Indulging the Homiletic
It might seem odd to invoke Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek as a way of discussing Canadian emigree writer Mavis Gallant, a woman who lived for many years in Paris and whose work was almost exclusively published in that well-heeled magazine the New Yorker. But bear with us. In The Year of Living Dangerously, Zizek talks about an old proverb attributed to Yahya ibn Ziyad. "Foolish is the person who misses his chance and afterwards reproaches his fate". Zizek then compares it to numerous other well-known common-places like "the higher they fly, the harder they fall" which can be contrasted with "only those who take great risks achieve something great." Or we might think of "absence makes the heart grow fonder", with "out of sight, out of mind." "What impresses Zizek about the old proverb is that it cannot be reversed. "The equal amount of wisdom does not reside in saying "foolish is the person who, having missed his chance, does not see that his failure was the work of fate." The latter looks like the opposite of wisdom: the person would simply be finding an excuse for their failure.
We are often told that we shouldn't talk in generalisations, but this is, of course, itself a generalisation, and shows up its lack of wisdom not in its non-reversibility, but in its internal contradiction. If we understandably have a problem with the homily it will often reside in one of these two failings. Yet what are we to make of Gallant's generalisations, whether offered through a first-person narrator, a character within the story, or in the third person? Here are a few of them. "You can do anything with a woman if you give her enough money." ('Luc and his Father') "What good is money, except to give it away?" ('Irina') "Romanians notoriously are marked by delusions of eminence and persecution..." ('Question and Answers') "...sex and love have nothing in common. Only a coincidence, sometimes. You think the coincidence will go on and on so you get married. I suppose that is what men are born knowing and women learn by accident." ('The Moslem Wife') "Newspapers are the solace of the worried; one absorbs them without having to read." ('When We Were Nearly Young') "Love required only the right conditions, like a geranium." ('The Other Paris'). None of them is offered unequivocally, and several are in the first person or in quotations, and the ones that aren't are offered with hesitation or irony. When the central character thinks that love required the right conditions, there is nothing to suggest within the story that this is what she should think.
Yet at the same time, there is something homiletic about Gallant's work, even if we cannot say it is reducible to the stupidities Zizek notes in numerous well-known phrases; and we may note of course that some of the best-known opening lines in literature are homiletic in their nature. We can think of the openings to Pride and Prejudice, Anna Karenina, and Portrait of a Lady respectively. "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife." "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." "Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea." Yet are such remarks even if ironic in tone consistent with the authority of literature at a time when it could be authoritative, while the same approach adopted in the 20th can seem like the authoritarian? Perhaps only the writer given to the analytic probe - a Proust or a Fitzgerald - can easily escape from such claims, as if their writing is predicated not on the description of an event but a mode of enquiry through time. Both writers if in very different ways are disinclined to value the present and emphasise the subjective condition. Both could easily say, as Proust does in Remembrance of Things Past, "the only paradise is paradise lost", or, as Fitzgerald says, "Every one suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues." (The Great Gatsby)
Their generalisations are often keys to opening up the problem of tense and the problem of self. These are modern problems, problems of modernism we could say, where the experimentation with form in Joyce, Proust, Musil and Kafka are centrally problems of time and self. The self is no longer found in action but through reflection in relation to action's possibility. "Personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures", Nick believes in The Great Gatsby, with Fitzgerald aware that while such gestures might be a given of a hero, in modernist fiction it can only be a haunting acknowledgement of one's failure. The homiletic in modernist fiction offers statements into the void. It isnew-fashioned. What we find in Gallants homiletic style is something old-fashioned, a feeling that Gallant's prose is wiser to event than event can justifiably demand. This is evident in her assertion of characterisation, with characters promptly named and aspects of their personality well delineated. "To the astonishment of no one except his father and mother, Luc Clairevoie failed the examination that should have propelled him straight into one of the finest schools of engineering in Paris..." ('#Luc and his Father#) "When the lease had eighty eight years to run, she [central character Netta) married her first cousin Jack Ross, which was not at all what her father had had in mind." ('The Moslem Wife'). In the introduction to the collected stories, Francine Prose says "it was Gallant's greatest strength and less-than-great-public-relations problem that her work is so unlike anyone else's." But is that true, and is part of the problem that Gallant's work resembles writers less of her own time than writers from an earlier period?
This is not to say that the modern writer cannot write with confidence, but it as though if confidence is shown it passes from an assuredness towards character to the assuredness manifest in style, hence the various self-conscious styles we find in the nouveau roman (Robbe-Grillet, Simon, Pinget) American metafiction (Barth, Barthelme, Gass) or the French Oulipo movement (Perec, Queaneu, Calvino). We might have problems with some of these writers, believing they have adopted an approach that allows the writer to abdicate what we may see as some of the fundaments of fiction (the importance of character, story and situation), but we would be unlikely to claim they are not modern. They might believe they have their roots in earlier traditions (with Laurence Sterne often a key influence), but they are all, if nothing else, and sometimes so much more than little else, contemporary writers. They concern themselves with the aesthetic problems of the age, while we might believe Gallant retreats from them, safely ensconced for many years at a magazine writing stories people would want to read while half-glancing at the luxury items advertised. The writer earns a comfortable living but can see writing as a craft rather than an art, as a means to make money while doing something diligently and well. This isn't to be underestimated but it shouldn't be overestimated either, and when Francine Prose muses in her introduction how anotherNew Yorker writer John Updike became so much better known and more critically acknowledged it resides partly in Updike's undeniable social pertinence. When we think of Updike we note a post-war prosperity and promiscuity, of money in the bank, a couple of cars in the driveway and a mistress tucked away with whom one can indulge oneself not just in sex but the material accoutrements of an affair: clandestine meals and a few too many drinks. Updike may have been the sort of writer far too concerned with character, situation and plot for the movements we have discussed to have much time for him, yet nevertheless Updike was in other ways of his era in a manner that Gallant was not. With neither anything distinctive in the style, nor anything sociologically fresh in the content, Gallant can seem like a very minor figure indeed.
Which doesn't of course mean that she cannot write well, a possible paradox of great fiction that means brilliant prose is not a defining characteristic of an important writer. Some write beautifully by almost any definition - Fitzgerald, Joyce and Flaubert. Others write sloppily (as Vladimir Nabokov in a New York Times piece reckons Dostoevsky does, and Somerset Maugham made similar claims of Dostoevsky in his Notebooks). Equally, the prose can seem unfinished (as Coetzee believes in Stranger Shores ofKafka). However, we are not inclined to regard Fitzgerald, Joyce and Flaubert as superior to Kafka and Dostoevsky.
This is partly why close analysis of the prose won't in-itself tell us very much about the significance of the writer. If we say that Gallant writes well it is almost as if we are talking about the craft yet not quite about the art - if we take into account Hemingway's claim that original styles can seem awkward initially: "I might say that what amateurs call a style is usually only the unavoidable awkwardnesses in first trying to make something that has not heretofore been made. Almost no new classics resemble other previous classics. At first people can see only the awkwardness. Then they are not so perceptible." (Paris Review) Yet Gallant is not awkward, but neither is it a style rich in metaphor and simile, in defamiliarisation and personification. It offers what we could call a narrational authority that announces a story is going to be told and we should pay attention - master the names, get to grips with the place, and all will be well. Here are a couple of Gallant's openings. "In the South of France, in the business room of a hotel quite near to the house where Katherine Mansfield (whom no one in this hotel had ever heard of) was writing "The Daughters of the Late Colonel," Netta Asehr's father announced that there would never be a man-made catastrophe in Europe again. The dead of that recent war, the doomed nonsense of the Russian Bolsheviks had finally knocked sense into European heads" ('The Moslem Wife'). "On New Year's Eve the Plummers took Annabel to the opera...Colonel Plummer's car had broken down that afternoon; he had got his wife and their guest punctually to the Bolshoi Theater, through a storm, in a bootleg taxi. Now he discovered from his program that the opera announced was neither of those they had been promised."
The style is not easy, evident in the aside to Mansfield in parenthesis, and few would deny we are reading literature. Our reservations do not rest on any notion of quality. It is instead on the narrational authority in an age when narrative itself has been called into question by both Modernism and post-Modernism. If the modernist would often internalise narrative (Proust's meditation and Joyce's interior monologues) and the post-modernist insist on its reflexivity (never more evident than in Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveller which opens with a self-reflexive acknowledgement of the reader reading the book, or Cortazar's Hopscotch, which can be read in more than one order), Gallant's work bypasses both. Now of course earlier we provocatively suggested that Proust and Fitzgerald were new-fashioned, as if there is something to be said in-itself for the modish. Yet Fitzgerald would seem to have been the least ostensibly new of the three great interwar American writers, with Hemingway and Faulkner more important for the directness of their literary innovations. Hemingway's paratactic prose and Faulkner's serpentine stream of consciousness are more noticeable innovations than Fitzgerald's - whose style can appear much more classical. Yet prose style is just an aspect of a modern mind at work and a much more conspicuous one then sensibility. In this sense, we might claim that Hemingway's sensibility is less modern than Fitzgerald's, still too contained by masculinity and its discontents, over memory and its fragility. The prose reflects the sensibility; the prose can never quite be an excuse for it and thus we may claim that Fitzgerald is more modern than Hemingway.
One mentions Fitzgerald here because Gallant was clearly an admirer, and opens a short text in Granta called 'Memory and Invention' with a quote from the writer. Yet her work rarely has Fitzgerald's hesitant articulacy, its restless eloquence. We often feel that though Gallant doesn't tell us what she thinks, she gives us a strong idea of whatnot to think; as if there is an admonishing aspect to the work. In 'The Other Paris', central character Carol has a clear idea of how one ought to fall in love, and the narrator has an even clearer one in sub-textual form that indicates Carol doesn't have a clue. Here Carol meets the man of her theoretical dreams who cannot remotely meet the bodily demands of falling in love. "If anyone had asked Carol at what precise moment she fell in love, or where Howard Mitchell proposed to her, she would have imagined, quite sincerely, a scene that involved all at once the Seine, moonlight, barrows of violets, acacias in flower, and a confused, misty background of the Eiffel Tower and little crooked streets." Clearly she is not in love at all, as Gallant lists the attributes as romantic clich, and Carol desires the ideal so much that she cannot see the reality. Howard has a decent job in an American Agency in Paris where Carol also works, and so while she doesn't find him initially so attractive she "with great efficiency, nearly at once, set about the business of falling in love." But this business is complicated by her ambiguous feelings towards a young man, Felix, who happens to be the young lover of her older friend Odile. She first sees him sitting in the lobby of the building in which she works. He was seated on a chair placed there for job seekers, and she notices a man pale and funny looking. She asks Howard about him and Howard thinks he might be Austrian or Czech: a young man who rarely had enough to eat but always had plenty of American cigarettes. Here is a figure antithetical to the Eiffel Tower and the little crooked streets, but Carol becomes increasingly fascinated by this man, and the burgeoning desire she can't or dare not name. The story is an ironic account of the deceptiveness of appearances and the assumed superiority of one life over that of another. The story opens on Carol deciding what she would wear on her wedding and feeling sorry for Odile. "She was sorry for all the single girls of the world, particularly those who were, like Odile, past thirty." In time however she would hope that "the memory of Felix and Odile and all their distasteful strangeness would slip away" as she cannot quite understand her feelings towards Felix. The story is closer to Jane Austen than Scott Fitzgerald, with Carol believing she knows what is best for others but finally doesn't know what is best for herself. She cannot easily believe in the love between Felix and Odile, and can't tolerate the poverty that their affection for each other is enclosed by, just as she cannot comprehend the feelings she has for Felix because her notion of love and beauty are contained by romantic clich. There is no temporal catastrophe here as there so often is in Fitzgerald's work, and while this might seem we are asking Gallant to pen a story Fitzgerald would write, our point is more to say that the story Gallant has written is rather less problematically complex, taking into account the idea that "why Modernism is our art; it is the one art" Malcolm Bradbury and James MacFarlane claim, "that responds to the scenario of our chaos." "Perhaps thecomplexity of modern life does require a complex literature to express it." (Modernism )
"Gallant is dismissive of analysing or explaining her work, and distrustful of academic attempts to do so", according to a profile in the Guardian by Lisa Allardice. Gallant here offers a no-nonsense approach to fiction writing that is not itself a problem, but might be if we feel the writing doesn't incorporate within it the questions serious critics work through. The writer doesn't have to use the language of the intellectually explored but might need to share the same problematic. If a writer blithely ignores the problems of their moment, there is the danger of irrelevance no matter the quality of the prose. This is surely because great writing takes place not in the arena of a closed aesthetic universe, but in conjunction with various factors that make up the writer's place in the world. They manage more astutely than others to examine it through character, situation and story even if in the process they might have to rearrange and distort these elements to comprehend their age. As Hermann Broch says, "today the writer is compelled to accept the challenge of Goethe and to assume the responsibility of the heritage handed down to him by humanity's striving for cognition, This heritage is the metaphysical, ethical problem, in other words it is the philosophical penetration of 'existence' into the universality of world representation." (Geist and Zeitgeist) If the 19th century was the age of epistemological conquest, of industrial development, biological comprehension, and the grand narratives of Hegel, Marx and Darwin, and the epic prose narratives of Dickens, Balzac and Tolstoy, this didn't mean there were counter forces (the Romantics, Nietzsche and Dostoevsky) suggesting the less rational. It was more a question of the spirit of the age: that sense could be made and that it mattered. The 20th century indicated that progress was ambivalent and complex, from the Holocaust to relativity theory, from splitting the atom to the contradictions of Communism. Things weren't just more complicated, they contained the paradoxical, never more evident than in science where a cat could seem to be both in and out of a box simultaneously (Schroedinger's Cat), or where the observed needs to incorporate the observer. (The Observer Effect in physics.).
This might be taking us very far from Gallant, and suggesting too broad a sweep from one century to the next. But all that matters finally is why we believe Gallant is a fine short story writer whose relevance is minimal. In 'The Other Paris', she arrives at irony but not paradox, at a smooth feeling of authority rather than the troubling reaction of doubt. Carol will end the story in a state of personal confusion, of course, but Gallant also leaves her in a state of denial towards her own feelings, and thus for the reader to understand better than Carol does the predicament she happens to be in. She will end up marrying a man she does not love rather than the one she does not because one of them understands her and the other doesn't. No, it rests on her failure to understand herself, with the reader nevertheless understanding her.
Gallant was occasionally accused of "emotional coldness" according to Allardice, but we might see the claim evident in the difference between irony and paradox, and the subjective and the objective. If we think of Kafka short stories like 'Bachelor's Ill Luck' or 'The Hunger Artist', we see in them not the ironic awareness of a character's limitations, but the limitations of being from a certain point of view. When at the end of 'The Hunger Artist' the eponymous figure insists no one should admire him for his willpower, he adds that if he had ever found food he liked he would have stuffed himself like everyone else. In 'Bachelor's Ill Luck', the title character knows that there is a characteristic in him that could not allow him to be other than the bachelor he is. Kafka finds in the stories stubborn ontological problems, and remains within the subjective feeling over the objective appraisal. Irony and objectivity are often Gallant's tools, and consequently, accusations of coldness are attributed to her. Nevertheless, such criticisms seem too harsh. In 'The End of the World,' a son leaves Canada to see his dying father who abandoned his family years before. At the end of the story the father is dead with the son in the period leading up to his death determined to assuage his fear of dying by protecting him from the worst; telling him instead he was getting better. It was a lie, but it was what his father wanted to hear and so this is what he tells him. However, what the son wants to hear is his father's apologies, his remorse for leaving his family. Come the conclusion he says "when he died, a nurse said to me, "I am sorry." It had no meaning from her, yet a few days before, it was all I wanted to hear." Not long before his demise, the father had talked about another patient who discussed her life with him. He tells his son about her, noting that she had five children, the first three with different men, then another two with a North African who deserted her. The father can't understand how someone could do this, apparently seeing no similarities with his own behaviour. There is irony here, of course, but also a subjective reaction to events, courtesy of a first person narrator, but not exclusively because of it.
It is not after all the first or the third person narration that will generate tentativeness of intimacy in a work of fiction, and though whether to put the story into first or third would seem a very fundamental creative decision, think of how many stories when we look back on them, long after the reading, where we cannot quite remember whether the first or third was adopted. If it is third person restricted it can feel a lot like first person, while third person omniscient can seem much more noticeable than the other two. This suggests it is the absence of authority that gives a story its tentativeness as the writer acknowledges a world beyond the writer's powers to express. There are numerous means by which to do this which are issues more of sensibility than technique. One is a wariness towards naming characters, another towards the naming of places. The writer might resist stating what the character does as a job, and will withhold whether they are married or have children. These could remain absent throughout the story, could be withheld for a period of time as the writer searches out an aspect of existence that goes beyond, or, cannot be explained by, these social aspects of the self. Gallant is a writer who doesn't do this: we are usually very quickly introduced to characters through their names, where they live, what they do, who they happen to be married to.
To help us, here are a few opening passages as examples. "One of Irina's grandsons, nicknamed Riri, was sent to her at Christmas. His mother was going into hospital, but nobody told him that. The real cause of his visit was that since Irina had become a widow her children worried about her being alone." ('Irina') "My father died, then my grandmother; my mother was left, but we did not get on." ('In Youth is Pleasure') "Grippes's opinion remains unchanged. He was the last to have received a stipend from the Mary Margaret Pugh Arts Foundation, and so it should have fallen to him - Henri Grippes, Parisian novelist, diarist, essayist, polemical journalist and critic - to preside at the commemoration of the late Miss Pugh's centenary." ('A Painful Affair') "In 1949, a year that contained no other news of value, Mmme Carette came into a legacy of eighteen thousand dollars from a brother-in-law who had done well in Fall River. Sheh ad suspected him of being a Freemason, as well as of other offenses, none of them trifling..." ('The Chosen Husband') Whether in the first or the third person the tone is consistent: a writer in complete control of her material, but the reader aware that a mystery beyond the story she tells will remain untouched. There is a writer knows best attitude here that numerous modern writers in various different manifestations have been trying to counter - acknowledging while all that we have on the page are the words the writer offers, this does not mean there are not numerous possibilities withinthe words available.
We are not thinking however of Hemingway's extension of sub-text into the realm of the unconveyed. "I always try to write on the principle of the iceberg. There is seventh-eighths of it underwater for every part that shows." (Paris Review) Writers and critics have long expressed the need to show rather than tell, but Hemingway famously indicated that this could be taken much further than the stated and the implicit, which would suggest a sort of fifty-fifty split between what is written on the page and what is implicitly behind it. Hemingway famously suggested that this should be a rather more demanding fraction. It wasn't that the writer didn't know what was going on off the page; he or she would insist on excluding it. Let us imagine we are writing a story about a hypocrite. He admires people for their honesty but cannot be honest himself when circumstances demand. He talks about how he values honesty above all other values and then reveals to us at the end of the story when he is forced to tell a fib that he is no better than anyone else. To give the story nuance the writer might not allow the character to know he has lied, but that he has spread a lie told by someone else inadvertently. The character remains oblivious to what the reader knows, and we have the implicit in the character's ignorance and the explicit in the reader's awareness. Thus we have the ironic. A story that hides most of its meaning will create the multiply implicit without the ironic. We might wonder why somebody happens to be in a small town. We muse over a reference to a child and whether it happens to be their own. They get a bit short when someone asks if they are married. If the writer had announced on the first page that Jack Mills arrived in the small mid-western town looking for a wife and child that he had deserted on the nearby highway two years before, the iceberg effect would be lost.
We are not at all suggesting that Gallant should write like Hemingway, no matter if she would claim him as an influence. "I read some so often, I almost knew them by heart, like music." (The Walrus) But we are claiming Hemingway's style was an advancement, a way of doing things that hadn't quite been done before as he contributed to making literature more mysterious than it had been, and in a quite different way from other innovators like Proust and Henry James. If Proust and James advanced diegetic telling, to offer ever more subtle explorations of behaviour, Hemingway pushed towards a mimetic approach that demanded a minimum of narrational involvement. It is in reading Gallant we feel no sense of perceptual urgency or mimetic mystery: that the stories are well told but remain in the realm of anecdote. The stories are told as if with an afternoon to spare over a bottle of modestly priced champagne in a cafe somewhere in Montparnesse or Boulevard St Germain. The after-effect of the story is no stronger and perhaps less heady than the tipsiness one feels heading home after an indulgent couple of hours over lunch. "Three o'clock is always too late or too early for anything you want to do", Sartre proposed, but it might be the right time to read a Gallant story, as if hearing one in a cafe not far from the Boulevard St Michel while we might wonder in which category of the homiletic Sartre's remark might fit, and how easily it would fit into a Gallant short story. It is a casual remark well put, but can it compare to others by the French novelist and philosopher who would so often dissolve many of the assumptions that we believe Gallant still holds dear?
© Tony McKibbin