When the news came Tuesday that the great story writer Mavis Gallant had died, I thought of a story from her 2002 collection, Paris Stories, Mlle. Dias de Corta. Madmoiselle is the boarder of a financially strapped Parisian widow, a distant yet fascinating immigrant actress who withholds secrets but whose actions have a kind of addictive quality that first provokes bias on the part of her narrow-minded landlady—until she becomes an object of intense attachment. That, in a way, is how I feel about Gallant as a writer. Her prose has an authority that is enigmatic and addictive, with an authority that keeps you glued to the intricate sentences. But why try to explain. Here’s Gallant:
You called from a telephone on a busy street. I could hear the coins jangling and traffic going by. Your voice was low-pitched and agreeable and, except for one or two vowel sounds, would have passed for educated French. I suppose no amount of coaching at a school in or near Marseilles could get the better of the southern O, long where it should be short and clipped when it ought to be broad. But, then, the language was already in decline, owing to lax teaching standards and uncontrolled immigration.
Throughout the story, there is this agile mix of distance and attraction, judgement and uncertainty. By the story’s end, we understand the Madame’s attachment to Mlle. is greater than her need for a boarder to defray costs, and that events have led her to feel, despite the class, ethnic and social differences, that their similarities are greater than their differences.
But situation, however intriguing, is not what enables the reader to sink into Gallant’s stories. There is the voice, the sentences, and the elliptical way she has with connections. All one needs to know is in the story, and the absence of direct linear movement, the way rich detail drops out and returns again, is what makes these stories feel like so much like life. And Gallant was highly prolific writer, having published in her long career 116 short stories, and that was just in The New Yorker.
Jhumpa Lahiri called Gallant’s characters “not simply three-dimensional but 30-dimensional,” and of her stories Claire Messud said, “like Munro, she frequently writes stories that expand like accordions, containing within them entire lives, a novel’s worth of life.”
At the end of Mlle. Dias de Corta, and I’m not giving anything away, our Parisian landlady hangs on to the riches, not material, but emotional, that her young boarder has left behind—having seen through the life of another what is impossible to see for oneself. That too makes me think of her stories, and we are lucky Gallant has left so many.
Read an appreciation in Canada’s National Post.