these alien flowers seem, beautiful and fake, their roots below the surface, and how like the trapped lives of these two women, their own roots hidden, the trappings of material prosperity encasing and suffocating them. It is an ultra-modern image: all the gates and doors, borders of another kind, flinging open and slamming shut, the sterile flowers negative and positive against the water and night sky.
What astonishes in “An Alien Flower” are the holes Gallant works into the telling, the fallibility of her narrator, the omissions that allow the story to shine through the loose weave of the wife’s steady voice. The true story floats over Helga’s version, and Gallant creates layer upon layer of hide-and-seek, smoke and mirrors.
What she captures here, as do the short stories of Heinrich Böll, is Germany in flux after the Second World War: the guilt, the erasure of the past, the fissures and uncertainty, the upheaval, the dismantling of hierarchies of status, the geysers of absurdity that burst up through “the heaps of charred stone” that Europe became. It was a time when “No person was ever considered to blame for his own poverty or solitude. You would never have dreamed of hinting it could be his own fault.”
As in many of Gallant’s stories, this wrenching away of the normal social markers of identity and class gives the author a chance to ask what her characters are made of: what is essentially human, and what is particular to these very particular individuals? How frail, how strong? What is moral and what is immoral in a borderless community where survival and secrets go hand in hand? “Every stone held down a ghost, or a frozen life or a dreadful secret. No one was inferior, because everyone was. A social amnesty had been declared.” And the stories themselves provide a kind of amnesty. Everyone is a refugee from an old life, every soul dynamic. There’s a shedding of old selves, a reinventing as the pages turn: “In those days, so many papers and documents had been burned that people like Bibi could say anything they liked about themselves.”
As Helga recounts their life together with and without Bibi—the wealth and privilege they accumulate at moral and emotional expense, as well as at the expense of Bibi’s life—Julius becomes more than a dark secret without a past; he becomes a secret exposed. This is the mystery of Gallant’s art: by building up layer upon layer of complexity of detail, character, and circumstance, she manages a kind of stripping bare, an unconcealment. The layers unveil.
Before Malibu, Steve and I stayed in the Harmony Motel near Joshua Tree on the outskirts of the Mojave Desert. The tree is so named because it looked, to the Mormons who named it, like Joshua raising his arms toward heaven. Joshua was a spy sent to gather information and conquer the land of Canaan. More war and secrets. I read The Collected Works of Mavis Gallant looking out over the desert, the sky an empty sheet, the signature of a contrail high above.
At sunrise on our last morning in the desert, I went for a run down a dirt path, off the highway. The morning heat began to build and, after I had run for almost forty minutes and reached the crest of a hill, I was able to see for a long way.
Layers of shimmering haze, like the lenses in an optometrist’s office that slide one over the other with neat little clicks, made the landscape unnervingly crisp and clear.
Lisa Moore is the author of the novels Caught, February, and Alligator. Caught was adapted as a television series for the CBC. Her most recent work is a collection of short stories called Something for Everyone. She lives in St. John’s, Newfoundland.