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December 30, 2010

Canada Reads Independently Spotlight: Home Truths by Mavis Gallant

It’s hard to place Mavis Gallant exactly. She certainly holds a position alongside Canada’s best-known writers, the Alice Munro and Margaret Atwood fold, and yet she doesn’t seem to be read with the same exuberance. There are reasons for this: Gallant hasn’t lived in Canada for years, she’s less prolific than the others, she’s almost always a short story writer (and yet this doesn’t seem to have hindered Munro, but Gallant does seem more focussed on the stories themselves than the books they’re collected in). I wonder also if it’s because she’s a generation older than Munro and Atwood, and her works don’t always spark the same sense of self-recognition in her readers.

All this to say that for many of us, there is still much to be discovered in Mavis Gallant’s work. That it makes sense to include one of Canada’s best-known writers in Canada Reads Independently, and for a book that was awarded the Governor General’s Award no less, as Home Truths was in 1981. “Best-known” is very often quite distinct from “most-read”, in fact, very often “best-knowing” makes us think that the actual reading is optional. (It is worth noting that Gallant’s collection From the Fifteenth District was read as part of Canada Reads 2008, but was the first book voted out of the competition).

Of Home Truths as her Canada Reads Independently pick, Carrie Snyder writes:

…the reason I chose it from among Mavis Gallant’s many marvelous collections is its final section: linked semi-autobiographical stories about a young woman, Linnet Muir, who returns to the city of her birth, Montreal, and makes her life up with daring and courage. The character, though still a teenager in the first story, “In Youth is Pleasure,” is completely alone in the world; and yet she is not afraid. Her invention of herself, in “Between Zero and One,” is bold, but she does not consider it so: “I was deeply happy. It was one of the periods of inexplicable grace when every day is a new parcel one unwraps, layer on layer of tissue paper covering bits of crystal, scraps of words in a foreign language, pure white stones.” The Linnet Muir stories do not progress in linear fashion, yet they hold together effortlessly, in the accretion of images that create a lost world, and a remarkable character.

Though the whole collection is compelling. According to Snyder:

“The stories themselves … brilliant, precise, particular, detailed, mysterious, elegant. Each is set in a place and a time rendered in immaculate detail: Montreal in the 1920s and 1940s, Northern Ontario after the second world war, Geneva of the 1950s, Paris, 1952. As with any collection, some stories will grab a reader more than others, but all have something to offer: think of it as a smorgasbord for the mind.”

A 1985 review in Time Magazine calls these stories “unrelentingly bleak”, but notes that “[i]rony serves to sharpen, and humor leaven, the mishaps that befall the book’s eccentric families”. And to be honest, I couldn’t find much more about the collection online. I did see it used in a discussion on Michael Bryson’s blog about the short story, but this is less exciting when we see that it was by Carrie Snyder once again, Gallant’s tireless champion. See Gallant in a fascinating 2009 interview at The Guardian though (which cites her influence on Jhumpa Lahiri), and some not bad biographical detail here.  And of course, her Paris Review interview (“The Linnet Muir stories are fiction, but as close to autobiography as fiction can be”).

I read My Heart is Broken so long ago I can hardly remember, Paris Notebooks, and I read From the Fifteenth District seven years ago when I was living in Japan. I have not read Mavis Gallant since I became particularly adept at and in love with reading short stories, and so I have a feeling that my reading of Home Truths will be full of goodness and discovery.

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