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Paris Stories Paperback – Nov 26 2002
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Commenting on Canada's unwillingness to accept Mavis Gallant as one of its greatest writers has become the hoariest of critical clichés. Sadly, this dreary old statement remains true. Gallant is feted every couple of years, but her books seem to immediately withdraw into the shadows, cherished only by the handful of writers, critics, and passionate readers who claim to have known about her all along.
Paris Stories, a new selection of Gallant's work delicately selected by Michael Ondaatje, might just be able to change all that. At 360 pages, it's long enough to provide a representative choice of her stories, but much less intimidating than her mammoth Selected Stories, and Ondaatje's hallmark might just provide the gloss of celebrity necessary to lure in a new wave of readers. No new stories have been included, but many of Gallant's masterpieces are here, including a substantial selection from her watershed From the Fifteenth District.
These are, by and large, tales of European displacement, of historical, cultural, and familial dislocation--a series of mental wounds, seemingly brought about by the Second World War, but generally with much deeper roots. Most boast brilliantly original premises, especially "Baum, Gabriel, 1935-( )," the tale of a Jewish actor in postwar Paris, orphaned by the Holocaust, who ekes out a living playing victims in television dramas about the war, and his closest friend, a German expatriate who has become a very successful TV Nazi. A couple of the more obscure stories are decidedly worthy of attention: "Grippes and Poche" is a delicious account of a rather pathetic writer's dealings with the French tax authorities, and "In Plain Sight" revisits the same writer in the bohemian squalor of his early dotage. And naturally, Gallant touchstones like "The Ice Wagon Coming Down the Street" and "The Moslem Wife" have been included.
It must be stressed that this is a beginner's selection; those who already know her work won't be satisfied with anything less than Selected Stories. But for anyone who has not encountered the work of the finest short story author to emerge from English Canada, Paris Stories is an excellent place to begin. --Jack Illingworth
“She stands among the best writers of the century.”
“Mavis Gallant’s finely honed prose captures the small details that illuminate a life.”
“Mavis Gallant writes some of the most superbly crafted and perceptive stories of our time.”
–Globe and Mail
“Ms. Gallant, who has dared to drift in a disorienting century, always trusting her own imaginative compass. Her fiction, never fooled into trying to keep up with history, will last a long time.”
–New York Times Book Review
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2 recommendations: read Michael Ondaajte's intro (in it he mentions that he knows other writers who intentionally refrain from reading Mavis Gallant when they are writing themselves, so they don't lose confidence in themselves); read the afterward, written by the auther herself (in it she makes the wise suggestion to the reader NOT read the stories in the book back to back, but to take one's time and savor every morsal - I concur. Read this book very slowly pausing to read other stuff perhaps - you don't want to miss a word, it's that good.)
Lovers of sublime artwork in literature, read Mavis Gallant. I guarantee you will not be disappointed. I can't wait for Volume 2 to come out this fall!
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.
The most important disappointment for me was the fact that the title of the book only means that these stories have been written during the time the writer lived in Paris. They are not about Paris. Nowhere on the cover, back or blurb does it say that. It's in the (long-ish) introduction that most of us won't read before we buy a book in a bookstore, and we obviously can't read when we buy online. Ondaatje sort of apologizes for it, saying that the writer herself eased his mind by saying that technically, they ARE Paris stories because they're written there. I say, technically, it's misleading and disappointing, especially for me, having bought this book not because of the writer but because of the subject.
But, always willing to be introduced to new writing, I started reading. I have read three stories. And I will not read any more. I can say the stories are beautifully written - there aren't many writers like this. But the stories don't go anywhere. They have no beginning, no end, they're merely a description of random parts of people's lives. They are written in a way that you think there will be a climax, a secret revealed, an understanding dawning... but unless I'm particularly thick, there's nothing to understand, no hidden clue. They're very low-paced and drawn-out descriptions of uneventful lives. Well-written ones. But I couldn't help feeling a bit betrayed after each ending - like three unkept promises in a row.