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Authors: Mavis Gallant

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Paris Stories

BOOK: Paris Stories
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What Is to Be Done?


Paris Notebooks: Essays and Reviews


The Other Paris
(stories, 1956)

Green Water, Green Sky
(novel, 1959)

My Heart Is Broken
(stories, 1964)

A Fairly Good Time
(novel, 1970)

The Pegnitz Junction
(stories, 1973)

The End of the World
(stories, 1974)

From the Fifteenth District
(stories, 1979)

Home Truths
(stories, 1981)

Overhead in a Balloon
(stories, 1985)

In Transit
(stories, 1988)

Across the Bridge
(stories, 1993)

The Moslem Wife
(stories, 1994)

The Selected Stories of Mavis Gallant
(stories, 1996)

Paris Stories
, ed. Michael Ondaatje (stories, 2002)

Copyright © 2002 by Mavis Gallant
Introduction and selection copyright © 2002 by Michael Ondaatje

All rights reserved. The use of any part of this publication reproduced, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, or stored in a retrieval system, without the prior written consent of the publisher – or, in case of photocopying or other reprographic copying, a licence from the Canadian Copyright Licensing Agency – is an infringement of the copyright law.

National Library of Canada Cataloguing in Publication

Gallant, Mavis, 1922-
Paris stories / Mavis Gallant ; edited by Michael Ondaatje.

eISBN: 978-1-55199-631-8

I. Ondaatje, Michael, 1943-     II. Title.

PS8513.A593A159 2002     C813′.54     C2002-904313-1
PR9199.3.G26A6 2002

We acknowledge the financial support of the Government of Canada through the Book Publishing Industry Development Program for our publishing activities. We further acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts and the Ontario Arts Council for our publishing program.

All of the stories in this selection with one exception were originally published in
The New Yorker
and later collected in
The Selected Stories of Mavis Gallant
(McClelland & Stewart). The exception is “August,” which is an excerpt from the novel
Green Water, Green Sky
(Macmillan of Canada), and is reprinted here by permission of the author. “The Ice Wagon Going Down the Street” appears in
Home Truths
(McClelland & Stewart). “Irina,” “The Latehomecomer,” “The Moslem Wife,” “From the Fifteenth District,” “Baum, Gabriel, 1935–(     ),” and “The Remission” appear in
From the Fifteenth District
(McClelland & Stewart). “Speck’s Idea” and “Grippes and Poche” appear in
Overhead in a Balloon
(McClelland & Stewart). “Forain” and “Mlle. Dias de Corta” appear in
Across the Bridge
(McClelland & Stewart). “In Transit” is taken from
In Transit
by Mavis Gallant. Copyright © 1988 by Mavis Gallant. Reprinted by permission of Penguin Books Canada Limited.

McClelland & Stewart Ltd.
75 Sherbourne Street
Toronto, Ontario
M5A 2P9



was born in Montreal in August of 1922. After a peripatetic childhood (she attended seventeen schools), she found a job with the National Film Board of Canada, and then at the
Montreal Standard
as a journalist. In 1944 she published her first stories, and six years later, determined to become a fulltime writer, she moved to Paris, where she has lived ever since. Paris seems to be her home in every way, emotionally, spiritually, physically, although she is still very much a Canadian who is living abroad.

In the last fifty years her publications have included several collections of short stories, two novels, works of nonfiction such as
Paris Notebooks
, which covered the student uprisings of 1968, novellas, plays, and literary essays. Her stories and nonfiction have for years appeared regularly in
The New Yorker
. And she has won many distinguished literary awards. While her reputation and readership are smaller than she deserves, among writers she is a shared and loved and daunting secret. I know two writers who have told me that the one writer they do
read when they are completing a book is Mavis Gallant. Nothing could be more intimidating. “The long career of Marguerite Yourcenar,” Mavis Gallant once wrote, “stands among the litter of flashier reputations as testimony to … the purpose and meaning of a writer’s life.” One feels the remark is an apt description of Gallant’s own accomplishment.

This new selection of stories, drawn from the many she has written, is just a hint of her remarkable literary talent. And
Paris Stories
, as a title, is more suggestive than exact (though Gallant
notes that it’s appropriate if only because everything in this collection was written in Paris, either at her desk or in her kitchen). The stories, however, take place all over Europe: in France, Austria, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, and other parts of the Continent. Many of her characters have roots in Canada, or come from Eastern Europe. Her Europe is a place of “shipwrecks”—a word that occurs more than once in the stories. All her characters are seemingly far from home. They belong, to be honest, nowhere. Most of them are permanent wanderers, though a nomadic fate was not part of their original intent. With no land to light on, they look back without nostalgia, and look forward with a frayed hope. So that even the epigraph, from
As You Like It
, that Gallant chose for her early novel
Green Water Green Sky
, seems painfully ironic: “Ay, now am I in Arden, the more fool I. When I was at home, I was in a better place, but travellers must be content.”

“All immigration is based on misapprehension,” Gallant has written, and she catches or witnesses her subjects in waiting rooms, halfway across bridges, overhead in balloons, in transit—her very titles signal incomplete and transient states. (Only her recurring comic character, Grippes, a writer who happens to be a slum landlord, harassed by neighbors, disturbed by the changing times, is where he wishes to be.) After a while this collection of souls begins to represent for the reader the true state of the world.

The characters who people Mavis Gallant’s Europe are complex and various. The same is true of her protean prose. She is light years away from writers who claim a recognizably indelible style and constant landscape, although we as readers
become accustomed to her chameleon nature, her quick pace and her sudden swerves, so that we watch and listen carefully for any ground shift of humor or sadness. Her tenderness arrives unexpectedly, while her wit is sly, almost too quick. Comic possibilities are everywhere:

The Blum-Bloch-Weilers, heavy art collectors, produced statesmen, magistrates, anthropologists, and generals, and were on no account to be confused with the Blum-Weiler-Blochs, their penniless and mystical cousins, who produced poets, librarians, and Benedictine monks.

“Speck’s Idea”

I had not even a nebulous idea of how children sprang to life. I merely knew two persons were required for a ritual I believed had to continue for nine months, and which I imagined in the nature of a long card game with mysterious rules.

“Varieties of Exile”

Gallant is brilliant at tilting a situation or a personality a few subliminal degrees in the mind of the reader so that he discovers himself located in a strange new place, seeing something from a more generous or more satirical position. The stories feel cubist in their angles and qualifications, although the narrator often gives the air of being attached, lazily, almost accidentally, like a burr to some character—an Italian servant perhaps, a tax consultant, an art dealer …

Just listing a few of Gallant’s characters reveals the range and diversity of her world—lost sons, émigrés, refugees from the nuclear family or the establishment, all trying to scramble back but with no weapons to do so. She catches the behavior of the out-of-place citizen, who carries a single-minded bundle of craft and belief. What she gives us, in fact, is an underground map of Europe in the twentieth century, and what feels like a set of dangerous unauthorized portraits. Even ghosts have their say in “From the Fifteenth District,” that sly story of complaint.

The world Gallant depicts is cosmopolitan, and she is a writer of seemingly endless voices and personae, but in these stories she is also regional in the best sense. She has a brilliant sense of place. She speaks, in an essay on Paris, of “a small, dim chapel of gentle ugliness.” The city for her constantly shifts and evolves and Gallant will offer a humorous archaeology of Paris that seems to draw together all aspects of it, as we see in this opening to “Speck’s Idea”:

Sandor Speck’s first art gallery in Paris was on the Right Bank, near the Church of St. Elisabeth, on a street too narrow for cars. When his block was wiped off the map to make way for a five-story garage, Speck crossed the Seine to the shadow of Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre, where he set up shop in a picturesque slum protected by law from demolition. When this gallery was blown up by Basque separatists, who had
mistaken it for a travel agency exploiting the beauty of their coast, he collected his insurance money and moved to the Faubourg Saint-Germain.

Most of the time though, Gallant’s subject is the comic opera of character. She slips into and out of minds and moods so quickly that we often miss the technical craft of that journey. And she often looks into the deepest of motives without, it seems, getting up from her chair. But if we reread her, we see how before we know it she will have circled a person, captured a voice, revealed a whole manner of a life in the way a character avoids an issue or discusses a dress. She meets these characters in the zone between thought and possible action. “Forain” takes place in the mind of a character who seemingly stands in mid-gesture, never quite deciding or moving: to act upon what one would like to do is simply too difficult, the end of that corridor is too far away. The action of the story is that of a Parisian publisher of Eastern European émigré writers going to a funeral, thinking about the deceased, and leaving. But these twenty pages are filled with a crowded and complicated nexus of lives, tactfully and beautifully revealed—of writers and their partners and daughters, their agents and publishers—and the half-ambitious and basically exhausted careers of literary exiles in Europe.

There is always this fraught border between wishful behavior and minimal action. But even though the world Gallant portrays is in shadows, her stories move as quickly and clearly as a glance. They suggest a series of sketches that show every aspect of these incomplete lives. They are often surreally comic, sometimes full of pathos, sometimes vainglorious. We live within them and they show us what we never expected to see about ourselves.

BOOK: Paris Stories
4.99Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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