The Cost of Living: Early and Uncollected Stories by Mavis Gallant
12/12/09, The Times
Here is a passage from the most cryptic story, ‘Malcolm and Bea’, in Mavis Gallant’s new collection of early and uncollected short stories, The Cost of Living: ‘Every marriage is about something. It must have a plot. Sometimes it has a puzzling or incoherent plot. If you saw it acted out, it would bore you. “Turn it off,” you would say. “No one I know lives that way.” It has a mood, a setting, a vocabulary, bone structure, a climate.’ Gallant, eighty-seven this year, and standing shoulder to shoulder with those two other giants of the short-story form, Alice Munro and William Trevor, could equally be writing metafictionally about the themes and techniques deployed by her in her own stories. For nearly sixty years now, Gallant has written about mood, setting, bone structure (literal and metaphorical) and inner weather of her characters’ lives and their relationships with such compact precision, such truthfulness that each story comes with the force of revelation.
The Cost of Living is an unexpected gift. Collected between its covers are twenty short stories, spanning twenty years, from 1951 to 1971 – the first one, ‘Madeline’s Birthday’, was the second story she submitted to The New Yorker (and her first to be published there) and the final story, ‘The Burgundy Weekend’, has never appeared in a book before. Reading The Cost of Living gives one a diagrammatic miniature of the trajectory of Gallant’s development: from the remarkably assured and tonally perfect first story, about five people brought together on a Connecticut country home but each locked in his or her subjectivity, untouched by, even hostile to, the others’ worlds, to the long final story, what we have here is a work-by-work instance of a major artist’s unfurling into magnificent efflorescence.
But The Cost of Living reminds one of what Schumann wrote about the young Brahms, that he was born fully formed, like Minerva from the head of Zeus. The stories from the fifties are like little gems: perfectly cut and glittering, whichever way you turn them. ‘The Picnic’, set in post-war France – a lot of her stories are set in France; Paris has been her adoptive hometown for over sixty years now – explores the recurring theme of incompatible, inimical worlds, this time the players being American army families garrisoned in a small town, Virolun, versus the headstrong, arrogant local grande dame, Madame Pégurin. This theme of the innocence of the New World confronting the opaque convolutions and secrecies of the Old, one that Henry James made so much his own, is a rich seam in Gallant’s work too. It surfaces in ‘A Day Like Any Other’, where two American children are left in the daily care of the Austrian Frau Stengel, a not-so-closet admirer of Hitler, and again in ‘Autumn Day’, about a marriage that fails to take off from the very beginning, where the young American army wife’s alienation and misery finds the perfect ‘objective correlative’ in the post-war Salzburg setting. In all these stories, there is some hostility, either perceived or objectively true, simmering away under the surface and Gallant’s rootless, alienated characters are electrically alive to it, to their sense of not belonging. In ‘Bernadette’, one of the finest stories from this period, Gallant gives this unbelonging to the eponymous maid, an illiterate, god-fearing, superstitious creature from one of the most remote outposts of Quebec, almost animal in her implied slyness and sensuality, who finds herself baffled by the ultra-liberal, modern couple she works for. Anatomies of disintegrating, toxic marriages are hardly new but Gallant brings to the marriage of Nora and Robbie Knight a forensic precision, demolishing liberal hypocrisy and inconsistencies with measured savagery.
And then something crucial and radical happens to her stories from the beginning of the sixties. Gallant’s style, always lapidary and luminous, becomes elliptical, the stories become involuted, and she begins to leave out more and more information, concentrating on interiority and the movements of thoughts. She becomes more daring about shifting between points of view and her characters’ consciousness, sometimes within a single paragraph, and the risk pays off uncountable times over. The sentences pack in more and more while remaining pellucid but, at the same time, suggestive, elusive, tight with a dozen emotional possibilities. W.G. Sebald once complained about the ‘credibility problem’ that fiction poses: he simply did not believe in the causal connection of sentences, the clunkiness in the space between two sentences. I think he would have admired deeply the way Gallant has torn up the unwritten rulebook about this particular convention, replacing it with an imaginative and artistic logic that speaks a deeper emotional truth. Her imagination becomes unpredictable and left-field and she moves from an extraordinary writer to a truly great artist. One of the effects she achieves is to make the stories unsettling like dreams, fluid and strange.
The two longest stories in the book, ‘The Cost of Living’ (1962) and ‘The Burgundy Weekend’ (1971), are some of the finest example of this compressed, dense clarity. The title story, narrated by one of two Australian sisters, who live in a shabby hotel in Paris and form a very unconventional quartet with two younger French residents, both struggling actors, one woman and one man, explores the skittering dynamics of power, torqued by obligation, generosity, and sexual desire. Goodness, in this story, becomes a terrible yet unwitting weapon and I cannot think of a more powerful story on the way the material impinges on the emotional. ‘The Burgundy Weekend’ once again pits New World against the Old; this time it’s a Quebecois couple travelling in France. Lucie, a trained nurse, is more than wife to the withdrawn, autistic Jérôme, and as they are driven to Burgundy from Paris by Gilles, a monstrously egocentric cousin, Jérôme’s past visit to his hostess in Burgundy, Henriette Arrieu, emerges in counterpoint to the present. In forty pages it says more about marriage, memory, regret and being a foreigner than tomes on each of those subjects yet remains resiliently, gloriously ungiving with its central core. You need to return to them over and over, as if to great poetry, in order to make them yield their meanings.