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JANICE KULYK KEEFER Mavis Gallant and the Angel of History This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned towards the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress. (Walter Benjamin, 'Theses on the Philosophy of History')' ... what fiction is about - is that something is taking place and that nothing lasts. Against the sustained tick of a watch, fiction takes the measure of a life, a season, a look exchanged, the turning point, desire as brief as a dream, the grief and terror that after childhood we cease to express. The lie, the look, the grief are without permanence. The watch continues to tick where the story stops. (Mavis Gallant, 'What is Style?')' I This article sets out to argue that Benjamin's angel of history is Gallant's angel of fiction, and, accordingly, itwill attemptto define and analyse that 'historical sense' which, though it is perhaps the most significant feature of Gallant's fiction, has either been disregarded or only indolently mentioned by the bulk of Gallant's critics.3 The imaginative power and the sheer persistence of the historical in Gallant's oeuvre will be discussed as something which both sets Gallant firmly in the main current of contemporary literature and gives her a unique position among Canadian writers, who, by and large, make a deliberately domestic use of history and politics in their fiction. Finally, I will argue that without a conception of how history structures Gallant's vision of reality, her oeuvre can easily be misrepresented as a minor triumph of technique and style, or else censured for what would appear an obsessively grim and selective presentation of human experience. I have chosen Benjamin's allegory of the catastrophic storm of progress as a kind of iconographical trace for Gallant's fiction from The Pegnitz UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO QUARTERLY, VOLUME 55, NUMBER J, SPRING 1986 MAVIS GALLANT 283 Junction (1973) onwards. The fictive world she creates can be mapped between the poles of progress: historical time, with its blindly lurclling but relentlessly forward motion, and what we might call the angel's project of memory - the desire to stop and make whole what has been smashed. As for the project of Gallant's fiction, we might recall in this contextJoseph Conrad's depiction ofthe writer as compelled 'to snatch ... from the remorseless rush of time, a passing phase of life' so as to 'reveal the substances of the fragment's truth through showing its vibration, colour and form.'" Add to this Gallant's translation into temporal terms of Henry James's contention that, though the writer's task is to exhibit 'the related state ... of certain figures and things: his 'exquisite problem' is 'eternally but to draw, by a geometry of his own, the circle within which [these relations which 'universally ... stop nowhere'] shall happily appear to do SO:5 and the basic outline of Mavis Gallant's practice of fiction begins to emerge. Because critics like Robertson Davies and George Woodcock have presented Gallant as a white-gloved Queen of Fiction unacquainted with those sub-aesthetic thugs, politics and history,6 it might be well to begin by setting Gallant's historical sense in its appropriate context. Mavis Gallant's reticence about disclosing the facts of her own personal history stands in striking contrast to her outspokenness on political, social, and historical matters. The author of an incisive introductory essay on the affair of Gabrielle Russier - the lycee teacher who killed herself while serving a prison sentence 'imposed' for the repercussions of a love affair she had undertaken with one of her students - Gallant shows herself to be a master of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5278
Print ISSN
0042-0247
Pages
pp. 282-298
Launched on MUSE
2014-07-02
Open Access
No
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