When she looked out the window
Style, Mavis Gallant once explained, is “the distillation of a lifetime of reading and listening, of selection and rejection.” The remarkable range of genres and media that the celebrated author consumed helps illuminate her aesthetics, her powerful epiphanies, and her inimitable writing. Indeed, it’s difficult to think of other postwar short fiction writers (particularly Canadian ones) whose work has such meandering, elliptical qualities and whose subjects range from small towns in Quebec to Montreal and Paris, from women’s oppression to the fascist mindset.
To mark the centenary of Gallant’s birth, I recently revisited both her work and Mavis Gallant: The Eye and the Ear, a landmark study by Marta Dvořák, a scholar and a confidante of her subject. That 2019 book presents a compelling case that Gallant’s keen visual and aural senses were profoundly shaped by her immersion in art, film, and music. In what Dvořák calls a modernist assimilation of literary texts, visual culture, and music, Gallant submerged herself in Marcel Proust, James Joyce, and the Russians, as well as Pablo Picasso, Ella Fitzgerald, the composer Dmitri Shostakovich, and the film director Wallace Worsley. (She was, broadly, of the left, but that seems not to have determined her aesthetic tastes, as her fondness for the music of the Mussolini-admiring Stravinsky and the antisemitic Wagner evinces.)
Mavis Gallant’s first three decades were marked by dislocation. Her parents divorced, and her father died when she was ten. After her mother remarried, young Mavis was shuffled through seventeen schools, eventually graduating from high school in New York City. By twenty-five, her own marriage had ended after five years. Art, by contrast, was a constant. Her father had been a painter. Her husband was a musician. As a child, she was taken to such films as Faust and Les misérables. Dvořák reports that the “immediacy of their huge images on the big screen” shocked and delighted Gallant — and catalyzed her imagination.
It’s not hard to conceive of a link between this background and the way Gallant translates abstractions into pictures in her fiction. Consider when Linnet Muir, the protagonist of six short stories, learns that a companion has died in the Second World War: “It was like a flat white light. One felt apart from everyone, isolated. The field of vision drew in. Then, before one could lose consciousness, vision expanded, light and shadow moved, voices pierced through.” Wartime deaths, Gallant writes in another Muir instalment, are “sanctioned by history.”
Peacetime casualties are not like that. They are lightning bolts out of a sunny sky that strike only one house. All around the ashy ruin lilacs blossom, leaves gleam. Speculation in public about the disaster would be indecent. Nothing remains but a silent, recurring puzzlement to the survivors: Why here and not there? Why this and not that?
In such passages, Gallant takes subjective emotional experiences — grief, shock, and the like — and concretizes them into static images.
So much of Gallant’s work, writes Dvořák, entails an “osmosis from the pictorial to the verbal medium.” Picasso and Marcel Duchamp shattered the conventional spatial perspectives that Paul Cézanne upset, shifts that Dvořák argues help explain the floating perspectives in Gallant’s stories. The latter half of “In Transit,” for example, repeatedly oscillates between the points of view of Perrigny and Claire, a newlywed couple. “Florida” is about Marie’s visit to her son, and the third-person narrator is primarily focalized through her. However, it briefly digresses into the story of her sister, Berthe, having dinner with Mr. Linden, whom she knows through work. The narrator implies that Marie is sharing this anecdote with Mimi, but Marie and Mimi fade away for the better part of a page. Readers are given minute details that make the subplot feel like Berthe’s first-hand account. After all, why would Berthe have bothered to tell Marie that she and Linden discussed ways of cooking trout, or that the bowl containing the blueberry trifle was made of glass?
As Dvořák points out, Gallant’s writing, like other modernist art, has an estrangement effect that disrupts one’s habits of seeing and thinking, in ways that privilege mystery, enigma, and interpretation. Muir, for example, says she has repeatedly heard people say she died; she shares this experience in passing, provides no other details, and seems not to find it disconcerting or unusual. She also has massive, unexplained gaps in her memory. She says she forgets whether she and her husband wrote to each other when he was overseas fighting in the war. She consciously notes the details of an office where she works and the building it was in, “yet only a few months later I would walk by it without remembering I had ever been inside.” She finds a novel she wrote but does not recall composing the manuscript. Such lapses simply float in and out of view, unremarked upon. They do not significantly affect the characters or plots, so they unsettle one’s reading process.
This elusive quality runs through much of Gallant’s work. She was a master of raising questions only to leave them unanswered. In “Florida,” Marie says that her son, Raymond, “was tied up until two: he said the police had been in, investigating a rumor.” It’s a tantalizing piece of information about which we hear nothing further. Similarly, Muir is given three different explanations for how her father died and says that his revolver “figured in all three accounts.” She goes on to say that he kept the gun in a drawer and adds, “How I happen to know the revolver was loaded and how I learned never to point a gun even in play is another story. I can tell you that I never again in my life looked inside a drawer that did not belong to me.” That other story never emerges.
Apart from being as literal a rejection of Chekhov’s gun as one can imagine, Gallant’s tendency to skip over certain details reflects a modernist aesthetic that, as Dvořák puts it, “can clearly be connected to the pictorial medium’s reduction to simple forms and unsettling of traditional perspective, transmuted to the page.” This approach connects to how both painting and film gesture at something beyond the visible. In particular, these elisions connect Gallant’s work with Picasso’s Cubist art, which involved “painting not what you see but what you know is there.” Gallant doesn’t paint exactly what happens with the father’s gun, but she — like her reader — knows what’s there: blood, mangled flesh, death.
Although Gallant was a modernist, many of her most productive years came during the postmodern era, and she shares some of the movement’s tendencies, including the impulse to present truth as a matter of multiple and not always compatible narratives rather than as a single, immutable reality. Several Muir stories exemplify this approach. When Dr. Chauchard dies in “The Doctor,” there are “three separate death notices, as if to affirm that Chauchard had been three men.” One highlights his apparent religiosity, another his medical career, and a third his literary output.
Muir, similarly, has heard three competing stories of how her father died. “Before July was out I had settled his fate in my mind and I never varied,” she explains. This she does by weaving an interpretation from fragments of the different versions, adding her own details along the way: “I thought he had died of homesickness; sickness for England was the consumption, the gun, the everything.” Whereas the postmodernists typically prefer perpetually unstable narratives, Muir assigns her father a fixed one — constructed from a mishmash of accounts. But what happened to him is only “settled” in so far as Muir stops writing about it.
In another Muir story, the protagonist questions her mother’s claim that a family friend died fighting for Francisco Franco, because the mother “often rewrote other people’s lives, providing them with suitable and harmonious endings. In her version of events you were supposed to die as you’d lived.” Muir is skeptical of such storytelling, but mother and daughter do the same thing: they both turn to narrative building when straightforward truth is illusory.
“Varieties of Exile” tells us about “remittance men,” people whose families banish them from Britain to one of its colonies for supposed disgraces — like homosexuality or having a child out of wedlock — and send them regular payments on the condition that they not return. Muir says that “remittance men were characters in a plot” and then outlines the permutations such tales undergo. “Obviously, it is a load of codswallop,” she says of their claims of involuntary expatriation, noting that a man can make any choice he likes
and still remain where he was born. All he needed to do was eschew the remittance and tell his papa to go to hell. Even at nineteen the plot was a story I wouldn’t buy. The truth came down to something just as dramatic but boring to tell: a classic struggle for dominance with two protagonists — strong father, pliant son.
It’s quintessential metafiction: in a story about remittance men, Gallant draws attention to the constructedness and unreality of stories about them.
Gallant the cultural polymath is inseparable from the self-described city girl. She was, as Dvořák says, “reborn” when she moved to Paris in 1950. At the time, the French capital was a hive of cross-pollinating visual artists, musicians, writers, and performing artists from around the world. Poets were writing about painting, painters were borrowing from film, and composers were putting texts to music. This was the creative ecosystem in which Gallant would flourish as an author, one who went on to win the PEN/Nabokov Literary Award and a Governor General’s Award for Fiction. She was published in The New Yorker more often than any fiction writer other than John Cheever, earned honours from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and Britain’s Royal Society of Literature, and received praise from innumerable acclaimed novelists.
Bohemian though Gallant was, the image of urban life she puts forth isn’t consistently romantic. Her Montreal can be stultifying, for example. Linnet Muir describes the commingling of French Catholics and English Protestants as being as “unnatural” as “a school of tropical fish.” Her parents and their friends are exceptions; “most other people simply floated in mossy little ponds” populated by members of the same sects and speakers of the same tongue, “never wondering what it might be like to step ashore; or wondering, perhaps, but weighing up the danger.” Muir fetishizes the Montreal that takes shape as the Second World War helps drive refugees to the city, only to find that many of them hate each other on ethnic or religious grounds. Meanwhile, the Paris of “Mlle. Dias de Corta” features residents fretting over the supposed “Asian colonization” of their town.
That’s not to say that cities figure solely as sites of chauvinism. New York is where Muir first “heard people laughing in a cinema.” It awes and excites her because “I was just under fourteen and I had never heard people expressing their feelings in a public place” (though perhaps that says as much about the stuffiness of Canada at the time as it does about the Big Apple’s vivacity).
A passage in “Voices Lost in Snow” helps to illustrate the tensions in Gallant’s view of urban life. In the Montreal of Muir’s youth,
the end of the afternoon had a particular shade of color then. . . . Lamps were still gas, and their soft gradual blooming at dusk made the sky turn a peacock blue that slowly deepened to marine, then indigo. This uneven light falling in blurred pools gave the snow it touched a quality of phosphorescence, beyond which were night shadows in which no one lurked. . . . The reddish brown of the stone houses, the curve and slope of the streets, the constantly changing sky were satisfactory in a way that I now realize must have been aesthetically comfortable. This is what I saw when I read “city” in a book; I had no means of knowing that “city” one day would also mean drab, filthy, flat, or that city blocks could turn into dull squares without mystery.
Such is Gallant’s contradictory vision of cities. They are oppressive and emancipatory, clannish and pluralistic, atomized and connected, bleak and beautiful. In “Forain,” Paris is relatively welcoming for Central and Eastern European émigrés but intolerably expensive and blatantly racist toward the Algerians living there. This urban dialectic is precisely what one might expect from an author like Gallant, who lived as a bourgeois journalist in Montreal, could barely afford food in Madrid, spent decades revelling in Parisian restaurants and art galleries before — when her fictional output dried up — dying almost penniless in her nineties.
As it was in her life, dislocation is a near constant in Gallant’s stories. For her, place is both mental and geographic. Her characters, and the collectives to which they belong, are regularly lost in one way or another. Sarah, the protagonist of “In the Tunnel,” is a Canadian who has gone to Grenoble, France, to study but flees to the Riviera. She begins a romantic relationship with Roy, formerly an employee in imperial prisons and an advocate of the executions that took place in them. As he shifts his affections to Lisbet and rationalizes the hangings he saw, Sarah is (dubiously) described as having become no longer herself “but a prisoner impaled on a foreign language, seeing bright, light, foreign eyes offering something nobody wanted — death.”
Tremski, whose death “Forain” revolves around, was a Polish writer living in Paris. Although he was Jewish, his funeral is held in a church. His passing, furthermore, brings to a close “the chronicle of two generations, displaced and dispossessed.” Barbara, who was married to Tremski, died four months earlier. At her funeral, people cry for her, as well as “for all the broken ties and old, unwilling journeys.”
“In Transit” takes place in Helsinki’s airport, where Perrigny, one of the protagonists, observes an elderly couple who can’t locate their flight to Stockholm and instead wander toward a door marked “Amsterdam.” Perrigny, for his part, is psychically adrift. He’s on his honeymoon with Claire, but he’s nostalgic for his first wife and thinks about a woman he ogled earlier in the trip. For Claire, it’s her sense of identity that threatens to be unmoored. She “would have given anything to be” the woman at whom her husband stared, and when a group of tourists mistake her for a famous actress, Claire is overjoyed. She signs autographs, writing her name — the new, married version of it — rather than that of the celebrity.
The fictional Muir was born in Montreal and spent her first ten years there, followed by a short period in small-town Ontario and then schooling in New York City. When she returns to Quebec as a young woman, she feels dislodged in her hometown. She “recognized nearly nothing and had to start from scratch.” The Sherbrooke Street she knew has been transformed: a house she recalls being beautiful is now “inhabited by ugly strangers” and partially converted into a store and an office. Years later, Muir has left her job, burned her left-wing writing, and moved into an apartment with a new roommate, while her husband’s status in the war overseas remains uncertain. She likens these upheavals to a form of exile.
Such displacements aren’t solely a source of angst. Muir’s parents and their social circle are metaphoric explorers, and that permits them to escape from the boredom of the figurative “social enclosure” from which they have leapt, leaving their eyes “on a real, a geographical elsewhere.” In any event, Muir remarks, “I was entirely at home with foreigners, which is not surprising — the home was all in my head.” For Gallant, home is psycho-geographic: it has a territorial basis, but it is about how consciousness and one’s social environs combine to generate a sense of belonging and its opposite.
Dislocation, moreover, can nurture estrangement effects. Being physically or mentally in flux allows for critical distance from the familiar. Such disruption creates new possibilities for how we see the world.
Gallant’s writing is also incredibly funny. In “Florida,” Raymond isn’t having much success as he tries to build a career in the motel industry. “Raymond could have done more with his life,” Marie says to Berthe, who “thought he had done all he could, given his brains and character.” Later, Raymond tells Marie that his wife’s name is Mimi, and she replies that “Mimi isn’t a name.”
Dvořák situates Gallant’s comic turns in a larger trans-genre artistic context:
The ironist’s stratospheric viewpoint, something she has in common with visual satirists and caricaturists, vectors both laughter and interrogation. Irony’s pragmatic function consists of signalling evaluation . . . , but when the laughter remains undetected, Gallant’s irony can be taken for cold judgment. Her quiet but sustained humour rests in fact on the reader’s ear and recognition of tone.
Her humour is usually dry and frequently dark. The narrator of “Mlle. Dias de Corta” says she asked her son if he loved her and that “he said the answer was self-evident: we were closely related.” In “The Doctor,” we learn that when Linnet came home from school on weekends, her parents were pleased to see her on Fridays but by Saturdays were asking each other, “When does she go back?” And answering, “Not till tomorrow night.”
Gallant’s wit is often at its sharpest when she takes on gender inequality. During the war, Muir has a gender-barrier-breaking job at a government office. Subjected to her male co-workers’ sexism, she parenthetically notes that she “had yet to meet an adult man with a poor opinion of himself.” Another Muir story has her employed in a male-dominated workplace, this time a newspaper where “as soon as I realized that I was paid about half the salary men were earning, I decided to do half the work.”
In other instances, Gallant treats misogyny with devastating seriousness. Roy of “In the Tunnel” humiliates Sarah again and again, manipulating and psychologically torturing her. In one story, Muir is verbally and physically harassed in a train station. Another describes an episode at the government office where she “felt for the first time that almost palpable atmosphere of sexual curiosity, sexual resentment, and sexual fear that the presence of a woman can create where she is not wanted.”
Gallant highlights the barbarism of patriarchy, as well as its petty cruelties, though the scope of her feminism is somewhat limited. Many of her characters, Muir in particular, are enamoured of socialism’s emancipatory promise, but it is rarely linked to a vision of gender liberation. Gallant’s treatment of gender mainly pivots upon women of European descent taking on the strictures of the family and the workplace. Muir, for instance, sees the nuclear family as “a cruel waste of possibilities.” But the alternative that Gallant seems to champion goes no further than personal independence for individuals. I point to the boundaries of her feminism not to criticize her, necessarily, but to say that, just as the vibrant milieu in which she lived stimulated her exceptional mind and armed her with a rich array of artistic resources, her gender politics were similarly bound by the first and second waves of feminism — both their achievements and their blinkered moments.
A similar aporia is seen in how Gallant writes about Canada. She is affectionately wry about the country’s stodgy, conservative elements and about the antagonisms that come from being the child of two once-mighty imperial powers while living on the doorstep of the pre-eminent global force of the postwar era. And while Gallant frequently returns to Canadian nationhood, she scarcely considers Indigenous people. One possible exception is in “With a Capital T,” where she writes that “churches and schools, banks and prisons, dwellings and railway stations were part of an imperial convallation that wound round the globe, designed to impress on the minds of indigenous populations that the builders had come to stay.” Beyond that, she does little with the reality of settler colonialism. Yes, neither did many of her progressive contemporaries, but my criticism isn’t anachronistic: Gallant was alive (and writing) during the Native People’s Caravan, the Oka Crisis, and the Gustafsen Lake standoff. It is a pity that such events did not make more of an impression.
“My book is a painting,” wrote Proust, the author Gallant reread the most. The remark applies equally to her own oeuvre. Dvořák compares her rather taut voice to “the pictorial medium’s reduction to simple forms (especially the pared down, stylized shapes of Cubism) transmuted to the page.” It is a direct mode that’s analogous to Cézanne’s work, with the basic forms of cylinders, spheres, and cones.
The work of Mavis Gallant could be mistaken for uncomplicated realism: she crafts recognizable worlds populated with familiar characters and objects. This initial impression, combined with her relatively spare prose, can lead to misreadings that see her stories as merely providing a purportedly accurate representation of the world as it was in her lifetime. But Gallant — particularly when she is understood through her multi-genre engagements — offers far more, and I do not mean merely her dabbling in postmodern techniques. The effect of Gallant’s style, Dvořák observes, can be to lull readers until and unless they perceive that what she offers is the realism of a world that is strange and that discloses its unseen elements. These can be glimpsed in her omissions, in her characters’ dislocations, in her manifold ironies. Gallant’s fictional world is a familiar one, but it is one that is as multi-dimensional as a Cubist picture or a symphony, a realm that can take us beyond our current way of seeing.
University of Toronto Press, 2019