reading, stray thoughts
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Stories can wait

Mavis Gallant's Selected Stories

Stories are not chapters of novels. They should not be read one after another, as if they were meant to follow along. Read one. Shut the book. Read something else. Come back later. Stories can wait.
Mavis Gallant, 1996 (Preface to her Selected Stories, Bloomsbury 1997)

Last night I read that Mavis Gallant had died. And then I took up Carrie’s recommendation & read ‘The Ice Wagon Going Down the Street’ for the first time. I think I’d passed over this story before because of the opening paragraph with its mention of ‘world affairs’. I’m also burdened by a beautiful, but incredibly thick copy of Gallant’s selected stories. The kind of volume that never feels quite right in the hands. Anyway, I was wrong. The story is wonderful – and its ending is just incredible. Here, there. Past, present. Connection, and the ways in which we can never truly understand another. All in a single, dizzying paragraph. I can certainly promise Carrie at least another nine visits to this one.

And, when I wanted to work out how it was done & couldn’t, I read this short piece on the story by Francine Prose and felt a little better. Prose writes,

Perhaps one reason why I so love the ending of Mavis Gallant’s story “The Ice Wagon Going Down the Street” is that I’ve never quite understood it. I always think that if I reread it one more time, its meaning will disclose itself. Like the story it concludes, the ending seems perfect, mysterious, profound. It is also wildly original, almost “experimental.” I can’t think of anything else, in fiction, remotely like it.

My very thick Selected Stories comes with a 1996 preface from Gallant that I’ve returned to again & again. Her voice is so certain, so authoritative. At twenty-seven she feared she was becoming ‘a journalist who wrote fiction along some margin of spare time’.

I thought the question of writing or stopping altogether had to be decided before thirty. The only solution seemed to be a clean break and a try: I would give it two years. What I was to live on during the two years does not seem to have troubled me. Looking back, I think my entire concentration was fixed on setting off. No city in the world drew me as strongly as Paris.

I always feel that she’s speaking directly to me. Saying, be bolder. Don’t be a mouse. Commit yourself. (And I’m always glad that I’m just reading her words. I imagine that she’d – rightly – give short shrift to someone who doesn’t have her determination to decide one way or another.)

And a final Mavis Gallant recommendation from me. I love the New Yorker fiction podcast and Antonya Nelson reading ‘When We Were Nearly Young’ is one of my favourites.


    • Thanks Denise. I have listened to ‘Voices Lost in Snow’ – but only once. You’re right, definitely worth revisiting. I remember it as incredibly melancholy. But I guess you could say that about lots of her stories!

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