I’ve been reading some of Mavis Gallant’s early stories, collected in Going Ashore (McClelland & Stewart 2009) with an introduction by Alberto Manguel. Manguel praises several of the stories: “brilliant, hard-pointed gems whose deadly sharpness is whetted rather than softened by her intelligent humour and unsentimental compassion.” Deadly gems — sounds scary. I like these early stories because she is already fully developed as a writer, and paths to her later themes are laid out. In the first few stories, the narrator or main character is ill at ease or socially awkward. You can’t help but think of the young Gallant in a boarding house in Europe, ears open.
In the title story, a mother and daughter are on a cruise that doubles as an escape from the mother’s failed relationship with yet another “uncle.” They are completely unprepared, as we learn in contrast to an older mother-daughter pair, who have brought the right clothes, guidebooks, sensible shoes. The shore that they are going to is Tangier, which Emma and her mother refer to as Africa. With Africa in mind, they have brought summer dresses rather than clothes for the cool of November.
Gallant explains Emma’s social difficulty as one of language: “Answers and explanations belonged to another language, one she had still to acquire. Even now, in Tangier, longing to explain to the Munns about the summer dresses, she knew she had better not begin. She knew that there must be a simple way of putting these things in words…” Emma cannot explain away the new summer dresses, but Gallant gives the reader enough information to do so. The pre-departure shopping spree was both a final splurge and the way the mother shows affection for Emma.
In Tangier, they sit at a table in the sun, the mother drinking, the daughter watching the other passengers walking past talking of interesting sights. Jealous of her daughter’s friendship with some of the passengers, the mother says, “You think I’m not a good mother. … Do you ever need anything? … Do you know what happens to a lot of kids like you? They get left in schools, that’s what happens. Did I ever do that to you?” Finally the mother rouses herself, staggers into a tourist gift shop on the square, buys her daughter a cheap bracelet, and asks her if she is happy now. They take a taxi back to the launch. The last to leave the ship in the morning, they are the first to return. And Emma’s disappointment is delivered in one sentence: “Emma thought, confused, Is that all? Is that all of Africa?”
In “Wing’s Chips,” the daughter is embarrassed that her father doesn’t have a job like all the French-Canadian fathers in the St Lawrence Valley town. (He is a painter.) In “The Legacy,” the young woman is angry and bitter because her escape from her mother’s shop on St Eulalie Street in Montreal was thwarted by one of her brothers (her money for Paris was used to pay off the police) – still angry and bitter after all these years. In the wonderfully complex “Bernadette,” the eponymous French-Canadian maid is bewildered by her Anglo employers, Robbie and Nora Knight, who give her books to read in her free time. “She would hang her head, wondering what they wanted, wishing they would go away.” Her awkwardness in their presence leads to a misunderstanding that causes the story’s climax.
Two stories about the military abroad are tender comedies of personal and cultural conflict (newlyweds in Salzburg in “Autumn Day” and the Major’s family in Virolun in “The Picnic.” In the latter, the picnic is meant to soften the local community towards the military and further the Major’s career. His wife, Paula, sees otherwise. “She suddenly felt terribly sorry for him, because of all that was in store for him this day, and because the picnic was not likely to clarify his status, as he so earnestly hoped. There would be fresh misunderstandings and further scandals.”
“The Picnic” was first published in 1952 (“Going Ashore” in 1954) when Gallant was thirty years old. These stories are not diamond deaths; they are the work of a woman who had suffered young and learned from it sympathy and compassion for characters unloved and even unlikable. Reading these stories is like going ashore not only into other countries but also into other lives.
There is a photo of Mavis Gallant in 1953, with friend Doyle Klyn at Café Les Deux Magots in Paris, on the Canada Reads flickr photostream.
The New Yorker will let you read a Gallant story from their archives at this online link.
In this 1965 Telescope interview, you can accompany Gallant on her grocery shopping. Seriously. On the CBC How Mavis Gallant Wrote page.