Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Mavis Gallant, one of the truly great short-story writers, has died

Like her Canadian colleague Alice Munro, Mavis Gallant has always placed her primary literary allegiance with the often-unappreciated short story form.  In her Preface to the Collected Stories  Gallant insists that short stories are not chapters of novels and should not be read one after another as if they were meant to follow along.  Although a number of her stories focus on the same characters as they develop over time and therefore could be read together as if they were chapters in a novel, it would indeed be exhausting to read a great many of Gallant's stories one after another, for, with their careful and precise style, they demand close reading.

Mavis Gallant is one of those authors often referred to as "a writer's writer,” a title suggesting someone whose writing is so polished that it is best appreciated by other authors; on the other hand, it often suggests someone who is seldom read by anyone else but other writers.  She is not widely enough read to make any one of her stories well known.  Gallant's stories are often irresolute and seemingly plotless. 

When she was writing a weekly column about radio for the Montreal Standard newspaper in the late 1940's, she once described one writer's plays as being unlike the usual radio play because they did not come to a traditional fictional climax, defending this practice by arguing that real problems do not always resolve themselves in tidy ways and that if stories seem incomplete, that is because they are true.  However, in spite of this seeming allegiance to the relatively ragged nature of reality rather than to the neat patterns of art, Gallant claims in one of her essays that style is intentional and inseparable from structure.  And indeed, all of Gallant's stories reflect this apparent paradox.  Whereas they seem relatively artless, simple sketches of minor characters caught in impasses of their own making, they are carefully crafted and highly stylized structures of rigid social patterns. 

Although Gallant has been compared to Henry James and Anton Chekhov, she is probably more related to Jane Austen.  As a result, she poses a problem for readers expecting stories that seem to have a clear point, a metaphoric texture, or a sense of closure.  Rather, Gallant's stories seem to be so forthrightly focused on the everyday lives of her characters that there is little to say about them.  They certainly do not appear to need interpretation, the only mystery about them being the mystery of what they are about. 

However, this seeming simplicity of Gallant’s writing is an illusion, for her stories are carefully structured, highly stylized creations of character interrelationships.  In one of her better known essays, "What is Style?" collected in the anthology Paris Notebooks (1986), Gallant claims that style is intentional and inseparable from structure; it is part of whatever the writer has to say, she claims, concluding--as Henry James might well have--that content, meaning, intention, and form make up a unified whole that must have a reason to be. 

Of course, both James and Chekhov were also accused of presenting little slices of life or huge chunks of verbiage that were really little to do about not very much.  However, Gallant's stories do not have James's convoluted syntax, reflecting the complexity of his characters’ minds; nor do they seem to have Chekhov's calculated conciseness, suggesting that more is left out than put in.  In fact, Gallant's characters don't seem very complex at all, at least self-consciously, and Gallant appears to say everything that needs to be said about them.

Instead of moving toward some explicit or implicit patterned intention, as readers have come to expect in the modern short story form, Gallant's stories seem as if they could go on and on, creating a novelistic "feel" that violates the reader's usual expectation that short stories will meaningfully lead somewhere.  Trying to find out where the meaning lies or how meaning is communicated in a Gallant story is not so much challenging as apparently beside the point.  Careful readers get so caught up in the creation of character and milieu that they do not care what the story means; inattentive readers may tire of the seemingly inconsequential nature of the story and just stop reading.

Like Jane Austen, Gallant presents characters within a circumscribed social world going about their usual manners and morals business without obvious conflict, analytical self-doubt, or troublesome introspection.  The comedy of manners that results is a form that seems usually too leisurely and too detailed for the relatively short space of the short story.  For example, the stories of the Carettes, because they focus on significant points in the life of one Montreal family, are typical of the novelistic tendency of Gallant's technique. 

However, upon reading the stories carefully, one soon realizes that if Gallant had put together enough stories about this same family to fill a book, the result would still have been a collection of short stories rather than a novel.  The reason for this distinction between novel and short story derives from Gallant's selectivity of focus and detail as well as her ironic style.  On closer analysis, the reader begins to realize that her stories are not quite as realistically inconsequential as they first appear.

Gallant has described her method of getting something on paper as a painfully precise play with the language.  In discussing her "outrageous slowness," Gallant says that she sometimes puts aside parts of a story for months, even years.  The story is finished when it seems to tally with a plan she has in mind but cannot describe, or when she believes that it cannot be written satisfactorily any other way.  It is precisely this kind of care for the individual word and sentence that has lead to Mavis Gallant often being referred to as "a writer's writer."

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