Monday, November 16, 2009

Paris Stories, by Mavis Gallant

Gallant reminds me of Chekhov. She's funnier—or it's easier for me to catch her North American comic sensibility—and almost as chilling. These stories are extraordinarily well-crafted. As with Chekhov, the craft is in the service of story, not ideology and not the articulation—the self-aggrandizement—of an ego.

Gallant's art makes clear the difference between literature and propaganda, between fiction and philosophy, between life and death.

In her generous afterword, after her manner, she says that art should illuminate the difference between life and death. One would that that the differences should be obvious, yet reading her stories one realizes that they aren't, and to imagine that they are is laziness.

Her women, especially, are riveting. I've discovered only recently the extent to which women have an inner life. I was aware of it, vaguely hoped for it, but thought that women were primarily social, outward-flowing, and consequently I badly underestimated their private complexity.

Reading Gallant in conjunction with what's transpired in my life recently has transformed the way I see women. I don't know if this transformation will manifest itself in the way I live. I hope it does.

But this isn't about me—or shouldn't be.

Among the gifts Gallant gives her reader, this most of all: her artistic process is impossible to deduce. She says she begins with an image. It's fun to imagine what that image might be with each story; but imagine is all you can do. The stories are seamless. Her touch is too light to leave a trace of anything conclusively original or seminal, of the creative artist, the craftsperson, the technician, the necessity at the story's source.

Having read her I want to copy her. But that's not merely impossible; it is ludicrous.

She's as good as anyone writing short stories right now, perhaps ever. This is a superb collection. Michael Ondaatje edited the book and it includes an introduction he's authored. His introduction seems to implicitly acknowledge that she's the better writer. If it doesn't, it should.

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