“Like every other form of art, literature is no more and nothing less than a matter of life and death.”
Depending on who says it, that’s the sort of thing that sounds pompous and bloated with self-importance, or obvious and wise. For some of us, literature is a mortal matter, not a hobby. I was speaking recently with an acquaintance roughly my age who retired some years ago. She told me she has never regretted the decision but added, “You’ve got to have a hobby, something to keep you busy. Otherwise, you’ll go nuts.” If that’s the case, I’m screwed. Not since I was a kid have I had anything resembling a hobby. Even then it was more of a passing “phase,” like puberty. Reading and writing are what I do, but I’ve never thought of them as a proxy form of collecting stamps.
The author of the quoted sentence above is Mavis Gallant, in her 1982 essay “What is Style?” (Paris Notebooks: Essays and Reviews, 1987). Gallant (1922-2014) was a Canadian-born author of excellent short stories and two novels who lived for most of her life in France. I remembered Gallant’s essay while reading, yet again, Tolstoy’s stories. “Father Sergius” and “Master and Man” always get to me. There’s nothing hobby-like in regularly returning to them. Even in translation, these stories seem stripped to essentials, though not in a highly stylized minimalist sense. You might almost say these stories have no style, but even that is misleading. Plainness can be as self-conscious and distractingly attention-seeking as a flamboyant style. Gallant writes:
“[L]et me say what style is not: it is not a last-minute addition to prose, a charming and universal slipcover, a coat of paint used to mask the failings of a structure. Style is inseparable from structure, part of the conformation of whatever the author has to say. What he says – this is what fiction is about – is that something is taking place and that nothing lasts. Against the sustained tick of a watch, fiction takes the measure of a life, a season, a look exchanged, the turning point, desire as brief as a dream, the grief and terror that after childhood we cease to express. The lie, the look, the grief are without permanence. The watch continues to tick where the story stops.”
She might be talking about “Master and Man.” Here is the passage that immediately follows the sentence quoted at the top. It seems to echo the repeated references William Maxwell, Gallant’s editor at The New Yorker, made to the essential quality in all the best fiction – “the breath of life”:
“The only question worth asking about a story – or a poem, or a piece of sculpture, or a new concert hall – is, ‘Is it dead or alive?’ If a work of art needs to be coaxed into life, it is better scrapped and forgotten.”