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.

Remembering Mavis Gallant

February 19, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

Mavis_GallantMavis Gallant taught me to be suspicious of adverbs. This was almost two decades ago at the International Festival of Authors in Toronto. Gallant was being interviewed by her longtime friend Mordecai Richler, and it seems to me the two must have had some kind of falling out just before walking on stage, because Gallant appeared brusque during the interview and Richler, as I recall, seemed uncharacteristically flustered. I don’t remember many details of the onstage discussion, but I do remember her counselling against the overuse of adverbs in writing. At the time, I was in my twenties, unpublished, and hopelessly naive.

Approaching Gallant in the signing line after the interview, I was terrified: if this woman could intimidate Mordecai Richler, imagine what she could do to the likes of me. Still, I screwed my courage to the sticking post, as the Bard says, and introduced myself. For want of anything more profound, I asked the famous New Yorker story writer why she thought adverbs should be avoided. “They weaken prose,” was her reply. She didn’t elaborate; she didn’t have to. Close to twenty years later, I still consider this among the most practical advice ever given me as a writer. Also among the most generous.

The inscription in my copy of the New Canadian Library edition of The Moselm Wife and Other Stories includes the date and place of this exchange: “Toronto, 27 October 96.” Although Gallant left Canada for Europe in 1950, and spent most of her adult life in Paris, a significant proportion of her fiction is set in her native country. A central cleavage in her writing is that between Europe and North America; if Munro is our Chekhov, Gallant has a strong claim to being our Henry James.

This is also apparent in the psychological acuity of her writing: Gallant pierces to the very centre of her characters with a precision that is almost eerie, and often unsettling. Gallant has been accused of being a cold writer, but I don’t think this is the case. She was, without question, ironic, and almost aggressively unsentimental, but her stories display great understanding of, and empathy for, the human condition.

Nor are they devoid of humour, as many careless readers have charged. Gallant’s wit was dry, and could be cutting, but it was always present. The author is quoted in The New York Times as saying, “I can’t imagine writing anything that doesn’t have humour. Look at the fits of laughter that you get at a funeral, at a wake. It’s emotion, and in a way it’s relief that you’re alive.”

Gallant died yesterday in Paris, at the age of 91. (Richler was fond of quoting an exchange between Gallant and an interviewer who inquired as to why the Canadian-born writer chose to live in Paris. “Have you ever been to Paris?” was Gallant’s caustic response.) Ellen Seligman, publisher of McClelland & Stewart, referred to Gallant as “a writer of great courage and accomplishment.” Alice Munro cited her as “a constant influence.” Margaret Atwood said she was “funny, quirky, and prickly if you crossed her, but kind underneath it, especially to underdogs.” Michael Ondaatje, who edited a collection of Gallant’s Paris stories, called her simply, “my hero.”

Addressing Gallant’s work in the literary journal Brick, author Russell Banks takes umbrage with those who would categorize her as a “writer’s writer”: “For what is a writer’s writer, anyhow? Merely one who honours in every sentence she writes the deepest, most time-honoured principles of composition: honesty, clarity, and concision. So, yes, in that sense she is a writer’s writer. But only in that sense.”

In the afterword to The Moslem Wife and Other Stories, Richler calls Gallant “a first-rate storyteller” who “never ran with the CanLit hounds.” Perhaps her self-imposed exile (a word Gallant herself hated) accounts for why she was not immediately accepted in her country of birth; even today, despite winning a Governor General’s Literary Award for Home Truths (1981), she is not as widely read as she should be. When Lisa Moore defended Gallant’s collection From the Fifteenth District on the CBC’s Canada Reads in 2008, her fellow panellists complained that they were unable to connect with the book, apparently assuming this to be the fault of the writing and not a limitation on the part of the reader.

I side with Moore and Banks and Atwood and Munro and Ondaatje in thinking that Gallant was not just one of the best short-story writers of her time, but one of the best writers, full stop. She was a consummate artist who remained true to herself and her vision, in the process helping to define an entire literary genre for future generations. And she taught me to be wary of adverbs, advice I still try mightily to heed. Sometimes I fail, but I trust that, wherever she is now, Gallant will find it in her heart to forgive me.

***

The conviction that she was married against her will never leaves her. If she had been born royal it could not have been worse. She has led the life of a crown princess, sapped by boredom and pregnancies. She told each of her five daughters as they grew up that they were conceived in horror; that she could have left them in their hospital cots and not looked back, so sickened was she by their limp spines and the autumn smell of their hair, by their froglike movements and their animal wails. She liked them when they could reason, and talk, and answer back – when they became what she calls “people.”

She makes the girls laugh. She is French-Canadian, whether she likes it or not. They see at the heart of her a sacrificial mother, her education has removed her in degree only from the ignorant, tiresome, moralizing mother, given to mysterious female surgery, subjugated by miracles, a source of infinite love. They have heard her saying, “Why did I get married? Why did I have all these large dull children?” They have heard, “If any of my children had been brilliant or unusual, it would have justified my decision. Yes, they might have been narrow and warped in French, but oh how commonplace they became in English!” “We are considered traitors and renegades,” she says. “And I can’t point to even one of my children and say, ‘yes, but it was worth it – look at Pauline – or Lucia – or Gérard.'” The girls ought to be wounded at this, but in fact they are impermeable. They laugh and call it “Mother putting on an act.” Her passionate ambition for them is her own affair. They have chosen exactly the life she tried to renounce for them; they married young, they are frequently pregnant, and sometimes bored.

– “Saturday” by Mavis Gallant

31 Days of Stories 2010, Day 19: “The Latehomecomer” by Mavis Gallant

May 19, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

From From the Fifteenth District

“I know what you are thinking,” said my mother, who was standing behind me. “I know that you are judging me. If you could guess what my life has been – the whole story, not only the last few years – you wouldn’t be hard on me.”

Mavis Gallant has been accused of being hard on her characters: she has an austere yet merciless eye that is able to cut through hypocrisy and pretension with the ease of a scalpel through flesh. It is this tendency, perhaps, that has resulted in her being less read than she deserves to be; her near-contemporary, Alice Munro, is more beloved, largely because Munro is more compassionate in her writing. Gallant, by contrast, can be vicious and unsparing. But she is never less than completely honest, which may be another attribute that renders modern readers uncomfortable.

“The Latehomecomer” is about a German POW in France who returns home to Berlin in 1950 to discover that his mother has remarried. The young man, Thomas, endures an uncomfortable interview with Martin, his new stepfather, and Martin’s friend, Willy Wehler, all the while trying to recapture the idea of his mother that he held in his mind prior to his return home.

As with most of Gallant’s stories, the dominant tone of “The Latehomecomer” is one of acerbic irony. Thomas, who has spent five postwar years in Rennes as the result of a bureaucratic error, realizes that he represents something that his fellow country folk would rather not be reminded of: “my appearance, my survival, my bleeding gums and loose teeth; my chronic dysentery and anemia, my craving for sweets, my reticence with strangers, the cast-off rags I had worn on arrival, all said ‘war’ when everyone wanted peace, ‘captivity’ when the word was ‘freedom,’ and ‘dry bread’ when everyone was thinking ‘jam and butter.'” Everywhere, Germany’s inhabitants console themselves with wishful thinking about what occurred during the reign of the Nazi regime:

[Martin] had inherited two furnished apartments in a town close to an American military base. One of the two had been empty for years. The occupants had moved away, no one knew where – perhaps to Sweden. After their departure, which had taken place at five o’clock on a winter morning in 1943, the front door had been sealed with a government stamp depicting a swastika and an eagle. The vanished tenants must have died, perhaps in Sweden, and now no local person would live in the place, because a whole family of ghosts rattled about, opening and shutting drawers, banging on pipes, moving chairs and ladders.

There could be only one reason why the family would abandon their home at five o’clock on a winter morning, and while it’s undoubtedly more comfortable to think that they made it to Sweden – even that they died there – this is surely a consoling fiction. Like many of Gallant’s most corrosive ironies, she refuses to spell this out, instead allowing the reader to reach the awful conclusion for herself.

The spectre of the war haunts the story in other ways. Thomas’s father was stabbed to death while tearing down an election poster from the wall of a schoolhouse; his stepfather Martin is an older man who lost an arm while working as a tram conductor and so (presumably) sat out the war. He is prone to making jokes about wartime, claiming that a faded rectangle on the wall of his house represents the spot where the previous tenants removed Hitler’s picture when “they left in a hurry without paying the rent.” An ex-Waffen-S.S. soldier from Belgium haunts the neighbourhood, complaining that the local women won’t go out with him and that no one has thanked him for his contribution to the war effort. When Willy tells Martin that the Belgian fought on Germany’s side in the war, Martin’s response is, “He did? No wonder we lost.”

Here we see glimmers of Gallant’s mordant humour, a strain of which runs throughout “The Latehomecomer.” Most frequently, this humour attaches itself to Willy Wehler, who Thomas describes as “a stout man with three locks of slick grey hair across his skull.” He goes on to say, “All the fat men of comic stories and of literature were to be Willy Wehler to me, in the future.” When he visits, Willy is wearing a nylon shirt, which in the years following the war was considered a luxury item. “That Willy!” Martin says to Thomas, “Out of a black uniform and into the black market before you could say ‘democracy.'” About this observation, Thomas says that he “never knew whether it was a common Berlin joke or something Martin had made up or the truth about Willy.”

The entirety of Gallant’s story is about the residue that is left over after a war, and the changes that a catastrophic conflict can wreak on individuals and communities. The word “latehomecomer” refers to “a new category of persons” that Martin lumps together with the “shiftless and illiterate refugees from the Soviet zone, or bombed-out families still huddled in barracks” – categories of people who might cause him to lose his postwar inheritance should the state decide to increase taxes in order to house and feed them.  Thomas’s Uncle Gerhard has been “officially de-Nazified by a court of law” and now lives “in two rooms carved out of a ruin, raising rabbits for a living and hoping that no one would notice him.” For his part, Thomas, who was taken prisoner when he was only 16, returns home at 21 to find that his own mother fails to recognize him at the train station. Willy tells Thomas a story about a topaz brooch he bought from his neighbours during the war – a story his mother tells Thomas not to repeat because the Nazis had made it illegal to purchase anything from Jews.

No one in Gallant’s story is unaffected by the conflict, and Thomas does not return home to a cozy reunion with his mother and his absent brother. Rather, he finds his mother remarried and a strange surname engraved on the plaque attached to the house where she is living. Thomas has a recollection of his mother nursing a baby and another woman telling her, “Give some to Thomas.” While he suggests that the idea of him drinking from his mother’s breast “must have been a dream,” he is clearly desperate to return to a kind of childlike existence, something that is no longer possible. In the end, he is left wishing he “was a few hours younger” and still on the train that would deliver him back home, a point at which he still held “the one beloved face” of his prewar mother in his mind.

Are there any world-class CanLit writers?

June 12, 2009 by · 13 Comments 

There’s a bit of a contretemps going on over at Quillblog (which seems these days to be where I’m getting all my material) about an interview that Nigel Beale did with John Metcalf, in which Metcalf defends the utility of negative reviews, even those that resort to invective and insult to make their points. I’ll let that debate simmer away over at Quill; what most interests me in the Beale/Metcalf interview comes later on, when Metcalf turns his attention to the Canadian canon and asks whether Canada can be said to have produced a world-class writer. In Metcalf’s view, this country has produced only one work worthy of being set alongside the best writing from England and the United States: Mordecai Richler’s St. Urbain’s Horseman. Beyond that single novel, Metcalf claims, anyone looking for important literary writing must look outside our home and native land:

Anybody with any literary sense whatsoever knows that a really important book of literary fiction comes maybe once every ten years, out of England or the United States and not here, because we don’t have an audience hard enough to exact one.

[ … ]

The Canadian critic’s duty is to be vitally aware of what is happening in England and what is happening in the United States and to compare Canadian output with the best from those two countries. Of course, when you do that, the result is painful. I mean, we’re not even on the same planet.

Metcalf’s detractors will put this down to simply more colonial bitterness from an inveterate curmudgeon and complainer, but this knee-jerk response gives his argument short shrift. One presumes that Metcalf is confining his attention to literature written in English, which is why he singles out Britain and the United States (and not, say, Latin America) as the twin hubs of significant literary output. Were Metcalf to look past Canadian literature written in English, he might be surprised at the wealth of talent coming out of Quebec, even that small percentage that has appeared in translation. (It wouldn’t be hard, for example, to make a case for Marie-Claire Blais’s stature as a world-class author.) And there is a sense that Metcalf is engaging in a bit of hyperbole to make his point: even he admits that Alice Munro and Mavis Gallant are important Canadian writers.

Still, his basic contention is worth considering: if one were to build a literary canon of significant books from the past 50 years or so, how many works of Canadian literature would fit comfortably on it? I would suggest, for example, that Cat’s Eye and The Robber Bride – arguably Margaret Atwood’s two best novels – are important works in the annals of Canadian writing, but would their lustre not be the least bit diminished were they to be placed alongside the best of Philip Roth (Sabbath’s Theater, American Pastoral)? Or Don DeLillo (White Noise, Underworld)? Or Jeanette Winterson (The Passion, Written on the Body)? In such august company, would Atwood’s novels not come off looking just the slightest bit parochial and twee?

It’s been pointed out that in the chronology of world literatures, Canada’s is a relatively young one. We may indeed now be entering the period of literary development that the States found itself in at the mid-20th century. Still, by that point American literature had produced Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway, not to mention Flannery O’Connor, Willa Cather, Nathanael West, James Baldwin, Katherine Anne Porter, Eudora Welty, Saul Bellow, and Carson McCullers. Where are the Canadian writers to compare with these canonical names? Where in Canada are we to find such technically audacious, philosophically inquisitive, or cosmopolitan writers as José Saramago, Julio Cortàzar, Vladimir Nabokov, A.S. Byatt, Iris Murdoch, Roberto Bolaño, Michel Houellebecq, Alasdair Gray?

In his essay “Confessions of a Book Columnist,” Philip Marchand wrote, “Not even the most fervent partisans of Canadian literature will say that Canadians have done fundamentally new things with the novel form, or changed the way we read in the manner, say, of a Joyce, a Kafka, a Nabokov, or a Garcia Marquez.” Perhaps this partially explains the experience of a colleague of mine on a trip to France. Speaking about her work in the field of CanLit, she was questioned about important Canadian writers. Atwood’s name drew blank stares. The people she was speaking to had some vague notion of who Michael Ondaatje is, but that was about it. If being world class means being recognized abroad, this anecdotal experience suggests that we’re not doing terribly well.

Metcalf thinks this is because we don’t have a culture of tough criticism, and I for one would be hard pressed to disagree. The culture of boosterism and cheerleading to which we have consigned ourselves precludes us developing “an audience hard enough to exact” a literature that is able to compete with the best of what’s being produced internationally. Even Canadian writers feel this: ask anyone working in the trenches of CanLit about what’s exciting them in literature these days, and they’re more likely to name Joseph O’Neill than Anne Michaels. This is a shame. Where are Canada’s answers to Bolaño and Saramago, to Ali Smith and Haruki Murakami? They don’t exist – yet. But it is only by holding ourselves to the highest literary standards that we may hope to rectify this situation. We need to develop the “hard” audience that Metcalf advocates. We should not hesitate to judge Canadian writing against the best of what is being produced internationally, nor should we hesitate to point out those instances in which our writing comes up wanting.