Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Book Review #10: The Selected Stories of Mavis Gallant

(In my opinion, Mavis Gallant is the best Canadian short story writer, and one of the best in English. Personally, I think she's even better than Alice Munro. Perhaps it's the settings: I just enjoy reading about Paris and France more than small-town Ontario. Go figure.)

For almost fifty years, Mavis Gallant, a Canadian but a longtime resident of Paris, has been writing some of the most intelligent, captivating short stories in the English language. A regular contributor to The New Yorker, she has won numerous prizes in Canada and elsewhere.

The fifty-two stories in this collection cover the period from the fifties to the nineties and range in length from three to fifty-seven pages. They show Gallant at her best. She writes with a precision that is astonishing. Because she writes stories that are almost geological in their density, the longer ones feel to the reader like novels. In “Speck’s Idea”, she packs four distinct actions into one sentence: “A minute after having pushed the gate and tugged the rusted wire bellpull, he found himself alone in a bleak sitting room, from which his hostess had been called by a whistling kettle.”

Gallant’s venue is Europe, that bent old man of profound culture and deep, troubling memories, that half-continent “with its pettiness and faded cruelty, its crabbed richness and sentimentality”. The majority of her stories are set in France (especially Paris), though they can range from the shores of the Baltic to the beaches of the Mediterranean.

She molds unforgettable characters of every age, and pictures them with marvelous insight. A reader suspects that Gallant truly loves her characters and her acutely-observed city of Paris. Mavis Gallant tells stories that are completely natural in their structure, refreshing in their light-handed wit and ennobling in their humanity.

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