“No such thing as a ‘Canadian’”: Memory, Place, and Identity in Mavis Gallant’s Linnet Muir Stories
Trinity College Dublin
In Mavis Gallant’s six Linnet Muir stories, identity is continually re-constructed through memory. Paul White states that “shifts in identity are highly complex, sometimes unstable, and often have reversible elements built into them” (King, Connell, and White 3). This instability links the themes of identity, memory, and nation in these stories, which are relevant not just to Canada but on a transnational scale. These shifts in identity can occur as a result of migration between one place and another. They influence, and are influenced by, perceptions of the past that are dependent on experience in the present. According to Maurice Halbwachs, humans “preserve memories”, and they are “continually reproduced” (47) in the present. Through these memories, “a sense of identity is perpetuated” (Halbwachs 47). The complex and contradictory relationship between remembering and forgetting in the Linnet Muir stories highlights this idea of a continual perpetuation of identity and the complexity and instability of identity development.
When Salman Rushdie draws on the famous opening line in L.P. Hartley’s The Go Between (1953) and claims that “the past is a country from which we have all emigrated” (12), he suggests that diasporic or transnational individuals can never return to their home as they remember it because their idea of home remains in the past, and inevitably becomes corrupted by the inaccuracies of memory. The Linnet Muir stories suggest that although the past is continually manifested in the present through memory, these memories, and the places to which they are linked, are constantly subject to re-interpretation and fragmentation. This short story cycle—with specific focus here primarily on two of the six stories, “In Youth is Pleasure” and “Varieties of Exile”—is united by consistency of setting, character, and theme. However, it argues for a rejection of identity and place as unified and fixed entities. Form and content combine in these stories to suggest that rejecting clarity, closure, and linearity opens up entrenched discussions of national identity in Canada and argues for more fragmented and diverse understandings of identity and place of belonging. This understanding is bound up with the fragmented, contradictory, and non-linear workings of memory and forgetting, which relate to the development of Linnet’s perceptions of self and place of belonging in these stories.
The first section of this article explores how the short story, as a fragmentary form, is particularly apt to explore the experience of fragmentation or destabilisation of identity and place for the character Linnet Muir. It examines the semi-autobiographical relationship between Gallant as writer and Linnet as fictional character. This short-story cycle, set in 1940s’ Montreal, is taken from Gallant’s collection Home Truths (1981), where notions of “home” and “truth” are subjective concepts. In the stories, the narrator is an older Linnet at an unspecified later time who is remembering, and writing about, the experiences of her eighteen-year-old self and her earlier childhood. The stories blur the boundaries between fact and fiction. Both the younger and older Linnets make statements and engage in acts that are incongruous and contradictory. This highlights the complexity and mutability of identity, a theme that runs through much of Gallant’s work. Drawing on the writing of Maurice Halbwachs and Anne Whitehead, this article explores how memory and forgetting are essential to these unstable and contradictory aspects of identity, and how the active or conscious forgetting of traumatic or troubling memories of the past is sometimes necessary in order to survive and prosper in the present.
The second section of this article explores the ways in which Canada, and approaches to Canadian literature and short fiction, have changed over time. Gallant, as a Canadian writer, engages with the development of a growing preoccupation with the meaning of Canadianness in the twentieth century. The title of this paper is taken from a statement made by the strong-willed Linnet in one of the six stories, “In Youth is Pleasure”, which quickly establishes this link between identity and place:
In those days there was almost no such thing as a “Canadian”. You were Canadian-born, and a British subject, too, and you had a third label with no consular reality […]. In Canada you were also whatever your father happened to be, which in my case was English. He was half Scot, but English by birth, by mother, by instinct. I did not feel a scrap British or English, but I was not American either. In American schools I had refused to salute the flag. (HT 220)
Movement from one place to another, and the mutability of identity connected with this, is essential to these stories. Instead of the labelling demonstrated in the above quotation, the short-story form points to a fluidity of identity that is linked with a fluidity of place. Gallant’s characters are often migrants, émigrés, and exiles. They are people who live without a sense of belonging in a “foreign” landscape, or who, like Linnet Muir, return to what should be “home” and still feel exiled. Memory and forgetting are essential to these perceptions of belonging.
The third section of this article builds on the links between the short story and mutable boundaries of place and identity. The short-story cycle in particular is a form that presents a challenge to nationalistic and unified notions of belonging. The Linnet Muir short-story cycle suggests the importance of delimiting identity and place through recognising the contradictions inherent in these ideas. These contradictions present a challenge to the binaries of fiction and non-fiction, nation and non-nation, and memory and forgetting, which all feature in Gallant’s stories.
As a form, the short story has historically suffered significant theoretical neglect in comparison with other genres such as the novel or poetry. This has changed considerably since the late twentieth century. Charles E. May states in The New Short Story Theories (1994) that the argument in Short Story Theories (1976), which claimed that the form was an “underrated art”, is “no longer necessary” due to a “‘renaissance’ of interest” in the short story (xi). The Canadian short story in particular has been an important contributing factor to this change. Canadian short-story writers have featured regularly in critical discourse, the most notable perhaps being Alice Munro who won the 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature. Following the announcement of the prize, Munro told interviewer Adam Smith of her wish for short stories to “come to the fore” because many writers still view them as precursors to writing a novel. The short story is a highly relevant and important form for exploring human experiences of dislocation and alienation in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Nadine Gordimer, writing in 1976 (when the story form was “underrated” according to May) states that “our age is thrashing about desperately for a way out of individual human isolation” (266). Ailsa Cox argues that the short story is “the perfect form for a heterogeneous and fragmented culture” (2), and can engage with the experience of what Frank O’Connor calls socially “submerged population groups” (86) that suffer domination and control by stronger population groups (such as Canada in its relationships with Britain and the US). The Linnet Muir story cycle looks at what O’Connor terms the “outlawed figures wandering about the fringes of society” (87). These are transnational figures for whom identities and home-places are “plural and partial” (Rushdie 15). They are reflective of the landscape of movement and the twentieth-century modernist culture in which Gallant is writing, and also can be read in terms of a more contemporary rejection of national unity and wholeness of identity.
Despite having published over one hundred short stories in The New Yorker, as well as thirteen short-story collections, two novels, one work of non-fiction, and a play, Gallant remains relatively unknown in Canada and elsewhere in comparison, for example, with Alice Munro. This may partly have been caused by Gallant’s decision in 1950 to leave Montreal, where she was born in 1922, for Paris, where she was based until her death in 2014. A transnational figure herself, Gallant wrote and published in English but lived in French. Rather than Canadian magazines, she generally chose to publish in The New Yorker, where editor William Maxwell provided support and encouragement. Although written with precision and detail, her stories reject unity of character and plot, making them integral to this discussion of place and identity as fluid concepts that cannot be rationalised into distinct and unchanging categories. Clare Hanson states that the “formal properties of the short story—disjunction, inconclusiveness and obliquity—connect with its ideological marginality and with the fact that the form may be used to express something suppressed/repressed in mainstream literature” (2). Gallant’s stories explore what happens when memories are actively “suppressed/repressed”, and the effect this has on one’s sense of belonging and identity in a society. They tend to focus on several core ideas: identity (Canadian, European, North American, expatriate, transnational), self-exile, the inability of people to communicate with each other, the mutability of human relationships, and the past as experienced in the present through memory. Her characters tend to be loners who are excluded in some way (perhaps of their own volition) from their social and cultural surroundings.
Through the Linnet Muir stories, and the character of Linnet herself, Gallant’s perceptions of Canada and transnational identity are at least partially reflected. Gallant claims that Linnet “isn’t myself, but a kind of summary of some of the things that I once was” (Hancock 88). Like Linnet, her father was Anglo-Scottish and her mother was American. Gallant was an only child. When she was ten, her father died of kidney failure but this was kept from her (Linnet eventually discovers her father either died of tuberculosis or by suicide). Gallant’s mother quickly remarried. She and Gallant had a troubled relationship. Gallant spent years believing that her father had simply returned to England, and waited for him to come back to Canada. In the stories, this is Linnet’s experience too. After the death of her father and her mother’s remarriage, Gallant was sent to boarding schools in the US and Canada. Like Linnet, Gallant graduated high school in New York and returned to Montreal, alone, at the age of eighteen. Whereas Linnet works in a misogynistic city planning office, Gallant was an unappreciated journalist at the Montreal Standard. Linnet marries and continues to live and work in Montreal while her husband is away at war. Gallant’s six-year marriage ended in 1947. She sold a story, “Madeline’s Birthday”, to The New Yorker for the first time in 1950 and moved to Paris to write full-time. At the end of the story cycle, Linnet remains in Montreal, though her narrative is open-ended.
In The Paris Review, Gallant tells Daphne Kalotay that the stories are “as close to autobiography as fiction can be.” However, despite the connections between Linnet and Gallant, Linnet is still a constructed character. In her 1978 interview with Geoff Hancock, Gallant states that autobiography “would be boring” and that this short-story cycle is reality “necessarily transformed” (Hancock 88). Yet, as Gallant tells Kalotay, “anything based directly on memory arrives in one’s mind in the form of fiction”. In a similar vein to Rushdie’s notion of “restoring the past to myself” (10), Gallant’s writing of the Linnet Muir stories in 1981 are “a reconstruction of a city [Montreal] which no longer exists” (Hancock 88). This highlights the instability of memory and its propensity towards, as Rushdie says, “creat[ing] fictions” (10). Linnet’s aims in returning to Montreal in “In Youth is Pleasure” are to learn what happened to her father and to rediscover what she later recognises as a “dream past” (HT 228) like Rushdie’s “imaginary homelands” (Rushdie 10). For the eighteen-year-old Linnet, this return becomes an effort to release herself from her past through forgetting, as will be discussed below.
Although Montreal, and Canada in general, has changed over time, Gallant tells Kalotay in The Paris Review that “Canada in the early fifties was an intellectual desert.” This prompted her decision to leave. Linnet’s idea that, in the 1930s and 40s, there was “almost no such thing as a ‘Canadian’” (HT 220) was influenced by a lack of Canadian cultural and literary development. Richard Gwyn states that there was “a persistent fear” that Canada would “gradually fade away” with a “regretful sigh” (7). Canadian literary culture began to improve after the Massey report of 1951 and the creation of a number of government-sponsored institutions such as the Canadian Council for the Arts (1957), as well as Robert Weaver’s work on promoting the short story. The 1960s and 1970s saw a rise in what Robert Thacker calls “a more conscious Canadianism” (Kröller 188) due to the nationalistic thinking prompted by the 1967 Canada centennial celebrations and, among other things, the influence of Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau.
Canadian literary critics and writers at this time celebrated writing that was perceived as having “typically Canadian preoccupations” (Hammill 11). In Survival (1972), Margaret Atwood argues that “Canadian literature is undeniably sombre and negative” and this is “a reflection and a chosen definition of the national sensibility” (245). Linnet Muir agrees with this, claiming that, for people in Montreal, “‘like’ and ‘don’t like’ were heavy emotional statements” (HT 229). Contemporary Canadian literatures are too varied to be limited to such generalisations and nationalist categorisations. However, in 2004, Gerald Lynch states that the Linnet Muir story cycle “exhibits the defining feature of the genre [of the story cycle] in Canada: the concluding return movement to a home that is always paradoxically constitutive and delimiting, however contrary may be the attitude towards home of the narrated Linnet, of the narrating Linnet, and, presumably, of that obdurate expatriate, Mavis Gallant herself” (“An Intangible Cure” 2). Gallant’s writing challenges nationalist preoccupations while paradoxically subscribing to them. In 1978, Gallant stated that, despite living in Paris for most of her adult life, she never gave up her Canadian citizenship: “I would be a Canadian even if Canada ceased to exist, because it is a part of being myself. I have no identity problem concerning Canada … In fact, I don’t believe anyone has. It’s something people like to imagine about themselves because it sounds tense and stormy and romantic” (Hancock 86). However, Gallant never returned to live there permanently.
This idea of imagined national identity, to which Atwood also refers, is important to consider in relation to Gwyn’s claim that all nation-states are “exercises in the collective imagination” (21) and Benedict Anderson’s notion that the nation is “an imagined political community” (6). This outlook is too reductive and suggests unified notions of identity and place within a cohesive nation. In contrast, Stephen Clingman states that a national boundary is “nothing other than movement, perpetually dissolving as it shifts” (2). This sense of fluidity and mutability of national boundaries can also be applied to the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction in Gallant’s work, and between memory and forgetting, in the construction of identity, as this article will explore later. Nadine Gordimer argues that the short story captures the inconsistency and instability of identity and human relationships. Gordimer claims that the human contact is “like the flash of fireflies” (264), and that this allows short-story writers to illuminate particular moments in the present. However, the Linnet Muir story cycle suggests that “the light of the flash” (Gordimer 264) is sparked by the past and by memory as experienced in the present. Both Gallant and the older narrator Linnet write stories about the past while paradoxically suggesting the erasure of the past through writing.
Aida Edemariam claims that Gallant had “a fantastic memory—you tell her a story once and she can remember it twenty years later” (“Foreign Lands”). Gallant constructs these partly-fictional Linnet Muir stories through non-fiction (i.e. memory). Walter Benjamin’s ideas on remembered experience, as examined by March-Russell in The Short Story: An Introduction (2009), are useful here. Benjamin argues that there are two types of remembered experience: Erfahrung, where unexpected events stay in the individual’s mind, and Erlebnis where the mind attempts to protect itself from further surprise or distress by arranging these experiences into a linear narrative: “Whereas the experience of Erfahrung continues to resonate, the experience of Erlebris can only be consciously recalled” (March-Russell 23). Conscious recollection of events “diminishes the effect” of spontaneous memory of recent events and is less “authentic” (March-Russell 23). While this theory may not be entirely empirically accurate, it is useful in a consideration of the way Gallant uses memory (non-fiction) and imagination (fiction) in her stories. Because the Linnet Muir stories are primarily based on events that happened to Gallant decades before, she does engage in Erlebris (conscious recall), and it is no less effective than Erfahrung (involuntary, often traumatic memories). Gallant’s excellent memory, as Edemariam describes above, allows her to recollect an event or experience decades later and re-interpret and re-form it into fiction.
Within the story cycle itself, memory and forgetting are also essential to Linnet’s identity. Janice Kulyk Keefer states that in Gallant’s stories, memory is “rooted in childhood” (98). In “Voices Lost in Snow”, the narrator Linnet remembers that, when she was a child, her father was “proud of [her] quite surprising memory, of its long backward reach and the minutiae of detail [she] could describe” (HT 291). However, after her father has died, in “Varieties of Exile”, the narrator Linnet recalls that, for her eighteen-year-old self, “nothing could live except present time” (HT 279). The younger Linnet actively forgets or represses past traumatic events. As the narrator Linnet suggests, this kind of conscious forgetting influences how her young self’s identity develops. Whitehead states that, towards the end of the nineteenth century, memory was thought to have often “become pathological” (85) and that this notion has continued to the present day. According to Whitehead, “forgetting is an active agent in the formation of memories”, and memory and forgetting are both “necessary to life” (121).
Gallant also engages in active forgetting. She claims that “once something is written, I forget its source” (Hancock 88). She uses writing as a way to “filter” reality and turn it “into that other reality called fiction” (Hancock 88). Once this takes place, she states that “the original ingredient ceases to exist. Ceases to exist in memory, that is” (Hancock 88). Whitehead states that forgetting is inseparable from memory and argues that “some measure of forgetting is a necessary requirement for personal and civic health” (157). This is reflected in the Linnet Muir stories, where the eighteen-year-old Linnet’s insistence on living in the present is a rejection of the trauma of the past and an attempt to stop re-living the loss of her father and the breakdown of her family.
The death of her father is compared in “Varieties of Exile” with the death of English remittance man Frank Cairns, with whom Linnet has an ambiguous though not quite romantic relationship. Frank, who describes Canada as a “bloody awful country” (HT 277), is killed when fighting in the Second World War. When Linnet learns of his death, she states, “Nobody knew I knew him, and in Canada it was not done to speak of the missing. I forgot him. He went under” (HT 281). This statement is contradicted by the fact that the narrator Linnet has remembered him in order to write about him now, in the present. This suggests that forgetting is similar to White’s description of identity development as a process that is “reversible” and “unstable” (King, Connell, and White 3).
Frank is unable to integrate into Montreal society. In his mind, he re-constructs England into what Rushdie calls an “imaginary homeland” (10). Vijay Mishra claims that this kind of construction results in a “state of melancholy” for the transnational individual because “the past cannot be constructively interpreted” (9). Linnet is “happy for him that he would never need to return to […] the loneliness and be forced to relive his own past” (HT 279). She compares Frank to her father, who was also a remittance man, and to herself as a transnational figure and exile. Having returned to Montreal at eighteen, Linnet relives her own past through reminiscences about her childhood, and her parents, especially her father. When she first returns to Montreal, her version of Rushdie’s “imaginary homeland”, Linnet literally carries her father’s English past: an Edwardian picnic hamper which her father had brought from England twenty years before. It had “been with [her] since childhood, when his death turned [her] life into a helpless migration” (HT 219).
Linnet is one of O’Connor’s “outlawed figures” (87). The past and her interpretations of it are bound up with the older Linnet’s perception of herself at eighteen as a transnational figure for whom home is an unstable and imagined idea. Despite returning to Montreal, Linnet has no concrete sense of home, due in part to her father’s death and the breakdown of her family, and in part to her migratory childhood attending school between the US and Canada. Gallant herself considered Canada as home despite having not lived there permanently since 1950.
This conflicted notion of home is a focus in the story, “With a Capital T”, where the young Linnet meets her godmother Georgie Henderson in Montreal. The last time she met Georgie was with her father when she was a child. Linnet states that Georgie’s “chain-smoker’s voice made me homesick, though it could not have been for a place—I was in it. Her voice, and her particular Montreal accent, were like the unexpected signatures that underwrite the past: If this much is true, you will tell yourself, then so is all the rest I have remembered” (HT 324). This links memory, identity, and place together and suggests their collective mutability and unreliability. It evokes the unreliability of memory for the narrating Linnet and for the young Linnet, and for Gallant herself. Linnet’s homesickness is based not on Montreal but on a shifting and unstable sense of identity due to migration throughout her childhood and the breakdown of her family. Because her idea of home is imagined and based on unreliable memory, returning to her physical home-place does not negate her continuing sense of exile.
The narrator Linnet is still reliving her past, though she has become less arrogant and single-minded. She recognises the conflicting identity issues of her younger self, for example, her self-identification as a Socialist and her contradictory nationalist mentality that is prone to generalisations. Linnet views the refugees of the Second World War in 1942 as “prophets of a promised social order” (HT 261), that focuses on equality and understanding. But, at nineteen, she does not realise that the refugees actually hate each other: “National pigheadedness, that chronic, wasting, and apparently incurable disease, was known to me only on Canadian terms and I did not always recognise its symptoms” (HT 261). She did not recognise them in herself. By the end of the story, the refugees are “going through a process called ‘integrating’. Some changed their names. Others applied for citizenship” (HT 281). They are now uninteresting to the young Linnet, who has “become patriotic” (HT 276), and was only fascinated by them because they were unfamiliar. The narrator Linnet recognises the contradictions here. Eighteen-year-old Linnet is interested in difference but only on a surface level. She Others the refugees as a unified, labelled group. Her loss of interest in them rests on their integration into her view of national Canadian culture. The older Linnet recognises her younger self as paradoxically both resisting and subscribing to fixed notions of Canadianness.
Contradictory and paradoxical ideas about the self and belonging run through these stories and are directly related to memory and forgetting. The active forgetting Linnet engaged in with Frank Cairns reoccurs with Georgie: “I did not forget her, but I forgot about her” (HT 329). And the young Linnet engages in the same process in relation to her father. She learns that he either shot himself or died at sea and, because no one will tell her exactly what happened, she must choose what her father’s story was, and what her own story will be. This choice is being re-worked into fiction by the narrator Linnet, who is remembering the experiences later in life, implicitly making clear that Frank, Georgie, and her father were not irreversibly forgotten. The young Linnet put her father’s death into a drawer in her mind and decided that “if I was to live my own life I had to let go […]. After that there was scarcely even a mention” (HT 235). However, the narrator Linnet’s use of the word “scarcely” implies that the memory did recur. Here, the reversibility and instability of memory and forgetting links with White’s idea of identity shifts as “reversible” and “unstable” (King, Connell, and White 3). The narrator Linnet recognises that, at eighteen and nineteen, her life “moved all in a rush, dislodging every obstacle it encountered” (HT 329). Later, when her life “slowed” and the “noise of it abated”, she “could hear the past” (HT 329). The tense here suggests that, for the older Linnet, the past is always present and continually affects her writing, as it does for Gallant herself.
The act of active or conscious forgetting can be associated with freedom from a traumatic memory. For example, Cynthia Sugars notes that in Gail Anderson-Dargatz’s Turtle Valley (2007) the characters are “turned into amnesiacs” so that they experience “a form of liberation from the weight of familial history and genetic memory” (197). For one character, writing acts as “a means of memory loss. She writes, in other words, in order to forget” (Sugars 194). The semi-autobiographical nature of the Linnet Muir stories, and the sudden death of Gallant’s father in real life, suggest an exploration of traumatic childhood experiences by Gallant through her writing. The complexity of these stories rests on the link between Gallant remembering her childhood and early adulthood, adapting it into fiction and, as suggested by her declaration to Hancock above, forgetting it as a cathartic process. The narrator Linnet’s claim that she “could hear the past” suggests that, as she matured and gained patience, she became more capable of remembering her past trauma and then uses those memories to re-structure the past into these stories. According to Karen Smythe, this suggests a link between the “unreliability of any one memory and the act of writing down that memory” (78).
However, the young Linnet rejects memory in favour of relentless movement, a repression of trauma, and a focus on the present. Though the story cycle is a Künstlerroman, the young Linnet impulsively burns her writing in an effort to discard the past. After she leaves her job as a trainee engineer in Montreal, although she “had scrupulously noted every detail of the office, and the building it was in”, within a few months she “would walk by it without remembering [she] had ever been inside” (HT 279). The older Linnet thinks that the way her younger self “kept moving on” was “careless” (HT 278). Even at that age, the narrator Linnet states, she knew that “discarding” (HT 281) her psychological trauma and distress in this way was a “variety of exile” (HT 281). This links with Linnet’s feelings of homesickness after meeting Georgie, and suggests that the older Linnet views forgetting not as a beneficial and therapeutic exercise but as a loss that contributed to the young Linnet’s sense of dislocation and lack of place of belonging in Montreal. However, this temporary forgetting was necessary in order to survive the trauma of the loss of the father and the dislocating transnational migration of her childhood. Whitehead proposes that active forgetting is beneficial, not when it pertains to indefinite repression of the past, but when it “holds the past in reserve” (157). The young Linnet does not truly forget events but temporarily represses them until she is more capable of dealing with them, through writing in the form of short stories.
The short story form is a “catalyst” (March-Russell ix) in the investigation and integration of cultural ideas, and Viorica Pâtea argues that the form “has a liminal quality, constantly attempting to dissolve the boundary between the known and the unknown, the visible and the invisible, the surface and the inner secret of things” (16). This connection of the short-story form with “boundary”, and the narrator Linnet’s linking of memory and forgetting with a “variety of exile” and a sense of placelessness, suggests that the short story—specifically the short-story cycle—is an important lens through which to examine Clingman’s idea of shifting national boundaries and White’s suggestion that “shifts in identity” are “unstable” and “reversible” (King, Connell, and White 3). As discussed above, the young Linnet’s sense of place and home is variable and shifting. Her sense of exile continues in Montreal, despite this being her place of birth. Once she decides to detach herself from the trauma of her father’s death, her idyllic childhood memory of Montreal and the “dream street” of her childhood neighbourhood “evaporated” (HT 235). It was what Rushdie describes as an “imaginary homeland” (10) of the migrant figure, which never existed and was constructed through unreliable and unstable memories.
The relation of the short-story form to these issues of identity, memory, and place can be traced back to the coining of the term at the end of the nineteenth century and the general replacement of spoken stories with printed stories (in the West at least). This signified a change in literature’s relationship to dynamic political, economic, cultural, social, and psychological circumstances. March-Russell draws on German philosopher and critic Walter Benjamin’s writing in 1939 (just two years before Linnet returns to Montreal in “In Youth is Pleasure”) to suggest that one reason for these detrimental changes is modernism and urbanisation, which caused families to disperse. According to Whitehead, processes of modernisation contributed to an increase in “traumatic symptoms which became the focus of Sigmund Freud’s psycho-analysis” (84). These “traumatic symptoms”—including problematic perceptions of one’s identity and memories—continued to affect alienated and isolated individuals and groups into the twentieth century, especially with the influence of the First and Second World Wars. Ailsa Cox states that, in “The Lonely Voice”, O’Connor identifies “formal fragmentation with a fractured interior consciousness”, and Cox relates this to “the modernist sensibility which informed the development of the literary short story in the twentieth century” (5).
Since the appearance of the modern short story, it has been consistently compared with the novel, and often found wanting by critics and readers of the twentieth century. When speaking to Kalotay in 1999, Gallant stated, “Many novel readers don’t like collections of stories—I think that they dislike the frequent change of time, place and people.” A form that bridges the gap between the short story and the novel is the short-story cycle, which provides continuity of theme, place, and/or character, such as in the Linnet Muir stories. Gerald Lynch’s book on the English-Canadian short-story cycle, entitled The One and the Many, highlights how White’s idea of shifting identities and Clingman’s notion of shifting boundaries can be applied to, and demonstrated through, the short-story cycle form. In relation to this form, Lynch describes the “one” as the overall narrative, and the “many” as the individual stories included in it. Clingman also considers the nation in terms of “the one” and “the many”, where the “the many” refers to identity issues in relation to “migration” and “exile” (5) and “the one” relates to “questions of location […], identity […] [and] nationality” (5). “The many”, Clingman says, with its variety and sense of possibility, is “often sacrificed for the sake of singular identities” (5). The short-story cycle allows for, as Michelle Gadpaille asserts, a “sense of unity and sustained atmosphere provided by common setting, strong characterisation, and quiet, ironic commentary” (13). However, it also indicates “unity in disunity, reflecting a fragmented temporal sense, and incorporating a more authentic representation of modern sensibilities” (The One 18). The story cycle often evades finality and resolution, as the last story tends to refer back to the preceding stories in the cycle. In a challenge to a nationalistic search for unity and wholeness, Lynch claims that the short-story cycle “subverts the impression of completion, of closure, and totality” (The One 18). This subversion of unity and clarity in the short-story cycle highlights the form’s importance in this discussion of the destabilisation of the binaries of fiction and non-fiction, nation and non-nation, and memory and forgetting in Gallant’s Linnet Muir stories. It also suggests the centrality of the form in advancing the critical conversation on transnational identity and migration as it relates to memory and forgetting on a broader scale.
White argues that there are “a series of possible shifts in identity that occur in relation to migration” (2). The Linnet Muir stories provide examples of such identity shifts, from the transnational experiences of Linnet’s father and Frank Cairns as English remittance men in Canada, the obliquely mentioned and generalised refugees who integrate into Montreal society, and Linnet, who must migrate within and between the US and Canada, and remains in “exile” after returning to Montreal. Hanson suggests that the short story allows for “gaps and absences” as well as “mystery” and “uncertainty” (25), which makes it an important form in a transnational rejection of completion, unity, and wholeness. The short-story cycle in particular, as discussed by Lynch, is a form that resists completion and closure, and thus has specific relevance to an investigation of shifting notions of identity and place.
Marlene Goldman claims that “remembering and forgetting provide the foundation for human identity” (123). The shifts in the younger Linnet’s identity are bound up with memory and forgetting. The active forgetting with which Linnet engages is reversible and unstable, as White claims identity is. Through writing, the narrator Linnet, and Gallant herself, access the memories that were placed, as Whitehead states, “in reserve” and re-organise and re-imagine them through the suitably fluid and circular form of the short-story cycle.
The nature of the short-story cycle is one of fragmentation and partiality and, contradictorily, of unity of setting and character. This sense of contradiction is integral to the Linnet Muir story cycle, and to Gallant’s writing of it. Just as the young Linnet states that she actively forgets or represses people and events of her past that trouble and disturb her, Gallant claims to actively forget the memories upon which her stories are based after she has written them. But the memories are preserved in Gallant’s short fiction. In the Linnet Muir cycle, the older Linnet revives the “forgotten” memories, suggesting that active forgetting is not a fixed process, and the contradictions presented in relation to memory and forgetting in the stories suggest a necessity to question the reliability of narration. Everything, Gallant implies, is subject to change and reinterpretation, which suggests that Gallant’s claim to “forget” memories entirely once the writing process is complete should also be questioned.
This rejection of clarity and completeness also applies to the construction of Canadianness and national identity in the stories. While it is no longer true that there is “no such thing as a ‘Canadian’”, the Linnet Muir story cycle proposes that there are many definitions of Canadianness, and that a sense of belonging is not just based on physical place. It also relies on the constantly shifting factors of identity, human connections, and the relationship of the past to the present. The younger Linnet’s paradoxical rejection of, and subscription to, forms of Canadian nationalism indicates that identity is not a coherent entity and is subject to inconsistency. Through challenging the binaries between fiction and non-fiction, nation and non-nation, and memory and forgetting, the Linnet Muir story cycle advocates for more open and diverse interpretations of identity and place, and a destabilisation of entrenched and dividing notions of boundary.
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