The Cost of Living

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A new volume of stories by Mavis Gallant traces the writer’s development from early stories of bewilderment and disappointment to the sharp, incisive later work of a master.

The stories that open this new and slightly obscure volume, The Cost of Living: Early and Uncollected Stories of Mavis Gallant, are analogous to the first few rooms in a museum retrospective. The stories are presented chronologically, beginning with “Madeline’s Birthday,” Gallant’s first-ever published story, which appeared in The New Yorker in 1951. The first half-dozen or so are good in their own right, and give signs of future promise, but they may also be forgettable. (I haven’t forgotten them yet, but I might. They blend a bit, which isn’t true of the Gallant’s “later and collected” stories.) The reader familiar with Gallant’s work might just feel a pleasurable bit of smugness and impatience in knowingly comparing these works with the masterpieces around the corner.

The earliest of these pieces center on young women among strangers and in foreign circumstances—strangers including but not limited to boyfriends, husbands, and mothers. The stories take place just before something happens, or just after it has failed to happen. If the former, it is something that should be of great consequence but will likely turn out to be less interesting or peripheral. If the latter, well, disappointment is always interesting.

This is the thing about Gallant’s writing, early or late: its relentless interestingness, which seems naturally to proceed from hers. The one time I heard Mavis Gallant read, it was in her native Montreal, about fifteen years ago. A prize in nonfiction was being inaugurated in her name, and in honor of the honor, she read non-fiction: some selections from her journal of the previous year, brought to us, she said, straight from her bureau drawer in Paris. She was barely visible over the top of the lectern as she read for an hour or more her thoughts on the shopkeeper downstairs, on French politicians, and on trying to find a friend who would accompany her to the site of some recent race riots. It was thrilling to hear unpublished work from someone so much published; private thoughts from one so private; nonfiction from one of the greatest fiction writers of the 20th century. The notes showed Gallant to be a very, very curious person, compulsively observant, driven to record what she sees and to derive further observations from the act of recording.

In the 1980s, she published a series of stories about an apparent alter-ego named Linnet Muir, many of whose life-details Gallant, by her admission, shares. The stories are presented as a grouping within The Collected Stories of Mavis Gallant, which she herself selected, arranged, and introduced. In her introduction to that massive, delectable volume, she talks of her childhood love of a comic strip called Pip and Squeak, of an imaginary land called Marigold that she populated with paper dolls, of her interment in a French convent school, of her youthful Marxism. She omits her early marriage to a western Canadian with a French-sounding name, but that detail returns, along with the others, in the stories about Linnet Muir. Linnet, in these stories, grows into a young woman who takes copious, speculative notes on everyone she encounters: the men she works with in wartime, the wives she glimpses in yards, and anyone else she might, from witnessed details, blow up into full, mysterious life.

None of the young women in The Cost of Living are so assertive and knowing. Rather, these explorations are confined to a world chiefly divided by feminine (often youthful and silent) vs. masculine (often older and vocal) impulses and needs. The exception is the satirical “Bernadette,” also the only story set in Montreal, in which the title character is a quasi-illiterate Francophone maid in a striving, liberal Anglophone household, with all involved parties skewered and left to founder.

Serviceable as these early stories are, there is a leaping-off, with a 1959 story called “Travelers Must Be Content.” It begins, “Dreams of chaos were Wishart’s meat; he was proud of their diversity and of his trick of emerging from mortal danger unscathed.” Wishart is a middle-school teacher of dubious origins who cadges European holidays by providing amusement—gossip, mostly—to moneyed women in need of same. The dream at the beginning is happening as he snoozes on a train pulling into Cannes, where he has come for such a gig. The arrangement, though, falls apart because of a misunderstanding: He takes his hostess to be hinting that Wishart might be a suitable husband for her daughter. She is not. The story, far darker than the preceding ones, turns on the question of Wishart’s self-deception, a practice necessary to his survival, and serves as a reader’s first glimpse in this volume of Gallant’s mad talent with particularity.

From “Travelers Must Be Content” onward, Gallant’s characters cease to be interchangeable, whatever they might have in common, characters who might even have been unknowable if it weren’t for their observation by a writer of such skill. Her knowledge of the human heart is discomfiting. The title story is possibly the best, a story of an Australian woman, Patricia, who goes to teach in Paris and whose sister Louise joins her there in a rooming house shared with strivers and succubi calling themselves artists. Common to all the stories in this book is the long shadow of the Second World War, lingering for a full generation, particularly in Europe, where almost all of them are set. Ghosts abound. When Louise arrives, she industriously begins touring Paris on a bicycle “left by a cousin killed in the war… I thought of how she must seem to Parisian drivers—the very replica of the governessy figure the French, with their passion for categories and their disregard of real evidence, instantly label ‘the English Miss.’” Both Patricia and Louise could be figures from the early stories, English-ish women abroad in the world—but here they are older, more contained, their own mysteries acknowledged and waiting to be dealt with head-on.

Louise ends up nursing both Patricia and a young actor and erstwhile lover through several rounds of illness. She does this with resolute cheer, all the while tirelessly acquainting herself with Paris, within the strict bounds of her budget. She records expenses in a ledger with neat columns titled “Necessary” and “Unnecessary.” This is Europe-on-a-shoestring, until Louise, for reasons we might understand but not accept, buys an expensive necklace for a neighbor named Sylvie.

We meet Sylvie in the first sentence of the story: “Louise, my sister, talked to Sylvie Laval for the first time on the stairs of our hotel on a winter afternoon.” But it’s a slow build to the realization that Louise might willingly go broke trying to buy Sylvie off, even while she never buys Patricia so much as a bowl of soup. But then Patricia, unlike Sylvie, is not Louise’s lover’s lover. Long after Louise has left Paris, Patricia tells us how she accounted for the necklace:

I know now that she went straight upstairs to her room and marked the price of the necklace under “Necessary.” It was not the real price but about the fifth of the truth. She absorbed the balance in the rest of her accounts by cheating heavily for a period of weeks. She charged herself an imaginary thousand francs for a sandwich and two thousand for a bunch of winter daisies, and inflated the cost of living until the cost of the necklace had disappeared.

Again, the survival strategy of deliberate self-deception, but mutated here and increasingly transparent.

For all her careful dissection of her characters, Gallant is never clinical. And so we feel for them, often agonizingly. Even the silliest, the least likeable, cannot be dismissed. Here, for example, from “Malcolm and Bea,” a story about a husband married to a remote-seeming woman, is a passage revealing either Gallant’s knowledge of Bea or Malcolm’s lack thereof:

Malcolm is convinced he will never have an idea about Bea until he understands her idea of herself. Of course Bea has an idea; what woman hasn’t? In her mind’s eye she is always advancing, she is walking between lanes of trees on a June day. She is small and slight in her dreams, as she is in life. She advances toward herself, as if half of her were a mirror. In the vision, she carries Ruth, her prettiest baby, newly born, or a glass goblet, or a bunch of roses.

The beleaguered Malcolm’s thoughts merge dreamily at the question what woman hasn’t? into those of the narrator, much as described in the image itself.

The progress of this book does make it appear, though, that Gallant took some time to develop those excruciating sympathies. The essential bewilderment of those early protagonists, as well as Gallant’s satirical impulses, are increasingly directed inward, to the hearts of the stories themselves. They are given to the characters rather than used as escape valves for the unseen puppeteer.

Jhumpa Lahiri, who may be Gallant’s inheritor in stature, if not in style, writes a worthy introduction to The Cost of Living. It ends with a sense of where Gallant was going, artistically and thematically, by the time of the later stories, and makes a nice companion piece to Gallant’s own introduction to The Collected Stories. That 1996 book contained 52 stories that, as I said, Gallant herself selected and arranged. On the process of choosing, she said she “rejected straight humor and satire, which dates quickly… stories that seemed to me not worth reprinting, stories I was tired of, and stories that bored me.” She added that to collect all the stories she had ever written would make this already sizeable volume as long as “the King James Bible from Genesis to about the middle of Paul’s first Epistle to the Romans.”

All this implies that the stories contained in The Cost of Living are ones that Gallant herself excluded from The Collected Stories. Which means…? As with a retrospective, if you don’t know Gallant’s work already, go to the masterpieces first. Spend time with them. If you’re hooked, as I admittedly am, you may want to trace back and study her origins. The Cost of Living will be of enormous interest to fans and scholars who need to read all that Mavis Gallant has written, but for someone coming to her fresh, it’s not the essential volume.

Padma Viswanathan's most recent novel is The Ever After of Ashwin Rao. More at her website: WWW.PADMAVISWANATHAN.COM More from this author →