The Way Vivid, Way Underappreciated Short Stories of Mavis Gallant

Author Peter Orner pays tribute to of one of the past century's great character builders.
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Doug McLean

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature.

In 1952, a Canadian woman faced starvation in Madrid. This was Mavis Gallant, then 29 years old, who had just sold her first stories to The New Yorker's legendary fiction editor, William Maxwell. But the check, the only income she could count on, never came. Over a long period of destitution, she sold personal possessions to survive—a skirt, a winter coat, her clock, her typewriter (she could write by hand), even a beloved heirloom: "Parted with Granny's ring," she wrote, "...and spent every pesata of it on food. Felt I had not eaten a good meal in days and days."

Journal entries from this period—excerpted recently in The New Yorker, part of a broader collection to published by Knopf in 2014—show the writer's fierce dedication to her work. She would rather go desperately hungry than sacrifice daily engagement with her characters—"I have arranged matters so that I would be free to write," she said, later in life. "It's what I like doing." Now 90, this determination has paid off:Gallant is one of the most prolific living writers of elite-level short stories.

Yet with champions like Jhumpa Lahiri, John Updike, and Michael Ondaatje, Gallant is still not a household name. Her form of narrative, Lahiri has written, "refuses to sit still": Readers must pay close attention to catch subtle shifts in inflection, point of view, and time. This can be a challenge, but for Peter Orner, author of novels Love and Shame and Love and The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo, it's a favorite kind of reading. We talked about Gallant's enduring appeal for him—that she requires our best, but in the bargain she grants access to eerily lifelike characters.

Peter Orner's collection, Esther Stories, was published in a new edition this April with a foreward by Marilynne Robinson; it includes "The Raft," selected for Best American Short Stories 2001. August will bring us Orner's long-awaited second collection: In a starred review, Publishers Weekly says Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge (Little, Brown) "fires jewel-toned shards of fiction [that compose] a stunning whole." He is editor of two books for McSweeney's "Voice of Witness" series—Hope Deferred: Narratives of Zimbabwean Lives and Underground America: Narratives of Undocumented Lives, a collection of true stories about undocumented workers in America. He spoke to me by phone from California, where he teaches writing at San Francisco State University.


Peter Orner: I don't think I found Mavis Gallant through anybody—one day I just picked up My Heart Is Broken, somehow, on my own. It had a girl on the cover, that much I remember. The first story I read is called "The Ice Wagon Going Down the Street." It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that it changed my reading life forever. The story is about how the love of a couple changes over a long period—from early hope to beautiful, even comic, resignation. No, all their dreams didn't pan out, but hell, we've got our stories and they're good stories, and nobody can take those away from us. Rather than belittle her characters' failures, Gallant celebrates them. It's the sort of story that makes you pause, breathe, and take in all that you have as opposed to worrying over what's missing.

Gallant's work reminds you to think more deeply about the people you deal with—as a writer, with your characters, and in your life. She reminds us of how fathomless we are, how there is always more to know.

So it's character that moves me about Gallant's work. It isn't her plots—which are wonderful—but her obsession with the infinitely strange ways we people behave. Gallant's characters are complex and inconsistent: Their most deeply held beliefs easily dissolve in the face of what it takes to simply get through the day. And lets be honest, don't they? In the morning, yes, we'll wake up and do our best to believe again...And Gallant has faith in that too, in our ability to pick ourselves back up. But she's peerless at showing all the ways we fall apart.

"In Plain Sight," is, to my mind (forgive more hyperbole here, when I love I writer, I go whole embarrassing hog) one of the great stories ever written about a writer. I think the reason it is so good is that Henri Grippes is a human being, an extremely flawed human being, who happens to have once been a pretty good French novelist. One of the recurring jokes in the story is that a lot of people think his best work is behind him. "No one dies in Grippes novels; not anymore."

The story opens with Grippes in his Paris apartment as the weekly air raid siren goes off. The siren makes him remember the not-so-distant war years. It also makes him remember his relationship with his neighbor (Mme. Parfaire) who once, six years prior, offered herself to him as a roommate, as a friend, as a lover. He turned her down in the cruelest way imaginable while standing in the hallway outside his apartment door. The writer in me, reading Gallant's description of Grippes rambling speech to Mme Parfaire, only wanted to stop and take notes. Ah, so this is how you pivot a story, you unhinge someone and then just stand back and watch and listen. As a person, it made me cringe. Henri, how could you be such an indifferent prick? The woman is offering you the rest of her life...

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Joe Fassler is a writer based in Brooklyn. His fiction has appeared in The Boston Review, and he regularly interviews authors for The Lit Show. In 2011, his reporting for TheAtlantic.com was a finalist for a James Beard Foundation Award in Journalism.

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