Besner's book is the first critical study of the entire range of Mavis Gallant's fiction (up to Overhead in a Balloon, 1985), no small task on so prolific a writer. Gallant has published over a hundred stories, many of them in the New Yorker, two novels, as well as a play and a number of essays. Wisely, Besner includes enough biographical information to provide a foothold for the terrain to come: recurrent themes of displacement, the gap between her North American and European characters' perceptions, a general misapprehension of the past, memory's faulty logic—are all related to personal history, but for the most part Besner allows Gallant to make those connections herself in interviews. Gallant grew up in both Canada and New York, came of age as a reporter for Montreal's Standard Magazine in the mid-1940s, and moved to Europe, settling in Paris, a few years later. Although her range of characters and contexts is broad, spanning two continents, her stories often return to a "locked situation" in which "the past often threatens the present with the ironic revelation that time has faltered and stopped—that characters and cultures have been arrested in memory, frozen in history—that there is no direction home. . . ."
One of Besner's finest chapters deals with Gallant's favorite among her works, The Pegnitz Junction, or those "German stories," in which Gallant has said "she was trying to discover Fascism's . . . 'small possibilities in people.' " Characters find themselves isolated in time, unable to relate to either their pasts or futures, [End Page 654] dislocated in their very narrative. Besner explores Gallant's "polyphonic" narration as it separates characters from history, from culture, from human relationships, entrapping them in a kind of wasteland. "Recent history," Besner concludes, "has swamped individual experience. . . ." If a character tries to forget history, he is disinherited; should he remember, he is displaced.
If there are flaws here, they may result from relying too heavily on Gallant's own words. Jean, in "Its Image on the Mirror," demonstrates her "transformation from reporter into 'survivor' " (Gallant's term), but Besner is never really clear about what she survives except that "she understands that survivors must wake up to history, must return to the present tense. . . ." Occasionally, attempting to fit the story collections into a snugly evolving span of thematic growth, "key word" terminology can get out of control: "In My Heart is Broken, suppressed selves haunt individuals watching images in memory's mirrors; in The Pegnitz Junction, history's ghosts haunt a whole culture's image, and mirrors onto the past set off moments of conflagration which burn holes in the present tense." Nevertheless, The Light of Imagination is an excellent introduction to a writer whose reputation, deservedly, continues to grow.