In a characteristic mingling of modesty and fierce pride, Mavis Gallant has said that “one of the hardest things in the world is to describe what happened next.” It’s hard because of the value- and emotion-laden nature, not just of memory, but of human consciousness itself. Though nothing truly escapes us, memory and mind from the moment of our birth are notoriously, almost hopelessly, selective, elliptical, and inventive. And memory and mind, for expression, perhaps for their very existence, depend upon language—than which, of course, there is no more evasive and deceptive a medium. Now in her eighties, Gallant has spent a long lifetime doing that hardest thing—describing what happened next—in stories that are not only moving and powerful but also true to memory and mind. Born and raised bilingual in French-speaking Quebec and residing most of her adult life in France, Gallant chose to write in English, and in it less than a handful of living story writers are her equal: William Trevor, and Gallant’s countrywoman Alice Munro, perhaps, and—since the death of Eudora Welty—no American that I can think of.
The tension—and sometimes outright conflict—between remembered and felt experience on the one hand and, on the other, the known truth of what happened lies at the heart of all great short stories. It’s the argument that generates plot and structure, which, finally, gives a story meaning. Since Gogol and Chekhov, the flexible and still rapidly evolving form of the short story has unfolded that argument, and in doing so, it has universalized and dignified the experience, the pain and sorrow and desire and fear, of the ordinary, solitary man, woman, and child. It has extricated the isolato from the masses and made Everyman. Frank O’Connor called the modern short story “the lonely voice,” and more than any other literary form, it speaks to and for every human being who thinks of him- or herself as alone, cut off from God, and counted as unimportant and unworthy of attention except when considered en masse. It is, in a sense, the most democratic literary form. And it is in this tradition that Mavis Gallant has made herself a master.
Her stories follow no formula and obey no laws other than Robert Musil’s “one law of life, and that is the law of narrative order.” Which is to say, they are digressive, regressive, and circular; they leap forward in time one minute and linger in pockets of loss the next; they ruminate and fulminate and explicate. There are asides, self-reflexive inquiries, and rapid shifts in point of view—none of which stop or hinder the forward motion of the story. Quite the opposite; they keep the story flowing, like a meandering stream crossing a broad plain to the sea, like consciousness. But Gallant’s intent is always to dramatize consciousness, not merely to portray it. Consequently, her stories are as difficult to describe or to reduce to a synopsis as any truly lived experience is—not because of their variety or obscurity (her stories are never obscure) or some esoteric quality (her characters, settings, situations, and language are always instantly familiar, intimate, and homegrown, whether planted in Montreal, an Eastern Township village, Paris, Moscow, Florida, or the French Mediterranean), but because of their economy and precision and the sublime integration and inseparability of their elements—form, structure, content, and style.
In terms of locale, her stories, perhaps as a reflection of her somewhat bifurcated life, can be divided roughly between those that take place in Europe, usually Paris, and those set in Canada, usually Montreal and its environs. I have for personal reasons (I am half Canadian with three Canadian grandparents and grew up and live today just south of the border) an abiding affection, if not an outright preference, for the North American stories, if only because Gallant has attended there to lives that are familiar and matter greatly to me and rarely make it into literature: an adolescent girl, nearly crushed by the claustrophobic religious culture of her family, refusing to exchange her spirit for her soul (“The Chosen Husband”); a boy, abandoned by his feckless dad but obliged to care for the old man when, years later, he turns up dying in France (“The End of the World”); a grown daughter, returning to the city of her childhood, tracking the secret sources of her gauzy memories of her father and mother and their torn marriage (“Voices Lost in Snow”). None of these characters has money or property or much education; none of them is secure in society. Characters and situations like these seem peculiarly American, North American. It’s not easy to imagine them in the hands of a British or European or Latin American writer. I fear they would be treated far less kindly.
In Gallant’s stories, the conflicts, obsessions, and concerns—the near-impossibility of gaining personal freedom without inflicting harm on those whom you love and who love you; the difficulty of forgiving a cruel and selfish parent without sentimentalizing him; or the pain of failed renewal—are limned with an affectionate irony and generated by a sincere belief in their ultimate significance, significance not just for the characters who embody them, but for the author and, presumably, the reader as well. Such themes and perspectives as these have characterized the work of the best American story writers of the last half-century, from John Cheever to Raymond Carver to Lorrie Moore, and the best Canadians, from Alice Munro to Margaret Atwood to Clark Blaise. We respond to them on both sides of the long, porous border between our two nations with the same sad shock of self-recognition that we feel contemplating the imagery and atmosphere of a painting by Edward Hopper or a Duke Ellington orchestral suite. There is stringently expressed nostalgia, and then a bite, a redemptive edginess, that by undercutting the nostalgia gives it dignity and makes it worthy of our attention and admiration. As Samuel Beckett noted, “There is no escape from yesterday because yesterday has deformed us, or been deformed by us.” The memory doesn’t simply linger on; it instructs the present and prepares for the future that will sabotage it.
Here is Gallant:
The end of the afternoon had a particular shade of color then, which is not tinted by distance or enhancement but has to do with how streets were lighted. Lamps were still gas, and their soft gradual blooming at dusk made the sky turn a peacock blue that slowly deepened to marine, then indigo. This uneven light falling in blurred pools gave the snow it touched a quality of phosphorescence, beyond which were night shadows in which no one lurked. There were few cars, little sound. A fresh snowfall would lie in the streets in a way that seemed natural. Sidewalks were dangerous, casually sanded; even on busy streets you found traces of the icy slides children’s feet had made. The reddish brown of the stone houses, the curve and slope of the streets, the constantly changing sky were satisfactory in a way I now realize must have been aesthetically comfortable. This is what I saw when I read “city” in a book; I had no means of knowing that “city” one day would also mean drab, filthy, flat, or that city blocks could turn into dull squares without mystery.
(“Voices Lost in Snow”)
Time is the great subject of all Gallant’s work, but we also see how much she is a writer of the American North, of the region and culture that overlap the U.S.-Canada border from Maine and the Maritimes all the way west to Seattle and Vancouver. In these stories, darkness comes early and stays late; summer is not a condition, it’s an all-too-brief holiday. Cities are grey, skies are mauve or milky, and there are always wet boots slumped in entryways.
Many of the stories take place in Montreal, the city of Gallant’s childhood, and its suburbs. Born there in 1922 to English-speaking, Protestant, middle-class parents, she was an only child who, at the age of four, was sent for several years to a French Catholic boarding school; whose father died early, and whose mother quickly remarried. She was, as she says, “set afloat.” Consequently, from the beginning she has been situated simultaneously inside and outside her given worlds, a person forced to navigate her way on her own along the straits that lie between children and adults, men and women, and family and strangers; between the French language and English, provincial Catholic culture and urbane humanism; between Canada and the United States, and North America and Europe. Gallant’s life has placed her at the Borderlands, the ideal site for a writer of short stories.
It’s apparent from Mavis Gallant’s fiction that, like Henry James, nothing is ever lost on her, for she seems to have remembered everything that occurred in Montreal in the 1930s and 1940s and everyone whom she even so much as glanced at. It should not surprise us that she has been, especially for her time and place, an unusually independent woman. For six years, she worked as a reporter for the Montreal Standard. She married young, soon divorced, and in the late 1940s, started publishing her first stories in Canadian literary magazines. In 1950, at the age of twenty-eight, she made the bold decision to run off to France and live as a fiction writer, saying of that move simply, “I have arranged matters so that I would be free to write. It’s what I like doing.” Which, while guarding her privacy and solitude with care, is what she has done ever since.
With gratifying regularity, her stories have appeared in the pages of The New Yorker for nearly five decades now (which fact alone justifies the existence of that magazine); she has won numerous prizes and awards, yet here in the United States, despite having long been ensconced at Parnassian heights, she has mostly been viewed as “a writer’s writer.” Surely this is due more to her residency abroad, her absence from book-chat circles, and her well-known aversion to intrusions on her privacy than to any particular difficulty or preciousness or exoticism in her work. For what is a writer’s writer, anyhow? Merely one who honours in every sentence she writes the deepest, most time-honoured principles of composition: honesty, clarity, and concision. So, yes, in that sense she is a writer’s writer. But only in that sense.
Many of Gallant’s stories are “Canadian,” not by virtue of where they are set, but only because their protagonists happen to hail from that country, regardless of where they turn up in the world of the story. Gallant is fond of revisiting characters, viewing them at different times and places and from different points of view, producing sequences of three or four or more stories about the same individual and his or her family members and giving an almost novelistic take on their individual and familial histories, all the while remaining faithful to the short story form. Among such story sequences are the Montreal stories about Linnet Muir; the set about the Carette sisters, Berthe and Marie; as well as a new sequence of three extraordinary stories, “Let It Pass,” “In a War,” and “The Concert Party,” narrated by a man, un homme d’un certain âge, whose life’s story and sad fate ought forever to disabuse any critic of suggesting that Gallant is hard on her male characters. Ironic, perhaps, but always sweetly forgiving. The Linnet Muir and Carette sisters stories are justly famous and often anthologized.
In an afterword that appears in her collection Paris Stories, Gallant says, “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.” Yes, but believe me, Gallant’s can’t.
Russell Banks is the author of eighteen works of fiction, including the novels Continental Drift, Rule of the Bone, and Lost Memory of Skin, as well as six short story collections, most recently A Permanent Member of the Family. He lives in Miami, Florida, and in upstate New York with his wife, the poet Chase Twichell.