Paris Stories, by Mavis Gallant, introduction by Michael Ondaatje. New York: New York Review Books. 390 pages. $14.95. BUY NOW

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She does so, moreover, with sharp wit. In the case of Sandor Speck, who has chosen the location of his gallery in order to avoid trouble, he discovers to his dismay that "As for the bookseller, M. Alfred Chassepoule, he seemed to spend most of his time wiping blood off the collected speeches of Mussolini, bandaging customers, and sweeping up glass. The fact was that Amandine's had turned out to have a fixed right˝wing viewpoint, which made it subject to attack by commandos wielding iron bars." In "The Remission," a story set on the C˘te d'Azur, about the Webbs, an expatriate English family with an endlessly dying patriarch, she notes, of the wife's new lover, Wilkinson: "If he sounded like a foreigner's Englishman, like a man in a British joke it was probably because he had said so many British˝sounding lines in films set on the Riviera." And again, of the new tenants in the house initially rented by the Webbs: "The new people at Lou Mas had everyone's favor. If there had been times when the neighbors had wondered how Barbara and Alec could possibly have met, the Malayan planter and his jolly wife were an old novel known by heart." Or in the case of the wildly conservative narrator of "Mlle. Dias de Corta," who addresses her former lodger, the story opens: "You moved into my apartment during the summer of the year before abortion became legal in France; that should fix it in past time for you, dear Mlle. Dias de Corta."

The inhabitants of these stories are almost all outsiders in one way or another, whether familiar to those around them, like Wilkinson or the Malayan planter and his wife, or unfamiliar, like the Webbs. Time and again, Gallant's characters express the anomie of the displaced, living as if they knew how to live or, as in the Wharton˝esque drama "August," giving up all pretense of knowing. They attempt to connect, either to an idea or to a person, to ground themselves somehow in the floating realities they inhabit. In the delightful "Grippes and Poche," with its Borgesian echoes, the writer Henri Grippes comes to realize that his imaginative lifeˇhis invention of charactersˇis dependent upon Poche, the civil servant cipher who investigates his tax returns over many years.

Gallant's characters get by as they can, sometimes jauntily, sometimes baring a desperation hardly tolerable. Stories like "The Latehomecomer," "The Moslem Wife," and even, in its small way, "In Transit" are utterly devastating, exposing, as they so exquisitely do, the agonies attendant not upon isolation but upon connection. Often, Gallant's acid humor makes bearable, even luminous, the most painful of situationsˇlike, for example, the endless dying of Alec Webbˇand occasionally that humor is given the upper hand, in stories that are pure delight, such as "From the Fifteenth District," a litany of complaints from ghosts who find themselves haunted by the living.

As she conjures these worlds, Gallant's crystalline prose, her lapidary details render their fixtures tangible, and they articulate, most subtly, their most ineffable depths. These aren't stories to read once; they are stories that demand rereading, and further reading, and which broaden and bloom with each encounter. This, surely, is the test of a writer of importance; and in thisˇŃin these storiesˇGallant stands as "testimony to. . . the purpose and meaning of a writer's life."

Claire Messud's last novel, The Hunters, was published by Harvest Books in 2002.

 
     
     
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