Misshapen beads of the unexpected snow dappled the floor around Mavis Gallant’s chair in the main room of the Select. She had shed her heavy coat and umbrella, and had ordered a coffee when a casually dressed young man approached from behind and tapped her shoulder apologetically.
It took a couple of beats for his face to strike home and her eyes to light up. She grasped him eagerly, greeted him in effortless French, and they kissed like the family friends they were.
“He’s an art historian. His father was a painter,” Gallant explained after the young man backed slowly away, once again signaling his regrets for the interruption. “You see, I know his parents and I knew his grandparents. I’ve been here three generations.”
In Paris, everyone and everything claims to be an institution. It’s mostly grotesque exaggeration. But on occasion, the mantle is well earned.
Mavis Gallant, whose gathering of stories in the recently released “Across the Bridge” won almost universal praise and who will speak at the American Library on March 24, is just such an institution. In her more than 40 years in Paris, the Canadian native has become a fixture in The New Yorker magazine and has penned several collections of short stories, a compilation of essays and a couple of novellas.
What raises her to the level of institution is not mere longevity or volume. Her literary presence is complemented by quality, her classic narrative style having been compared by critics to the masters of the early 20th century.
But she is no Hemingway, barging through Paris, devouring the culture like a bowl of bad cassoulet and glorifying ugly Americans like himself.
And the characters who inhabit Gallant’s fiction are no tourists. They are quintessentially French (or French-Canadian), suffering quietly desperate quests for love and identity. She paints these remarkably convincing portraits in English. For that alone, is there anyone else really quite like Gallant?
“I live in French,” said Gallant, a small but forceful 71-year-old, clenching her fists to emphasize her point. “But I have kept my English writing. Everything that occurs to me occurs to me in English.”
Gallant might have achieved greater commercial fame had she chosen any medium other than the short story, the largely uncourted stepchild of popular literature. Callers on radio talk shows tell her that short stories are irritating.
“You have to read one, then put the book aside,” she said. “Read them while you’re reading a biography or something else that you can put down periodically, because otherwise it is utterly confusing. With each story you have to start learning a whole new universe.”
Gallant insists she can get more emotion out of a series of related short stories than she could out of the same narrative strung together in novel form. For example, she points to the introductory four pieces in “Across The Bridge” that follow the Carette sisters of Montreal from 1933 to the 1970s.
“The stories capture the four highlights of their life – their childhood, the necessity for getting married, the death of the husband, and the boy leaving for Vietnam,” Gallant explained. “It gives the story more tension. There are four endings really.”
With all due respect, Gallant’s works aren’t impressive for their narrative tension. Their greater strength is in the characters and their disturbingly familiar agonies.
Most portray individuals and their lives through a veil of reminiscence, as if the reader were leafing through a yellowed photo album with the narrator. And the characters themselves seem resigned to lives lacking passion or even the comforting acceptance of peers.
“I want to say I never found him mean,” says the young woman of “Across the Bridge” as she sits in a restaurant with a man she does not love but will inevitably marry. “He had not come to Paris to charm or impress me; he was here to test his own feelings at the sight of me and to find out if I understood what getting married meant – in particular, to him. His conversation was calm and instructive.”
The narrator of “Mlle Dias de Corta,” a lonely widow, yearns for the return of a former boarder whom she spots years later on an “original and clever” television commercial for oven cleaner.
The boarder had been a selfish woman, and had apparently shared a bed with the widow’s son, then aborted the resulting fetus. Yet the widow closes her missive, “You need not call to make an appointment. I prefer to live in the expectation of hearing the elevator stop at my floor and then your ring, and of having you tell me you have come home.”
Gallant says that her favorite piece in “Across the Bridge” is “The Fenton Child,” which, not surprisingly, brings life to the strongest woman in the book. An alert and inquisitive teenage girl, Nora, learns one day, as Gallant said, “what life is all about and what adults are capable of, especially men.”
There is little action in Gallant’s stories. Ultimately they paint meticulous portraits of people struggling to survive the crises and quiet of everyday existence.
“There’s no ‘She took out a gun, but he pulled a knife and was quicker,'” Gallant said. “Fiction is about people. What else is there?”
Mavis Gallant will read from her works March 24 at 8 pm at the American Library, 10, rue du Général Camou, 7e, tel: 184.108.40.206.