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A Gallant Storyteller : THE COLLECTED STORIES OF MAVIS GALLANT. By Mavis Gallant (Random House: $45, 887 pp.)

October 06, 1996|Michael Dorris | Michael Dorris is the author of two forthcoming novels, "Sees Behind Trees" (Hyperion Books for Children) and "Cloud Chamber" (Scribner)

Some writers have all the luck: They possess a name so intrinsically right, so appropriate to the quality of fiction they create, that their signature alone demands serious literary attention.

Mavis Gallant's name is intimately connected with the august imprimatur of the New Yorker--as well it should be, since she has been published consistently in that magazine's pages for more than 40 years. Her stories occupy a particular niche: Finely honed, deeply psychological, precise and compact in their language, they examine with an astute, objective eye the peculiar situations of characters who exist outside the expectations of their contexts: English-speaking Quebecois, foreigners in France, Canadians in Florida, artists who have failed to attain their potential.

Her protagonists and narrators are forever peripheral to their surroundings, though they themselves may not realize this fact--that's but one of the qualities that makes them so interesting. Gallant observes a category of persons who might be termed "lay ethnologists," men and women who are either caught up with their ultimately futile attempts to comprehend the rules of the game or who have, in fatigue or exasperation, abandoned the quest and settled for permanent estrangement.

"The Collected Stories of Mavis Gallant" is a hefty doorstop of a volume, the kind of book one might take along to a desert island (where, in fact, I read it this past August). Arranged by the epoch of their content rather than by the chronological date of their publication, the pieces collectively form a kind of social history, a gallery of portraits that veer from impatient and passionate youth toward an increasingly mature, acquiescing perspective. Over the course of its hundreds of carefully culled pages (and Gallant, in her eloquent introduction, informs us that these are by no means all of her published works, just the ones that fit this book's conceptual schema), infatuations cool, angers adjust, ambitions are tempered with hard-won wisdom.

Some critics suggest that we writers each have but one archetypal story to tell, one central abiding question that we need to solve through our imaginations, and that we continue to approach it over and over from different angles and in varying voices. If this is true for Gallant, her canvass, like her output, is inordinately large and rich, making the search for some common denominator a daunting task.

She writes heartbreaking stories about the impossibility of enduring love. She writes stories of confusions, rumors, ultimate disappointments, about the indignity of aging, the saving graces of patience and forgiveness. She writes about the unattainable lifelong dreams inspired by a single dared moment of passion--the aftershocks and the long, slow decline into bitterness or, worse, neutrality. She explores the justifications people make to themselves, the excuses that constitute a skewed form of courage, of will over fact.

War and its aftermath are central to the lives of many of her characters. The wreck of nations forms, on the personal level, the defining experience, directly or indirectly, of dazed Europeans and North Americans. It is the source of their primary losses and sorrows, the reference point that can be cited as the event when their safe and promising worlds began to go wrong.

Writing in what might be termed a direct and reportorial style (Gallant started out as a journalist), her sentences can suddenly explode into Nabokovian insight with a line that nails a character to a page. This technique--a lulling, quiet prose suffused with detail, unparenthesized anecdotes and asides that initially don't seem to lead anywhere very significant--accumulates depth and weight with its steady pull. We come to recognize that for many of her men and women it is the minuscule facts of retained memory that act as proof that they've been alive at all.

Inventories of actions, objects, recriminations and small triumphs are maintained with fine and fierce exactitude, as though the person in whose recollection they reside is composed of, rather than the ultimate instigator of, their happening. Artists, forgotten by a once-doting or about-to-dote public, dwell among the detritus of their unfinished work. Missed opportunities constitute experience just as surely as actual accomplishments or failures. Nothing, Gallant suggests again and again, is wasted or irrelevant in the course of a life--or, conversely at her most bleak, everything is.

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