In his introduction to Mavis Gallant’s short story collection, Varieties of Exile, Russell Banks offers us a quote from the other herself—
Stories are not chapters of novels. They should not be read one after another, as if they were meant to follow along. Read one. Shut the book. Read something else. Come back later. Stories can wait.
Banks, of course, offers the feeble, “But, trust me, these can’t.” As particular as the advice may come to readers of short story collections—among them, the odd creatures like me who merely take deep breaths in the pause between stories—the quote Banks pulls feels out of place, given the collective nature he selected for this NYRB Classics edition: The Gallant stories here are linked, in one way or another.
There are three sets or sequences to the stories—the first, about the adventures of Linnet Muir, trying to make her way into the world, when her refugee state and her gender are already two strikes against her; the second, the sisters Carette, growing up, loving, forging different lives; the last, of a male narrator [Banks stresses that there is a need to disabuse the notion that Gallant is cruel to her male characters].
What these three grand narratives have in common? One, they’re “Canadian stories,” as Banks dubs them—a matter of the characters’ nationality, we are informed, especially during a time when the very aspect of national identity for Canada was dubious. For another, their preoccupations: These are old-fashioned stories about people who were quite modern within the time they belonged. However, life seems to us pretty mundane and prosaic and seemingly trivial—but oh-so-oppressive in its politeness!—in Gallant’s world, despite the heavy cloak of formality, which is no doubt brought on by her strident tone and formalistic language. [There are strains of this formality, this scope and sometimes-glib omniscience in the stories of Alice Munro and Carol Shields, who both wrote a generation or two after Gallant, whom I both love madly.]
Again, linked stories, a generous survey. After the first two stories where you recognize the main character, you know where this collection wishes to take you, and you tag along. You can’t wait to see a life unfolding before you, told through stories [or installments] whose relevance was chosen with the author’s discretion. Think of the collection as three different novellas, told in episodes. After a while, well, of course these stories can’t wait—each of them is part of a specific arc!
Moving on. In theory, at least, I should have enjoyed Gallant. I’m certainly in awe of her—she is accomplished, this Grand Dame of Short Fiction. [Banks, too, addresses this, as Gallant “has mostly been viewed as a ‘writers’ writer’: “For what is a writers’ writer, anyhow? Merely one who honors in every sentence she writes the deepest, most time-honored principles of composition: honesty, clarity, and concision. So, yes, in that sense she is a writers’ writer. But only in that sense.”] So, yes, all that. Oh, I have admiration in buckets. But this reader didn’t have enough room to move, despite the expansiveness in the stories and the genius Gallant so clearly has—this reader just couldn’t feel it and fall in love and fall quiet.