I’d never heard of Mavis Gallant (1922-2014). Perhaps I should be embarrassed to admit this in public, because she was a respected, prolific writer. Over 100 of her short stories were published in The New Yorker, the first in 1951.
Jhumpa Lahiri credits Mavis as “the single most important influence on her own writing” (source).
Mavis was a Canadian from Quebec who worked first as a journalist before deciding to be a full-time fiction writer. She made Paris her home.
There are nine stories in this collection, each of which is concerned in some way with World War II, before, during, and after: From the lazy coastal life of southern France and northwest Italy before the war, to what it was like in Italy, France, and Germany during the war, to how people adjust to the changing world in the years immediately following the war and well on into the the Cold War.
In “The Four Seasons” there’s a completely self-absorbed English family living on the northwest coast of Italy prior to WWII who are certain war will not break out because Hilter and Mussolini say they don’t want war. When war comes they stubbornly insist they won’t be bullied out of the country. Inevitably, they are desperate to leave.
“The Moslem Wife” is a fascinating story about a woman hotel owner in the south of France who deals with the changing tides of the war and the ghosts it leaves, such as one man who “got on the wrong side of the right side at the wrong time.” Her husband is stuck in America during the war and she realizes she can’t write anything real to him about her situation and so there are silences in her letters, the “silence imposed by the impossibility of telling anything real.” It’s a story about the realities of war for civilians, a story that breaks the silence that is too often unbreakable in real life.
In “The Latehomecomer” we see the anger of a young German man who was a POW in France until 1950. His anger is not at the French or the Russians, but the older generations of German men–men who hid below ground in the relative safety of bunkers while teenage boys and then teenage girls pulled anti-aircraft duty above. In this story we see how deeply war shapes and changes life–from who women marry and why to what names newborns receive to what men do in the kitchen–and how one’s lot is shaped by social-economic status in war and peace.
All of the stories were breathtaking to read for the first time and some made me want to reread them immediately. One such is “His Mother,” the story of a mother whose life and the changing circumstances of life in the Soviet Union are revealed in thoughts around letters to her son who defected to Glasgow on a soccer trip.
The stories are literary fiction, to be sure. There is no standard plot that drives the stories. I found myself reading slowly to absorb the story, yet turning the pages quickly to see what would happen next. What morsel of insight was around the corner? Would a long suffering character find some relief? What slap upside the head would a deluded character receive?
These are stories that tell deep truths about life and war and how people carry on in world that has been forever altered. And although the collection ends on a high note, these stories will take you through the wringer.
Originally published in 1978, From the Fifteenth District was released by Open Road Media in digital format last month.
I read this book as part of a tour hosted by France Book Tours and received a free copy for an honest review. Read more reviews on the tour here and enter to win a digital copy of this book (open to US residents only).