Not What You See but What You Know Is There

Reviewed by Colin Hill

Marta Dvořák’s Mavis Gallant: The Eye and the Ear is a relentlessly insightful study of the short fiction of one of Canada’s most eclectic and internationally connected writers. This sophisticated book reveals, through perceptive close readings that are informed by a remarkable range of artistic, cultural, and aesthetic references, that the surface directness and simplicity of Gallant’s prose, which “withholds and encrypts,” is deceptive (109). At the heart of Gallant’s approach, Dvořák suggests, are a tendency toward extreme condensation that at once reduces and emphasizes, and a realist’s attention to small details that paradoxically “make[s] strange the objects that surround us” (130). As the title of the book suggests, Dvořák “plugs into” the recent rise in visual studies and sound studies (5), and her readings of Gallant’s stories reveal the latter’s often unexpected affinities with the methods of modernist visual artists, musicians, filmmakers, photographers, and authors: an “intercultural, intermedial, but distinctive modus operandi” (5). Dvořák’s textual analyses notice highly significant yet at times almost indetectable shifts in emphasis, temporality, perspective, and tone.


Dvořák invokes the term “Cubist Realism” to characterize Gallant’s work, and reading this book is to view the modernist culture that informed Gallant’s writing as the stories themselves do, almost as a cubist might (124). To convey a sense of this experience, I describe the methodology that Dvořák uses in her fifteen-page engagement of “The Ice Wagon Going Down the Street,” perhaps Gallant’s best-known story. The discussion begins with a traditional analysis of poetic rhythm as it appears in the story’s compact poetic prose and uncovers “a rhetorical strategy of Delay, of suspending, deferring, and metamorphosing meaning” (64). Dvořák discusses the ice wagon while recalling images from expressionist film and noting temporal shifting that suggests a “cinematic jump cut,” the theories of Edmund Husserl, the epistemological methods of Proust, Faulkner, and Bergman, and temporal concepts associated with Gunnar Fischer, Paul Ricoeur, and Heidegger (68). While exploring Gallant’s “sinusoidal structural convolutions” that “lead readers beyond the physical to the metaphysical,” Dvořák’s points of reference include Shakespeare, Spanish fashion of the 1930s, cubist painting, the fiction of Henry James, and the poetry of Robert Frost (71). She suggests that the “digested and displaced intertexts” generate a “timeless mythic mode” with “resonances” in Abrahamic and “Eastern cosmologies,” “Sartrean existential positioning,” and modernist idealism (75). The story’s ending “quietly engages with Kant’s influential thesis of the manifold” (75). Such scope and erudition might seem potentially overwhelming, but Dvořák grounds her convincing observations with precise and discerning close reading that allows readers to enjoy the meandering journey without losing their bearings.


Dvořák’s long friendship with Gallant, and the revealing correspondence it produced, is drawn upon insightfully and entertainingly throughout. But the author’s decision to “use the term of address, ‘Mavis,’ to provide insights on the woman in her life and in a French habitat we shared, and the formal ‘Gallant’ for the more scholarly analysis” tends to distract from the challenging argument at times and seems unnecessary given that Dvořák notes that these two identities are “hard to compartmentalize” (5): something this book demonstrates to be true also of Gallant’s fiction.

This review “Not What You See but What You Know Is There” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 24 Mar. 2023. Web.

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