‘An Unmarried Man’s Summer’ by Mavis Gallant

Maybe the summer, if you want to be all seasonal about it, is a good time to open up Mavis Gallant’s Selected Stories and turn to page 284. Here you will make the acquaintance of Walter Henderson, “a stripling to his friends”, who are the elderly folk of the French Riviera. They look at Walter, and listen to his sociable stories, but see a long-lost loved one, whether that means a lover or “an adored but faithless son”. But this is how Walter spends his winters (driving his car “gaily, as if it were summer”). His summers are a different matter, as he “lolls on a garden chair, rereading his boyhood books”. Only, in Walter’s forty-fifth year, a complication arises, in the form of a family visit… 

The details are craftily, cattily observed, the intrigue of the story leisurely. Walter, so used to reading and telling stories of his own, has to acknowledge the discomfiting existence of other people’s. Meditations on age take place against the drowsy backdrop of a “breather” for his guests that they seem reluctant to end. The good news is that Gallant’s Selected Stories runs to nearly 900 pages, making it a pleasantly Walter-like companion for train journeys, sojourns in the sun.

First published in the New Yorker, 1963 and available online to subscribers here and collected in The Selected Stories of Mavis Gallant, Bloomsbury, 1997. Picked by Michael Caines, who works at the Times Literary Supplement. He is the author of Shakespeare and the Eighteenth Century (Oxford University Press, 2013) and the editor of a TLS bicentennial celebration of Jane Austen. He is writing a short book about literary prizes, and a slightly longer book about Brigid Brophy. He is founding editor of the Brixton Review of Books. You can read his full Personal Anthology here.

‘New Year’s Eve’ by Mavis Gallant

Whatever happens on New Year’s Eve “happens every day for a year”. That is a scary thought. Especially for the unhappy bereaved Plummers and unhappy almost-orphan Amabel, who spend a squirmingly uncomfortable last night of the year in Moscow enduring the wrong opera in the wrong language with the wrong people.

It’s not a long story and there’s not much plot, just Amabel’s delusions and the Plummers’ dark innards scalpeled open. But every sentence of Gallant’s exact and flowing prose brings a little ping of surprise – oh, she’s going to do that now! Hey, I wasn’t expecting that! Gallant’s characters are frequently outspoken but rarely understand each other. (And when they do, they pretend not to.) Here, Cyrillic script and minds disorderly with time and loss add further division. Nothing, it seems, will rescue the Plummers from their lonely cells, but, at the end, there is a hint that Amabel’s incapacity for deep thought may save her – and that is also typical of Gallant, where intelligence is so often a bar to any conventional form of happiness.

‘New Year’s Eve’ is both heartbreaking and laugh-out-loud funny, and if the evening’s events will indeed repeat themselves throughout 2019, we could all do worse than indulge in some Gallant before the fireworks start.

First published in The New Yorker, 10 Jan 1970. Available in various Gallant collections, including The Selected Stories of Mavis Gallant, Bloomsbury

Chosen by Jo Lloyd. Jo is from South Wales, where she enjoys naming the elements. Her short fiction has appeared in Zoetrope, Ploughshares, Southern Review, Best British Short Stories, and the 2018 O Henry Prize Stories.