New Yorker Writer's Miniature Novels
Mavis Gallant expects her readers to 'make a substantial investment of attention'
The Collected Stories of Mavis Gallant
By Mavis Gallant
887 pp., $40
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 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 postwar 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 fianc 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.
* Merle Rubin regularly reviews books for the Monitor.