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Estranged encounters

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  • Estranged encounters

    Reviewed By Ammara Khan

    For a layman, literature is a ‘representation of society’. However, there is an unmistakable hint of extraordinary in the word ‘representation’ which incorporates the perception of the writer to the actual model of society as observed by him. In the case of some writers this perception is so strong that it breathes and lives on its own — the result being an estrangement from the real world and Mavis Gallant is extraordinary in such writing. Her short stories do not only represent the bodily dislocation of her characters but introduces her readers to an alienated form of existence of which geographical foreignness is but one of the many aspects of exile.

    The Cost of Living is a collection of Gallant’s early stories, most of them published in The New Yorker. Encompassing the first two decades of her literary career, we are amazed to see a maturity and mastery of narration manifest in this collection. Jhumpa Lahiri’s perceptive introduction to the collection is no doubt a supplementary attraction of the book.

    Gallant’s fictional world takes us beyond the aesthetic function of literature towards the autonomous practice of challenging the established structures of society without ever acceding to them. The experience of reading these stories is similar to an uncannily epic journey into the manifold space that coincides with the familiar and the unfamiliar — the result being always unsettling, a true mark of an ingenious writer.

    “Madeline’s Birthday” is the story of a teenage girl, offspring of a broken marriage. Our first encounter with Madeline is an apt summation of not just her character but of the other stories too: “Madeline awoke at that instant and was unable to place the banging sound or determine where she was.” Her alienation from her physical surroundings transforms into an extraordinary estrangement when in answer to Paul’s question, “Where would you rather be,” she replies, “I don’t know.” Madeline’s is a boundary existence that cannot be contextualised. Lahiri, in the introduction, beautifully describes her character as “half girl, half woman, a creature at once precocious and vulnerable”.

    “The Cost of Living” is the story of two sisters from Australia striving to live in France. Gallant introduces her readers to Louise, a truly unforgettable character. The instability of identity that is very prominent in Louise is suggestive of an indwelling exile that she cannot escape.

    “Sunday Afternoon” is based on the relationship between Veronica and Jim. Jim’s appalling misogyny coupled with his profound indifference confines Veronica to the sphere of domesticity that alienates her from within. The identity and existence of Gallant’s characters are in a permanent state of destruction and recreation, from both within and without, at the same time. Another important aspect of her female characters is their peculiar impact on the readers: a haunting double exile, guaranteed by their biological sex.

    The abiding element of Gallant’s writing is its constitutive critical element which unveils the faults of the present structures instead of destroying them. This streak of modernism is most evident in these early stories which were written in the backdrop of World War II.

    However, her “feminine voyager” characters are a direct blow to the prominent type of “masculine voyager” we find in modern fiction. Whether it is the spatial expedition of Charles Marlow in Heart of Darkness or the psychological trek of Leopold Bloom in Ulysses, exile is the central narrative motif that is seen as constitutive of a predominantly masculine experience. Whereas the search object of these masculine voyagers is the possible idealisation of their being, Gallant’s female voyagers are in a perpetual process of “becoming”. Gallant’s skill is more evident in the situational encounters between different characters which give her the freedom to create a strong impact on the readers by the merest happenstance in the story. Psychological insight into the minds of her characters is something that we rarely find in her stories. Neither is there an intrinsic focus on the pattern of narrative. Scattered like shinning pebbles on the seashore are numerous characters spread on the pages of this collection, creating an order of their own without succumbing to any external direction.
    Our Struggles will not end but, certainly, life.