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Home Truths

by Mavis Gallant
378 pages,
ISBN: 0771032927


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The Poetics of Dislocation
by David Ingham

When a Canadian literary icon publishes a new work, the first question for the reviewer is "How does this work stand up to this writer's earlier work?" When the work of such a writer is re-released after twenty years, however, the question changes to "How well has this work stood up over time?"

For Mavis Gallant's Home Truths, which was first published in 1981 and won the Governor-General's Award for fiction that year, the short answer is "Quite well, thank you." But like any attempt to generalize about Gallant's fiction, such an answer leaves out more than it says. Still, the double perspective afforded by the situation can be revealing.

The current edition is essentially the same book, sans Gallant's "An Introduction"¨likely considered a bit out of date. This is a shame, because that introduction, in addition to answering a number of criticisms of the day, also provided helpful information about how and why she writes¨and by extension, how to read her work: if nothing else, Gallant is a difficult writer. Not that the surface level of narrative is difficult to follow (no modernist or postmodernist tricks to frustrate the reader here), but it is difficult to plumb her stories, to account for all they contain, to see all there is to see in terms of detail and theme and form and structure.

Divided into three sections, the book is essentially three collections in one: the stories in "At Home" (first published in The New Yorker in the 50s and 60s, though at least one was written considerably earlier) concern themselves with the worlds of Canadian children, and the impingement of adults (often parents) on those worlds. "Canadians Abroad" consists of four longer stories (first published in The New Yorker between 1961 and 1973) about Canadians in Europe. There is always a double (and dislocated) perspective: the characters see Europe with foreign eyes, registering the surface reality but missing what's underneath it, and also look back at Canada, again missing "home truths" that (with a bit of reflection) become apparent to the reader. The third section consists of the "Linnet Muir" stories (all but one first published in The New Yorker beginning in 1975)¨it has been speculated that the opportunity to collect these stories (since on their own there aren't enough to furnish a book) was a determining factor in the book's original publication. Linnet is a Gallant not-self; she returns at the age of 18 to the Montreal of her childhood, more or less contiguous with the Montreal of Gallant's own childhood, in a double quest for "a new life and a dream past."

Initial critical response was (understandably) favourable; the book merited the Feature Review, written by Wayne Grady, in this very publication ("The Other Canada", BiC October 1981; tellingly, it is accompanied by a line drawing by Howard Engel, untitled but clearly depicting a smiling Mavis Gallant at a table in a French cafT, while at the next table, with each apparently unaware of the other, sits a pensive Samuel Beckett: take that, anyone who criticises her decision to leave Canada for France over 50 years ago). What caught reviewers' eyes then (and what is initially apparent on any careful first reading) had to do primarily with theme, character, and setting, with the variations on the theme of exile that appears to underlie virtually all her work, with recurrent, the-same-but-different characters (remittance men, children with penetrating insight but limited understanding, indifferent and crushing parents¨all delineated with scalpel-like precision), with settings so perfectly constructed that (as one critic noted) "we can live inside them."

None of this has changed. Those word-worlds, whether Montreal in 1944 or a girls' school in 1936 or Paris in 1952, seem as perfectly realized as ever: "The street had been cut out of charcoal-coloured paper with extremely fine scissors"; another city "might have been chewed by rats"; and in a French cafT "there was in the air, with the smell of beer and fresh coffee, a substance made up of old conversations," to give three of countless possible examples of descriptions that startle with their clarity and evocativeness. If the sense of time and place seems acutely specific in these stories, so too does the sense of character, not merely because Gallant can deftly create whole characters with just a few brush-strokes ("She looked smart but smudged, as if paint had spilled over the outline of a drawing"), but also because her characters are so clearly the product of their time and place. To be sure, Gallant's insights into the world, into the dynamics of human relations¨lovers, parents and children, co-workers, friends, acquaintances, and especially the subtleties of unstable relationships¨are as penetrating as ever; some things never change. But the people themselves, and especially the settings from which they grow, are considerably more remote than they were two decades ago, the authorial memories from which they spring less likely to be shared by readers.

This isn't necessarily a failing, except perhaps to readers who demand that fiction be directly relevant to the here and now, to their own personal experience (and even then, the sense that Gallant's stories communicate pervasive human truths should generally compensate). Moreover, this increasing sense of dislocation can even be seen as a virtue, a strengthening of the bond between the literal level and the interpretive level.

This interpretive level¨or at least a better awareness of its dimensions¨is the biggest single "change" the stories have undergone. While Gallant had attracted a fair amount of critical attention before the publication of Home Truths, within a decade no less than four book-length critical studies and numerous articles had appeared (the best of these, in my view, is Neil Besner's lucid explication of Gallant's fiction, The Light of Imagination, though in this context the work of Janice Kulyk Keefer and Judith Skelton Grant deserves mention). Freed from the time pressures of reviewers, these critics had time to reflect, to see the intricacies of form and structure. The closer you look at her fiction, the more there is to see; while this welter of significant detail can seem overwhelming, patterns do emerge, and they can help to make the fiction more comprehensible. (Not that this is essential, by the way: Gallant's fiction, like many works of art, can convey a great deal without being understood¨the reader can have a haunting awareness of meaning without being able to articulate it.)

Gallant's handling of time is a case in point. While the narrative surface is seamless, the stories unobtrusively "spiral" or "loop" or "eddy" in time. Of these, "eddy" (Besner's term) seems the most appropriate: characters return in time (and often space) to significant events, to defining moments, not understood at the time, and seek to grasp their meaning from the perspective of a vantage point behind them. Time in the "Linnet Muir" stories is doubly refracted: they are at heart stories of an older woman remembering herself as a young woman remembering herself as a child, turning events over from this triple perspective, seeking unseen truths, recognizing what the years have taken from her, and what they have allowed her to gain.

Not all the stories result in such realization, however, though in most it is at least a narrative possibility. But while many of them are stories of a movement from innocence to experience, the central characters frequently fail to recognize the meaning of that experience: they come tantalysingly close, but never achieve their epiphanies¨yet Gallant is careful to ensure that the reader, with some work, can. For example Douglas Ramsay, the main character in "Bonaventure", remains ironically smug in his certainty that the world of art is exclusively mental and intellectual, intentionally divorced from the world of nature, though a world of clues point him (and especially the careful reader) in a different direction. Similarly Sarah, in "In the Tunnel", might have learned from an affair she had on the Riviera; instead she returns to Canada sadder but not really wiser, too trapped within her essential nature for her to change. (Needless to say, the above descriptions do not begin to do justice to the richness and complexity of the stories.)

Strangely, the narrative tone seems even more assured than it did twenty years ago, its apparent inconsistencies and meanderings at once coolly calculated and seemingly artless. It is like a fortune teller masquerading as a solitaire player, turning over cards now purposefully, now idly, then flipping one over to reveal a diamond¨or a scorpion: a remark was "tactless, . . . but I could not have known that. At least not consciously. Unconsciously, everyone under the age of ten knows everything. . . . It is part of the clairvoyant immunity to hypocrisy we are born with and that vanishes just before puberty." Or "She was the daughter of such a sensible, truthful, pessimistic woman¨pessimistic in the way women become when they settle for what actually exists." This is a voice that is often wry, often dispassionate, often uncanny¨one that parts the layers of ordinary existence like a laser.

If there is a common thread¨and again, how unfair and misleading it is to seek just one from such tapestries¨it is the motif of dislocation. There are expatriates, remittance men, travellers, characters removed from their homes (literal and spiritual), separated from their families, from their cultures, from their pasts, from their identities, from an understanding of themselves and those they encounter: for all their surface smoothness, the stories reveal gaping discontinuities, failures of understanding, of the inability to bridge the worlds of postwar Europe and North America, of Canada and the U.S., of parents and children, of French and English. Characters are exiled from language and by language. The nameless mother in "Saturday" wants her children to escape the limitations of their French Catholic roots, but all five daughters have married Anglos who are "interchangeable, like postage stamps of the Queen's profile" and have equally interchangeable children. GTrard, in same story, strives to dream in French, but cannot; only his younger brother LTopold (for whom French is "his private language; he keeps it as he does his toys, to himself, polished, personal, a lump of crystalline rock he takes out, examines, looks through, and conceals for another day"), can see the world clearly and be granted a moment of communion at the end with their aged father. (Such moments of communion are rare. For the most part each character is a solitude: they may touch and greet, and may travel great distances to do so, but rarely overlap and almost never understand each other.)

Still, make no mistake: these stories are challenging. They tease, puzzle, and intrigue. They swoop and swerve, as the narrative occasionally seems to take an unexpected hairpin turn, and even at the end there is no apparent connection between the parts; such understanding (if it comes at all) Gallant forces the reader to figure out for her or himself. Even Gallant's occasional use of (usually untranslated) French seems calculated to dislocate the reader, even if only momentarily. The stories resist analysis¨but even if resistance is not futile, even if there is more than enough surface charm and penetrating vision for almost any reader, and even if there seems to be no way to see clearly all the reticulations and intersections of image and reality and memory and fiction (in several senses of the word), whatever effort the reader chooses to make is amply repaid.

If you did read Home Truths the first time around but not since, I would urge you to reread it: if you've grown as a reader since then, the experience will be like meeting old friends who have become more interesting (if a little older) over the intervening years. And if you missed the collection the first time around, take advantage of this opportunity. Mavis Gallant writes fiction to measure yourself against; I can think of no higher praise. ˛

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