There is an introduction to this collection written by Gallant where she states: “There is something I keep wanting to say about reading short stories. I am doing it now, because I may never have another occasion. 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.”
I both agree and disagree with Gallant on this point, but I take it nonetheless. I tend to blur stories together and read them one after another, especially in big collections, where I take one or two of the long stories (over 30 pages) then a bunch of the shorter stories (under ten), and work my way through the medium stories (in between). Sometimes this works for me and often it doesn’t. Because I am so fixated on reading through the stories and because so much of my reading was developed in college where we’d have more reading assigned than we could possibly cover in class time, I got used to things. Last year was a prime example of letting that philosophy take hold. This year I am trying to do something a little different. I am going to be reading more demanding, longer books in general. The goal will be to slow down and keep a steady but no longer hearty pace. The idea will be to read more carefully and thoughtfully and try to strike a balance. To not treat the long stories (or books) like obstacles to get past, and to not treat short stories (or books) like boxes to check off. I will still allow myself to plow through books I am not super enjoying or that seem like I should read them but for ones I actually like, I need to pace myself. I know that the obvious solution is to no waste my time with books I don’t like. I know that’s more or less sound advice but I do get something out of reading things I don’t like or I feel are somewhat offensive because it still gives me things to think about and consider. I will not force myself to read books I am bored by.
And I still won’t allow myself to feel smug about having put a book down. I read a review of a different Gallant collection and the reviewer was so proud of himself for “having her number” as it were and so smug about it. He was super defensive when people even asked him questions or suggested anything additional to consider. His attitude was deeply unpleasant, and more so, he was wrong.
Mavis Gallant is great.
Her stories here are just so genuinely good as a rule that while not every single story reached me in that way you might look for, there wasn’t a dud among the whole collection. And this collection is 900 pages and contains 50+ stories. Also, there’s not a single gimmick among them. At all!
There’s one story (out of a 50 year career) written in the second person, a thing I often hate, but here it was done so beautifully. It’s called “Mlle. Dias de Corta” and it’s among one of the last stories Gallant published. In the story, our narrator, who is writing in a kind of both first person and second person voice (narrated back forth with “I”s and “You”s) telling both her story and “our” story in the body of Mlle. Dias de Corta, an actress of sorts who stayed with the family of the narrator in her youth and had a short and dramatic romance with the narrator’s son. The narrator is telling the story of a changing Europe through her understanding of the actress’s career, as well as understanding the loss she feels at no longer knowing the young woman, now much older. It’s a siren song kind of story, and it’s really very good.
That’s just one. Each story more or less embodies a richness that uses Gallant’s station as an outsider in Paris to be able to carefully understand post-war Europe, as well as Canadian and American life as an ex-pat. Just when you think that Gallant sees all Americans and Canadians as rednecks in the culture and grace of Europe (she lived in Paris for some 50 years and many if not most of the stories take place within or from without Paris), she turns the tables to allow a shifty gallery curator to be owned by a Canadian expat in a pseudo-religious cult.
Along a certain set of lines, she has a story for every occasion. These are very much not American (or North American) stories, save a few, but somehow she has contained within them every version of myself from my teens on as well as every person I have ever dated. It’s a weird and uncanny read to be sure.
Here’s a sampling:
From “New Year’s Eve”
“On New Year’s Eve the Plummers took Amabel to the opera.
“What happens tonight happens every day for a year,” said Amabel, feeling secure because she has a Plummer on either side.
Colonel Plummer’s car had broken down that afternoon; he had got his wife and their guest punctually to the Bolshoi Theater, through a storm, in a bootleg taxi. Now he discovered from his program that the opera announced was neither of those they had been promised.
His wife leaned across Amabel and said, “Well, which is it?” She could not read any Russian and would not try.
She must have known it would take him minutes to answer, for she sat back, settled a width of gauzy old shawl on her neck, and began telling Amabel the relative sizes of the Bolshoi and some convert hall in Vancouver the girl had never heard of. Then, because it was the Colonel’s turn to speak, she shut her eyes and waited for the overture.
The Colonel was gazing at the program and putting off the moment when he would say that it was Ivan Susanin, a third choice no one had so much hinted at. He wanted to convey that he was sorry and that the change was not his fault. He took bearings: He was surrounded bu women. To his left sat the guest, who mewed like a kitten, who had been a friend of his daughter’s, and whose name he could not remember. On the right, near the aisle, two quiet unknown girls were eating fruit and chocolates. These two smelled of oranges; of clothes worn a long time in winter; of light recent sweat; of women’s hair. Their arms were large and bare. When the girl closest to him moved slightly, he saw a man’s foreign wristwatch. He wondered who she was, and how the watch had come to her, but he had been here two years now–long enough to know he would never be answered. He also wondered if the girls were as shabby as his guest found everyone in Moscow. His way of seeing women was not concerned with that sort of evidence: Shoes were shoes, a frock was a frock.
The girls took no notice of the Colonel. He was invisible to them, wiped out of being by a curtain pulled over the inner eye.”
This is a pretty typical kind of passage. Oddly funny, incisive, interior, and full of little moments of understanding with the character’s perspective and the audience, but not always with those others around them.