MAVIS GALLANT. The name has a romantic ring to it, suggesting a pretty girl, sunlight on English countryside and happy endings, possibly during the Battle of Britain. But no modern writer casts a colder eye on life, on death and all the angst and eccentricity in between. A Canadian, Mrs. Gallant has lived in France since World War II. There she produces her lapidary long stories and an occasional dazzling short novel, usually set in Europe. Her work appears regularly in The New Yorker. Canada seems about to give her the Governor General's Literary Award. But she is not well known in the U.S., or as celebrated as one of the prose masters of the age ought to be.
One reason for lack of popularity may be that, as in the stories collected here, Gallant rarely leaves helpful signs and messages that readers tend to expect of "literature": This way to the Meaning or This story is about the Folly of Love. She can sum up the postwar history of a social class in a paragraph. She can effortlessly keep three levels of memory working in a seamless narrative. But in the end the stories are simply there—haunting, enigmatic, printed with images as sharp and durable as the edge of a new coin, relentlessly specific. "God protect us from generalizations," said Chekhov, the writer whose work Gallant's most resembles. "There are a great many opinions in this world, and a good half of them are professed by people who have never been in trouble."
Gallant's characters have been in trouble. They are exiles and émigrés, always from the provinces of the heart, often from some place in Europe tossed by convulsions of war or politics. One story follows the sad, late return (1950) to Berlin of a German prisoner of war in France. Another recounts the trials of an Italian servant girl on the Riviera, working for a neurotic English couple just before Mussolini declared war on France.
The Moslem Wife is the life story of a woman hotel owner who survives the Occupation and then is importuned by her charming husband, who turns up after running off to America with another woman during the war. "Memory is what ought to prevent you from buying a dog after the first dog dies," she reflects. "It should at least keep you from saying yes twice to the same person." But she takes him back.
Critics have blamed Gallant for not judging more, for not smiling on the good, or frowning on the bad more overtly. In truth, she mostly keeps her feelings protectively compressed behind an almost Conradian irony. Children, servants, old people draw her affection, partly because they are in a better position than the strong or successful to understand the real condition of life: that it is vulnerable to mysterious sudden changes, controlled by powers that the subject does not understand. Imaginative arrangements must be made, all of them temporary. "Gabriel at that time," Gallant writes about a young refugee in France, "still imagined that everyone's life must be about the same, something like a half-worked crossword puzzle."
Readers in search of heavier freight might try the small masterpiece Potter. It is a love story between Piotr, a Polish academic, and Laurie, a feckless "chearfull" (her spelling) Canadian girl. She calls him "Potter" and for a while provides all the joy and invulnerability that his East European soul needs. "The problem with Polish women, as Piotr saw it, was that they had always just been or were just about to be deserted by their men. At the first rumor of rejection. . . they gave way at once, stopped combing their hair, stopped making their beds. They lay like starfish, smoking in the strewn, scattered way of the downhearted." Laurie is buoyant, immaculate. And then, sadly, Piotr learns that her New World promise is mainly a cosmetic pose. It has already been tainted by despair, exhaustion and a touch of commerce.