I had been told that Mavis Gallant is a writer’s writer. A master of the short story whose tales for years found a home in the New Yorker. “Paris Stories” is a collection of 15 of her stories that were chosen by Michael Ondaatje. I will only review the stories that appealed to me.
There is little dialogue in most of these stories. They are period pieces, all related to France, mostly in the period after WWII. She has a journalists eye for detail and observation and is similarly emotionally detached. She recounts the inner thoughts of her characters, building as on a canvas, a layered vision. Not stream of consciousness, some stories wander, but in an orderly fashion. Her protagonists are often strong woman by circumstance, as feminism would be a movement of a later generation.
“The Moslem Wife” is a derogatory label applied to the proprietress of a small hotel in the south of France who supports her flighty husband and sustains the hotel throughout Nazi occupation. She is unemotional rather than stoic. A victim of her own personality she is a servant to his whims. It is a peculiarity of some strong women in need of weaning.
“Speck’s Idea” is a Parisian story. The protagonist is a small art dealer who had carved a niche in the world of collectors, but needs a new show to sustain a declining appeal. “… he developed as his specialty the flattest, palest, farthest ripples of the late middle-traditional Paris school. This sensible decision had earned him the admiration given the devoted miniaturist who is no threat to anyone.” It is an interesting study of small business, the art world, personalities and widows and widowers. “But there was even more to Speck than this, and if he was respected for anything in the trade it was for his knack with artists’ widows.” The story is about how he plied this trade.
“Indoors the widow sat, her walls plastered with portraits of herself when young. Here she continued the struggle begun in the Master’s lifetime- the evicting of the upstairs tenant- her day made lively by the arrival of mail (dusty beige of anonymous threats, grim blue of legal documents), the coming and going of process servers, the outings to lawyers. Into this spongy territory Speck advanced, bringing his tactful presence, his subtle approximation of courtship, his gift for listening. Thin by choice, pale by nature, he suggested maternal need. Socks and cuff links suggested breeding. The drift of his talk suggested prosperity. He sent his widows flowers, wooed them with food. Although their taste in checks and banknotes ran to the dry and crisp, when to eating they craved the sweet, the sticky, the moist. Speck brought soft macaroons, savarins socked in rum, brioches stuffed with almond crean, mocha cake so tender it had to be eaten with a spoon. Sugar was poison to Speck. Henriette had once reviewed a book that described how refined sugar taken into one’s system turned into a fog of hideous green. Her brief, cool warning, “A Marxist Considers Sweets,” unreeled in Speck’s mind if he was confronted with a cookie. He usually pretended to eat, reducing a mille-feuille to paste, concealing the wreck of an eclair under napkin and fork. He never lost track of his purpose- the prying of paintings out of a dusty studio on terms anestheizing to the artist’s widow and satisfactory to himsel.”
The title “Remission” is an interesting choice for this story as each of the multiple definitions could apply. A forty year old man moves with his wife and three young children from England to the south of France in the hope that he will recover his health. It is temporal. Their marriage was not loveless, but his wife is ambivalent, feeling that the marriage deprived her, despite her taking advantage of the relatives supporting them. She takes up with an English actor while her husband is dying, finally finding love and cancelling the debt of ther marriage. The children do not approve, nor offer forgiveness for sins she is indifferent to.
“August” is imbued with Parisian class distinction, ironically expressed through a fragile family of expatriate Americans beset with an increasingly recluse daughter and wife instilled with phobias. Bonnie, the resented, judgmental middle-aged mother of little means projects class she aspires to as she seeks a renewal of life. Bob, the husband is the victim hero who is liked by all, supports all, but has been drained of love for his fading wife. Flor, the fractured daughter who believes she is becoming invisible, while promoting anemia as her excuse. Doris, an interloping American neighbor whose marital difficulties have left her economically stranded in Paris and in search of an attachment. The author demonstrates perspective as they look at a painting in Bob and Flor’s apartment.
“They all turned to the painting. Bonnie looked at a bright patch on the bright wall, and Doris at something a child of six might have done as well. Flor saw in the forms exploding with nothing to hold them together absolute proof that the universe was disintegrating and that it was vain and foolish to cry for help. Bob looked at a rising investment that, at the same time, game him aesthetic pleasure; that was the way to wrap up life, to get the best of everything. ….. Distress on the fringe of horror covered the faces of the three women, like a glaze, endowing them with a sudden, superficial resemblance. Florence’s horror was habitual: it wa almost her waking look. Bonnie suffered acutely at her son-in-law’s trambling of taste. Doris, the most earnest, thought of how many children in vague, teeming, starving places could have been nourished with that sum of money.”
“In Plain Sight” meanders. As in numerous stories in this collection, the principal character, Henri Grippes, is a writer. He is a writer now in the late Fall of his life, when all his affairs with married women, fly to him like homing pigeons after their husbands have passed. One particularly loyal companion in waiting, willing to forfeit her more upscale real estate for Henri’s disheveled accomodations, is Mme. Parfaire. His indifference to her offerings is treated as abuse by the other residents. However, the story does not linger here. The author has a penchant for tracing the political and fashion history of post-war France through her characters. Here Henri is the disenchanted political naif, who upon the election of Francois Mitterand, the Fifth Republic’s first socialist, realizes that governing and utopianism are incompatible. Henri’s expression of radicalism is reduced to writing a piece that bemoans the multi-plex cinema. Ms. Gallant now moves on. She now traces Henri’s socio-political lineage. His grandfather was a collaborator with the Vichy, but for economic reasons. Henri as a child, is the inadvertent cause of his arrest. The story’s title is borrowed from Henri’s advice to the police in search of contraband. It is then back to Mme. Parfaire and an inconclusive ending. The latter is a style of am not enamored of, particularly if the test is only to guess what the author has in mind.
“Scarves, Beads, Sandals”, substitutes Theo Schurz, an aged and well-known painter for the indifferent author, Henri Grippes. He lives on the fringe of Montparnasse in a grimmy flat that is destined for condemnation. Like Grippes he seems to be impoverished, although his paintings are in demand. He had multiple muses, the last, Mathilde, married him to be Mme. Shurz. She subsequently realizes she wants a more refined- bourgeois- existence. Their divorce is amicable and her remarriage, to a cultural attache doomed to be downscaled to an academic, is accepted by Shurz. Despite the marriage, she spends more time with Shurz, mothering him. Each marriage seems to be one of convenience; principally Mathilde having the economic security to remain attached to Shurz. Shurz is as indifferent as Henri: ever the artist.
My verdict on Ms. Gallant’s writing is capable, but not overwhelming. It is too detached for me. The prose is not lyrical, but her observations and sense of character development are strong. It is only one collection, so it is hard to judge the body of her work.