THOUGH she has published stories steadily for 30 years in The New Yorker, I have the impression that Mavis Gallant is less well known in the United States than she merits, simply because she is Canadian.
I have lived in Montreal for some years and have been astounded at the ignorance of certain American friends, not about the culture, politics, or history of Montreal, but simply where it is. One who lives in Washington once wrote that she was going out to Chicago, "quite near you -- I wish I had time to drop in." I explained patiently: Washington is about half as far from Montreal as either is from Chicago. Another friend, living in Cambridge, insisted I come to hear her lecture in Toronto -- 400 miles away! Boston is nearer. What do they do, one wonders, with Winnipeg, Calgary, Vancouver and Saskatoon?
Mavis Gallant is from Montreal (N of New York, NE of Washington, NW of Boston). As her readers know, she has produced a fine body of stories set in Paris, where she now lives, and in other European locales. But the stories she has collected in Home Truths all have something to do, peripherally or centrally, with the fact of being Canadian. And to the reader of this book much of the meaning of a Canadian identity will be sure to get through.
Yet stories are read for their artistic value, that is to say, for the joy of reading them, and here the real invitation to the reader lies, for there is no writer in English anywhere able to set Mavis Gallant in second place.
Her style alone places her in the first rank. Gallant's firmly drafted prose neglects nothing, leaves no dangling ends for the reader to tack up. As in the canvases of the painter Manet, everything has been filled in. She is hospitable to the metaphysics of experience as well as to the homeliest social detail. There are sudden welcome up-drafts of humor. She misses nothing; is not sentimental (perish the thought); is anything but romantic, though attraction, sex, and love are pervasive forces. Her observation is often like a pounce: Gotcha!
"Mrs. Reeve had not waited for her husband to die before starting her widow's diet of tea and toast and jam and gin (the bottle was there by the toaster, along with a can of orange juice)."
"Soon after Agnes Brusen came to the office she hung her framed university degree on the wall. It was one of the gritty, priceful gestures that stand for push, toil, and family sacrifice."
"People who do not display what they feel have practical advantages. They can go away to be killed as if they didn't mind; they can see their sons off to war without a blink." (This last for the so-called "English" Canadians.)
GALLANT DOES, at times, seem a bit like an Englishwoman writing; the assurance of Who One Is has to be there before such confident statements can be made. But she is not to be confined in the fiction of social comment, any more than was that wonderful Irish writer of English, Elizabeth Bowen. Gallant can move into the strange uniting of memory and experience and art in a story like "Bonaventure," where a brilliant young Canadian pianist comes to visit the widow of a great conductor. The scene is Switzerland; he has been studying in Berlin, but memory, partially cripped perhaps (he has been in an accident) returns him to his father, to a scene of mustering out at Bonaventure Station in Montreal during World War II. He has only heard of this. "In a slow motion film of someone else's memory, Ramsay saw his father there, home, alive, yes, but in a sense never seen or heard of again." Images of the great conductor's last days also haunt the story; and long life is perhaps to be denieded boy. Does art derive from Nature as the conductor's widow insists, or from other art, as the boy feels, not wishing even to hear bird calls, dreading the germs in spring water? All these threads are spun together with a sure hand in this sophisticated and mysterious evocation, until the "bonaventure" of the title becomes a vestibule of death, a stepping-out place into a new unknown.
Place and time make strong supports for Gallant's fiction. Sometimes one feels that the stories are made to be neatly pinned up against backgrounds of our common post- World War II experience. The story, "The Ice Wagon Going Down the Street," for instance, recalls a period in the early 1950s when young couples, attractive, bright, and giving every sign of worldly "success," could be met in European capitals where it was assumed they were doing "interesting" work. In "Ice Wagon," Peter, from Toronto, is married to Sheilah, a beautiful London model. They succeed in nothing but being attractive and having beautiful children. Peter works in an office in Geneva with a plain proper girl from Saskatchewan, who keeps her Bible on her desk along with Kleenex, Air-Wick (he smokes), and a glass jar for flowers. On the one occasion after a party when they might have made love, but didn't, she tells him the story of getting up early as a child in a hot prairie town, in a house full of other children, and of having to herself a precious solitary hour when she could watch the ice wagon going down the street. It becomes a memory for him as well, one he will not lose, though he loses her. It will always be with him, a "Canadian-ness" he can never escape. The story has been firmly set in that period of time when Peters and Sheilahs were abroad, with their smart talk, their in-group of friends, and the one Balenciaga dress, but the time will end, while the home sense that Peter and Agnes Brusen share is rooted and timeless.
SOME OF these stories may seem at first so confied to certain aspects of purely Canadian experience that they become opaque to the American reader. Such a one (one of the best, not to be neglected) is the brilliant study "Saturday." A French-Canadian family here has forsaken its cultural roots, speaks English, is embarrassed about having so many children (it makes them seem like the "typical" Quebec family, instead of the "emancipated" one they have decided to be). At a family celebration they do invite a priest, but he comes in a T-shirt like anyone else, and makes "rough little jokes." G,erard, one of two sons, is a confused example of this life. He has had a strange experience, really a dream, in which English has prevailed: lilacs left on a bus seat, talk of Elizabeth Barrett, a funeral with a corpse holding stock certificates. He "speaks French as if through a muslin curtain" and "wears himself out struggling for one complete dream." The younger brother L,eopold, in contrast, is at home in a beautiful "literary" French he haslearned at school and abroad, in Montreux. When everyone departs after the exhausting day, it is L,eopold who is left alone with an aging father, and who presses his lips to his hand: "Il n'y a que moi," he says and the story is flooded with relief, as language returns to its own place.
"Saturday" need not be considered only as a story local to French Canada. It is about language, hence of that "essence" which Gallant discusses in her helpful introduction. Hence, too, it is of concern to us all, relating as it does to memory which contains culture and is inseparable from speech.
Memory has full sway in the final section of Home Truths, the "Linnet Muir" stories. No more than in Proust can we ask if these fictions are meant to be taken as fact; as in Proust they are evocations -- of the Montreal of Mavis Gallant's childhood and young womanhood, now past and gone, but lovingly made to live again here.
Some stories in the volume are, naturally, richer than others. Some, like "Orphans" and "A Prodigal Parent," seem inexplicably harsh; and in one or two, like "Voices Lost in the Snow," the meaning is so overgrown with detail that it would be anybody's guess what it is. But these minor shortcomings should do nothing to dull the full experience of "In the Tunnel," "Virus X," "Between Zero and One," and "The Doctor," which, like those I have mentioned, simply spring to life and bloom in the reader's mind. No one can ask more of a short story than that.