I have been asking myself lately why reading collections of short stories should be a slog, and I think I have found the answer. It’s the problem of the rich man with a closet full of new shoes. Rich men, as we all know, do not buy a single pair of shoes at a time; they buy ten different models, and in order to distribute them equally throughout five houses in various parts of the world, their hard-pressed valets find themselves staggering out of the shops with something like fifty pairs, if I have done my sums correctly, and that is where the trials begin. Ah, the blisters, the bunions, the saddlesoap. The additional expense of pedicure. A reviewer confronted simultaneously with three polished collections of stories is in much the same fix. I am speaking here of Mavis Gallant, Rachel Ingalls and Grace Paley, all ladies in a world where some of us try hard to be lads,and short stories written by ladies are little different from shoes: they need breaking in. During the course of the past two months, I hobbled dutifully between my various estates with all three under my arm. No sooner had I got used to one than I was obliged to try on another. Seduced by a pretty cover, I picked up Rachel Ingalls first. Three of a Kind contains, as one might expect, three stories, each with a tendency to run to fifty pages, although one falls short. The first of them bears the ominous title ‘I see a long journey’, and game for anything I set off. ‘Flora had met James when she was going out with his younger brother, Edward.’ Promising, because you know instantly from this that however well Edward might have done in the sprint, James is the one for the long haul. And so it turns out. ‘He had had many girlfriends and mistresses, naturally.’ Naturally. We are on good, solid ground here, striding confidently along to the side of experience. Besides, James is the one with the money. If he doesn’t care for Flora at the end of fifty miles, he can always go out and try on another. Flora, for her part, doesn’t love James but is unable to think of a reason to turn him down.
We are now in for what looks like forty pages of marriage, and why people do these things God only – but we are straying from the page.
Their quarrels, misunderstandings and jealousies were like those of other families. And she was like other girls who marry into a group of powerful personalities. She was tugged in different directions by all of them. They expected things of her. They criticised her. They tried to train and educate her. When she was pregnant for the first time, and when she had the child, they told her what she was doing wrong.
In this first of Rachel Ingalls’s stories, we march with her to the edge of the abyss and are hurled over the edge. In the machinery of this fable, ‘we’ are swine. A swipe is taken in passing at a mother-in-law, but the cup doesn’t overflow about that with the same generosity as it does in the flood to damn the power-glutted, money-lusting porkies. If Rachel Ingalls’s blows are justly aimed – and I suspect they are – her targets in all good logic should get what they deserve: life-sentences in suffocating sausageskins.
But we are only poor milkfed things for the most part, suffering from an insatiable need to be jollied along. Would Mavis Gallant warm up the bottle? Home Truths, her collection of Canadiana, seemed to promise as much – at least to this particular sausage, brought into the world, as he was, within delivering distance of the meat-packing plant in Saskatoon. Unfortunately or fortunately as the case may be, most of her pieces are set in Montreal, which is as foreign to me as Reykjavik or Ulan Bator, Canada being several countries stitched together in the same flag. She begins, however, in a way that is familiar: ‘That year, it began to rain on the 24th of May – a holiday still called, some thirty years after her death, Queen Victoria’s Birthday. It rained – this was Canada – until the middle of June. The girls, kept indoors, exercising listlessly in the gym, quarrelled over nothing, and complained of headache.’
Having negotiated the unpromising climate of paragraph one, we arrive at paragraph two which begins: ‘ “Life is hell,” Ruth Cook wrote on the lid of a desk, hoping that someone would see it and that there would be a row.’ And with that, of course, we are off and running. If I may venture another ‘of course’, there is nothing worse in life than a book review which tells the story of a story in other words and ends up with an explosion of adjectives. We are not going to do that here. The ideal way to comment on a Mavis Gallant story would be to quote it verbatim, and almost any of the 16 offered in the present volume would do. There is a lot in the first of them to recommend to the male chauvinist chipolata, as he is not likely to have set foot in a girls’ school more than once in a lifetime – the occasion when he climbed over the wall and tore his longjohns on the glass embedded at the top. Survivors of what was once the British Empire, however near-flung, will be encouraged to learn that Montreal schools in those days displayed portraits of the King, and that Kipling was known as ‘our late beloved poet’. The King had a ‘stiff, elegant Queen’ by his side. He died on a cold day in January, and they prayed for him in chapel. We are not in a French-Canadian Catholic school, because of the portrait of the founder in the entrance hall, ‘the school’s chief financial rock, a fruit importer who had abandoned Presbyterianism for the Church of England when a sudden rise in wealth and status demanded the change’. Even in Saskatchewan the Church of England had a cachet that the others lacked: something to do, perhaps, with the sugarplum accents of the ministers in charge.
Mavis Gallant is extraordinarily good at describing an environment or mindscape from what might be called a perambulating point of view. In this one story we are taken in turn into the minds of the schoolgirl, the art teacher, the headmistress (‘We must learn never to fear change, provided it is for the best’), a visitor to the school, a second schoolgirl, and the all-inclusive but unintrusive mind of the author. By the time we have made the tour of all of the prejudices and sensibilities exposed, we have learned a surprising amount about the earnestness of adult women, and why girls practise their intimidating cruelties upon them.
With Grace Paley, what I’d like to do, if I am allowed, is to creep up on her from the Far East. There is, in Chinese painting, the notion of contrast or opposition of space symbolically represented by the Taoist tennis ball, black intruding on white, white intruding on black, vide et plein.I am not going to go further into theory here than to interpret the notion in my own way as the understated and the overstated, between which extremes all prose pendulums swing. Grace Paley is an exponent of the former. Prose, tending as it does toward the inflationary, can never be as understated as, let’s say, the haiku, but it can move in that direction, and in her first story she gives us a stunning example of it – the history of something like a decade of Western politics and what it can do to friendship, in three or four sentences. Those of us who are allergic to politics and politicians may consider that a decade too many, but Paley has her purposes and they are not to be denied: her first story had me singing anti-war hymns in spite of my best destructive instincts. In a bit more than five pages, it gives a complete run-down on a marriage, with its fidelities and infidelities and normally furtive practices. ‘Then we talked over the way the SALT treaty looked more like a floor than a ceiling, read a poem written by one of his daughters, looked at a TV show telling the destruction of the European textile industry, and then made’ – what I, for one, should be tempted to call the acceptable face of politics.
The diligent reviewer pauses somewhere, and why not here, to offer a catalogue of virtues: the unerring ear for New Yorkese in at least four of its vernaculars, white, black, Jewish, and touches of university mandarin; the humour; the earth-motherishness – all of which lead on to a statement about the near-futility of literature. Grace Paley, as those who follow her know, writes sparingly and has never ventured, she says, into the novel (I intend to quarrel with her about this later on). There is too much reality in her life, she implies, to leave breathing-space for the long wind. Meanwhile, from a literary life-span of something like thirty years, we are left with three slim volumes – 44 stories all told – which offer us more information about the non-programmed mind than any number of superfatted blockbusters designed to play on Saturday Night Forever.
In Rachel Ingalls’s second story, hell continues to be other people: an unattentive boyfriend at a ski resort; acquaintances the narrator had crossed an ocean to leave behind; the geriatric ward. Here the structure of the story is identical to that of the first. We are lured along by the devices of a somewhat homespun style, and hit over the head with a mallet. We are not meant to recover. More detail is conveyed about the rich, and we like them even less than before.
The third story convinced me that her collection should have borne a less wieldy title: Two of a Kind Plus One, or even Two of a Kind and a Hermaphrodite, because, though the prose continues unadorned, the thought-processes involved take off into a world where nuns are monks and laughter leaps over the walls. What happens, to abbreviate wildly, is that Brother Anselm becomes pregnant and who’s yer father. Now this has happened before, notably to Marcello Mastroianni, who survived to laugh about it in posters. Brother Anselm does not survive. The point of these stories is that nice people get polished off in the end. The good Brother is as nice as one can be in the circumstances, but before he is assumed into heaven or wherever, he spreads panic among the monks. How did it come about? What are they to do with the child? The pretty young novice who makes eyes at him – could he be the responsible party? But where could he have found out how? Rachel Ingalls rollicks us over a barrel of theological conundrums immaculately conceived. It is the kind of material one would be overjoyed to relate to a college of cardinals if one happened to be elected Pope.
Mavis Gallant’s book is divided into three sections: one about Canadians at home, another about Canadians abroad, and a third, ‘Linnet Muir’, in the guise of a Canadian autobiography. The name ‘Linnet’ is used in these stories the way ‘Robin’ is used elsewhere, and I must say that if anyone with a name like that were ever to be brought within range of this hired gun, she’d end up on a plate. Despite my unfamiliarity with Montreal, a city known largely for its ice-age gladiators in muffs, I kept seeing faces I knew and hearing voices I had heard before, as I made my way through the stories. This is not to say that the Canadian element in them is in any way uncommunicable elsewhere: to my mind Mavis Gallant is one of the most accomplished artisans of Cosmopolis in print. It is simply a way of registering pleasure at the discovery that the Canadian voice can, after all, be distinguished from the babel heard immediately to the south.
Canadians and Americans are both multicultural, but Canadians are bicultural as well, and that difference becomes more and more significant as we go along. In Mavis Gallant’s stories we learn about the two Canadas from both sides of the fence, together with accompanying lore about the Catholic-Protestant cohabitation. None of it is strident or complaining; she is there to report the facts as she understands them. The method is not so much allusive as it is inclusive. In the war between le vide et le plein, she comes down on the side of one of these canvases meticulously covered with dots.
This is New Yorker country, with the ghost of Katherine Mansfield hovering somewhere benevolently above. I very much doubt, however, that the New Zealander is a match for the Canadian in range and density of observation. There is one moment in the story called ‘Varieties of Exile’ in which a Rachel Ingalls type of blow is struck on behalf of racial tolerance, and all the more effective for being thrown off as an aside. The difficulty is attributed, justly or unjustly, to Winston Churchill – in memory, I suppose, of the famous remark about a certain ‘naked fakir’. If, decades hence, Mavis Gallant acquires the status of a literary spook – and I see no reason why she should be denied the honour – she will be distinguished, I expect, less by benevolence than by the subtlety and dexterity of her cutting edge.
One of the finest of Grace Paley’s stories, ‘Zagrowsky tells’, has to do with the same theme. In this cautionary tale, Zagrowsky, a Jewish chemist – pharmacist – in New York is accused by a group of his customers of discriminating against the blacks. Militants militate, banners blaze. Zagrowsky defends himself as best he can. His disturbed daughter is later made pregnant by a gardener at a mental hospital, and the child is black. Zagrowsky goes on defending himself as best he can.
In earlier collections, Grace Paley showed a limited sort of interest in narrative; here she is all theme – womanhood and motherhood, youth and old age, husbands and lovers and wives and friends – and she leaves out infinitely more than she puts in. Along the way, sentences are fractured, digressions digressed, and time is leapfrogged with an insouciance that might have made Later the Same Lifetime an equally plausible title for the book. Risks are taken with the reader’s attention, and they are rewarded. The risks are of size, because she does not, for the most part, write prose: she writes speech. She is the daughter of Groucho Marx and the mother of Woody Allen. You can pick it up from the far side of the Atlantic: ‘She says I called Mrs Z. a grizzly bear a few times. It’s my wife, no? ... ’ ‘She died in front of the television set. She didn’t miss a trick ... ’ ‘She’s a nice-looking girl now, even when she has an attack ... ’ ‘I think she must be a women’s libber, they don’t like remarks about nightgowns. Bathrobes, she didn’t mind ... ’
It would be fair, I think, to describe her as a miniaturist. Only the immediate interests her, and close-ups of her immediate environment. She sees herself, and the world sees her, as a writer of short stories. I say she is a novelist as well. The tone, from story to story and from volume to volume, doesn’t significantly change, even though in this volume she has found a new freedom in venturing more directly into the languages of the doorstep. Her heroine, if that is the word, may be called Faith here, or Virginia there, but we are not deceived. Had she decided in the beginning to stay with a single name, she would now be thought of, correctly, as an episodic novelist. A novelist who had chosen to confine herself to a handful of instruments, perhaps a quartet, and with them write passages in a major key – the key of sturdy resistance to meanness and despair and everything that tries to drag us under. An ailing husband or modern King David goes off for a last restorative fling with an accommodating Bathsheba. ‘Don’t come back grouchy,’ says the wife. Other writers’ women would have broken pots. On learning of the death of her son, a mother sleeps well for the first time in two years. She knows, at long last, where to find him. On Paley’s Planet everything tends to work out more or less as it should, if only in dreams or in strategies for avoiding the landlord. But the other instruments of the orchestra, where has she put them? She has left them in a closet, or given them away to Norman Mailer, probably thinking they are too time-consuming to learn, too noisy, and not fun.