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Mavis Gallant: Underrated Short Story Master Proves Herself Again

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Since none of the fiction lovers to whom I mention Mavis Gallant has more than the vaguest notion who she is -- this, despite her being singled out for many awards and honors over the years -- I'm impelled to state that not having read her work represents a sizable lapse in knowledge of the best twentieth-century writers. I say "twentieth century," even though Gallant is, at 87, still alive but to my knowledge has published nothing since sometime in the late 1990's, when a later short story appeared in The New Yorker.

The New Yorker may be the cause of Gallant's undeserved obscurity -- just as the venerable magazine is the cause of any celebrity she has. It's in The New Yorker where Gallant published the first of her pellucid short stories and it's at the New Yorker where for the most part she remained ever since, eventually placing -- I think this is correct -- one hundred nineteen pieces there.

Gallant appeared regularly in those narrow columns at a time when the term "New Yorker short story" entered the language -- and lingers marginally now. At the time, the four linked words slowly became a pejorative, connoting an underwhelming slice-of-life vignette concerned less with plot than with lapidary observations of everyday (read "bland") routine.

Admittedly, the definition wouldn't be inaccurate applied to Gallant's fiction, but it would only begin to describe output that rises to poetry in its detail and broadens into uncommon significance with its views of the disillusioning ways of the world. The stories are examples of the New Yorker short story at its zenith. (There are only two not particularly attention-getting Gallant novels, Green Water, Green Sky, A Fairly Good Time.)

Because I became a devout -- even obsessive -- New Yorker reader in 1958, I discovered the Montreal-born/Paris-based Gallant in what could be considered her glory years, years during which she eventually began writing about her autobiographical stand-in Linnet Muir. In no time, I became as devoted to her as I was to the magazine.

So much so that I hoped one day to do more than telephone her -- as Holden Caulfield aspired to do with authors he admired. I wanted to meet her. Not knowing what she looked like didn't keep me from thinking I'd pass her on a street in Paris one day and stop her. (I'd never seen a photograph or, if I had, I'd forgotten it.) This was a reader's pipe dream, until 1995 when I was asked to interview her for a weekly magazine covering the publishing industry.

We arranged to meet at her favorite Boulevard Montparnasse brasserie, Le Select, in the fourteenth arrondissement -- not far from her fifteenth arrondissement home. She was in her seventies, round-faced and round all over and wore her hair brushed over her ears like two small wings. We sat on the sidewalk facing Ernest Hemingway's preferred watering-hole, La Coupole.

Gallant favored Le Select for the clientele with which she'd become familiar over the years -- not the least of whom were a coterie of women who'd been in concentration camps during World War II and had colorful, though not necessarily dire, stories to tell of their captivity. Much of what she told me about her writing was straight-forward without being excessively revealing.

A fan more than an objective interviewer, I of course asked what she was working on. She was evasive but did say she was toiling over a book about Alfred Dreyfus. She didn't say she'd been at the project for some time already, though she had. I said I looked forward to it and still am, as she has yet to publish whatever she's written.

What has just been published, however -- the impetus for this fan's current notes -- is The Cost of Living: Early and Uncollected Stories. It's a New York Review of Books volume that caught me by surprise, since I figured The Collected Stories of Mavis Gallant (Random House, 1996) was definitive.

Maybe Gallant didn't want these rediscovered stories included in the 1996 tome because she thinks less of them. If so, you could've fooled me. Many of the twenty rank with her best atmospheric tales of figures wandering around Montreal, Paris or New York City. The all concern men, women and children "adrift," as a character says in the opening "Madeline's Birthday." An inordinate number of them live in hotels or other people's homes and are disturbed by a "lack of roots," as a character in "The Wedding Ring" sees herself.

My two favorites -- "Travellers Must Be Content" and "Acceptance of Their Ways," positioned in the center of the 338-page book -- are variations on the same taking-advantage-of-someone-else's-temporary-generosity theme. But, wait, all twenty are my favorites and will be anyone's who's wise enough to grab them.