In 2010 I read Mavis Gallant’s collections, Varieties of Exile and Paris Stories. Gallant is in her 80s, a Canadian who moved to Paris in 1950, an important writer about whom I knew nothing, I’d heard her name. My Gallant discovery –- in reading, the discoveries that count are ones you make for yourself — started when browsing in St. Marks Bookstore, where I noticed a new book from the NYRB press; its title intrigued me, Varieties of Exile, so I read a sentence, became excited, bought it, and read each story. I felt (and feel) wild about her brilliant language and the complexity of her mind, the sophistication and breadth of Gallant’s experiences and complementary syntax. Her stories are as richly puzzling and daunting as Henry James’s, Edith Wharton’s and Chekhov’s. In the US we’re overwhelmed with novels of inexperience and memoirs of bad experiences. Gallant’s fiction comes from lived experience, knowing-ness, and out of intellectually fertile situations, where troubled, fascinating characters, not good, not bad, are as alive as words get. Her stories –- some set during and after World War II — carry history into the continuous present. I’ve just started reading an out of print copy of Paris Notebooks, her day to day observations of May 1968. So, I feel lucky. In this past decade, I’ve discovered Mavis Gallant and Paula Fox, for myself, and even in this fiercely stupid, dull ugliness we live in now, they shine. Hell, they light me up.
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