The Other Paris, 1956
My Heart Is Broken: Eight Stories and a Short Novel, 1964 (pb. in England as An Unmarried Man’s Summer, 1965)
The Pegnitz Junction: A Novella and Five Short Stories, 1973
The End of the World, and Other Stories, 1974
From the Fifteenth District: A Novella and Eight Short Stories, 1979
Home Truths: Selected Canadian Stories, 1981
Overhead in a Balloon: Stories of Paris, 1985
In Transit, 1988
Across the Bridge, 1993
The Moslem Wife, and Other Stories, 1994
The Collected Stories of Mavis Gallant, 1996
Paris Stories, 2002
Green Water, Green Sky, 1959
Its Image on the Mirror, 1964 (novella)
A Fairly Good Time, 1970
What Is to Be Done, pr. 1982
The Affair of Gabrielle Russier, 1971
The War Brides, 1978
Paris Notebooks: Essays and Reviews, 1986
Mavis Gallant (guh-LAHNT) is regarded as one of the finest short-story writers of the second half of the twentieth century, as well as being an essayist and social commentator. Although she was born in Canada as Mavis de Trafford Young, she has spent much of her life in France and only occasionally returns to Canada. She grew up in a middle-class, English-speaking, Protestant family in Montreal. After her parents’ marriage broke up, she had an unsettled childhood, attending seventeen different schools in Canada and the United States. An early story, “Thank You for the Lovely Tea” (1956), relates the experience of a girl who is a resident in an expensive girls’ school and resists the kindness of her father’s mistress on the occasion of an afternoon excursion. The girl’s deliberate surliness and the woman’s ineptness and insecurity are played out in the genteel atmosphere of a fashionable hotel dining room; the inevitable failure of the meeting is expressed with a laconic sourness and with the cold-eyed, witty awareness that is a characteristic mark of Gallant’s short-story technique. Gallant’s early experience of being on the move may be related to the interest she has in characters who are uprooted and aimless and often live in foreign lands.
Gallant began her career as a reporter with a Montreal newspaper, where she became a commentator on a wide range of social topics. At the same time she began to write short stories; in 1951 she had her first story printed in The New Yorker. One year earlier she had left Canada and settled in Paris, where she wrote fiction and commentary on French social, political, and cultural life; occasionally she also wrote articles on American and Canadian social topics. Gallant retained her Canadian citizenship, suggesting that it gave her the kind of emotional and intellectual distancing that allowed her to write comfortably. That need for keeping things at arm’s length is clearly mirrored in the emotional disinterest with which she handles her characters. Some critics have pointed out that Gallant is best when read a bit at a time; given the number of stories she has written and her wide range of subjects, it is true that there is a sameness in tone, in character, and in situation in many of her stories.
Gallant wrote some novels, but her work in genres other than short fiction and essays is considered less compelling, partly because she seems less at home with narrative than with close, almost microscopic, examination of individual characters. Many of her characters are so emotionally traumatized that they hardly move, and on occasion they reflect an eerie sense of unreality that manifests itself in their distress, which at times approaches a narrow, surrealistic line reminiscent of Franz Kafka (1883-1924). Her novels, as a result, are structured like extended short stories. In fact, the novel Green Water, Green Sky began as three short stories. This work is typical in its depiction of a young American woman who marries an American merchant working in Paris. Their marriage disintegrates as her personality falls apart under the helpless eye of her husband, her silly mother, and her lonely and equally fragile cousin, who has an odd, incoherent affection for her. The work is a pellucid comment upon the stupidities, unconscious cruelties, and damaging selfishness of family members in times of stress. The leitmotif of her work is her belief that many people, often financially comfortable, are living lives of quiet desperation.
Gallant’s tendency in her novels to rely on short-story structure is complemented by her practice of writing blocks of short stories using the same characters and variations of the same situation. Home Truths: Selected Canadian Stories includes six stories about a sensitive young woman, Linnet Muir, growing up in Montreal during the late 1930’s and early 1940’s. There is a strong autobiographical aura about these tales, as there often is in her stories. This autobiographical aspect is also reflected in her depiction of thin-skinned characters who find themselves intellectually and emotionally alienated from their environment as a result of a family breakdown, living in a foreign land, or variant combinations of parental failure, marital trouble, inability to adapt, and physical and mental disintegration. The constant element in these stories of bleak withdrawal and psychological stasis is Gallant’s ability to keep the material distanced from the reader. There is always a sense of “looking in” at a character, even when that character is the narrator. Gallant allows the reader to understand the characters but not to get too close or care to get any closer. In Across the Bridge four stories deal with one Montreal family living through six decades of hard times. The remorseless examination of failure is leavened with Gallant’s wit and a mix of the comic and the pathetic. The assembling of a series of stories, often in groups of four, about a single person or family continues in The Collected Stories of Mavis Gallant. In contrast, the selection of Paris Stories focuses on location as much as character.