- Reading Mavis Gallant
To read Mavis Gallant is to read a terrain landscaped by memory, that malleable substance that is, as Janice Kulyk Keefer ably demonstrates, "at the mercy of desire." Duplicitious, chaotic, exploitative, memory is often linked to a devastatingly uprooted or betrayed childhood or to a kind of endlessly shifting impermanence that is, one senses, perhaps an adult version of the same thing. For this reason, among a host of others, reading Mavis Gallant can be a satisfying if not always a thoroughly pleasant experience. Even this satisfaction Keefer qualifies: what is shifting and undirected in small doses can become an almost oppressively relentless catalogue of deflated ideals and illusions if ingested en masse. What holds the reader's attention, Keefer speculates, is the tension between Gallant's spectacular use of language and her insistence on the "limitations that dominate human experience."
All this would be enough to find reading Mavis Gallant a challenge, but Keefer saves these weighty tangles until she addresses other reader reservations in approaching Gallant's fiction. Is she, for example, purely a New Yorker writer who has made good on the broader scale? This argument is used most pointedly by critics who assert that Gallant's limitations are of the unsatisfactorily intelligent kind, too oblique, too arty, too insufficient to provide, for lack of a better word, warmth. Keefer herself finds much of Gallant's work "chilly" but rightly asserts that arguments of the New Yorker variety perhaps fail Gallant for not emphasizing those nurturing "feminine" qualities deemed promising in a woman writer's work. The chill factor, as Keefer demonstrates, is induced both by characters who remain trapped in hopeless situations and by Gallant's ironic and detached tone, by her refusal to pronounce judgment. Although this appearance of impersonality has its share of admirers, Keefer points out that many critics condemn it as "emotional anesthesia." That Gallant's prose writing possesses much of the warmth missing in her fiction is one of Keefer's interesting asides.
After taking on the inevitable Gallant "literary life," a necessity when dealing with a bilingual author from Canada who expatriated to Paris forty years ago when she was in her twenties and has been writing about a variety of international [End Page 257] characters ever since, Keefer intelligently structures her analysis to offer a patient, careful approach to Gallant's work. She devotes one chapter to the difficulties critics and other readers have in reading Gallant and one to Gallant's "narrative voice and structure," where she situates the author by her ability to render her readers passive. Gallant's ferociously accurate language is discussed here: ". . . Gallant exerts a commanding authority over the reader; one cannot dispute the summations of her narrators without suspecting oneself to be as self-deceived, as enmeshed in confused desire, as her characters are." Keefer argues that Gallant's language is so powerful as to "play a central role in the very structuring of the stories themselves."
Finally, Keefer is ready for themes and deals them up on a scale from the tremendous vulnerability of childhood to the dissection of massive social failure, as in Gallant's forthcoming work on Dreyfus. Fascinating, but too involved to discuss here, are intermediate chapters on Gallant's intriguing (but hardly feminist) roles of women and her use of memory in translating history into fictions. Each chapter has its own notes and bibliography, each is intelligently and persuasively argued, and each incorporates discussions of Gallant's prose and dramatic work where relevant. Finally, it should be mentioned that Keefer writes with penetrating clarity; it is no surprise in one who reads Gallant so well.