28 June, 2010Issue 12.5FictionLiterature

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Small Worlds

Paul Sweeten

foerMavis Gallant
The Cost of Living: Early and Uncollected Stories
Bloomsbury Publishing, 2009
368 Pages
£20.00
ISBN 978-1408806104


There are several pitfalls to avoid when reviewing books of “early and uncollected stories”. One of them extends to any collection of short fiction, and requires that the reviewer expend as few words as possible when summarising the events of each story he means to discuss. Otherwise, you know how it can be: nothing but a succession of short stories made shorter. In this case, no summaries are required, as Mavis Gallant possesses a Chekhovian gift for opening sentences. With each story’s first paragraph, the reader is able to find his feet in a single breath. “The three Marshall children were dressed and ready for the picnic before their father was awake”; “Jane and Ernestine were at breakfast in the hotel dining room when the fog finally lifted”; “Sitting next to the driver, who was certainly his father, he saw the fine rain through the beams of the headlights, and the eyes of small animals at the edge of the road.”

Which brings us to another pitfall: comparing the short-storyist to Chekhov at the earliest opportunity. With that out of the way, we can move to the third (and most dangerous) hazard, which is to treat the fledgling and previously unpublished works of an internationally renowned writer as merely ‘noteworthy’ or, worse still, ‘of biographical interest’.

Gallant has published over a hundred stories in The New Yorker since 1951. The Cost of Living gathers stories written in the first 20 years of her career, between 1951 and 1971, when she lived in Europe (London, then Paris) after having spent her childhood in Canada and adolescence in New York. Like most debutantes, her early efforts were autobiographical. In Gallant’s case this produced stories populated with a cast of émigrés—people with multiple-nationality disorders, strays, and general lost souls. One wonders if Gallant’s early experiences mirrored those of, say, Madeline (of her story “Madeline’s Birthday”):

The days of her lifetime had been spent in so many different places – in schools, in camps, in the houses of people she was or was not related to – that the first sight of day was, almost by habit, bewildering.

Here and elsewhere, Gallant’s protagonists are adrift and estranged, often far from home—that is, if they ever had an idea of home to begin with—or else they are parentless or husbandless, jobless or at any rate, critically penniless. All of them, in one way or another, are lost in the world in which they find themselves.

Following in Gallant’s footsteps, Patricia, the narrator of the title story, moves to Paris for an artist’s life. Instead of the “easy, dreamy city, full of trees and full of time” that she hopes for, Patricia finds Paris “full of brats and quarrelling mothers”. Along with the majority of Gallant’s protagonists, Patricia’s idea of home is only rentable, temporary, and ultimately fleeting. In these stories of hotel rooms and strangers’ houses, we find that the greatest irony of the well-travelled is that they are inescapably tied to their lives as travelers, in constant pursuit of a life which stands still, if only for a moment. In contrast, those who have never travelled—the landlocked or abandoned—look to others who have left home with a painful longing, and the unavoidable conclusion that they are trapped. Stick or twist, in Gallant’s world there is no escaping one’s internal condition; for whatever satisfaction migration brings, it is a distraction at best, and at worst a repression. These stories provide a chorus of echoes for Robert Louis Stevenson’s quip: “To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive.”

The brevity of these stories emphasises the entrapment theme. Despite their geographical scope, there is a claustrophobic locality to each tale, a constriction, which together with Gallant’s careful distribution of detail creates what V.S. Pritchett called the “glimpse through” effect so common in modern short fiction. We view the lives of her characters “from the corner of the eye, in passing”. In this regard she joins the company of Eudora Welty, Jane Anne Philips, and Raymond Carver: writers who harnessed the inherent domesticity of the short form by making the world seem a small, unchanging place. In his essay “Fires”, Carver recalls a bleak epiphany after a long wait at the laundromat (it was 1960, before he became a full-time writer, and he had been working long hours in menial jobs to support his wife and children):

I realized – what had I been thinking before? – that my life was a small-change thing for the most part, chaotic, and without much light showing through.

It is this very blend of chaos and small-change (reflective, perhaps, of a similar frustration in her early career) that pervades Gallant’s early stories. Despite the miles that some of her characters have travelled in order to satisfy their urges to begin afresh, they stumble upon the same realisation: that their lives for the most part are small-change things, that poverty is a universal constraint, and that—what had they been thinking before?—the one place from which they cannot escape is their own disillusion. Gallant begins in “Travellers Must Be Content” with the idea that “Success can only be measured in terms of distance travelled”, yet it is this notion which her characters repeatedly question.

Many of the stories collected here address the aftermath of the Second World War. Europe itself has become a broken home, fractured most obviously by the Iron Curtain, but also by the multitude of refugees, foreign troops, and disgruntled expatriates populating central Europe. The characters in “Willi”, “One Aspect of a Rainy Day”, and “A Day Like Any Other” struggle to retain their identities in the wake of the Allied victory. Post-war German citizens, particularly those still living in France, prove good subjects for Gallant’s abandonment theme—more so than the British, French, or Americans. Perhaps this is because Gallant, like Carver, preferred to write about losers. Her characters feel “disapproval almost as an emanation” or are “lonely in the daytimes, and terribly shy and unhappy at night”. Her losers are so good at losing that they risk overdosing on self-pity: “I came home tired every night, disinclined to talk. I saw that everyone in this hotel was as dingy, as stationary, as I was myself, and I knew we were tainted with the same incompetence.”

Gallant does offer lifelines to some of her lost souls. Having searched out a reunion with the root chord of her life in “Going Ashore”, Emma Ellenger approaches Gibraltar with an ecstatic optimism:

A tide of newness came in with the salty air: she thought of new land…A new life. She knelt, patient, holding the curtain, waiting to see the approach to shore.

Yet elsewhere, such optimism is to be distrusted. By the end of “Travelers Must Be Content”, Wishart’s “tirelessly creative” mind finally wears itself out. His Romantic notions of journeys and foreign lands must be put to rest. There is a feeling, when we leave him, that some moment of reconciliation has cured his compulsion for travel:

He took good care not to dream, and when the bus drew in at the Grasse, under the trees…he did not look like a failed actor assailed with nightmares but a smooth and pleasant schoolmaster whose sleep is so deep that he never dreams at all.

Gallant’s elegant sentences mark her arrival as a master of the short form. These are stories from a writer finding her feet, about people finding theirs, and it is with the greatest literary symmetry (and a touch of injustice) that a third of the included works have been homeless until now.

Paul Sweeten is reading for an MSt in Creative Writing at Kellogg College, Oxford.