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

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The Independent Culture
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.