Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

New Yorker Writer's Miniature Novels Mavis Gallant Expects Her Readers to 'Make a Substantial Investment of Attention'

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

New Yorker Writer's Miniature Novels Mavis Gallant Expects Her Readers to 'Make a Substantial Investment of Attention'

Article excerpt

The Collected Stories of Mavis Gallant

By Mavis Gallant

Random House 887 pp., $40 The short stories of Mavis Gallant might well be said to epitomize the spirit of The New Yorker at midcentury, although in fact her contributions to that magazine have continued on into the century's last decade. Born in Montreal in 1922, Gallant began writing for The New Yorker in 1950. The payment she received for her first story enabled her to go to Paris, where she has spent most of her time ever since. All but one of the 53 stories she has selected for this collection of her work first appeared in The New Yorker. Like much of the writing that was featured in The New Yorker in the 1950s and early 1960s, Gallant's stories address a readership that is intelligent, discriminating, and genuinely adult. The "adultness" of these stories has little to do with risque subject matter, but a great deal to do with the quality of disinterestedness that they expect of their readers and embody in themselves. Gallant's achievement invites us to consider the concept of disinterestedness - not in the sense in which the word is currently misused to mean uninterested or bored, but in the word's proper sense, meaning impartiality, the ability to contemplate an idea, a person, or a situation apart from one's personal preconceptions, passions, and prejudices. To be disinterested is to be capable of a certain amount of objectivity, to be able to take an interest in matters that do not directly involve one's immediate personal experiences. Unlike so many stories and novels that practically seem to help the reader to "identify" with the characters or the author, Gallant's stories presume reader s who are prepared to make a substantial investment of attention, imagination, and empathy in order to gain insight into characters who are considerably different from themselves. Gallant's fiction is not, strictly speaking, "difficult." There is no Joycean word-play to puzzle over; no ingenuous narrative slight of hand; no weighty philosophical or metaphysical baggage to ponder. Gallant writes fairly straightforward, realistic accounts of ordinary men, women, and children, whose behavior is observed with detachment, but in intimate, close-up detail. They are difficult stories in one sense, however: They are complicated, like miniature novels, full of characters, social nuances, and a good deal of back round. From the account that Gallant provides in her preface of her method of composing a story, it's not surprising that hers should resemble novels. For, what she does is to work very slowly, beginning with an image or scene in her mind's eye, then setting down bits of dialogue or description, waiting - sometimes for months - for the right elements to fall into place before shaping them into their final form. …

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