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Fresh-Water Fish out at Sea
by I. M. Owen

In case there's anybody out there who has never read Mavis Gallant, I open the book at random looking for a paragraph that exemplifies her special qualities-the perfection of her style, her acute observation, and her pervasive yet unobtrusive wit. Here's one, from the story "Speck's Idea". Speck is a Paris art dealer, and he is on the trail of an artist's widow.
"Like a swan in muddy waters, Speck's ancient Bentley cruised the suburbs where his painters had lived their last resentful seasons. He knew by heart the damp villa, the gravel path, the dangling bellpull, the shrubbery containing dead cats and plastic bottles. Indoors the widow sat, her walls plastered with portraits of herself when young. Here she continued the struggle begun in the Master's lifetime-the evicting of the upstairs tenant-her day made lively by the arrival of mail (dusty beige of anonymous threats, grim blue of legal documents), the coming and going of process servers, the outings to lawyers. Into this territory Speck advanced, bringing his tactful presence, his subtle approximation of courtship, his gift for listening. Thin by choice, pale by nature, he suggested maternal need. Socks and cuff links suggested breeding. The drift of his talk suggested prosperity. He sent his widows flowers, wooed them with food. Although their taste in checks and banknotes ran to the dry and crisp, when it came to eating they craved the sweet, the sticky, the moist. From the finest pastry shops in Paris Speck brought soft macaroons, savarins soaked in rum, brioches stuffed with almond cream, mocha cake so tender it had to be eaten with a spoon. Sugar was poison to Speck. Henriette had once reviewed a book that described how refined sugar taken into one's system turned into a fog of hideous green. Her brief, cool warning, `A Marxist Considers Sweets', unreeled in Speck's mind if he was confronted with a cookie. He usually pretended to eat, reducing a mille-feuille to paste, concealing the wreck of an éclair under napkins and fork. He never lost track of his purpose-the prying of paintings out of a dusty studio on terms anesthetizing to the artist's widow and satisfactory to himself."
In her preface to this large but regrettably incomplete collection of her short stories Mavis Gallant says: "I still do not know what impels anyone sound of mind to leave dry land and spend a lifetime describing people who do not exist." The answer in her case is simple: an overpowering genius, which would not be denied. But what interests me in that sentence is her definition of what she does-"describing people". That's it exactly. These are stories, and therefore they have plots, but the plots aren't the point. The point is the people-usually "people", as a certain reviewer said eight years ago, "displaced from their natural habitat, not exactly fish out of water-because they usually survive after a fashion-but fresh-water fish who find themselves at sea, or ocean fish penned in lakes." I couldn't have put it better myself; in fact I did put it myself, for I was the certain reviewer. And I'm still certain. Setting the characters against backgrounds that are in some way alien throws them into sharp relief.
Opening the pages at random again, I come first to the married couple in "The Moslem Wife", cousins belonging to a group of English families that have been hotel-keepers on the French Riviera for over a century:
"Both of them had the idea that, being English, one must not say too much. Born abroad, they worked hard at an Englishness that was innocently inaccurate."
Then I come to "The Four Seasons", about an Anglo-American colony on the Ligurian coast in the twelve months of 1939-40 before Italy entered the war, as observed by a thirteen-year-old maidservant who is from the interior and is thus something of a displaced person herself. I wish the story "In Italy" had been included, since it's a sort of sequel, though with different characters. It shows the English colony reconstituted after the war, shabbier than before, and it concerns Stella, who is triply displaced, in class and generation as well as country. A businessman's daughter, "a compound of middle-class virtues", she has married an upper-class man who is thirty years older and is running out of money.
Well, I suppose there had to be some omissions: the author says, "I rejected straight humour and satire, which dates quickly, seven stories that were pieces of novels, stories that seemed to me not worth reprinting, stories I was tired of, and stories that bored me. I also removed more than a dozen stories that stood up to time but.[whose] inclusion would have made this collection as long as.the King James Bible from Genesis to about the middle of Paul's first Epistle to the Romans."
Of the fifty-two stories that survived, thirty-five are grouped chronologically, not in order of composition but according to the time they are set in: The Thirties and Forties, The Fifties, The Sixties, The Seventies, The Eighties and Nineties. The remaining seventeen are in four groups of stories, each linked by sharing their characters-most notably, for me, the wonderful Linnet Muir stories, which tell of the childhood and youth of a Montreal girl, and closely parallel the author's early life.
The stories I would have omitted are those few that could be classified as fiction of the absurd, starting with the novella "The Pegnitz Junction", first published in 1973, and perhaps best exemplified by "From the Fifteenth District", in which three ghosts complain to the police that they are being haunted by living people. Oh yes, these stories can make me laugh, but they're ultimately tedious and a waste of time for a writer with such a marvellous gift for the clear portrayal of real life-which she does with just as much wit and verve as she uses in the absurdist stories. Still, she must have fun doing them, and they must appeal to some readers: especially, I'd guess, to her second New Yorker editor, Daniel Menaker.
Never mind. Now abide William Trevor, Alice Munro, Mavis Gallant, these three; but the greatest of these is Gallant.

l I. M. Owen, as chair of a committee of the Canadian Book Publisher's Council, proposed Val Clery when asked by Naim Kattan of the Canada Council to suggest someone to do a study of English-language book reviewing in Canada. Clery did the study and recommended the starting of a magazine. Books in Canada came into being. Since the early seventies, I. M. Owen has been one of the magazine's most frequent contributors.


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