The often somber tone of Mavis Gallant’s (11 August 1922 – 18 February 2014) work is strengthened by the combination of acute lucidness and understated stylistic richness. Gallant is a remarkable observer. She succeeds in creating worlds that are both familiar and foreign, appealing yet uninviting. Her mastery in the restrained use of language and in her incomparable narrative powers make her undeniably one of the world’s greatest fiction writers.
The Other Paris
The title story of Mavis Gallant’s first collection strikes the pitch to which the others that follow it are tuned. Most of these stories are about young Americans in Europe just entering into marriage, uncertain about what they should feel, unsure of their roles, and unable to find appropriate models around them for the behavior that they think is expected of them. The young protagonists in the stories grope through their ambivalences, looking for guidance in others who seem more sure of themselves, or clutching written words from some absent sibling— advice recorded in a letter, or written down by themselves about appropriate responses to their present situation. In the other stories in which a parent is present, the other parent, usually ill or divorced, is absent, and the rules of conduct become equally tenuous because of that absence. The European stories are set in the early 1950’s, when the devastations of World War II are still being felt. Refugee figures haunt the fringes.
“The Other Paris” refers to the romantic illusions generated by films about that city which Carol feels she is missing. She is about to be married to Howard Mitchell, with whom she works in an American government agency, and with whom she is not yet in love. She keeps remembering her college lectures on the subject to reassure herself. Common interests and similar economic and religious backgrounds were what mattered. “The illusion of love was a blight imposed by the film industry, and almost entirely responsible for the high rate of divorce.” Carol waits expectantly for the appropriate emotions to follow the mutuality of their backgrounds: Their fathers are both attorneys, Protestants, and from the same social class. In Carol’s mind, the discovery of that mysterious “other Paris” is linked with the discovery of love. She believes the Parisians know a secret, “and if she spoke to the right person or opened the right door or turned down an unexpected street, the city would reveal itself and she would fall in love.” She tries all the typical tourist things, such as listening to carols at the Place Vendôme, but everything has been commercialized. Newsreel cameras and broadcast equipment spoil the atmosphere she seeks. Plastic mistletoe with “cheap tinsel” is tied to the street lamps.
Odile, Howard’s secretary, invites her to a private concert. Excitedly Carol thinks that she has finally gained entrance into the aristocratic secrets that are hidden from foreigners. Instead of the elegant drawing room she had anticipated, it is an “ordinary, shabby theatre” on an obscure street, nearly empty except for a few of the violinist’s relatives. Odile is thin, dark, seldom smiles, and often sounds sarcastic because of her poor English. She is involved with Felix, pale, ill, hungry, and without papers, who sells things on the black market. He is twenty-one, she is more than thirty years old, and Carol finds the gap in their ages distasteful. They have no common interests, no mitigating mutual circumstances; yet, one night in Felix’s dark, cluttered room, she discovers that they love each other. The thought makes her ill. In that dusty slum, with revulsion, she discovers that, at last, she has “opened the right door, turned down the right street, glimpsed the vision.” On this paradox, that the sordid reality reveals the romantic illusion, the story closes with a time shift to the future in which Carol is telling how she met and married Howard in Paris and making it “sound romantic and interesting,” believing it as it had never been at all.
“Autumn Day” is another initiation story of a nineteen-year-old, Cissy, who follows her Army husband to Salzburg. She has a list of instructions: “Go for walks. Meet Army wives. Avoid people on farm.” She attributes her unhappiness, her failure to feel like a wife, to the fact that they have no home. They are boarding in a farmhouse from which she takes dutiful long walks under the lowering Salzburg skies, gray with impending snow. An American singer practices a new setting of the poem “Herbsttag” (“Autumn Day”), whose most haunting line, which the narrator feels had something to do with her, is “who does not yet have a home, will never have one.” She feels that the poet had understood her; it was exactly the life she was leading, going for lonely walks. She slides a note under the singer’s door, asking if they might meet. After a complicated day she returns to the farmhouse to find the singer had invited her to lunch and had returned to America. Walt, her bewildered husband, finds her crying. He tries, timidly, to console her by insisting that they “will be all right” when they get their own apartment. She wonders if her present mood is indeed temporary or whether their entire marriage will be like this.
It is in depicting these border states of consciousness that Gallant excels. Her portraits of girls who are trying to become women without having internalized a strong role model to emulate are moving because the portrayal of their inner sense of being lost is augmented by the setting; it is externalized into the girls’ awareness of being foreigners alone in a strange country. The psychic territory has been projected outward into an alien land. Both Cissy and her friend Carol have heard music which they feel contains some secret knowledge that can help them understand their feeling of having been somehow left out, excluded from a love they would like to feel. Both accommodate themselves to lives that are less than the songs promised they might be. “Autumn Day” closes with Cissy’s ritually repeating the magic formula, like an incantation, like a figure in a fairy tale casting a spell over her own anxiety, “We’ll be all right, we’ll be all right, we’ll be all right.”
“Poor Franzi” is also set in Salzburg and in the same wavering space. The young American Elizabeth is engaged to the grandson Franzi of Baroness Ebendorf, an Austrian aristocrat, who dies in the course of the story. Because Franzi refuses to go to the funeral, Elizabeth feels obligated to attend. A party of American tourists serves as choric voices. They insinuate that the young Austrian has become engaged to the American girl simply to escape from the country. They gossip about his failure to visit the old woman in her last illness, his refusal to pay for the funeral, and his having burned her will. Her landlady, “out of helplessness and decency,” had arranged for the last rites, which she could ill afford, a peasant paying homage to a noble line.
Elizabeth’s nearsightedness is a physical correlative of her failure to see her fiancé’s faults, which are obvious to everyone else. “Blind as a bat!” the other Americans mutter as she walks straight past them. She gazes at the edge of the horizon, but her myopia prevents her from distinguishing whether she is seeing clouds or mountains. She sees Franzi in this same suffused haze. Instead of the cynicism and selfishness his behavior so clearly outlines, there is a fuzzy aura blurred by her feeling of having to be protective of his great grief. Poor thing, he is all alone now; he must never suffer again. The soft shapes, “shifting and elusive,” which better eyes than hers saw as the jutting rocks of the Salzburg mountains, become an emblem of her emotional condition. The story closes on this ambiguous haze: “What will happen to me if I marry him? she wondered; and what would become of Franzi if she were to leave him?”
The Collected Stories of Mavis Gallant
This anthology contains fifty-two stories that originally appeared in The New Yorker magazine. Gallant has divided her anthology into nine sections: thirty-five stories, with settings chronologically arranged between 1930 and 1990; five autobiographical stories with Linnet Muir, a young Canadian girl, as the main character; four about the Canadian Carette Sisters; four focused on Edouard, a Frenchman and his two “wives”; and four featuring Henri Grippes, a French “hack” writer and charlatan.
In the introduction, Gallant says she gets her ideas for stories through imaginary flashes. She compares the process to looking at a snapshot. Then she begins by developing a unique character with a name, age, nationality, profession, voice and accent, family history, destination, personality quirks, secrets, ambitions, and attitudes toward love, money, religion. Next, she writes scenes between her characters with dialogue and develops a plot that is “entire but unreadable.” She says that revision takes her a long time; it is a “slow transformation from image to story.”
The stories are written in a powerful and fluent style with precise details. Many have settings during and after World War II in Canada, France, and Germany, when people’s lives are in a state of flux. Gallant’s settings and characters are reproduced like filmed images, complete with background noise and dialogue. However, her extraordinary ability to get inside her characters’ minds provides ironic contrast between external events and their fragmented thoughts and confused emotions. Typically, her main characters are rootless young women trapped by the past in an existential world, lonely, isolated, and uncertain of the direction their lives should take. Secondary characters often include neglected, love-starved children, surrounded by insensitive adults.
The Moslem Wife
The title of this story does not refer to a North African setting or to the Islamic religion. It refers to the role of Muslim women, who traditionally submit to the domination of fathers and husbands. These women have great responsibility for the management of their homes and the well-being of their families. Most have limited contact with the outside world.
Gallant compares the Muslim wife’s lifestyle to that of Netta Asher, an inexperienced young English girl, whose family ties and cultural roots have been severed by death and circumstance. Netta’s dying father provides for her future by signing a one-hundred-year lease on his resort hotel in southern France and marrying her to Jack, a philandering cousin. Thus, locked into her role as owner/manager of the hotel, Netta leads a confined life, while Jack enjoys much freedom. On the eve of Adolf Hitler’s European conquest, Jack goes on holiday to England and does not return until World War II is over. Meanwhile, Netta takes care of Jack’s temperamental mother and survives deprivation and the presence of Italian and German soldiers billeted at the hotel. Miserable and lonely, Netta longs to escape her “prison.” However, when Jack, the perpetual adolescent, returns, Netta, still dependent on his masculine charm, remains locked into her role as “The Moslem Wife.”
Across the Bridge
“Across the Bridge” is a lighthearted initiation story, set in Paris in the 1950’s. It gives insight into postwar French families and their attempt to reestablish social classes and tradition. American teenagers, who enjoy considerable freedom to select their own love interests without parental involvement, will consider this story old-fashioned and foreign. However, ethnicity, religious background, and economic and social status are realistic factors that continue to influence a person’s selection of a mate.
After much negotiation, teenage Sylvie Castelli’s parents arrange her marriage to Arnaud Pons, a quiet, unromantic young man. The Italian/French Castellis have a modest fortune, but the Pons family has an old and respected name. On a bridge en route to having wedding invitations printed, Sylvie confesses to her mother that she is in love with Bruno, a boy she met at the park. Her doting parents allow her to break her engagement to Arnaud, and Mr. Castelli contacts Bruno’s wealthy parents, who deny their son’s interest in Sylvie and humiliate the Castellis. Eventually, Sylvie “crosses the bridge” from romantic, adolescent dreams to realistic maturity and on her own, without parental involvement, selects Arnaud as her fiancé. The question of whether pragmatic considerations offset romantic ideals and physical attraction remains unanswered as Sylvie and Arnaud begin their new relationship.
The Linnet Muir stories are fictionalized, coming-of-age memoirs based on Gallant’s own experiences as a member of a dysfunctional family. Biographical data confirms much, but not all, of the content of the stories. During her childhood, Gallant, like Linnet, observed her parents’ unhappy marriage. In “The Doctor” a precocious Linnet recalls the sterile and bewildering relationship between her parents, Charlotte and Angus Muir, and their eccentric friends, Mrs. Erskine and Dr.Chauchard, Linnet’s pediatrician, who is treating her for a lung disease from which she recovers.
After Gallant’s father’s untimely death, her mother placed her in a series of boarding schools and left her care and education to strangers. In her late teens, Gallant, like Linnet, attempted a reconciliation with her mother that failed. “In Youth Is Pleasure,” an ironic title because of somber events in the story, eighteen-year-old Linnet asserts her independence, breaks off an unhappy relationship with her mother, and returns to Montreal from New York. There, she discovers family secrets: that her father suffered from tuberculosis of the bone and committed suicide and that her mother ran off with a lover.
Gallant became a successful journalist in Canada, an experience she considered boring, but one that sharpened her writing skills and techniques of observation. After selling her first short story, she left Canada and moved to France, where she hoped to establish new roots and become a successful writer. Similarly, in the story “Between Zero and One,” Linnet works at a boring government job surrounded by men who are either too old or disabled to serve in the army during World War II. At first they resent Linnet, but later accept her. When Mrs. Ireland, an outspoken feminist, arrives, dynamics in the office change. After looking at a graph of statistics, Linnet becomes more assertive. She discovers that what occurs during a person’s lifegraph “Between Zero and One” determines the future.
Play: What Is to Be Done, pr. 1982.
Novels: Green Water, Green Sky, 1959; Its Image on the Mirror, 1964 (novella); A Fairly Good Time, 1970.
Nonfiction: The Affair of Gabrielle Russier, 1971; The War Brides, 1978; Paris Notebooks: Essays and Reviews, 1986.
Short fiction: The Other Paris, 1956; My Heart Is Broken: Eight Stories and a Short Novel, 1964 (pb. in England as An Unmarried Man’s Summer, 1965); The Pegnitz Junction: A Novella and Five Short Stories, 1973; The End of the World, and Other Stories, 1974; From the Fifteenth District: A Novella and Eight Short Stories, 1979; Home Truths: Selected Canadian Stories, 1981; Overhead in a Balloon, 1985; In Transit, 1988; Across the Bridge, 1993; The Moslem Wife, and Other Stories, 1994; The Collected Stories of Mavis Gallant, 1996; Paris Stories, 2002; Varieties of Exile: Stories, 2005.
Besner, Neil. The Light of Imagination: Mavis Gallant’s Fiction. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1988.
Clement, Lesley D. Learning to Look: A Visual Response to Mavis Gallant’s Fiction. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2000.
Cote, Nicole, Peter Sabor, and Robert H. Jerry, eds. Varieties of Exile: New Essays on Mavis Gallant. New York: Peter Lang, 2003.
Dobozy, Tamas. “‘Designed Anarchy’ in Mavis Gallant’s The Moslem Wife, and Other Stories.” Canadian Literature, no. 158 (Autumn, 1998): 65-88.
Hatch, Ronald. “Mavis Gallant.” In Canadian Writers Since 1960: First Series. Vol. 53 in Dictionary of Literary Biography, edited by W. H. New. Detroit: Gale Research, 1986.
Jewison, Don. “Speaking of Mirrors: Imagery and Narration in Two Novellas by Mavis Gallant.” Studies in Canadian Literature 10, nos. 1, 2 (1985): 94-109.
May, Charles E., ed. Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition. 8 vols. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2004.
Schaub, Danielle. Mavis Gallant. New York: Twayne, 1998.Schenk, Leslie. “Celebrating Mavis Gallant.” World Literature Today 72 (Winter, 1998): 18-26.
Simmons, Diane. “Remittance Men: Exile and Identity in the Short Stories of Mavis Gallant.” In Canadian Women: Writing Fiction, edited by Mickey Pearlman. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1993.