I thought I would follow up on Margaret Atwood’s comment in the last post, that up to the 1960s, if you were a writer in Canada who wanted an international audience, “it would be best for you if you left the country.” I am turning to the writer known for leaving the country, the Canadian short story writer Mavis Gallant, to see what she can add to this discussion. Gallant writes from Paris. In a 2001 Paris Review interview, she is asked why she has thrived as a writer for fifty years in France. First, she points out that it is not uncommon for writers to live in a place foreign to them.
“Other writers have done the same. Marguerite Yourcenar and Saint-John Perse lived for years in the United States but continued to write in French. The French novelist Michel Deon lives in Ireland. Elias Canetti lived in England but never wrote a line of English. W. G. Sebald has lived in England since the 1950s but still writes in German. Although I live in French—that is, in the course of a day I speak more French than English—anything that occurs in my mind, the writing part of my mind, occurs in English.”
Gallant goes on to talk about being comfortable in any milieu — and she has travelled extensively. The only time she did not feel at ease was when language was a barrier:
I felt it when I visited the Soviet Union; I felt then that there was no contact possible. It was under Brezhnev. And, oddly enough, I felt that there was no contact possible once when travelling in Finland. I used to travel a lot alone by car; I’d fly somewhere, rent a car, and go around by myself. But in Finland I had no language contact—French was a dead loss and I was surprised how many people didn’t speak English. It’s the only country where I cut my travelling short. I was used to just talking to strangers. … But there were other situations where I couldn’t connect and not only because of having no common language. It can happen in one’s own country too.
Hmm. Feeling cut off in one’s own country (she confirms that “own country” is Canada) — could that be one of the reasons she left?
Soon we will be able to read much more about Gallant’s wanderings. Gallant, now 90, has released her journals for publication, according to the Globe and Mail. In fact, you can already read an excerpt about her early years in Spain, when she was a starving writer, in the July 9, 2012, issue of The New Yorker. Might she be releasing her journals to forestall negative future biographies? Here is her reply to Jason DeYoung’s comment that knowing too much about a writer’s life kills interest in the work: “Oh, it does kill interests in the work.The kind of biography that is published now about writers always demolishes or demean. Sometimes the person writing the biography barely even mentions the work and the writer is so torn down or so crushed that readers lose interests in the work.” That interview was in the online zine Numéro Cinq.
Oh, and here is a link to some annotated photos that appeared in Brick magazine (a more recent issue than the one the seducer was reading in Take This Waltz).
I could write a lot more about Mavis Gallant, but I’ve got to prepare for a trip to Paris. I will mention that I did an MA thesis on her fiction, published a bad essay based on the thesis, and interviewed her many years ago. Think of today’s post as whetting your appetite for more to come.