A university lecturer named Francine Prose praised Mavis Gallant’s short stories effusively, yet precisely, in this article in the New Yorker.
This article, among other reviews, and curiosity, and living in Paris for a time, a Canadian in Paris, made me want to get to know Mavis Gallant’s work.
I confess though, that her Selected Stories, which spans – decades, overwhelmed me.
I was impressed to be introduced to so many social contexts that I was unfamiliar with. One was sort of an urban counterpart to Alice Munro’s farm stories, and yet even more specific, Anglophones living in French Canada in the 30s and 40s, and then various kinds of Europeans, often travelling to another part of Europe or immigrating there, living in different cultural enclaves or in different social strata. Bureaucratics, intellectuals, critics and writers, poor hoarders and those who’d inherited wealth, women in unhappy marriages, or waiting to get married. It is quite a dizzying cast of characters, and often introduced with very specific cultural details.
Woven often with satirical social observation and a sharp tongue, I was drawn into some of the stories, particularly interested in the lives of women aiming to be independent, or find love, or a partnership. She was no prude either; characters are remarkably frank in their affairs.
And yet, at other times, I found it hard to engage with some of these unlikeable characters: a literary critic described at great length, mostly in relation to a rival, for example, was a character study but with little story.
But I do think that I chose the wrong format to meet Ms Gallant. Too many stories made me rush through them, which is against Ms Prose’s advice, and downloading it to read on my iPad also gave the stories less weight, made them more ephemeral than they are, and less likely for me to stay with them, return to them.
Certainly an interesting writer though and I’m glad for those who are fond of her gifts. The thesis that she wasn’t recognised because no country could claim her properly as her own seemed correct – and she does seem to be the patron saint of global citizens who have lived in different cities and cultures, observing life keenly as an outsider.