Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Collected Stories of Mavis Gallant

Lovers of the short story are mourning the death today of Mavis Gallant, one of the finest perfectionists of that delicate art form. I post in her honor the following comments on her 1996 book, The Collected Stories of Mavis Gallant.

Mavis Gallant began her life-long association with The New Yorker in 1950 rather insecurely.  As she tells the story, she procured the services of an agent in America because she knew she was going to be traveling around in Europe and sent him several stories, all of which he said he was unable to place.  It was only when she was destitute in Madrid in 1952 that she happened to see a copy of The New Yorker with one of her stories in it. She contacted the magazine and found out that her agent did sell the stories to The New Yorker and other magazines, giving out a fictitious address for her in Europe, and kept the money. Gallant has said that the feeling of dismay she experienced when she believed every story she sent was a dead failure never really left her.  Editor William Maxwell signed Gallant to a “first refusal” contract, and she subsequently published well over a hundred stories in The New Yorker, about half of which were published in The Collected Stories of Mavis Gallant in 1996.

In the Preface to her Collected Stories, Mavis Gallant insists, quite rightly, 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;  even though the plots and characters change, they change only slightly, and the rhythm of the prose is fairly consistent throughout this volume.

An example can be seen in two stories that focus on the same characters, "Speck's Idea" and "Overhead in a Balloon."  The first focuses on Sandor Speck, who runs an art gallery in Paris.  As are most art fanciers in Gallant's stories, Speck is more interested in artistic reputations than in artist merit.  The plot concerns his ineffectual efforts to revive interest in a forgotten artist so that he can profit by a renewed interest in his gallery.  However, in this comic satiric story that reads much like minor Henry James, Speck, after much wrangling with the artist's widow for a number of his canvases, fails to bring off his artistic/commercial coup. 

"Overhead in a Balloon," the title story of one of Gallant's collections, centers on Speck's assistant Walter.  Speck never appears in the story but is unflatteringly referred to throughout by Walter as "trout face"; the character Walter is so similar to Speck that with a name change they would be relatively indistinguishable.  Like his boss, Walter is also made the ineffectual victim of an artist who, like Walter and Speck, is more concerned with the practical matters of establishing reputation than he is interested in the integrity of art.

Four interrelated stories focus on Henri Grippes, a Parisian novelist, diarist, and critic, who, like Speck and Walter, lives on the fringes of the artistic life, and who focuses his attention on making a name for himself by capitalizing on the rising and falling stock of various literary and artistic fashions.  In "A Painful Affair," Grippes is passed over to speak at the commemoration ceremony for a wealthy patron of the arts by a man that Grippes feels is only a minor critic and thinker.

 "A Flying Start" moves back in time to the story of how the lesser critic  courted the favor of the benefactress and thus edged Grippes out of his moment of fame.  The theme of changing fashions of what constitutes art and therefore what establishes fame is emphasized throughout the story by a sort of running gag about a planned dictionary of literary biography that over the years is constantly altered because of changes in literary taste and thus is never produced.  In "Grippes and Poche" Grippes fights a continual battle with a tax auditor who, because he is an admirer, saves Grippes from financial harm; finally in "In Plain Sight" Grippes, grown old and crotchety, ironically complains about the increasing commercialization of the arty area of Paris where he has lived for so many years.   These stories reflect a representative side of Gallant's work--her skill at creating comic satire about the artistic life--which partially explains why she is often referred to as a writer's writer.

A series of four interrelated stories follows the life of a man, Edouard, B. who, having married an older Jewish-born actress during World War II so she would not be captured by the Nazis, finds that, although he has never lived with her, he remains somehow responsible for her.  Like many other male characters in the Gallant gallery, Edouard finds himself trapped by past romantic ideals.  "A Recollection" recounts the story of the marriage and the couple's journey to safety in the south of France where they part company.  The second story, "The Colonel's Child," deals with Edouard's meeting his second wife, Juliette; the third one, "Rue de Lillie," focuses on Juliette, who sees through to Edouard's first marriage with the actress Magdalena, as if they were characters in a fiction, albeit a fiction in which she too in entangled.  The final story, "Lena," centers on a meeting  between Magdalena and Edouard when they are eighty and sixty-five respectively, both still bound together by an idealistic gesture many years in the past.

Another significant series of four interrelated stories focus on the Carette family.  The first, "1933," introduces Mme. Carette and her two daughters, Berthe and  Marie, shortly after the death of her husband has plunged them into genteel poverty.  The strict social conventions of the Montreal middle-class Carette family is most clearly reflected by the mother's insistence that the children never refer to her as a seamstress, but must say instead, "My mother was clever with her hands." 

"The Chosen Husband" centers on the family in 1949 after Mme. Carette's receipt of a legacy of eighteen thousand dollars from a brother-in-law makes it possible for the daughters, now in their early twenties to marry.  The plot of the story revolves around Marie's courtship with Louis Driscoll, which provides an occasion for social satire in the Henry James/Jane Austen fashion.  For example, when Driscoll makes his first call and gets choked on one of his own chocolates, Gallant describes it delicately as, "He was in trouble with a caramel," and the Carettes look away so that the young man can "strangle unobserved." 

The last two stories of the Carette family, "From Cloud to Cloud" and "Florida," jump many years ahead to focus on Marie's son Raymond when he enlists in the American army during the Vietnam war and then later when he settles in Florida and marries a rather common (by old Montreal social standards) young divorcee.  The story ends with Raymond storming out after a minor quarrel, leaving his mother and his pregnant wife once again without a man in the house, thus bringing the saga full circle.

Although Gallant is not a popular writer widely enough read to make any one of her stories well-known (She is seldom anthologized in the ubiquitous literature anthologies that keeps short stories alive for undergraduate and graduate students, nor are her stories chosen for the highly visible Best American Short Stories  or O. Henry Award Stories  collections.), some of the strongest and most memorable works in The Collected Stories are the title stories of some of her earlier anthologies, such as "The Pegnitz Junction" and "Across the Bridge."

The first, the longest story in The Collected Stories, focuses on a young woman who becomes involved with an older man (not an unusual situation in a Gallant story) who is divorced and has custody of his young son.  The story follows the threesome on a holiday trip that becomes a minor nightmare when, because of an airline shutdown, they must return home on a train that winds its way slowly and tortuously through the European landscape as the young woman tries to cope with a spoiled child and a man who cannot evenly divide his time and attention between his son and his lover.  The title of the story, of course, refers to an important junction in the relationship of the three people.

"Across the Bridge" also has a metaphoric title.  The bridge is at first merely a physical presence, for the story begins with the narrator Sylvie walking across a bridge in Paris with her mother who has the invitations to her wedding in a leather shopping bag.  When Sylvie tells her mother she has her heart set on another young man, saying she has thoughts of throwing her self off the bridge if she is forced to marry the family choice instead of the man she loves, her mother dumps the invitations off the bridge into the water.  The story develops in typical drawing-room comedy fashion with Sylvie falling in love with her family's original choice after all.  It ends in romantic poignancy as Sylvie takes the long way home after seeing her fiancee board his train, for she thinks it unfair to arrive home before he does.  She says she will never tell anyone about this, that it will remain a small and insignificant secret that belongs to the "true life" she is almost ready to enter. This is the bridge crossing reflected by the title of the story; it is a significant metaphor for many of Gallant's stories, for often small and seemingly insignificant secrets are what give her fiction its life.

The stories of Mavis Gallant may be an acquired taste--delicate constructions that seem to be artless vignettes rather than carefully patterned stories.  Gallant's characters do not seem significant in the large scheme of things, but as Gallant says in one of her essays, no life is more interesting than any other; what really matters is what is revealed and how.

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