Mavis Gallant had no natural constituency. Her childhood transplantings left her without early allegiances to population or place. At the time of her emergence as a writer, Canada had a small serious readership and a low regard for women artists, which is partly why the ones it produced, among them Gallant and Alice Munro, were impractical and single-minded. For having claim to two continents, Gallant was for a time, at least, unclaimed by either, viewed from both perspectives to be allied with foreigners. Though there came to be Gallantian characters, absurdities, turns of thought and phrase that made even the rabbit holes in a story her rabbit holes, her subjects and settings could not be fit onto a postage stamp. She wrote about Quebec lumber camps and French tax offices, about men, women, and children of disparate origins, never to gather except in her pages. It’s hard to find a mass-reproducible adjective to describe her fiction even falsely. She was never one of those good or great writers who become popular for the wrong reasons, the kind who are well read narrowly and badly read widely. Decade to decade she wasn’t the subject of much serious scholarly focus amid the myopias of academic criticism, though her work was anthologized in Canada and so half-lost upon many dozen nineteen-year-olds every year, including, one year, me.
Those who read her collections and any of the more than a hundred stories she published in The New Yorker tended to want to talk about them. A friend now long gone once said he’d found an obscure but certain pattern of Proust allusions in one of the stories, and he just had to walk me through them, and we walked, and I was convinced. (In one amber drop in the mind from the mid-1990s I see a group of Toronto friends in their twenties and thirties, professionals and students, whose tastes in fiction ranged from the realist-traditional, if not conservative, to the somewhat studied avant-garde, to the outright anarchic, all of us conducting a years-long conversation about Gallant. We’d stop by or phone one another—as I recall it we wore topcoats, wooden shoes—upon discovering newly published stories or books.) Like the used bookstore I found it in, lost now too is an old Best American Short Stories anthology from 1980, in which guest editor Stanley Elkin offers no apology for including two Gallant stories and insists that the only tough call was whether to include a third. Her best champions have tended to be writers. See Janice Kulyk Keefer’s Reading Mavis Gallant, and the introductions to her work in print and on the internet, the essays by Michael Ondaatje and Russell Banks that preface Paris Stories and Montreal Stories, and Francine Prose’s piece “Unknown Master” from Harper’s, April 2003.
Given her decades of writing, there’s no easy way of situating Gallant’s work within a tradition. Some stories feel of their time; most, whatever their historical setting, feel of the present, except for containing a worldliness lacking in most current short fiction. Her work is realist, certainly, but “realism” as a description of presumptions about art’s relation to reality or conventions of presentation is so broad a term as to lose useful meaning. In the company of Munro, Joy Williams, Deborah Eisenberg, Jhumpa Lahiri, and others, Gallant’s world is likely to seem both unusually large and minutely fixed. What could be called her “technical” aspects are comparatively subtle. Whereas Munro, especially in the 1980s and 1990s, invents a very effective, feeling aesthetic of wrong-footing the reader through the concealments of momentarily ambiguous pronouns and shifting points of view and tenses, Gallant tends to hold the reader steady, the better to appreciate an observational telling in which the subject is character-in-place, emotion rendered socio-historically. If one of Munro’s great subjects is memory, one of Gallant’s is the ways in which the past and present haunt one another or, oddly, fail to haunt when they have every reason to. Though she presents interiors, and readers understand the trap of the mind, she’s interested in what may be more accurately called “character” than “psychology.” Her shifts can be extra-cranial. We begin “The Remission” assuming that the protagonist is Alec Webb, a terminally ill Englishman who moves with his wife and family into a community of British expats in the south of France. By the end of the story, even as Alec finally dies, his wife finds a lover to replace him. The last paragraph:
Escorting lame Mrs. Massie to a sofa, Mr. Cranefield said they might as well look on the bright side. (He was still speaking about the second half of the 1950s.) Wilkinson, sitting down because he felt sick, and thinking the remark was intended for him, assured Mr. Cranefield, truthfully, that he had never looked anywhere else. It then happened that every person in the room, at the same moment, spoke and thought of something other than Alec. This lapse, this inattention, lasting no longer than was needed to say “No, thank you” or “Oh, really?” or “Yes, I see,” was enough to create the dark gap marking the end of Alec’s span. He ceased to be, and it made absolutely no difference after that whether or not he was forgotten.
In Gallant, time is another perspective to be broken. The five sections of “Baum, Gabriel 1935–( ),” each corresponding to a period and episode in Gabriel’s adult life, would seem randomly selected and juxtaposed except for the detail mentioned early but in passing that his parents had failed to get “out of Europe in . . . time.” This subordinated fact turns the story’s ensuing comic notes slightly absurd. As film extras in the 1970s Gabriel and his friend Dieter read the script of a television series about the Occupation. In one scene Resistance fighters about to be deported jump from a train. “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.
Events, having given way to historical accounts, are about to give way to blocked and paced entertainment. Time generates irony, which interposes between the past and present neat, comforting forms like the “thirteen hour television project.” What Gallant reveals are ways irony can be accommodated, as in Gabriel’s case, by a soul blithely pained.
In these stories the same intuition that discovers precise sympathies and antipathies determines the turn of a line, a tonal shift, or an ending that looks neither forward nor backward but into a blind spot we didn’t know was there all along. As someone has written of Emily Dickinson’s poems, Gallant’s stories have the art and dignity not to seek applause. What they do seek is attention, and they reward it with a view into worlds beyond simple seeming, that open into the real, or at least the part of reality that is so often funny, disappointing, strange, tough, and sad. All these adjectives are thin and yet you could make a train of them that at speed, passing by, would look like the thing itself, the one word that does catch it all, and that Gallant knows and we don’t but are in need of.
Not limiting ourselves to realists or English language writers, let’s say we’ve come through a thrilling period of reading Cortázar and Bolaño (the good stories, not the toss offs), David Foster Wallace, Jim Shepard, surrealists or fabulists, and wonderful unknowns discovered in literary magazines. We’ve read writers of formal daring and a degree of originality that register not just an idiosyncratic take on the world, but a warp inherent in the world itself. It’s that sort of particularizing strangeness that we find, too, in many of Gallant’s stories, though compared to the writers above it’s a muted strangeness, the low heat of an altering force seen there in the bubble and pock. Along with the best of the hard but not merciless comic pieces, such as the Henri Grippe stories, my favourite Gallant is “The Ice Wagon Going Down the Street.” To the extent that a story is “about” any one thing, here it’s the acquaintance of two Canadians in post-war Europe, a hapless married man named Peter, and his co-worker in Geneva, Agnes, a woman “from a small town in Saskatchewan.” (I think only now that the name might owe something to Agnes Martin, also from a small town in Saskatchewan, and like Gallant and Munro, at one point a young woman artist alone in a cold landscape.) A few years ago I failed to convince the Brick editors to reprint the last paragraph of “The Ice Wagon Going Down the Street” on a page all to itself so that it looked like a production error. (My editorial contributions are often enthusiastically expressed bad ideas.) Last year I was happy to find that Francine Prose sent us a typically perceptive piece about that very ending—see Brick 91; hell, see the story—which she calls “wildly original, almost ‘experimental.’ I can’t think of anything else, in fiction, remotely like it.” Nor can I think of a story by another writer that compresses so much living and longing into so small a moment.
As the world blundered toward the new century Gallant went silent. It was said she was working on a long non-fiction book on the Dreyfus affair. There were rumours she was still writing fiction but not sending it out. She began finally to receive lifetime achievement prizes in Canada, the United States, and France, and there was generally a settling of accounts. Versions of what amounted to selected stories appeared and brought back into print some of her work, reviving the body of it, but it came to seem she’d stopped publishing, against her will, if not her judgment. For the first time since she quit journalism, she accepted work back in Canada, teaching a writing course, serving on a jury. People who knew her told warm stories and polished, cautionary anecdotes. A Toronto couple I know invited her to dinner at their house, and only at the end of the evening did she present them the gift she’d brought, a copy of her novel A Fairly Good Time.
I met her once at a literary event. Though I was lately a hayseed from Saskatchewan of a kind she’d written about, she treated me to champagne and ice cream. There’s much more to this story but it’s hard to write about here, and there are better ones out there, some funny, some beautiful (search Lahiri, Banks). As happens now when someone famous dies, the internet fills with stories of the champagne and ice cream type. But the memorial aspect of such anecdotes can too easily cover the work. The danger of encomiums is that against their intention they can entomb the very achievement they celebrate. Try telling a young comic why she simply must read Perelman. No one must read Gallant. She herself wrote that we should only ever read who we want to. But I’m grateful that when I was one of those nineteen-year-olds someone assigned me to read her, a writer whose subjects outwardly had nothing to do with me, who seemed wry and refined, as I was not, and who produced notes of irony outside my hearing range. A year or two later, on my first trip to Paris, I found myself staring at her apartment building, with no intention of ringing her on the intercom because I had nothing to say. I’d been unable even to write a note that I might have dropped off. I’ve since met four or five people, all young Canadians, who’ve done the same thing, stare at that building. But forget the edifice, the squat reputation. There are a hundred better places to meet Mavis Gallant.
Brick editor Michael Helm last appeared in our pages with an essay on Mavis Gallant in issue 93. His new novel, After James, was just published.