Mavis Gallant was one of the best Canadian writers of short stories.
Gallant, a journalist in Montreal who gave up her career in 1952 to move to Europe and write fiction, published 116 short stories in the New Yorker. She won The Governor General’s Award, the Rea Award for the Short Story, and the 2004 PEN/Nabokov Award for Lifetime Achievement. She died in 2014.
I recently read Gallant’s 1979 collection of short stories, From the Fifteenth District. (It is in print as an Open Road Media e-book.). Like the Canadian writer Alice Munro, Gallant has the ability to compress the power of a novel into a short form. These stunning stories, shaped by Gallant’s percipience of the tragic destruction of Europe during World War II, cover long periods of time and depict the characters’ endurance of violence and later reshaping of lives.
“The Moslem Wife” is the best story in the collection. It delineates the the uneventful happiness of a hotel-keeping couple, Netta and Jack, in the South of France. All changes with the war. The hotel business for Netta’s family has been secure for two generations, though in her childhood they moved nomadically from room to room in the busy season. The story begins with Netta’s father Mr. Asher renewing a lease on the family hotel for 100 years. (Netta is 11.) He is confident after World War I “that there would never be a man-made catastrophe in Europe again. The dead of the recent war, the doomed nonsense of the Russian Bolsheviks had finally knocked sense into European heads.”
Some years later, when Netta marries her dilettante cousin, Jack (also the son of hoteliers), they run the hotel and live an idyllic life . (There are tennis courts, a lily pond, a winter garden, and a rose garden.) They have sex constantly. The guests at the hotel refer to her as “the Moslem wife. Netta loves the hotel and does not like to travel.
She would have been glad to see the same sun rising out of the same sea from the window every day until she died. She loved Jack, and what she liked best after him was the hotel. It was a place where, once, people had come to die of tuberculosis, yet it held no trace of feeling of danger. … here the dead had never been allowed to corrupt the living; the dead had been dressed for an outing and removed as soon as their first muscular stiffness relaxed.
Death and famine move in during World War II. Jack has gone to America with a woman, but Netta sees brutality and experiences hunger. The Italians are billeted in the hotel, then the Germans. The hotel is in ruins after the war, but Netta stays on. She writes to Jack and asks for books. He sends her Fireman Flower, The Horse’s Mouth, Four Quartets, The Stuff to Glue the Troops, Better Than a Kick in the Pants, and Put Out More Flags.
This long, powerful story captures the grief of the war more than anything else I have read.
In “The Remission, ” Gallant recounts the decay of an English family who move to a house on the Riviera called La Mas. Alec Webb, a war veteran who is dying of cancer, refuses to be treated by the National Health Service. Living cheaply in France seems feasible, though the money is acquired through the grace of Barbara’s brothers and by bankrupting his sister. Barbara, his wife, a profligate spender, goes through the money and neglects her children. The children become French, and Barbara becomes poor. It is Gallant’s style and her talent for expressing the slowness of time that make this so memorable.
“Baum, Gabriel, 1935-( )” is the story of a later generation. It is 1961, and Gabriel has recently been discharged from the French Army after two years in Algeria. In Paris he is an actor. As the years go by, he moves from the theater into bit parts on TV. The films are mostly about World War II: by the ’80s the films become less accurate and the new generation of actors know less history.
“Potter” is the story of a Polish intellectual who has spent time in prison for his radical beliefs. Sometimes he can get a passport to travel to France and sometimes not. He falls in love with a young Canadian woman in Paris whose idea of history begins with the War in Vietnam. Their differences enchant them.
The only story in the collection that did not grab me was the very odd title story in which three dead people who are haunted by people from the present. The other stories, however, are superb. I am so thankful I have discovered Gallant.