March 11th, 2011

Canada Reads Independently: Home Truths by Mavis Gallant

I really admire Kerry Clare‘s Canada Reads Independently program, and this year I’ve read two out of the five books, which is actually pretty good for me. All the books on the list look fascinating, and I’ll probably try to track’em down eventually, but for now, I did the story collections. The other collection in the running, Lynn Coady’s *Play the Monster Blind* was fast and furious, while Gallant’s collection was huge and a bit slower moving, but I adored it too.

As Kerry mentions in her review the stories aren’t ideally presented in book form here. I agreed, the book was too long and overcrowded, but the way I got round that to read really slowly (according to my diary, it took nearly 2 weeks), in and around other things, so the stories stood in my head a bit more as *stories* and not bits of a book.

It’s funny how much I like this book considering how antithetical Gallant’s style is to the things I usually admire–there’s very little dialogue, even very little scene. In the Linnet Muir stories, the final section of the book and some ways its crowning glories, there are massive paragraphs, mainly written in the past imperfect–the general sense of the things were happening, could and would happen, during a certain period or in certain circumstances. She slides from the habitual to the individual in such stealthy increments you barely know she’s doing it. Sometimes it feels like a story is just a random collection of notes and memories, but you get to the end and the weight on your brain is, in fact, story-like. How does she do that?

The bit about the notes and memories applies only to the Linnet Muir materials–the other stories feel highly organized, though always organically so. My favourites are the long, fleshy ones about Canada folks meandering through Europe, trying to…what? They are lost souls, mainly, drowning in provincialism and the false confidence that their new-world births divorce them from history. Well, doesn’t that sound lofty! In truth, sometimes the Canadian/European dicotomy is laid on a bit thickly, but for the most part it’s shockingly subtle–the characters are so much themselves, you don’t wind up thinking that they are also part of a larger category…until the characters themselves think of that!

Mavis Gallant’s fabled parallel to Alice Munro is often described in differences–urban versus rural, Canadian versus global, etc. I think the big difference for me is that Gallant writes with a bit more distance from her characters. This is not to say that Munro is kinder, or doesn’t subtly judge her characters, but she stands inside their brains, it seems, and follows the machinations of even their worst impulses. Gallant leaves a certain privacy to the folks in her stories, the room for a grim or silly failure that adults are allowed.

Her best stories are, I think, third person narratives about these grim and silly folks and their failures where we know the general schema of their hears, but perhaps not their inner workings. An old favourite of mine, which I once wrote a grad-school paper on and have read now half a dozen times, is “The Ice Wagon Coming Down the Street.” Here is a quotation to show a little of how it works. This is a long passage, but Gallant’s genius is a slow-burning kind:

At the wedding reception Peter lay down on the floor and said he was dead. He held a white azalea in a brass pot on his chest, and sang, “Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee for those in peril on the sea.” Sheilah bent over him and said, “Pete, darling, get up. Pete, listen, every single person who can do something for you is in this room. If you love me, you’ll get up.”

“I do love you,” he said, ready to engage in a serious conversation. “She’s so beautiful,” he told a second face. “She’s nearly as tall as I am. She was a model in London. I met her over in London in the war. I met her there in the war.” He lay on his back with the azalea on his chest, explaining their history. A waiter took the brass pot away, and after Peter had been hauled to his feed he knocked the waiter down. Trudeau’s bride, who was freshly out of an Ursuline convent, became hysterical…

We don’t find out exactly why Peter wanted to lie on the floor and say he was dead; we can surmise he was drunk and wanting attention, but that is our surmise and not Gallant’s. She probably does in fact *know* though; Peter might not. We also never find out what Peter did in London during the war, other than fall in love.

What I mean is, Gallant is smarter than some of her characters, and she often makes gentle fun of them, especially those with intellectual pretensions. Sociology comes in for a particularly hard go, and though I must protest as one born into the House of Sociology, I also laughed at the jokes. On Sarah’s relationship with her father in “In the Tunnel”: “Between eighteen and twenty, Sarah kept meaning to become a psychosociologist. Life would then be a tribal village through which she would stalk soft-footed and disguised: That would show him who was subjective.” And Lottie, a sociology student on the loose, of a countryman encountered in Paris in “Virus X”: “…he began bemoaning his own Canadian problems of national identity, which Lottie thought a sign of weakness in a man. Moreover, she learned nothing new. What he was telling her was part of Dr. Keller’s course in Winnipeg Culture Patterns.”

Ha! I find Mavis Gallant’s stories very very funny (despite my House of Sociology resentment), and often unspeakably sad. The sadness is that people are often less than they could be, weak or blinkered or selfish or some combination thereof. And there’s little fatalism, I feel–choices are made, often bad ones. And yet the humour is there, though it  can be hard to find if you’re not on her wavelength, and maybe that’s one reason the length of this collection can be an advantage–it gives you time to get into the Gallantian mindset. I certainly enjoyed spending 2 weeks with her.

One Response to “Canada Reads Independently: Home Truths by Mavis Gallant”

  • Kerry says:

    And I really appreciated the review. In particular, this articulation: “Sometimes it feels like a story is just a random collection of notes and memories, but you get to the end and the weight on your brain is, in fact, story-like. How does she do that?”

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