Paris Stories, by Mavis Gallant

In this month of celebrating the short story (#ShortStoryMonth), there must be mention of one of my favorite collections, Mavis Gallant’s Paris Stories. Published in 2002, the book contains one of my favorite stories, Mlle. Dias de Corta. It concerns Mademoiselle, the boarder of a financially strapped Parisian widow, a distant yet fascinating immigrant actress who withholds secrets. At the outset, her enigmatic behavior provokes bias on the part of her narrow-minded landlady, but she soon becomes an object of intense attachment. That, in a way, is how I feel about Gallant as a writer. Her prose has a mystery that is enigmatic, and an authority that keeps you glued to the intricate sentences. Here’s an excerpt from Mlle. Dias de Corta, as the voice of the narrator, the landlady, speaks to the titular character:

You called from a telephone on a busy street. I could hear the coins jangling and traffic going by. Your voice was low-pitched and agreeable and, except for one or two vowel sounds, would have passed for educated French. I suppose no amount of coaching at a school in or near Marseilles could get the better of the southern O, long where it was short and clipped when it ought to be broad. But, then, the language was already in decline, owing to lax teaching standards and uncontrolled immigration.

Here Gallant takes as her larger subject the longstanding friction in French society, immigration’s disruption to established order of economics, race and culture. Mlle. Dias de Corta is a political story, yet particularized detail anchors every thought, creating the sense of an intimate story of relationship. And it’s that too. Throughout the story, there is the facile contrast of large subjects and small, of distance and attraction, judgement and uncertainty. By the story’s end, we understand that Madame’s attachment to Mademoiselle is greater than her need for a boarder simply to defray costs. We understand how events have led the speaker to feel, despite the frictions, that the two women’s similarities are greater than their differences.

But situation, however intriguing, is not what enables the reader to sink into Gallant’s stories. There is the voice, the sentences, and the elliptical way the author has with connections. All one need know is contained in the story. What makes these stories feel like so much like life is their masterful construction, the tendency for example, for plot to stray, or circle around, and the way rich detail drops out and returns again.

Mavis Gallant in Paris in the 1950s

Gallant was highly prolific writer, having published in her long career 116 short stories in The New Yorker alone. Jhumpa Lahiri has called Gallant’s characters “not simply three-dimensional but 30-dimensional.” Of her stories Claire Messud has said, “like Munro, she frequently writes stories that expand like accordions, containing within them entire lives, a novel’s worth of life.”

At the end of Mlle. Dias de Corta, and I’m not giving anything away, our Parisian landlady hangs on to the riches—not material, but emotional, that her young boarder has left behind, having seen through the life of another what is impossible to see for oneself. That too makes me think of her stories, and we are lucky Gallant has left so many.

Read an appreciation in Canada’s National Post.

—Lauren Alwan

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