BOOK REVIEW / All quiet on the wasp front: 'Across the Bridge' - Mavis Gallant: Bloomsbury, 9.95 pounds: Natasha Walter on a quiet, well-mannered new collection of stories by Mavis Gallant

BLOOMSBURY has done an odd and not altogether brilliant thing in putting this new collection of Mavis Gallant's short stories straight into their Modern Classics series. It gives most of us a jolt, the idea that a book - however clever and witty and pertinent - can become a classic on the day of publication. Greatness is more than a 'classic design'. What the tag does to Gallant, unfortunately, is highlight her least attractive side: it plays to the expectations of the reader and produces pre- digested, well-packaged fiction.

That's not to say that Gallant doesn't have her own particular talent. She can be immensely impressive, with her neat dialogue, her controlled plots, her ability to force various lives into pleasing, pointed patterns. Her characters range from elderly academics to silly young girls starting out in life; from a brusque young Canadian tearaway to a widowed Parisian landlady. If they can all seem a bit similar, that's because Gallant keeps them all at the same distance - at arm's length; and at the same angle - held kind of slantingly. She can take odd looks, and sum them up, and never get too close. She's not the kind of writer to love her characters, or ventriloquise for them. At her best, this distance makes for a crackling dry irony that raises our willing laughter. When one woman considers her sister's marital situation, she comments archly: ' 'Berthe doesn't need a widower,' said Marie. 'She can sit on her front balcony and watch widowers running in Parc Lafontaine any Sunday. There's no room in the flat for a widower. All the closets are full.' '

But short story writers, like writers of haiku, must work pretty hard to show that they have enough meat. Too often, what is perhaps the imagination running out of steam is disguised by an intimation of poignancy: a quick, dying fall, and then the easy let-out of silence. Mavis Gallant is occasionally guilty of this. Some of her odder, dryer characters could not have lived for longer than the 20-odd pages she gives them. They exist in a glimpsed gesture - 'Like his father, he lets his eyelids droop,' a few more- or-less memorable phrases or an odd occupation: 'having spent 24 years in the Republic of Saltnatek, where he established the first modern university, recorded the vocabulary and structure of the Saltnatek tongue, and discovered in a remote village an allophylian language unknown except to its speakers . . .' So we're not entirely convinced, or impressed, when Gallant whisks away from them with a graceful wave.

Anita Brookner describes Gallant as 'sane'. That must be a particular, Brooknerish view of sane, because most of the characters in these stories are mad. There's the Canadian woman who picks up a heavy charge of static electricity every time she flies to the States, the couple who steal a baby from a Catholic orphanage, the nice boy who wears silver and white, filches all his aunt's money and runs off to be a motel manager.

But even if these people don't abide by the norms of extra-literary life, they are, it's true, part of contemporary literature's normal world. They are disparate, dispossessed, fey people, whose main struggle is not in doing or being, but in communicating. Crossed lines abound. 'Berthe said to Marie, 'At least we know where he is,' but it was not so, they never quite knew'; 'They seemed to be listening, but the person he thought he was talking to, trying to reach the heart of, was deaf and blind. . .'; 'No one was listening'; 'He was unable to answer, and seemed to find the question astonishing'; 'She had pretended not to hear. . .' One story centres on a girl who believes that a man she has been communicating with by letter wants to marry her. When her mother approaches his family, she is surprised to be rebuffed. Eventually she asks to see the letters and verify the situation: ' 'I want the letter that mentions marriage.' 'It was between the lines,' I said, watching her face as she read. 'It was nowhere.' She seemed sorry for me, all at once.'

This lack of ability to communicate, poignant though it is, can make the reader twitch a bit after so much repetition. The emotions to be communicated don't feel weighty and complex enough to make all that pussyfooting around worthwhile. As a statement of the human condition, is 'we can't talk to each other' quite enough? And rather than harp on the idea so softly, a book that we loved enough to believe it a classic would be surprised by it, or shatter it. Cool and clever as these stories are, in many of them not very much breaks through the measured surface. Gallant likes to set them in a dreamy, bygone era - roughly the Fifties - when girls wore hats that could be mistaken for bunches of flowers, and women who bought their own fur coats could seem pretty daring. It suits her to stay in a time when social codes were more static: she seems uncertain about how, or whether, to use her undoubted fictional gifts in the service of messy, moving, grabbing life. One of the tensest moments comes when there's an attack of wasps in the middle of a long Sunday lunch: 'A few minutes later, just as they were starting to eat their melon, wasps came thudding against the table, like pebbles thrown. The adults froze, as though someone had drawn a gun.' If only the human buzz ever broke the surface with such heat, such hum.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
    How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

    How to make your own Easter egg

    Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

    Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

    Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

    Cricket World Cup 2015

    Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
    The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing