The Cost of Living: Early and uncollected Stories, By Mavis Gallant

The first stirrings of a great writer
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The Independent Culture

Mavis Gallant was born in 1922 and her first stories appeared in Canadian magazines in the late 1940s; her first sale to the New Yorker was in 1951.

That magazine was then the publisher of the short fiction of nearly every major writer of the period, notoriously hard to break into; it is interesting to see why its editors published someone who, as an unknown Canadian woman, was already apparently three strikes down. The qualities of that story, "Madeline's Birthday", reprinted here, are immediately apparent: the exact evocation of place, the precise use of language, and a uniquely poetic vision of the essential loneliness of people.

What might be called the standard New York/Connecticut middle-class family is present in Gallant's work, but its characters are often displaced to post-war Germany or 1950s France. There, naïve Americans are faced down by survivors of an older and dirtier world. So, in "A Day Like Any Other", Frau Stengel, with her sentimental memories of the Führer and her love of kitsch, threatens to corrupt two young American girls, despite the close attention of their snobbish mother. In "Autumn Day" the young wife of a soldier in the US army of occupation lodges with a German family in winter. Recent history is subtly and terribly captured when her landlord brings in a tiny bird that has frozen to death. After all at the breakfast table have "finished discussing it and had all touched its frozen wings, Herr Enrich opened the door of the tiled stove and threw the bird inside".

The young woman in this story is, like many of Gallant's characters, extraordinarily perceptive, but in an almost childlike way. Both adults and children are not so much unreliable narrators as unreliable witnesses of their own lives. The stories in this book represent only the first years of Mavis Gallant's writing life. She is a writer of an increasingly rare breed, the author of grown-up stories for grown-up readers.