“Never have characters so adrift been so effectively anchored,” writes Jhumpa Lahiri as she introduces The Cost of Living: Early and Uncollected Stories by Mavis Gallant, widely admired and loved as one of the masters of the modern short story. Born Mavis Leslie de Trafford Young in Montreal in 1922, Gallant was educated at seventeen different schools in Canada and the United States. Her father, a furniture salesman and painter, died in 1932, after which her mother remarried, and moved to New York. She left her daughter behind in the company of a guardian.
Mavis Leslie de Trafford Young married John Gallant, a musician from Winnipeg in 1942, but they divorced in 1947. While her husband spent most of the time overseas in the armed forces, Gallant worked as a journalist for the Montreal Standard. In 1950, she moved to France, boldly deciding to make a living solely as a writer of fiction. She published short stories, novels, plays and essays, and was a regular contributor to The New Yorker (116 pieces in all). She died in Paris in 2014.
The collection The Cost of Living contains stories from 1951 to 1971, set across Quebec, New York, Paris and New England. Like the author, many of the characters are travellers. They are on holiday, in search of a better life on new territory, just seeking temporary shelter somewhere. Some, if not geographically displaced, seem internally restless.
People are cut loose from their origins and are caught between currents of a personal, political or temporal nature. “Bringing that drift into focus,” explains Lahiri, “is the essence of Gallant’s art.” Expatriate communities make for “strange bedfellows”. Characters live with makeshift families, adopt foreign languages. In the middle of all this the War, of course, has a huge role to play. It is an absent “prologue” of sorts, one big factor behind the disturbance.
Each narrative is a complex psychological study. As I went through these stories, I fell in love with the economy of language, the unsentimental and deeply compassionate prose, and most of all, the many sharp and precise observations on life and society – for instance, cultural stereotypes (How like an American! The only measuring rods, time and money!), and gender roles of the era (It had occurred to her many times in this lonely winter that only marriage would save her from disgrace, from growing up with no skills and no profession).
Read two longer excerpts:
From MADELINE’S BIRTHDAY:
Madeline awoke at that instant and was unable to place the banging sound or determine where she was. The days of her lifetime had been spent in so many different places – in schools, in camps, in the houses of people she was or was not related to – that the first sight of day was, almost by habit, bewildering. Opening her eyes, she recognized the room and knew that she was spending the summer in the country with the Tracys.
Madeline settled back in bed and closed her eyes. Seven more days to Labor Day, she thought, and only then did she remember that it was her birthday. Three years ago, she had been fourteen. In another three, she would be twenty. She was unmarried and not in love and without a trace of talent in any direction. It seemed to her the worst of all possible days.
From THIEVES AND RASCALS:
“Weak, frightened, lying…” said Marian. “Thieves and rascals.” She sat up and, groping in the pocket of her dressing gown, found a handkerchief. “Thieves,” she said. She blew her nose. “And never any courage, not a scrap. They can’t own up. They can’t be trusted. They can’t face things. Not at that age. Not at any age.”
“I think it’s going a little far to say you can’t trust any man, at any age,” said Charles.
“I don’t know any,” said his wife.
“Well,” he said, “there’s me, for instance.” When she did not reply, he said: “Well, it’s a fine time to find out you don’t trust me.”
“The question isn’t whether I do or not,” said Marian. “I have to trust you. I mean, I either live with you, and keep the thing on the tracks, or I don’t. So then, of course, I have to trust you.”
“It’s not good enough,” said Charles. “You should trust me out of conviction, not because you think you have to.”
Learn more about Mavis Gallant in these pieces on The Guardian, The New Yorker and The Paris Review.