June 18th, 2009

Rose-coloured reviews *From the Fifteenth District* by Mavis Gallant

Back before I realized the advantages of reading anthologies (in case you don’t want to read the whole post, in brief: taking a chance on new authors who you haven’t heard of/didn’t know you’d like, hearing the chimes and discordancies between different writers, seeing vastly different takes on similar themes), I almost exclusively read single-author short story collections. In my naivete, I believed in doing this, I was seeing the stories the way the author wanted them. Of course a lot of the time the author is fine with the stories in half a dozen forms: in journals and anthologies and on the internet, later in a collected or selection, as well as that one slim book. Nevertheless, there is something to be said for appreciating a writer’s gift over a longer span, even their gift is for short pieces, arranged in the order they wanted. I had read two of the nine pieces in From the Fifteenth District elsewhere (where? probably anthologies, although I don’t really recall). I knew that I had loved “The Moslem Wife” and “The Latehomecomer”, and I loved them here in the collection, too, but I felt a different affection seeing them working in concert with their fellows. *Fifteenth* is a book about Europe in the middle 50 years of the last century, about nationalism and nationality, very often about war, the indignities of being a woman, or a Jew, or a child, or simply alive.

These themes sound terribly heavy and imposing, but in fact such is Gallant’s subtly that you sometimes only realize two stories on what other layers were going on while you read blithely away. “The Moslem Wife” is a story about Netta’s devotion to Jack, their marriage and its tensions, and what happened after that, when the war came to their part of France. That romance and the intervention of history absorbed me entirely on first reading, and mainly on second, but I did notice that Netta and Jack were both Brits working and living in the south of France, not quite of the place but hardly of England, either. I noticed this because I had just read “The Four Seasons”, the first story in the book, about a young girl who goes to work for an American family living it Italy. The girl is Italian, but from another part so she doesn’t understand the local dialect, nor the English of her employers. Gradually she learns the latter, but remains so aloof from them she denies that she understands a word they say to her. Just as “Poor Netta, who saw herself as profoundly English, spread consternation by being suddenly foreign…”

The characters in these stories are French in Holland, Germans in France, Americans in Italy and Bulgarians in Scotland. They are the diaspora and the left behind. Is that the theme of this book, then–dispersal, foreignness, home and lack-of-home? Maybe…as usual, what I like best is stories that are examples and examinations of how people are, and I think *Fifteenth* is such a collection, under slightly narrower terms. How people are out of context, under duress, without the confidence-making banality of being like everyone else.

One of Gallant’s considerable achievements is that these stories are not only as tough and intense and wrenching as life is, they are also as funny, as ironic, as sardonic (although, I must say, rarely as silly–one thing Gallant doesn’t bother much with is lightness). One of the back-cover blurbs made me flinch as I read it on the bus (you mean you don’t read all that stuff? don’t you know how the intern slaved over it?): “Gallant’s fiction is so finely observed and so forbearing in the face of the shortcomings we ascribe to human nature that the reader might easily come away with the impression that these stories are narrated by God.” That’s from Mirabella, a now-defunct “women’s magazine” that one would not necessarily zoom to for serious literary reviews. This seemed at first a giddy overstatement.

But when I got back into the stories, the comment actually started to make good sense to me. Because what Gallant is very very good at is omniscient narrators, which even university professors do describe as “the God POV.” Her narrators speak with the gentle, slightly distanced affection of a parent listening to a child describe a nightmare. She writes with a long view of history (as I say, the stories are mainly about the time before and after WWII, and the book was published in 1979, when much had been discovered about small and large culpabilities and heroism in Europe). There is always that awareness in her writing of how minor human foibles link up with global concerns…and how that’s ok.

Forbearing is exactly right for the tone in the line about Netta above, I think–the narrator genuinely pities her, while eliding none of her pretension and “gas”. In some of the stories, a character gets to take on this long, quiet, accepting view. My favourite in the collection is “Baum, Gabriel, 1935-( )”, the story of an actor living in Paris who is the only surviving member of a family destroyed by the Holocaust. No, it isn’t light, but nor is it a bludgeon. I have a hard time reading about the Holocaust, and I often find writers can’t get beyond descriptions of intense physical and emotional suffering…nor should they, I guess…it’s important. Gallant, however, finds much else to unfold in Gabriel’s loneliness, his disconnection from the world around him, his faint bewilderment by it. I think this account of the main character’s reading of the newspaper is very funny, and yet, it is designed to do much more than amuse:

“Some journalists tried to interest Gabriel in Brittany, where there was an artichoke glut; others hinted that the new ecumenicity beginning to seep out of Rome was really an attack on French institutions. Gabriel doubted this. Looking for news about his pension, he learned about the Western European consumer society and the moral wounds that were being inflicted on France through full employment. Between jobs, he read articles about people who said they had been made unhappy by paper napkins and washing machines.”

Is this satire on the news? Only the most gentle sort; Gabriel lacks the energy or inclination to mock. He is beyond it, and while *that* is his tragedy, it is also his strength, what allows him to survive these and greater ironies of life going on and lunch getting eating after one of the greatest cruelties of modern history.

These are small stories, and Gallant leaves you free to read them that way; each piece is self-contained in it’s detail and emotion, but the more history and feeling you bring to the pieces (and she supplies it small ways, too), the bigger they get. This is a writer who has found a way to keep her gaze firmly on individuals in all their simple sadness, and yet let that reflect all the wild complexity of the worlds they inhabit.

I wonder where you are / curious

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