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Going Ashore

by Mavis Gallant

Any new book by Mavis Gallant is an event, and Going Ashore is an interesting and unusual one, full of surprises as well as confirmations. Gallant has written a great many more pieces of fiction than she has published between hard covers. This retrospective consists of short stories and sketches that either didn’t quite make the final cut in previous collections or have lain undisturbed in forgotten magazines. That approach might suggest that the book consists of nothing but rejects, but Going Ashore also belongs to the honourable but obsolete subgenre the Victorians called “literary remains”: a gathering of otherwise unavailable stuff throwing light on how an author (usually a dead one) developed.

The earliest piece in the book was written in 1951, the year after Gallant, a Montreal journalist in her late twenties, moved to Paris to pursue literature; the most recent ones date from the early 1980s. Readers looking at her work over that 30-year period can observe a hesitant writer becoming a master, even though this evolution is obscured by the way the stories are organized. The contents aren’t presented chronologically, as would seem rational. And they can hardly be presented thematically, given that Gallant’s themes scarcely changed over the course of her career.

Gallant is the literary patron saint of, not exiles exactly, but certainly expats: people living on sufferance some distance from their roots – whether geographical, cultural, or social – and perhaps trying to fit in but always failing. In one story, an Englishwoman abroad, in the company of people from a different station in life, finally wonders “if there remained a great deal more to learn before she could wear their castoff manners as her own.” Of course we all know the answer: she will never fool anybody and will never be accepted.

In another story, a woman “had been trained in the school of indirect suggestion, and so skillful had she become that her children sometimes had no idea what she was driving at.” Gallant is an honours graduate of the same school, but her own style of suggestion not only demands the equivalent skills in inference, it also warrants readers’ admiration.

The longest story in the collection – no fundamental rethinking would be needed to nudge it into the novella category – illustrates Gallant’s abiding concerns, even though the plot and characters seem dated to the point of cliché. An English Canadian couple with intellectual and social pretensions reside in a small Quebec town where they hire Bernadette, a local girl (one of 13 children in her family), as a servant. Bernadette isn’t a person of great mental vitality (she is described as being “grim with the effort of remembering what to do next”). Yet the husband somehow believes that he is tutoring her effectively, though she never reads – perhaps can’t read – all the books he lends her. The marriage, like so many marriages in Gallant’s fiction, turns out to be a union of irreconcilable misfits, and poor Bernadette becomes pregnant and must be sent away somewhere out of sight.

Given the popularity of the radio and television versions of La Famille Plouffe in the early 1950s, the anglophones and francophones in Gallant’s story may well have been thoroughly clichéd even in 1957, when the tale was written. But that doesn’t obscure Gallant’s intent, which was, as always, the exploration of cultural dislocation (even when it happens at home).

If Gallant’s predominant themes are well represented in Going Ashore, there are also surprises. The big one is the sardonic – not to say biting and cynical – tone of the satirical pieces scattered throughout the book. These aren’t fiction, precisely; they’re more along the lines of Woody Allen’s magazine pieces, but much meaner. Most of them are directed against the culture and people of France, generally, and of Paris in particular. These pieces work by first making a statement and then testing its tensile strength by adding one wild exaggeration after another until, in the end, the whole thing collapses hilariously into something resembling a collaboration between Marcel Proust and Stephen Leacock. 

In her more familiar short-story mode, Gallant will often set the confusion of nationality or ethnicity alongside the similar lack of comprehension that exists between children and adults. This is especially the case in the title story, which takes places on a transatlantic liner. Still, gentle satire creeps in, as with the droll addition of a passenger who “sat in the bar writing a long journal, which he sent home, in installments, for the edification of his analyst.” The driest example is found in a short piece in which a semi-rural francophone community proves perplexing to the young daughter of an anglophone painter who’s taken a house there for the summer. “All of the French-Canadian fathers in the town worked,” the narrator recalls. “They delivered milk, they farmed, they owned rival hardware stores, they drew up one another’s wills.”

Gallant’s fictional world is rich in details of middle-class life in the 1950s and later. But she is no apostle or apologist for the middle class, partly because she herself is anything but suburban. Yet her command of the appropriate minutiae – the details of people’s clothing, for example – calls to mind Margaret Drabble. The trick is not to lay it on too thick. And she never does.