The Life of Henri Grippes

Jonathan Coe

  • Selected Stories by Mavis Gallant
    Bloomsbury, 887 pp, £25.00, April 1997, ISBN 0 7475 3251 6

This enormous volume – beautifully designed, bound and typeset by its publishers – represents the merest sliver of Mavis Gallant’s lifelong achievement. Even discounting the two novels and the books of essays, what we have here can amount to little more than half the content of her nine published short-story collections. Gallant has made the selection herself, rejecting ‘straight humour and satire, which dates quickly ... stories that seemed to me not worth reprinting, stories I was tired of, and stories that bored me’. It sounds like a haphazard and subjective methodology, but the resulting sequence does have an awesome cohesiveness.

Most of the stories assembled here were first seen in the New Yorker, where Gallant has been offered a regular platform under the benign aegis of William Maxwell and, later, David Menaker. Although they span almost half a century – the earliest was published in 1953, the latest in 1995, Gallant’s 73rd year – they are nonetheless eerily consistent in voice and preoccupation. Gallant writes about exiled people: characters in exile from their country of birth (she herself left Canada in 1950, and has lived in Europe ever since) and characters in exile, more damagingly, from their emotions. She delineates these characters with an incisive cruelty that is never judgmental, and her narratives tend to resist closure or easy resolution. Gallant insists in her punchy Introduction that ‘stories are not chapters of novels’, but some of these might almost be, since each one implies so much history before the opening sentence, and gestures towards so much more incident after the final full stop. Like one of her earliest heroines – a prematurely disillusioned bride-to-be, shocked to hear her fiancé working up his account of their miserable evening together into an amusing anecdote – Gallant resists the falsifying process whereby her stories might be wrenched into ‘a coherent picture, accurate but untrue’.

This is not the only comment on the nature of storytelling to be found in these pages. One of this collection’s many pleasures is that it can be used, if one chooses, as a user’s manual to different forms of writing, good and bad. Among Gallant’s more recent creations is one of her most memorable: the workmanlike but patently mediocre novelist and man of Parisian letters Henri Grippes. Grippes flits through the book’s last four, caustic stories. A shallow, opportunistic writer, he still somehow manages to elicit the reader’s sympathy by virtue of his rotten luck and his chronic unpopularity with the book-buying public: there’s a mordant, redeeming humour here which is given freer rein than in Gallant’s weightier stories. This, for instance, is Grippes’s experience of the événements of the late Sixties:

10 May 1968. Clouds of tear gas. Cars overturned in Paris streets. Grippes’s long-awaited autobiographical novel, Sleeping on the Beach, had appeared the day before. His stoic gloom as he watched students flinging the whole of the first edition onto a bonfire blazing as high as second-storey windows. Grippes’s publisher, crouched in his shabby office just around the corner, had already hung on the wall the photograph of some hairy author he hoped would pass for Engels ... Grippes, pale trench coat over dark turtleneck, hands clenched in trench coat pockets, knew he was ageing, irreversibly, minute by minute. Some of the students thought he was Herbert Marcuse and tried to carry him on their shoulders to Le Figaro’s editorial offices, which they hoped he would set on fire.

But it’s not enough for Gallant simply to offer us jokes at Grippes’s expense. If the jokes are to have substance and bite, he must be more than a booby: and in fact they become even more delicious, seasoned with sadness and the tragedy of thwarted aspiration, if Grippes is made to appear not entirely talentless, but gifted – as 99 out of 100 published writers are – with just enough talent to bring his literary output within a hair’s breadth of being worthwhile. And so, running coolly through the list of surrogate heroes Grippes has devised for himself during his writing career, Gallant offers us this revealing insight into his methods:

It was at about this time that a series of novels offered themselves to Grippes – shadowy outlines behind a frosted-glass pane. He knew he must not let them crowd in all together, or keep them waiting too long. His foot against the door, he admitted, one by one, a number of shadows that turned into young men, each bringing his own name and address, his native region of France portrayed on colour postcards, and an index of information about his tastes in clothes, love, food and philosophers, his bent of character, his tics of speech, his attitudes toward God and money, his political bias, and the intimation of a crisis about to explode underfoot.

The curious thing about this is that it’s close – very close – to the account given by Gallant herself in her Introduction, when she describes the process by which her own stories ‘occur’ to her. ‘The first flash of fiction,’ she assures us, ‘arrives without words. It consists of a fixed image, like a slide or (closer still) a freeze frame, showing characters in a simple situation.’ There seems to be no particular resemblance here to Grippes and his shadowy young men, until she adds that ‘every character comes into being with a name (which I may change), an age, a nationality, a profession, a particular voice and accent, a family background, a personal history, a destination, qualities, secrets, an attitude toward love, ambition, money, religion, and a private centre of gravity.’

Far from satirising Grippes, then, Gallant is actually ascribing to him much the same creative capacity that she recognises in herself. The crucial difference, as in so much of her writing, lies in the detail. There’s something crashingly literal about Grippes’s approach to fiction, evident not just in the obvious put-down about each of his characters arriving with ‘his native region of France portrayed on colour postcards’, but in the bureaucratic fussiness with which he demands ‘an index of information’, and in the simplistic insistence on ‘tics of speech’ and a ‘political bias’. Compare Gallant’s professed approach to her own characters: she listens for ‘a particular voice and accent’ rather than ‘tics of speech’, seeks ‘qualities’ and ‘secrets’, while phrases like ‘a destination’ and ‘a private centre of gravity’ are both exact and wildly, endlessly suggestive. On one level, it seems, Gallant is being generous to Grippes, making it clear that he is more than a mere charlatan or hack. Nevertheless, the qualitative difference between what he does and what Gallant knows the real writer to be capable of is at once tiny and momentous.

If Gallant’s account of her own creative process is shot through with both suggestiveness and exactitude, we can observe a similar tension running throughout the whole of her fiction, and giving her stories their peculiar dynamic. To my mind, the finest work on display here is also the most closely autobiographical: the four-story sequence called Linnet Muir, written in the Seventies. Although they display correspondences with the contours of Gallant’s early life (upbringing in a rural suburb of Montreal, daughter of an English painter who died very young and so on), these stories put up a vigorous resistance to the claims of nostalgia. This is not to say that they’re cold, or that Gallant denies us the occasional indulgence in the sort of pastel, soft-focus tableau we like to associate with remembered childhood: she writes raptly of the interior of a doctor’s house with rooms and passages ‘papered deep blue fading to green ... so that the time of day indoors was winter dusk, with pools of light like uncurtained windows’. But generally such descriptions are held in check by a chastening level-headedness. Looking back to Montreal in the Thirties, she tells us that ‘the end of the afternoon had a particular shade of colour then’, but goes on to insist, adamantly, that this memory is ‘not tinted by distance or enhancement but has to do with how streets were lighted’. A few lines later in the same passage, she describes ‘the reddish brown of the stone houses, the curve and slope of the streets, the constantly changing sky’ not as ‘beautiful’ or ‘splendid’ or ‘heartbreaking’ but as ‘satisfactory’; and not just satisfactory, but ‘satisfactory in a way that I now realise must have been aesthetically comfortable’.

There are no thoughtless repetitions in Gallant’s writing: even across almost 900 pages, you can’t tease out mannerisms or ‘tics of speech’. There is, all the same, something characteristic about her use of the word ‘satisfactory’ in that sentence: something that tells us a little about how her stories work. It’s not that it deflates, exactly, the poetic lustre of the descriptions that surround it, but it does somehow keep the reader anchored, injecting a slightly jaded, qualifying note: as if to remind us that, however precious our memories might seem, however lovely things might look when viewed in the warm glow of recollection, the world is really nothing to get too excited about. This is not a common-sense viewpoint, either: it goes beyond that, into a kind of cosmic impatience with all things human, and quite often Gallant will achieve this effect by dropping in a single word like a lethal bomb. It happens in the very first sentence of her Introduction, when she mentions Samuel Beckett’s response to a ‘hopeless’ question from a Paris newspaper; it happens again in Linnet Muir, when she refers to a grandmother who made her sit at meals with books under her arms so she would learn not to stick out her elbows, and adds: ‘I remember having accepted this nonsense from her without a trace of resentment.’ More subtly, we find it in a nearly story called ‘An Unmarried Man’s Summer’, in which the hero finds that his Riviera home becomes quite intolerable during the summer months when the nearby hotel is busy, and the sheer scale of his discomfiture is conveyed by the single word ‘tons’ in the sentence, ‘Its kitchen sends the steam of tons of boiled potatoes over Walter’s hedge.’

Gallant’s impatience with the world is nothing more than the inevitable cross to be borne by anyone who observes it with such scrupulous accuracy; but it also co-exists and fertilises with an extraordinary patience when engaged in the task of giving her observations a fictional shape. ‘An Unmarried Man’s Summer’, she tells us, grew from one of those freeze-frame images which constitute ‘the first flash of fiction’: in this case, the image of a young Italian boy called Angelo following the hero, Walter, through the streets of a ‘shadeless, hideous town’, begging for coins. It’s easy enough to imagine what most short-story writers would have done with this idea: the first exchange of angry words, the slippage into conversation, the beginnings of a relationship. How agile and adventurous, then, to have bothered with none of that: to have allowed one’s mind to fast-forward any number of years to the point where the relationship is well established, crystallised into a dependency between master and valet; to have foreseen the master’s aloofness and irritation, the valet’s plucky capacity for masking his own deep-rooted sense of lovelessness. From the starting point of this relationship, Gallant imagines an entire milieu in which the unmarried Walter becomes the lapdog of a circle of lonely, doting women, mainly widows and divorcées: to them he must always be ‘naughty Walter’ or ‘wicked boy’ because ‘part of the memory of every vanished husband or lover or son is the print of his cruelty’, and Angelo must always be ‘the comic valet’, ‘his hilarious and unpredictable manservant’ – reduced to the status of an anecdote, and denied the inner, independent life for which this very unpredictability is an obvious groping. All this complexity, and history, and bleak, unconsoling truth from one freeze-frame image: no sooner glimpsed than registered and swiftly left behind. The generous brilliance of Gallant’s method is almost intimidating. These stories are the product of a daunting talent, and this is in some ways a daunting book. Enthusing to friends during the time I’ve spent with it, I’ve found that, in this country at least, Mavis Gallant is not well known, or widely read. Perhaps people sense a superficial froideur in her writing that puts them off, or they simply don’t realise that you can be brainy and have feelings at the same time. Wrong on both counts, anyway: and this book is the triumphant proof.