More than fifty years ago, at the age of twenty˝seven, Mavis Gallant left her native Canada for Paris, believing, as she writes in the afterword to her new book, Paris Stories, that "the question of writing or stopping altogether had to be decided before thirty. The only solution seemed to be a clean break and a try: I would give it two years." The result of her self˝imposed exileˇor her adoption of France, depending on your perspectiveˇhas been a powerful, wry, and unsettling body of work, an oeuvre comprising, most notably, short stories (although she has written novels, plays and journalism as well) as various as the city in which they have largely been written.
In 1996, Gallant published a near˝comprehensive tome of Selected Stories, a marvelousˇif, at nearly nine hundred pages, somewhat unwieldyˇcompendium of her finest fictions, ample evidence of why her peers Alice Munro, Deborah Eisenberg, and Joy Williams awarded her the 2002 Rea Award for the short story. That collection, however, is not readily available, and New York Review Books is to be thanked for this handy selection, with Michael Ondaatje's eloquent introduction to boot.
Ondaatje quotes Gallant on Marguerite Yourcenar, writing that her career "stands among the litter of flashier reputations as testimony to. . . the purpose and meaning of a writer's life," and observes that "One feels the remark is an apt description of Gallant's own accomplishment." Certainly Gallant inspires because she has stayed unflaggingly true to her vision and her explorations of form, regardless of fashion. Like her compatriot Munro, she has remained a master of the short story rather than pursuing the more popular novel form, even though this devotion may have cost her a wider readership. Again like Munro, she frequently writes stories that expand like accordions, containing within them entire lives, a novel's worth of life: In "The Ice Wagon Going Down the Street," for example, which recalls the young married life of Peter Frazier and his wife, Sheilah, in Geneva, the narrative seeps forward and backward both, over years, enabling the reader to sense the balance of events both in their time and in the flow of timeˇa balance that shifts, revealed in palimpsest. In "Baum, Gabriel, 1935˝( )," Gallant presents twenty years of a young man's life in such a way that it seems at once organic and thematically unified.
Few writers are capable of such capaciousness in the short˝story form and part of what renders Gallant's talent singular is her ability to suggest, through glancing details, entire economic or political or social movements, great chunks of history, a resonating context for the worlds her characters inhabit, which she never fully spells out but which informs and deepens their lives. When Ondaatje notes, in his introduction, that Gallant is "regional in the best sense," his meaning is literal: She is wonderful at describing place. But she is also "regional" in her profound knowledge of the locales she describes: Paris is not merely a wash of lights and monuments, of seedier suburbs and glistening streets; it is also a Balzacian maelstrom, a constant flux of social opinion and expectation. In stories like "Speck's Idea" or "Forain," the former about an art dealer and the latter about a publisher, both characters resolutely minor but determined in their niches, Gallant conveys, with almost winking discretion, the details of the broader society around them.