For better or worse, Mavis Gallant was one of a stable of writers who, for several decades under the editorship of William Shawn, wrote what came to be known as the "typical New Yorker story." Indeed, in a recent interview, the poet Michael Casey recalled a Benjamin Cheever character mocking "a New Yorker story" as "one that goes on and on and nothing much happens but you feel sad at the end of it." And, reading Gallant's stories in the magazine over the years, I likewise felt that they were consistently well written, occasionally interesting, often melancholy, but rather long-winded and ultimately unmemorable.
The fifteen stories collected here offer readers a chance to revisit their impressions of her stories. Behind the Jamesian tea-and-crumpet facade of Gallant's prose lurk human transplants: lost souls away from home, nomads and exiles trying to find a place in the world--Gallant has based virtually her entire career on this theme. The two exceptions are about "the French man of letters" Henri Grippes, Gallant's comic, curmudgeonly, aging alter ego. (Incidentally, the title of the collection, as Michael Ondaatje notes in the introduction, is misleading: not all the stories are set in Paris, nor are they about exiles living in Paris or from Paris; instead, Gallant wrote them all in Paris--which, since Gallant has written nearly all of her fiction there, makes the moniker rather meaningless.)
One of the stylistic quirks that transform many of Gallant's stories into wrestling matches with her readers is her blithe disregard for transitional devices within and between paragraphs. Ondaatje touts this as a virtue: "the next sentence can bring a complete shift of tone or content, while a quick aside can include whole lives--sometimes halfway through one person's thought you will get another's history." At first, the reader might understandably regard these "sudden swerves" as merely untidy--that's certainly the way I felt about them when I read her stories in The New Yorker. But, as often as not, there is some method hiding in the madness; the disorder echoes the jumble of her characters' lives and especially of their thinking.
Savoring these stories, one by one over a couple of months, I found that I truly began to enjoy Gallant's idiosyncratic style and her subtly wicked wit when I reached "Speck's Ideas"--the seventh story of the collection. (At some point, I should probably go back and read the first six.) In sum, I picked up this collection to revisit my judgment of her fiction and came away with a better opinion--but also with the understanding that Gallant will always suffer from that damnably faint praise: she is an acquired taste.