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Book Reviews

Selected Stories

by Alice Munro

The Selected Stories of Mavis Gallant

by Mavis Gallant

We are for some reason as a people given to the extraordinarily proficient creation of short things. At sketch comedy we are unparalleled, and our short films, live-action and animated, far surpass the quality of our attempts at feature length (in English Canada anyway). It is as if we can’t take ourselves seriously for too long, as if, because we have neither empire nor manifest destiny in our past, we set our eyes to the detail, the individual, the personal, the small, our ambition lying in the depths we dig rather than the expanses we cover.

Which explains, in part, Mavis Gallant and Alice Munro.

At home, Munro is the better known and more widely read, concentrating as she does on our own stories, on characters and situations often so familiar that our lives and her stories mesh, her writing becoming a part of the fabric of our memories.

What setting the two collections of stories (Munro’s Selected Stories, $32.50 cl. 0-7710-6699-9, 560 pp. and The Selected Stories of Mavis Gallant, $39.99 cl. 0-7710-3308-7, 896 pp.) side by side reveals is that Alice Munro, wonderful as she is, plays the part of Elizabeth Gaskell to Gallant’s Jane Austen. Only Gallant’s better than Austen.

Like her maiden predecessor, the maiden Gallant has only a very slim bit of ivory upon which she does her carving. Where Austen sought to go no further afield than the manor houses and ha-has of the landed gentry, Gallant’s world is the world of the exile, the outcast, the stranger in a strange land. Even in the stories that focus on natives, like the “Édouard, Juliette, Lena” series, she must work her way in with an introductory outsider.

And I suspect that is why so many in Canada and elsewhere have overlooked Gallant. It seems, on first looking into it, pretty rarefied material. And it is, I guess. But unlike Austen, who never described a scene in which no women were present (because she admitted she had no idea what men spoke about when there were no women in the room), Gallant gets inside everything. She can, in the aforementioned series for instance, be an absurdly earnest young French Resistance wannabe, a rare pure laine Parisian Huguenot, and an aged cultural elite media banterer, all with such precision and deftness that no attention is called to any of it, a quality she also brings to her prose, which, unless you choose to take particular notice, disappears; a close look reveals an utter flawlessness.

And M&S it seems, consciously or not, has realized this difference between their authors. Munro’s cover is like a simple framed portrait of a relative that in a generation or two will begin to show its age and make its way from the mantelpiece, slowly up the wall by the stairs, and into the attic. Gallant’s cover declares what’s inside it to be literature, solid, elegant, assuming for itself a permanent place on the shelf with Gide, Genet, and García Márquez. The subjects she deals with are smaller, and she is not challenging or changing anything about the way literature is written or read, the way Genet or Márquez did; she simply represents the pinnacle of the way we have been reading and writing for the past 50 years.

Where Gallant’s prose makes us forget that a misstep is even possible, Munro, from time to time, stumbles. Her sentences are written, rather than crafted, are often a little rough, probably intentionally, like her characters, like her world, a world where “all that life really boils down to is getting a decent cup of coffee and a room to stretch out in.” And there is a simplicity, an honesty, as well as a sensitivity and a great comfort to this. What there is not is transcendence. Munro’s stories are very much rooted in place and time and in the people that she and we know.

Whether you like Munro or Gallant better depends on very big things, like world views. But I think it is saying a lot about these two writers that there is likely no reading person in this country who would like neither.

These two careers spread out before us are monuments; and we can be thankful that they are still monuments in the making. The publication of these two books, whether they get the attention they deserve or not, is the biggest publishing event we’re likely to see for decades.