That’s Life

Mavis Gallant
Mavis Gallant; drawing by David Levine

All the short stories but one in Mavis Gallant’s 887-page collection were published in The New Yorker, the first of them in 1953, the last in 1995. They come with a warning issued in the author’s characteristically laconic manner: “Stories are not chapters of novels. They should not be read one after another, as if they were meant to follow along. Read one. Shut the cover. Read something else. Come back later. Stories can wait.” But the reviewer can’t: so it is difficult for him or her to do full justice to all fifty-two of them, though easy to recognize straight away that some are perfect—meaning that they work perfectly, without waste or overkill, their pathos creeping up stealthily to deliver a fierce pluck at one’s feelings. Some are very short; some are novellalength; and some are grouped together in fours and fives around the same central characters.

One of these series, “Linnet Muir,” is about a girl growing up in Canada, and reads like a fictionalized autobiography. A linnet is a bird, and Mavis is another bird—a thrush; it must be a clue. Except in this series, Gallant’s tone is usually matter-of-fact and resigned—expecting nothing, accepting what comes. All the stories are sharply funny from time to time, and some of them—not many—all the time. All are about time passing, and almost all are about losers.

Gallant thinks all the time about time passing. If one played a game to find her most characteristic sentence, the winning answer might be “That winter Mollie grew breasts.” Most of the stories are arranged in chronological grouping according to the period they are set in, which often coincides with the time they were written, but allows for extensive flashbacks. The sections are headed “The Thirties and Forties”; “The Fifties”; “The Sixties”; “The Seventies”; “The Eighties and Nineties”. Time does not pass like waves rolling, or melt into a blur, and it certainly isn’t shaped by Gallant’s own nostalgia. What nostalgia there is belongs to the characters, not the writer. Her subject is what time—or history—does to people, how it pushes them around and turns even potential winners into losers.

Time is the Depression, the Second World War, the political and economic upheavals that followed it, the changed social conditions which overrun people who can’t easily adapt. She writes about English and American expatriates on the Riviera, about British remittance men (“RMs”) in pre-war Canada, about déclassé aristocrats in sunless Parisian flats, about failed artists and writers, about Sixties hippies stranded in the hardheaded Nineties, about refugees, exiles, taxexiles, concentration camp survivors, immigrants, German ex-prisoners of war returning late to nothing much, and about ghosts—themselves evocations of time past. She can do all the voices: all the accents and intonations, English, American, East European, German, French; and all the vocabularies, teen-age to senile, trendy to dinosaur, classy to classless, revealing provenance, period, social condition, state…

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