Mavis Gallant's immaculately plotless tales are much loved by other writers. We readers shouldn't let them hog her
No living author seems to me less deserving of the term "writer's writer" and its implication of remote obscurity than Mavis Gallant. In Michael Ondaatje's words, "among writers she is a shared and loved and daunting secret", and it seems a telling detail that while she remains too little known, those who read her tend to move, as I did, from ignorance to devotion with uncommon haste.
An English Canadian born in Montreal in 1922, Gallant has lived in Paris since 1950. Perhaps as a combination of an unsettled childhood - from the age of four onwards she attended 17 boarding schools - her early, short-lived marriage, and her relocation at the age of 27 to Paris (a city in which she knew no one) with the sole intention of writing fiction, the themes that have come to define her work are those of expatriation, dislocation and impermanence.
Gallant has written two novels and more than 100 stories, most of which were first published in the New Yorker. These have been collected in eight books, but Bloomsbury's doorstopping Selected Stories, its contents chosen by the author herself, is the best single-volume starting point.
Set between the 1930s and the present day, and ranging in location from Madrid, the Côte d'Azur, Berlin, Montreal, Florida, Moscow and, of course, Paris, Gallant's stories employ a myriad of voices, styles and techniques to explore a similarly diverse range of subjects. She has also written interlinked cycles, such as the strongly autobiographical Linnet Muir sequence from the mid-1970s and the comical Henri Grippes stories. Yet, as noted above, it is the marginalised life of the expatriate that is most often returned to.
The feeling of displacement so crucial to much of Gallant's work is nothing as parochial or crude as merely pointing out the differences between cultures (although her characters themselves might sometimes do just that, the intention is generally to show how such attitudes are born of misconceptions). Rather, the otherness of the foreigner abroad mirrors a more profound separation that lies between us all, no matter how much in love or intimate we might think ourselves to be with others. Indeed, she often seems to suggest that acceptance of this unpleasant fact is key to establishing one's personal freedom. The superb 1971 story "In the Tunnel" offers a particularly unflinching expression of this view.
For this reason there is often a coldness at the heart of her stories, but it would be quite wrong to see this as existing in place of empathy. Gallant's tone can alter in a moment, twisting between the satirical, the cruel and the compassionate with no warning or clue offered to inattentive readers. Critics have also said she is unfair towards her male characters, but speaking as a representative of that sex I'd say she seems to be pretty spot on with them, in all their pusillanimous or predatory detail.
"Useless chaos is what fiction is about," Gallant has said, and even in those stories where significant events occur they remain rooted entirely in character and deliberately careless in plotting, always favouring interiority and reaction above action. Throughout her work incidents receive and are starved of attention in a way that entirely ignores the precedents typically thought of as being essentials of dramatic tension.
And yet, paradoxically, they remain compulsively readable and deeply memorable. In this regard her writing represents a peerless rebuttal to all talk of the importance of structure and the rules of writing, glorying instead only in the marriage of the inventiveness of the mind and a blank page's potential.
If this sounds somehow too haphazard to be effective, or her manner too detached to provoke profound feeling, one need only read a story such as "The Other Paris" (1953) or the masterful The Moslem Wife (1976) - or any one of many more - to realise their emotional power, even if oftentimes this impact is only truly experienced some time after their reading. Gallant acknowledges this in her preface to the Selected Stories, writing:
"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."
They can, and of course they do, but it's difficult to follow this wise advice when the inimitable works it refers to are of such temptingly high quality.