The Books of My Numberless Dreams

Sunday Salon: The triumphant return

Posted on: March 2, 2008

Or is it? I intended to give my attention to only two books today — Varieties of Exile by Mavis Gallant and The Carhullan Army by Sarah Hall — but now I’m looking at the shelves and wondering if I shouldn’t bother with something else. I do have two lovely LRB issues to look forward to.

I’m a bit horrified at myself for not feeling more enthusiastic about the Gallant. It was that Russell Banks guy who wrote the introduction. He started off with a lot of daft declarations about what makes the short story, many of which I didn’t even understand, but I had a very good time out last night, so maybe I’m the daft one this morning.

The tension — and sometimes outright conflict — between remembered and felt experience on the one hand and, on the other, the known truth of what happened lies at the heart of all the great short stories. It’s the argument that generates plot and structure, which, finally, gives a story meaning.

What? Are we talking about fiction here or awesome memoirs? Is he describing the characters’ experiences or the authors? And why is this the basic composition — between memory and experience — of a masterpiece short story? Is that what made Kafka great? Andre Dubus is the writer who legitimized and justified the entire form for me and that’s not the aspect of his writing that bowled me over. His skill was in rendering complex, dire emotion in a simple prose. He balanced the every day with the inner turmoil, in some instances as mundane as anything else, and gave his ordinary characters experience the weight and potency of Greek tragedies. His writing voice was as clear as a bell. And although his stories could be wrenching — I was sobbing, outright sobbing at the end of “Rose” in his collection The Last Worthless Evening — I’d never say they were depressing. They just felt….real, honest, true, whatever that means, not in a documentary-like sense but just the emotional experience he created, the spirit of his work, of his characters, of every sentence felt…authentic. And…I’m getting ahead of myself because I was thinking none of these things at this point as I hadn’t read any of Gallant stories, yet.

I love Derek McCormack’s, absurd, violent, horrific, comedic work and I’m telling you, he’s not so much interested in exploring the tension between recollection and “the known truth”. (Which how do you know if you can only depend on memory? The omniscient narrator? That’s easy, isn’t it.)

Banks name checked Gogol and Chekhov and since I haven’t read their work yet, who’s to say. What I will say is that even if that’s the remarkable quality of their work I don’t see why that has to be the specific standard that all must work up to.

The other odd thing about Banks’ introduction was that he seemed determined to present Gallant to me, a first time reader, as the literary equivalent of a handmade quilt — of the absolute highest quality! — with which I could cover myself and revel in its comfort and familiar sensation, maybe from childhood. Seriously! Don’t worry, he assures me, she’s not obscure, or esoteric for everything, “characters, settings, situations, and language are always instantly familiar, intimate, and homegrown, whether planted in Montreal an Eastern Township village, Paris, Moscow, Florida, or the French Mediterranean”. That sounds exciting. I don’t mind a bit of strangeness in my fiction and, considering the book’s title, I was kind of betting on…at least one story element being strange. I wonder, though, if it’s not that he expects the typical NYRB classics reader to have already travelled to such marvellous places. It reminds me of Hilary Mantel’s review of Coetzee’s latest in the NYRB where she suggested that the book might nudge readers to “reread” Brothers Karamazov. (Of course.)

Then he makes possibly the most ridiculous statement in the entire essay. After giving brief descriptions of a few of the stories in the book he writes

None of these characters has money or property or much education; none of them is secure in society. Characters and situations like these seem peculiarly American, North American. (ed: I wonder if that includes Mexico?) It’s not easy to imagine them in the hands of a British or European or Latin American writer. I fear they would be treated far less kindly.

What’s THAT supposed to mean? I ask you. Those foreign writers have it in for America’s poor and dispossessed? Or are they all too busy writing about lords and ladies and rich oligarchs and wouldn’t know what to do, bless their hearts,with a poor ol’ American high school drop out or —

He continues his paean to “North” America (minus that pesky country that speaks that funny language hanging off the bottom there), proclaims that the New Yorker‘s regular printing of Gallant’s stories justifies it existence (I thought that was Munro? Or is it vice versa in her case?) then graciously allows that Gallant is only a “writers’ writer” in the sense that she “honours in every sentence…the deepest, most time-honored principles of composition: honesty, clarity, and concision” not because her work is highfalutin’ and exotic.

So one good thing out of this is that I now know how a “writers’ writer” is defined. Hitherto, I thought it denoted a writer popular among other writers but not well-known in the reading public. I didn’t know they also attached on to it a reason for the status ie too complex for regular folks. If I like a “writers’ writer” can I become an honorary writer in recognition of my superior taste? Let’s see…I think I saw Steve Stern given that description once. Donald Harington, definitely. Lydia Davis probably counts, so if I enjoy her book, I can mark her off too.

I started “The Fenton Child”, first story in the collection, prepared to be stripped bare by Gallant’s greatness. (Or bundled up in it’s fuzzy wuzziness.) After all, Banks had declared her one of the greatest living “story writers” in English, with only maybe William Trevor and Alice Munro deserving similar accolades — Americans, you’re up for zero. What I got was…an ok story. Pretty good! It’s about the life of two middle-class families in Quebec and they’re depicted with a tender, quirky kind of humour that makes you laugh for a bit, which is nice. I enjoy a writer with a good sense of humour and I’m always puzzled at why many critics never mention this in their commentary unless their subject has a comedic rep.

The story’s corner stone was its narrative structure which Gallant cleverly handled. The beginning of the story starts at an orphanage run by nuns at which a doctor, his friend an upper-middle class Anglo, Mr. Fenton, and a young Quebecois girl, Nora, who is supposed to take care of the baby for a week or so before a foreign nursemaid arrives. The child’s mother is not well, it seems, suffers from “depression” and cannot come for the babe herself. It’s something of a mystery as to why they’re there to pick it up an orphanage if they were the birth parents. Gallant interspersed tiny scenes from Nora’s memory as we follow the small group to Fenton’s house and then she halts that story line to write the scenes that directly lead to that moment and then we get the finish.

I’m sure I could uncover more if I dug a little deeper but I’m not interested. Nothing has any weight for me. I read and it’s as though the wind could blow the words off the page and what was left would hold as much substance and be as interesting. Oh, that poor Anglo’s introverted outlook is funny ha ha, and oh that Quebecois family shunted their daughter off to some convent because she had tuberculosis, the poor man’s disease, and forgot about her, ho hum. Oh, that’s how this baby came about, oh dear. Turn the page. Shrug.

Now I’m in the middle of “The End of the World” and, so far, it’s as unpromising. Here we have the story of a father who abandoned his wife and three sons, the oldest was 12, after WWII, ended up in France, and his son was called for to be there with him in his last days. This should be bitter, possibly farcical, poignant, tempestuous, tragic, something, but I’m kind of just reading along. Maybe Paris Stories is better? Or do I have to be North American to appreciate Gallant’s grandeur?

I shall have to reread the Dubus collections I’ve already read and buy the rest. Whenever I read articles about American short story writers I never see his name mentioned and I’m always railing my fist in frustration and wondering if I dreamt up my intense reaction to his prose.

Sunday Salon


9 Responses to "Sunday Salon: The triumphant return"

I loved reading your snarky remarks. 🙂 I suppose it’s because I’m a North American that I can sympathise with down-and-out characters. lol

If you haven’t read Chekhov, a good place to start is the “Forty Stories” collection. They’re in chronological order, and the early stories are quite short–many little more than sketches, humorous anectdotes… then something begins to change, and in 1886 you get Gusev, Typhus… stories you can see have grown out of the early pieces, and yet… you would never have anticipated such mastery, such concentrated, effortless power.

Gusev… read the ending of Gusev and compare it to that of Billy Bud… ask yourself, how did that happen!

I think you make an interesting point even if you possibly meant it as a throw away line when you ask if you need to be North American to appreciate Gallant. I don’t know her work, so can’t comment on this particular case, but I do remember a very interesting, if rather late night/early morning discussion with some Irish friends of mine about Seamus Heaney which ran along the same lines. Two of them insisted that you needed to be Irish to understand his work, the third didn’t, couldn’t see why anyone would have any difficulty. But, the fact that he went to school with Heaney might just have had something to do with his reasoning, personally I think you need to have been born and brought up in the same village. My point being, that sometimes you do get a very different perspective on a writer if you share the same background. Perhaps that is the case here.

Eva thanks! I just didn’t understand that remark he made about the foreign writers. He can argue that they would write it differently (but who would want to use the nationality as the differentiator ?) but to imply that they’d be unsympathetic? Dumbo.

Jacob thanks for the personal recommendation. I do mean to try both writers out! One day…

Ann Darnton I see your point and I’d see it as a more plausible situation for a writer like Seamus Heaney, especially since he knows Gaelic and that obviously influences his writing to some extent. But, in my case, I can’t buy it for the USA and Canada. Maybe Quebec. Maybe. And that would have to be for content/theme. Gallant writes in English and, on a technical level, I’m not wowed either.

Having read a fair amount of Chehkov and close to all of Gogol, I’ll say that the quote you pulled has some application to Chekhov, and none whatsoever to Gogol.

But you found so much nonsense in Banks that this point begins to seem small.

Yeah, it was laughs from start to finish.

It seems very odd that Banks should emphasize the North American character of Gallant’s stories when in fact she has been much more feted in France (where she has lived for nearly 60 years now) than in Canada (where she was born and grew up). Perhaps he’s trying desperately to sell her to a U.S. audience? Although why that should be necessary when she was, as he notes, so fully embraced by the New Yorker, I’m not sure.

[…] her blog always makes me feel like a temporary member of the literati.  And yesterday, she had the snarkiest post of Sunday Salon that made me giggle out loud.  So go visit her, if you don’t […]

I thought that was odd too, since he himself pointed out that she’s been living in France since her early 20s. I suppose it was a matter of identifying the elements of her writing that he related to the most and he admitted that her stories set in North America were his favourites.

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