31 Days of Stories 2014, Day 3: “Varieties of Exile” by Mavis Gallant

May 3, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

From Montreal Stories

Montreal_Stories_Mavis_GallantAlthough she was born in Montreal, where she spent her formative years, Mavis Gallant fled the city for Paris at the age of twenty-eight to devote herself full time to fiction writing. She had worked for the Montreal Standard, at a time when a woman in the newsroom was a fabulously rare occurrance, but feared that she would become, in her words, “a journalist who wrote fiction along some margin of spare time.” She never returned. In his afterword to the New Canadian Library volume The Moslem Wife and Other Stories, Gallant’s longtime friend Mordecai Richler writes, “There is a story I cherish about Mavis. Once, I’m told, a naive young Canadian reporter asked her, ‘Why do you live in Paris?’ To which Mavis replied, ‘Have you ever been to Paris?'”

Despite her own self-imposed exile, she returned to her birthplace often in her fiction, and often in a baldly autobiographical mode. The suite of fictionalized autobiography featuring Linnet Muir, who serves as the narrator of “Varieties of Exile,” is gathered together in Home Truths: Selected Canadian Stories, a collection that won Gallant the 1981 Governor General’s Literary Award for English-language fiction. Varieties of Exile also serves as the U.S. title of Montreal Stories, edited by the great Russell Banks (for more about whom, keep watching this space), and published by New York Review Books. (The Canadian publisher is McClelland & Stewart.)

Set during “the third summer of the war,” Gallant’s story depicts a Montreal proliferating with refugees, who are “a source of infinite wonder” for nineteen-year-old Linnet. Eschewing what she refers to as “plain Canadians,” Linnet locates her cultural touchstones in “films, poems, novels, Lenin, Freud.” Her references are mostly European: she reads the novels of Stefan Zweig, refers to married women as “Red Queens” because they remind her of the character from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, and as a child plans to live for a time in each country in the world, beginning on a tropical island “because of the Swiss Family Robinson.” (The story is silent as to whether this refers to the John David Wyss novel or the 1940 Edward Ludwig film, though given Linnet’s general predisposition, one can infer the answer to this question.)

It is the foreigners populating Montreal that make the city bearable for Linnet. “They came straight out of the twilit Socialist-literary landscape of my reading and my desires,” she says. “I saw them as prophets of a promised social order that was to consist of justice, equality, art, personal relations, courage, generosity.” Absent the outsiders’ influence, the city appears drab and uninspired: “A refugee eating cornflakes was of no further interest.” If there were any doubt about the semi-autobiographical nature of Linnet vis à vis her creator, recall that Gallant caused quite a stir in her native country when, in 1946, she published an essay entitled “Why Are Canadians So Dull?” (a question, by the way, that still awaits an answer).

One of the expats Linnet becomes involved with is a British man she meets on the Montreal commuter train that ferries her to and from her dull office job each day. The man, Frank Cairns (note the telling surname), “belonged to a species of British immigrant known as remittance men,” youthful British males who had committed some offence to propriety – choosing the wrong profession, for example, or getting a woman pregnant out of wedlock, or, worst of all, being homosexual – and were paid off (or, in more polite parlance, offered a remittance) to leave the country and never return. Linnet’s view of remittance men is caustic and pitiless, verging on cruel, although probably wholly accurate for all that. She sees them as little more than overgrown children who have never had to work for anything, and thus would be incapable of making their way in the world absent the guaranteed income from back home.

Despite her jaundiced view of the English class system that allows remittance men to exist in the first place, Linnet falls into a kind of friendship with Frank Cairns: they begin meeting to exchange books, and he tells her about the trials of the British lower classes. “Frank Cairns was the first person ever to talk to me about the English poor,” Linnet says. “They seemed to be a race, different in kind from the other English.” Linnets’ socialist leanings render her empathetic to the British lower class – a different variety of exile – and endear Frank Carins to her. “His socialism did not fit anything else I knew about him,” she says. He “was something new, unique of his kind, and almost as good as a refugee.”

And yet Linnet’s relationship with Frank Carins is, in her own words, “riddled with ambiguity.” She is staunchly unimpressed by male bravado, and turns up her nose the first time she speaks to the British man, who offers her a book – The Wallet of Kai Lung – that “had been to Ceylon with him and had survived.” The “bait” in the reference to Ceylon – the implication that Frank Cairns is an adventurous man of the world who could impart much knowledge and experience to young Linnet – is ignored, and when she later accepts the loan of the book, she repeats, in a deadpan tone, the ironic line about it having been to Ceylon with him. Moreover, in conversation with Frank Cairns, Linnet gives vent to a previously untapped patriotism; she takes umbrage when he complains about receiving tepid coffee in a railway station café.

Linnet compares the evolution of her character throughout the story to “freaky weather”; her changeability is predicated, in large part, upon her status as a woman in a society heavily dominated by male power and standing. When she marries as a minor, she becomes “emancipated” from her parents, but her new husband becomes her guardian under Canadian law. “Varieties of Exile” is, at its heart, a feminist examination of the difficulties a single woman living in wartime Montreal faced in charting a path for herself based on her own dictates and desires. Women, the story implies, form another variety of exile, denied independence or agency by a society organized unquestioningly along a masculine-dominated hierarchical structure. “Another thing I won’t be,” Linnet vows near the story’s end, “and that’s the sensitive housewife – the one who listens to Brahms while she does the ironing and reads all the new books still in their jackets.”

As a woman, as a socialist non-conformer (she refuses to enlist in the army when she realizes the recruitment form specifies service “of the white race only”), and as a writer, Linnet embodies numerous varieties of exile. The story of her tangled relationship with Frank Cairns reveals Gallant at her most cutting: “Varieties of Exile” will do nothing to dissuade those readers who claim to be put off by the author’s viciousness. Despite this, it is also one of Gallant’s funniest stories, though the humour is dry and occasionally nasty. The final moments in the story find Linnet ruminating on a manuscript about a remittance man that she has burned, something that bothers her intensely. “All this business of putting life through a sieve and then discarding it was another variety of exile,” she thinks. It is a variety of exile her creator – an anglophone woman in Montreal, a Canadian immigrant to France, and a fiction writer to boot – understood completely.

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