Between the lines

‘Come back later. Stories can wait’: Mavis Gallant wrote in the light of the flash

Gallant pubished 116 stories in the New Yorker. Memsphere, CC BY-NC-SA

Mavis Gallant, the Canadian doyenne of the short story, died aged 91 in Paris on February 18th. This marked the end of a writing career that spanned more that five decades and two continents.

Gallant is without doubt one of our greatest short story writers: her crystalline prose captivates and her exquisite characterisation delights. “Unique and profound” is how Jhumpa Lahiri describes her work in The Guardian, while for Michael Ondaatje, she is a writer whose “craft and empathy are always ahead of us”, but who, for all that, yet remained something of “a well-kept secret”.

Margaret Atwood or Alice Munro (both of whom pay homage to Gallant’s enormous talent and influence) might more readily spring to mind as the Canadian writers of our day. But Gallant never wrote in the shadows. An impressive 116 of her stories appeared in the pages of the prestigious New Yorker, in which she was remembered last week for her “like-lifeness, her unresolved presentness”, that made her stories so haunting. But if her stories resonate, then they do so as the fruit of an unconventional and daring life.

Born in Montreal in 1922, Gallant was schooled in Canada and then the United States. She returned to Canada in 1941 to work for the National Film Board and for the Montreal Standard as a journalist. After a brief marriage, she made the bold and adventurous decision in 1950 to emigrate to Paris alone, a young woman not yet 30 and determined to carve out a living, primarily as a writer of short stories, though she also later wrote two novels and a play.

Like other expatriate writers (such as Katherine Mansfield, whom she admired), Gallant would continue to look back to her homeland in stories such as The Ice Wagon Going Down the Street (1963) with notes of nostalgia mixed with a sense of release. But it was in Paris that she would live out her days, in love with its literary atmosphere. As she once confided in an interview, Paris seemed to beckon her, promising:

You can have the run of the house, you can wander all over my house, you can open drawers and take books off the shelves, but we are apart.

Exploring this life “apart”, as an outsider often between places and fixed states of being, is where Gallant excels. As subject matter for the short story it’s nothing new. If the novel has so often been the literary form for creating communities, then the short story has expressed the opposite. From Edgar Allen Poe’s deranged criminals, through Chekhov and the Modernists to the disaffected everyman of David Foster Wallace’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, the short story has foregrounded the alienated individual.

But it is the wide sweep of Gallant’s gaze that startles. Travellers from around the globe frequent her stories, like the many hotels and pensions in which they are set. Gallant’s is a vast cosmopolitan imagination, but one that steers away from idealism. For her wanderers, the fixed destination threatens as well as promises “the new life”, as the young American heroine of Going Ashore (1954) sees it, “like a note indefinitely suspended or a wave about to break”.

Such transience often betokens an emotional and psychological journey. As the newly-married narrator of Autumn Day (1955) laments, “Your girlhood doesn’t vanish overnight. I know, now, what a lot of wavering goes on, how you step forward and back again.” Preoccupations with the precarious “wavering” of feminine identity in the early stories later broaden into larger-scale transitions.

In Pegnitz Junction (1973), Gallant’s self-proclaimed “most accomplished work”, a train ride from Paris to Pegnitz stages the fraught reconnections of an international community after “the Adolf time”. And Roger, a former colonial lieutenant who has never “got over the loss of Algeria” struggles in Luc and His Father (1982) to relate to his wayward son in a post-colonial age.

Gallant’s oeuvre reveals how the short story keeps pace with the fleeting and protean shapes of modernity. Frank O’Connor defines the genre as “the artful approach to the significant moment”. But the art lies in picking out that moment in a world where, as Nadine Gordimer puts it, “contact is more like the flash of fireflies”.

If “short-story writers see by the light of the flash”, then we are indebted to those like Gallant for capturing these moments and preserving them for us as we hurtle from one thing to the next. This is her legacy. Short stories, Gallant always insisted, ought not to be read one after the other: “Read one. Shut the book. Read something else. Come back later. Stories can wait.” What better advice can there be for readers caught up in a world constantly on the move?