For me, Mavis Gallant is the greatest Canadian prose writer. Of the many choices I might have made from her magisterial oeuvre—’An Autobiography,’ ‘The Ice Wagon Going Down the Street,’ ‘The Fenton Child,’ the list goes on—I’ve settled on ‘Voices Lost in Snow,’ one of her lovely evocations of 1930s Anglo Montreal. I just love how weird this story is: it begins as a kind of essay in interwar child-rearing strategies before becoming more straightforwardly narrative, but even once it does we’re hard-pressed to know what’s going on (which is fitting, since its subject is the power of childhood ignorance). Most of my students don’t really care for this story, but those who do (and there’s always a handful, it’s quite gratifying) care for it a lot.
Gallant is the master of obliquity: not even in the final section, the most dramatic, is it obvious that the narrator’s father has suggested to her mother’s friend, one of the child’s many godparents, that they embark on a long-contemplated affair (more than that, even, that they run away together), but only if the child is part of the package. It takes all our readerly efforts to see this silent offer being first made and then rebuffed. Reflecting on this moment later in life, the narrator announces “I brush in memory against the spiderweb” of lies, half-truths, and evasions that marks adulthood. That description sends us back to an earlier moment in the story, the description of the narrator’s escape from serious illness: the child’s new doctor, French Canadian, and thus a scandal to the story’s Anglo characters, solemnly declares, “Votre fille a frôlé la phtisie”—she had a brush with consumption. ‘Voices Lost in Snow’ is made up of such echoes, which readers brush past in near incomprehension.
Above all, I love it for a scene in which father and daughter, trudging through the snowy streets of Montreal, hear “a mob roaring four syllables over and over,” “the name of a hockey player admired to the point of dementia.” The father jerks back as if in physical pain, a look of helplessness on his face. He spits out this heartbreaking line (so resonant to any introvert): “Crowds eat me. Noise eats me.”
First published in The New Yorker, March 28, 1976. Collected in Home Truths, Random House, 1985 and Varieties of Exile, NYRB Classics, 2003. Read the story here
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.
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.