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  • 2 / Established Fiction
  • Clint Burnham (bio)

Mavis Gallant's Going Ashore - a collection of out-of-print stories and minor satires from the New Yorker - is the proper occasion for hazarding a conception of what might be called the 'synoptic Gallant' (Jameson did the same for Raymond Chandler two decades ago). The synoptic Gallant lies somewhere between Ethel Wilson (overstuffed, suffocating stories of bitter daughters and brittle mothers), Katherine Mansfield (Continental pensions observed with an acerbic, and often cruel, eye), and, perhaps most surprisingly, Patricia Highsmith. Like Highsmith's stories, Gallant's are in Europe but not of Europe, concerned often with seedy American or British (or Canadian) travellers, staying a bit too long with unwelcoming hostesses who engage in sneer-fests that end up in mutual recriminations and, a day too late, what may or may not be apologies. The difference between Gallant's fictional world and Highsmith's is not one of quality but of what plot devices are resorted to - murder and its attendant subterfuges are not in Gallant's arsenal. But consider this throwaway line from 'Travellers Must Be Content': 'Like many spiteful, snobbish, fussy men, or a certain type of murderer, Wishart chose his friends among middle-aged solitary women.'

The story was first published in 1959 (the major stories in the collection range from 1952 to 1970) and also treads on two other (connected?) Highsmithian themes: homosexuality and misogyny. Thus a few lines down from the above, Gallant tells us, 'Often Wishart's friends took it for granted he was homosexual, which was all to the good. He was the chosen minstrel, the symbolic male, who would never cause "trouble."'

And then later, 'If he let his thoughts move without restraint into the world of women, he discovered an area dimly lighted and faintly disgusting, like a kitchen in a slum. It was a world of migraines, miscarriages, disorder, and tears.'

These are all, of course, versions of what Judith Butler calls 'gender trouble,' and other politics also make their way into Gallant's fiction, [End Page 140] although never without relying on stereotypes of liberal English Quebeckers, anti-Semitic Germans, or sexist Arabs. Thus in 'Bernadette' (1957), set in Montreal, we have the requisite sensitive Anglos, in this case named the Knights, and their pregnant housemaid, who returns books not just unread but without having cut the pages, preferring instead to take her afternoon off at a local movie-house. The close of this story is a hard nugget of dyspeptic cynicism:

Oddly secure in the dark, the dark of the cinema, the dark of her personal fear, she felt protected. She thought: Il prie pour moi. She saw, as plainly as if it had been laid in her arms, her child, her personal angel, white and swaddled, baptized, innocent, ready for death.

Gallant's endings aren't always so felicitous: 'The Picnic' (1952), the story of a peacetime Army officer organizing a public relations event in France, finishes with this heavy-handed irony: 'Reassured, the Major thrust his notes in his pocket and strode from the kitchen to the garden where, squaring his shoulders, he rallied his forces for the coming battle.'

More assured, and with a good ear for contemporary vernacular, is 'Madeline's Birthday' (1951), set in New England, and which ends thus: '"Now," she said, "will you please, for the last time, call Paul and Madeline, so that we can get breakfast over with and get this day under way?"'

Mavis Gallant has, like Alice Munro, had a great deal of accolade in this country and abroad, but for all our nation's supposed abilities with the short story, and indeed our nation's women writers, this talent is rarely recognized (or at least not often enough) in immigrant writers and writers of colour. But the recent re-release (and first Canadian printing) of Olive Senior's short story collection Arrival of the Snake-Woman will, it is hoped, herald the importance of this Caribbean-Canadian writer, whose work has for too long been ignored by the Canadian critical and academic establishment. Arrival of the Snake-Woman is an important collection, not simply for its aesthetic felicities, for how...


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pp. 140-151
Launched on MUSE
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