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Northern lights // A story a week for one good year


Random House, $45


In "The Chosen Husband," Louis tells his bride-to-be, Marie, that the whole world is engulfed in war. "Marie looked out of the kitchen window, at the bare yards and storage sheds" which encompassed her world. " "Not there,' said Louis, "In Korea . . . .' "

But, as in any Mavis Gallant short story, the war is actually close at hand _ albeit always devoid of physical violence, and usually unrecognized by the participants. It exists in generational and cultural clashes, misinterpreted motives, provincial prejudices.

Fifty-one of the 52 stories in this massive collection appeared first in the New Yorker. In fact, for some 40 years Gallant epitomized that magazine's splendid fiction.

Born in Montreal in 1922, she started her career as a reporter, receiving "half the salary paid to men." Then, in 1950, after selling her first story to the New Yorker, she moved to Paris, where she still lives.

Her Montreal, like James Joyce's Dublin, is a palpable presence. It permeates her four bittersweet stories of the Carette sisters, French Catholics mired in provincialism.

Gallant's English-speaking Protestant family sent her to a French convent school, an unheard-of act in those days. No wonder she writes so frequently about people coping with unfamiliar worlds.

Five connected stories depict Gallant's other Montreal, English-speaking and Protestant. Clearly autobiographical, they follow the early years of Linnet Muir and end in 1942 when Linnet destroys the girlish fiction she has written. "All this business of putting life through a sieve and then discarding it was another variety of exile . . . but it seemed quite right . . . ."

World War II, which haunts many of Gallant's stories, brings its own varieties of exile. Britons, blindly confident in Mussolini's Italy, must ultimately flee. A German prisoner-of-war is repatriated to a family he no longer recognizes. Eastern Europeans congregate, adrift in Western capitals.

Nor is dislocation always caused by war. A son exiles himself. A scholar of tribal linguistics returns to Europe to find it as changed as the tribe he unwittingly corrupted. An American girl "slums" happily with Madrid students.

The best of Gallant's wonderful stories often deal with shifting sympathies _ the reader's as well as the protagonist's. Typical is "Across the Bridge" in which a young girl, Sylvie, and the reader, too, perceive her fiance's family through the narrow-minded vision of her parents. Only later, after Sylvie has broken with her fiance and made up again, does the worth of the boy's family become apparent. The couple reconcile in a cheap cafe, the meeting "a small secret, insignificant, but it belonged to the true life that was almost ready to let me in. And so it did; and, yes, it made me happy."

In this luminous story, Gallant explores the emotions of a girl trembling on the brink of adulthood. It is the author's special gift to capture such shimmering moments, and the stories which do so have a dimension lacking in her straight satires.

Gallant is a master of the ironic: "When Ernst put on his Hitler Youth uniform at seven, it meant, mostly, a great saving in clothes." And the sardonic: "Whatever I was doing, I would be told to do something else immediately."

Beyond their obvious wit and elegance, Gallant's most eloquent stories have a substantive richness. They vibrate deliciously between the comic and tragic, the crystal-clear and purposefully enigmatic.

In her preface, Gallant exhorts the reader, "Stories are not chapters of novels. They should not be read one after another, as if they were meant to follow along. Read one. Shut the book. Read something else. Come back later. Stories can wait."

It would take exactly one year to read one a week of the stories in this masterful collection _ and a very rewarding year it would be.

Pauline Mayer is a writer who lives in Beverly Hills, Calif.