Mavis Gallant's Flotsam

Review: Mavis Gallant, 'The Collected Stories'

Mavis Gallant
Mavis Gallant / AP
November 5, 2016

Almost all of Mavis Gallant's stories appeared in the New Yorker, which is the explanation for—or perhaps shorthand for—both their strengths and their weaknesses. The Collected Stories, put out by Knopf/Everyman in 2016, perhaps to acknowledge Gallant's death in 2014, is identical in content to the Selected Stories put out in the UK by Bloomsbury in 1997, and the British edition has a preface by the author that is worth considering. (The introduction to the American edition is by Francine Prose.)

In this preface, Gallant calls her association with the New Yorker a "wave of the best luck." And so it clearly was, as they seem to share many qualities. The New Yorker is smart, and so are these relentlessly well written stories. It's urban; these stories take place in Paris, London, Geneva, and Montreal. Certainly the New Yorker takes education and taste for granted, and so do these stories, whose characters are artists, writers, or people who read and go to galleries. And most of all, the attitude of the magazine is that of someone who, like Gallant's characters, relentlessly refuses to be impressed BY ANYTHING. Her characters never undergo a profound religious experience, or are transported by a new experience, or vow to dedicate their lives to a great cause. But it's all so sophisticated in New Yorker-world. Ads for expensive watches worn by beautiful celebrities rub shoulders with arch political analysis that assumes it knows where you stand, movie reviews too cool to say whether the film is good or bad, and fiction that starts at point 27 in the lives of its characters and ends at point 63 with no sense that this is a logical ending, or that it's not. That's just where the scissors cut.

Gallant's stories appeared regularly in the magazine for decades, and all begin in midstream and end a bit further down the same river. These people did this and that for a while and then they didn't. Perhaps as a result, they're a bit sad. Many of the stories in this collection open with a death, or a funeral, or an admission of life's failure ("The Remission," "The Ice Wagon Going Down the Street," "Forain"). They're about younger people with no goals, or old people who have lost their relations and who try to have transitory relationships with people who don't care about them, or who waste their lives. ("Mlle Dias de Corta," "Kingdom Come," "Baum, Gabriel (1935-  )"). The title of this last, incidentally, speaks volumes about Gallant's characters, as Gabriel identifies himself this way, just waiting for his death year to be filled in.

These stories are about flotsam and jetsam from strange corners of Europe that were re-assigned to other countries after the War, who end up in Western cities and don't know what to do with themselves (e.g. "Varieties of Exile"—a title that could have been taken for this whole book). Or they're about people escaping problems by living, temporarily or permanently, in that European Florida, the South of France, populated by foreigners and refugees from the cold ("The Remission," or "An Unmarried Man's Summer").

Here's one story out of many to give a taste of them all, one of the shorter ones: "Kingdom Come." (The longest, "Peignitz Junction," actually a novella, was too long for the New Yorker.) The protagonist is one Dr. Domini Misierna, who finds himself in Helsinki (itself a backwater compared to Paris) after a quarter century in an even more remote place, the imaginary archipelago of Saltatek. This is described by Gallant as if a cross between the Seychelles and maybe Mauritius, both sea-based, though the latter is more European; the primary craft of Gallant's imaginary country is carved shells, which (in a rare ironic touch from Gallant) European do-gooders have decided to boycott, thereby sending the island nation's economy into a spin. Strangely, however, the country's name seems Slavic, and their language is compared—unfavorably—to Hungarian. But the story is set in Europe, where it turns out nobody cares a pin about this remote country, its language, or Dr. Misierna (sounds like miserere/misery). And that's about it. No Reveal. No Crisis. Just malaise.

Gallant's stories seem at first reading to echo Nabokov's, and her characters, his Russian émigrés in Berlin and Paris. Only the stories aren't funny, as Nabokov's frequently are, and don't have that Nabokovian cleverness—which was so appealing to me when I was 20 and now seems so wearing—or their linguistic dazzle. One of Gallant's protagonists, like Nabokov's Humbert or Pnin, leaves Paris to teach at a women's college in the States. But Gallant isn't interested in Nabokov's theme of the surreal contrast between scrubbed undestroyed post-War USA and the émigrés' futile attempt to impart Old World Values to the uncomprehending children of affluence. Instead this is just the plot pretext for a pursuit by the French government of the protagonist's tax records once he returns to Paris. The New World is a place to leave, not a place to go to.

The stories here are conveniently arranged by decades, with several groups of stories each dedicated to a single character at the end. There is a cluster about a character perhaps like herself from Montreal, Linnet Muir. Another cluster is Gallant's equivalent of John Updike's writer alter-ego Bech, chronicling a certain Grippes. Her later stories, gratifyingly, make the leap to the post-1968-world more successfully than Nabokov's, which seem just out of date; the most recent of Gallant's stories included here (1995) has a with-it title of "Scarves, Beads, Sandals." The upper middle class people living fragmentary existences in Paris are as believable in our time as in earlier decades.

Lenin would undoubtedly have disapproved of all these examples of what he called "rootless intellectuals" or "rootless cosmopolitans," phrases that later in the Soviet Union took on an anti-Semitic cast. A few of Gallant's character are Jewish, but all are rootless, coming from one place and finding themselves in another. Even her Montreal "heroine" Linnet explains that Canadians at the time were British and took their identity from the nationality of their fathers.

Once Gallant found her formula she seems to have stuck to it. The first sentence of each story is usually a statement of fact set in an interesting place that assumes we are old friends and that we will hang around for the even-handed voice to tell us more. "When We Were Nearly Young" begins: "In Madrid, nine years ago, we lived on the thought of money." Or "An Alien Flower": "My daughter wept when the news reached us here in Cologne that Bibi had died." "Across the Bridge": "We were walking over the bridge from the Place de la Concorde, my mother and I—like two sisters who never quarrel." The ends of the stories are similar too. They aren't zingers, they're wry tie-offs. "Baum. Gabriel (1935-   )": "Gabriel said 'What?' without raising his head. Dieter answered, 'My father lived to be ninety.'" "Luc and His Father": "Roger remarked, 'Whatever happens, don't get your life all mixed up with a dog's." And inside the stories, the tone is that of someone who shrugs with a "there it is" gesture. A line from "Potter" sums many of them up: "The worst, as always, turned out to be something simple."

Gallant's preface to the earlier edition admonishes the reader not to try and read all the stories at a clip. "Stories are not chapters of novels. They should not be read one after another. Read one. Shut the book. Read something else. Come back later." But of course publishing these all together in a big thick book encourages the reader to plow forward, looking for the connections. Apparently Gallant herself knew these stories were read best in the New Yorker, one an issue with enough variety and bling alongside that their droopiness didn't get too thick. They are rueful, sad, smart tales of woe; appetizers not trying to be the main course. They lack closure, but then again they didn't want it to begin with.

We could perhaps get all literary-theoretical and explain at great length why her stories' lack of Grand Gesture mirrors the Modern Condition better than more finished short stories. After all, since Chekhov, Katherine Mansfield and Hemingway, almost all modern stories (and poems by Modernists like T.S. Eliot) have tended to the fragmentary, resolutely refusing the Aristotelean beginning, middle and end. Still, some modern works achieve profundity because the characters are aware of being also-rans. That's the case with many of Chekhov's characters, or Hemingway's. Gallant has no equivalent of Uncle Vanya, or the bartender in Hemingway's "A Clean Well-Lighted Place." Or Eliot's "Prufrock," all too well aware that he is not the prince but only meant to swell a rout. Gallant's characters never achieve this degree of self-knowledge. Her stories aren't profound works about the fragmentary nature of our lives; they are merely examples of it.

So follow Gallant's advice: read just one story from this book, perhaps in the evening before putting it back on the bedstand and turning out the light. That late in the day, you're not up for any world-beating conclusions anyway, and it'll be fun to imagine yourself in Paris or Madrid. That story will be like the one you read the next night, and the next. But at least you'll have spent time with literate people, and you won't feel so bad that you don't have anything closer to a Great Conclusion to offer than they do.

Published under: Book reviews