Sunday, January 8, 2012

Review: Paris Stories, by Mavis Gallant

I consider it a real mark of my maturity, the way my opinion of Mavis Gallant has evolved over the years. When I first read her work in the form of her collection Home Truths, back when I was a fresh-faced grad student in Winnipeg, I remember being less than impressed. “What’s the big deal with this woman?” I remember telling myself. “These seem to be little more than character sketches. Where are the real stories?” Years later, I gave her another try and delved into her collection In Transit. I had a much easier time seeing the genius behind Gallant’s approach to the short story form, but I still wasn’t convinced that what she did was actually something that I could actively like.

Having read Paris Stories over the Christmas break, I finally feel like I’ve come around to what so many smart people have known about Gallant for decades. This collection of her most European-focused stories, selected by Michael Ondaatje, blew me away from cover to cover. I finally get it; I finally feel like I’ve grown up enough to appreciate Mavis Gallant.

It’s hard to talk about these pieces as a whole collection, since each one is different and brilliant in its own way. Gallant shows off her great versatility in this book, in one instance giving us the lengthy, expansive and character-driven “Speck’s Idea” alongside the shorter, more po-mo piece “From the Fifteenth District,” followed by two of her hilarious Grippes stories. The human emotion and range of moral conundrums offered in these pieces are so vast, so multilayered, it’s hard to know what to praise first.

My favourite pieces in the book were “Speck’s Idea” and “The Remission.” In the former, we meet a troubled but ambitious gallery owner who is trying to revive the reputation of a dead artist by putting on an exhibit of his work, only to run afoul of the artist’s capricious widow. It’s a funny and touching piece with wonderfully fleshed out characters and an incredible ending. “The Remission” is a sad tale of a man who travels abroad from England with his family to die, only to watch the convoluted dynamics of his relationships explode around him. Both pieces show what the short story is capable of in terms of revealing deeply interior emotional worlds that we all live.

The richness of Gallant’s style and the depth of her visions make her a writer with very few peers. Paris Stories is another testament to her enduring genius. I’m glad I’m finally catching on.

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