David's Reviews > Varieties of Exile

Varieties of Exile by Mavis Gallant
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Aug 13, 11

bookshelves: anthologies-and-collections, disappointing, read-in-2011
Read from March 08, 2010 to August 13, 2011

Everyone else seems to think this book deserves a minimum of 4 stars, and maybe it does. Maybe it's some kind of highbrow chicklit. No matter. I disliked it thoroughly -- I found these stories almost unreadable.

The marketing hook for this collection (in the jacket blurb and the worshipful introduction by Russell Banks) is a biographical one. Gallant was born in Montreal to English-speaking, Protestant parents, an only child who was shipped off to a French Catholic boarding school at age four. Her father died early, her mother remarried, but from an early age, in Gallant's own words, she was "set afloat". Russell Banks assures us that this background, the experience of being forced at a very early age to navigate the straits dividing Catholic/Protestant, franco/anglophone, children/adults, men/women, of being, as he puts it "situated simultaneously inside and outside her given worlds", places Gallant at the Borderlands, the ideal site for a writer of short stories*.

The stories in this particular collection are undeniably somewhat autobiographic, and are firmly situated in the Quebec of Gallant's youth. That doesn't necessarily make them interesting, or good. I found them dull, and ultimately claustrophobic. After the sixth or seventh exploration of the stultifyingly provincial concerns of the singularly joyless Quebecois that populate these stories, I'd had enough. I'm happy for Mavis Gallant that she managed to escape, and to live in Paris for the last 50 years. I can understand why she might feel impelled to pick at the scabs of her childhood. But I don't want to watch. Most of the characters in these stories live lives that are circumscribed or emotionally stunted. It's entirely possible to write gracefully about the way cultural pressures or tribal differences can limit or distort people's emotional well-being -- William Trevor has been doing it his whole life. But there's a humor and affection for his characters that rescue Trevor's stories from total bleakness. There's not much affection in Gallant's representation of the milieu she grew up in - the stories read more like the work of someone who is settling scores, or still trying to work through the legacy of her own idiosyncratic childhood (the prevailing narrative voice is that of an adult reinterpreting earlier events from childhood).

Even though Gallant is adept at characterization, you get the feeling that she never warms up towards her own characters. She definitely failed to make me care about them. Giving myself permission not to read the remaining six or seven stories was a great relief.

* the common fallacy of confusing an eventful biography with good writing; clearly, an eventful life is not necessary to be a good writer (Flannery O' Connor, Emily Dickinson, the Brontes), neither is it sufficient.

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Comments (showing 1-5 of 5) (5 new)

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Charles I've been currently reading this for so long I may just have to start again. How about you?


message 2: by Donna (new)

Donna I haven't read any Mavis Gallant and I'm supposed to because I'm from Quebec. Oh God, am I ever supposed to. And I'm Protestant too. Oh shit, have I been remiss.
I like what you bring up here about affection for characters, and how the settling of scores ruin books. In the books I like, the author gets in deep with their creations. That would be hard to do without caring about them. This does not mean sparing them, or not seeing them for what they are. But if the author won't get in the burning boat with a character, why should I? William Trevor does this beautifully.
Perhaps after 50 years, Paris is where Gallant should burn her boats. POVs can go stale. Her POV of Quebec would be that of a child and adolescent. That could result in quite a scabfest of picking and settling of scores. Maybe there's a point where it just isn't home anymore. Or maybe it's time to leave home after you've been away for 50 years. I don't know. I've always considered having to navigate the straits dividing Catholic/Protestant, franco/anglophone, children/adults, men/women, while being situated simultaneously inside and outside my given worlds, the greatest gift the accident of birth ever gave me. I wasn't born rich, but I have that. Now the winters are another story.


David I think the comparison with William Trevor is a telling one, because in many ways their stories cover similar terrain. But, at least in the seven or eight stories that I read, Gallant never came anywhere close to achieving what Trevor does in almost every one of his stories -- to make me care about the characters. Maybe because I'm not sure she does. In his introduction Russell Banks deplores the fact that Gallant is primarily viewed in the U.S. as a "writer's writer". But I actually think this view is justified, if these stories are representative of the rest of her work.


message 4: by Jin (new) - added it

Jin Zhao But why would you want another William Trevor? Unlike you, I find myself deeply sympathetic with Gallant's characters -- maybe because I'm an expatriate, maybe because I'm fluent in more than one language, maybe because I'm a woman, or maybe because of none of these things. I find Gallant's writing beautiful, witty, and, surprising to you perhaps, humorous, albeit in a subtle and quiet way, with a sensibility that, in order to appreciate it, requires patience and a willingness to value les petites choses, the unimportant details of life. Maybe this book is not for you, but no good writer writes for everybody either.


David Why would I want another William Trevor?

Obviously, I don't; but I think you miss my point -- what I value are the characteristics that Trevor brings to his stories : humor, wit, affection for his characters, the sense that he always transcends provincialism (despite a relatively narrow geographic focus).
Different strokes, as you correctly point out. But please spare me the not so subtle implication that I have a sensibility that is somehow not developed enough to appreciate "les petites choses", the unimportant details of life. Condescend much? Or do you wanna trade expat credentials? Because, bring it on, I got them.
Please excuse that little outburst. I'm not actually normally this testy.


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