March 4, 2014
Mavis Gallant: Across the Bridge
Mavis Gallant died on 18 February 2014 – a couple of weeks ago. She had been on my radar for many years: I’d managed to acquire four collections of her stories, without ever reading them. Death is a great catalyst. Why hadn’t I opened them before? Because I have a completist impulse, partly from the desire to write about books I’ve read; to write about a book you have to read it completely. And collections of stories often aren’t suited to being read in their entirety – or not (another reason for me) at the same pace as a novel of equivalent length. Gallant herself had something to say about this, in the afterword to the selection Paris Stories:
There is something I keep wanting to say about reading short stories. I am doing it now, because I may never have another occasion. 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.
‘Now’ was 2002, when Gallant was 80 years old, so you can see why she thought she may not have another occasion. Indeed, after this she published two more selections of old stories but no more new collections. The last of her new books, as far as I can tell, was Across the Bridge, published in 1993. My copy, published as a beautiful small hardback by Bloomsbury Classics in the UK, was, according to the inscription, a gift to me on my 22nd birthday. I will be 41 next month, so it has taken me 19 years to get around to this book. That is probably a record, even by my dilatory standards.
Across the Bridge contains eleven stories, nine of which were previously published in The New Yorker. If you have a preconception of a New Yorker type of story, then Gallant’s work probably fits it: finely written, alive with detail, light on plot and formally straightforward. That description, however, leaches all the life out of them. The titles of two of her volumes of selected stories – Paris Stories and Varieties of Exile – gives a clue to what unites much of her work. Gallant was born in Montreal but lived in Paris for many years, and these two places provide the settings for almost all the stories here.
The first four stories concern the Carette family, Montrealers whose lives we follow for 50 years in as many pages, from the 1930s to the 1980s. In the first story, ‘1933’, Mme. Carette and her daughters Berthe and Marie are in reduced circumstances following the death of M. Carette. The story is a good introduction to Gallant because it shows her careful balance of sympathy for her characters, who are often in unwelcome predicaments, and her wry eye for the details that describe them. Here, Mme. Carette saves face, if only to herself, in discovering that after moving by necessity to a smaller flat, “by walking a few extra minutes, [she] could patronize the same butcher and grocer as before.” She soon faces the shame-inducing realities of becoming a woman who must now earn a living. In their new flat, the Carettes live above M. and Mme. Grosjean and their Airedale, Arno. This too brings a sharp mix of tenderness and cynicism, as Mme Carette breaks down in tears after expressing unkind – envious – thoughts about her neighbours (“We shall see what happens to the marriage after Arno dies”), while M. Grosjean is blissfully unaware that “all the female creatures in his house were frightened and lonely, calling and weeping.” He has taken Arno out for a walk, though “he made it a point never to say where he was going: he did not think it a good idea to let women know much.”
The next story, ‘The Chosen Husband’, jumps on to the time when Marie, a growing woman, is being courted. Mme. Carette is concerned again with social status, and that theirs cannot match that of Marie’s latest suitor, Louis Driscoll, though she reflects that the Carettes “were related to families for whom bridges were named.” She is presented not as emptily snobbish, but as ambitious, even if that ambition is directed only towards getting her daughter the right man. She rejects one young man, a Greek, for his own lack of ambition. “In the life of a penniless unmarried young woman, there was no room for a man merely in love. He ought to have presented himself as something: Marie’s future.” Again comes that delicate balance, as Gallant switches to tell us that Marie’s sister, Berthe, has had her own trouble with men, largely through her deep and broad appeal to them. In Berthe’s workplace, “Mr Macfarlane had left a lewd poem on her desk, then a note of apology, then a poem even worse than the first.” Men, you will note, are not coming out of these stories terribly well. The third Carette story, ‘From Cloud to Cloud’, affirms this. Now Marie has married, become a parent, and her son Raymond, 18, is the centre of the story. He will be a let-down to his family. The way in which time skips on in these stories is notable. They were published individually, so there is a need to set the scene anew each time, but they also run consecutively in this book, like a novella about one family, and they reinforce one another. In ‘From Cloud to Cloud’, what could be a clunky nod to get the reader to know that the year is 1969, becomes dextrous in Gallant’s hands: “It was the summer of the moon walk. Raymond’s mother still mentions this, as though it had exerted a tidal influence on her affairs.” Echoing the opening story, here Raymond’s father has just died, and he is drifting, and may never be still. There are some moments in this story which show clearly why Gallant is so highly regarded. As Raymond grows, Marie and Berthe get used to not seeing him.
They had his voice over the telephone, calling from different American places (they thought of Vietnam as an American place) with a gradually altered accent. His French filled up with English, as with a deposit of pebbles and sand…
This is a beautifully compressed sequence, squeezing in so much about history and politics, the direction of the story, and the characters referred to, without seeming overstuffed. Later, a description of Marie shows Gallant’s dedication to le mot juste even in lighter passages. “She fainted easily; it was her understanding that the blood in her arms and legs congealed, leaving her brain unattended.” That unattended is just perfect. But amid the levity, again comes the stab, as Marie reflects on the disappointing Raymond, and “wonders about other mothers and sons, and whether children feel any of the pain they inflict.” Let’s consider that a rhetorical question. The final Carette story, ‘Florida’, shows Berthe inheriting her mother’s airs, as she goes out for dinner with a colleague: “She suggested the Ritz-Carlton – she had been there once before, and had a favourite table.” The men are still misbehaving, too: Berthe’s colleague over dinner tells her: ‘”I like the way you think,” he said. “If only you had been a man, Miss Carette, with your intellect, and your powers of synthesis, you might have gone…” and he pointed to the glass bowl of blueberry trifle on the dessert trolley, as if to say, “even farther.”‘
By now, reading these stories, I was entirely taken by the frivolous, serious, realistic Carettes, and the cumulative effect of their tales was not unlike the sequential stories about the Derdons in Maeve Brennan’s brilliant The Springs of Affection (though Brennan gets closer in among her characters’ emotions). I could have done with a whole book of them, so it was something of a wrench to be dropped among new characters. Typically, the other stories are also set among families, such as the long title story, where the narrator, Sylvie, and her mother are involved in trying to get Sylvie married. Her parents want her to marry Julien, the son of her father’s cousin Gaston: “My marrying Julien was a thought my parents and Cousin Gaston had enjoyed. In some way, we would have remained their children forever.” Sylvie prefers Arnaud, but her mother is not to be deflected: she “was a born coaxer and wheedler; avoided confrontation, preferred to move to a different terrain and beckon, smiling.” In other stories, where families do not feature strongly, there is nonetheless something like family, a question of belonging and possession. In ‘Forain’, the eponymous character is the literary executor for author Adam Tremski, a man who epitomises a sort of bohemian type, who “had shambled around Paris looking as though he slept under restaurant tables, on a bed of cigarette ashes and crumbs.” The retrospective portrait of Tremski is affecting, both for its vision of advancing age – the mourners at his funeral “had migrated to high-rise apartments in the outer suburbs, to deeper loneliness but cheaper rents” – and for a world where nobody ever really cared about books or the people who created them. “It was remarkable, Tremski had said, the way literate people, reasonably well travelled and educated, comfortably off, could live adequate lives without wanting to know what had gone before or happened elsewhere.”
Belonging is a theme too in the funniest story in Across the Bridge, ‘Kingdom Come’. It is nicely summed up in the opening paragraph:
After having spent twenty-four years in the Republic of Saltnatek, where he established the first modern university, recorded the vocabulary and structure of the Saltnatek tongue, and discovered in a remote village an allophylian language unknown except to its speakers, Dr. Dominic Missierna returned to Europe to find that nobody cared.
Missierna is another man, like Tremski, who feels under-appreciated by an ignorant world. “He still hoped that at least one conclusion might be named for him, so that his grandchildren, coming across his name in a textbook, could say, ‘So this is what he was like – modest, creative.'” Grandchildren requires children, and Missierna has them, but they too are unappreciative: like all children, everywhere. Anyway “he had been a featherweight on his children; he had scarcely gone near them.” Instead, “Saltnatek had been like a child, and he had stayed with it longer than any other, had seen it into maturity, and it had used and rejected him, as children do, as it is their right.”
My cheerful admiration for the stories detailed above – you must read Gallant, is the essence – didn’t apply to all of the book. This was an original collection of stories, so we might expect it to contain the odd runt, with a lower hit rate than a selected edition. In addition, it was the last new collection Gallant published, in her seventies, when you might be expected to have your best work behind you. In any event, it was some of the longer stories here that I struggled with. I thought occasionally of Alice Munro, whose impregnably praised stories more often than not make my eyes glaze over. Some of Gallant’s stories here – ‘The Fenton Child’ to name one – had a similar effect. It might be something to do with the density of detail Gallant brings – her stories are not quick hits but slow draws, pared novellas. Even when there is dialogue, the reader cannot skip lightly through it: constant attention must be paid. Characters come in thickets, and I would found myself halfway down a page, wondering how we got here. I am happy to accept that it is my error, but it is nonetheless a true response. Happily it applied to only a few of the stories here.
Gallant did not always assist readers who wanted to dive deeper into her methods of working and her intentions. In an interview in Granta in 2009, extracted here by Charles Boyle of CB Editions, Gallant repeatedly thwarted the well-intentioned questions by Jhumpa Lahiri: “I can’t tell you.” “I don’t know.” “If I knew that, I wouldn’t bother writing.” She was a little more effusive in her Paris Review Art of Fiction interview ten years earlier, at least on the scope of her career (Will there ever be a complete collected stories? “You wouldn’t be able to pick it up”), but maintained a resistance to literary-critical introspection. “I wish I could persuade you to believe me when I say that I don’t analyse my own work.” But her limited level of self-regard, boiled down, produced as sensible a manifesto as we could ask for in the end. “I want a story to be perfectly clear and I don’t want it to be boring. C’est tout.”