Mavis Leslie Gallant, née de Trafford Young (1922-2014), died yesterday in Paris at the age of 91. Gallant was famed for her short stories, which were, from her first publication, well crafted in a sharp clean prose style. Charming and witty in person, her precise observations and dispassionate pinioning of her characters for close study fooled readers into thinking otherwise. But what we thought of her did not matter. Gallant was busy at two great tasks: the first was to earn her living as a writer and the second was to make a record of the post-war world of her time. Character by character, story by story, she caught us out, Canadians and Europeans alike. While the reader might feel uncomfortable at Gallant’s meticulous probing, by the end of each story you share her compassion. Compassion for the vulnerable, for those trapped in the past, for the exiled and the lost. Compassion for those alienated not only from the strange culture around them, or from their relations, but also from themselves.
She had the advantage of the outsider’s perspective early on. She was only four when she was sent to a French, Catholic, boarding school, coming from a Protestant Scots family. As a result of her father’s death when she was 10 and her American mother’s remarriage, her education was broken up over 17 schools in Canada and the United States. She returned to Montréal from high school in New York City to work for the National Film Board. She left the NFB to work at Montréal’s The Standard, writing features, including an article published in 1946 titled “Why are Canadians so Dull?” In 1942 she married Winnipeg musician John Gallant. They had a few weeks together before he left for the war. They divorced in 1949, just before she left for Europe in 1950.
She had time, between quitting her job and leaving Montréal, to meet with a younger writer also crossing the Atlantic, Mordecai Richler. Not only was she to serve as a mentor to Richler, but their friendship was connected through others. According to Charles Foran’s Richler biography, Brian Moore’s wife, Jackie Sirois, was Gallant’s close friend; Moore and Richler were pals in both Montréal and London. The sister of Richler’s first wife (Cathy Boudreau), Tess, was also a friend of Gallant’s. While Richler was in Paris, Gallant introduced him to Bill Weintraub, who also would become his friend. For this early fan who heard only distant echoes of Gallant’s life abroad, these connections are reassuring, making her seem less isolated than her strict privacy had led me to believe. Now that she has died, writers come forward to talk about their relation with her, such as this by Jane Urquhart: “Each time I saw her there she was welcoming and generous, curious about me, my work, my daughter, while I, for my own part, was aware of the miracle of being in the presence of one of the great voices of the 20th century. She was also magnificent in conversation; tough, witty, sometimes beautifully acerbic, then just when you least expected it, warm, almost tender.” (“The Literary World Reacts to Mavis Gallant’s Death,” Globe and Mail 18 Feb. 2014.)
From Foran we learn that Gallant reviewed the proofs of a New Yorker story from the French Riviera, in Menton. The sale of another story sent her to Italy. Indeed, we tend to think of Gallant as living in Paris for 50 years, but she travelled both before she settled there and after.
She went more than once to the Riviera, was destitute in Spain, travelled through Germany, sojourned in Hungary, took refuge from a relationship on a farm outside Salzburg, drove to Finland by car. And made use of material thus gathered: publishing two novels and 116 stories in The New Yorker, such as “In Italy” (1956), “In Transit” (1965), “Varieties of Exile” (1976) and “From the Fifteenth District” (1978). Some of the best fiction on post-war Germany can be found in her collection, The Peignitz Junction (1973), in which young Ernst freed himself by forgetting while others remained imprisoned by the past. She wrote of the student riots of May 68, republished in Paris Notebooks (1986). She was working on a publication of her journals of life in Paris before she died, which are being published by McClelland & Stewart in spring 2015: The Journals of Mavis Gallant, edited by Steven Barclay and Fran Kiernan.
While Richler was inspired by her dedication to her work and her publishing success, one has to ask where she found the courage, at that time, to live abroad solely on her earnings from writing. Was it her interview with Sartre while at the Standard? Early publication of two stories in the Montréal magazine Preview in 1944? Publication of “The Flowers of Spring” in Northern Review (1950), or the clincher, “Madeline’s Birthday” in The New Yorker (1951)? Scots cussedness and an early independence? Was it discovering the privacy of writing in English in the very civilized home of Paris (which would have been greyer, grimier, than now)? Courage, determination, or simply the fact that she could?
In an interview, she said that she chose to go away to write because “I didn’t want anyone looking over my shoulder.” Of course she was aware of the difficulties: “I realized what could happen but I didn’t dwell on it or I wouldn’t have gone.” It began as a two-year challenge, and by the time she succeeded, she was enmeshed in a network of connections. Whatever drove her, we benefit from the results.
Gallant returned to Canada during her lifetime, notably for the première of her play, What Is to Be Done? at the Tarragon Theatre in Toronto (1982) and in 1983-84 as writer-in-residence at the University of Toronto (when she was interviewed by D. Martens for a Montreal journal, Rubicon, among others). For Canadian readers, however, her real return home was with the publication of the Linnet Muir stories in Home Truths: Selected Canadian Stories (1981). This collection won the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction. With over ten collections of short stories, she has garnered other awards and prizes, including an honorary doctorate from the University of Toronto and the PEN/Nabokov Award in 2004. In 1993 she was appointed a Companion of the Order of Canada.
“Without exaggeration she was one of the finest writers Canada has ever known. Witty, brave, honest, fiercely independent, Mavis was a stunning writer who transformed the short fiction form. She was also a woman ahead of her time, blazing a trail of independence that took courage and determination that inspired legions of other authors who count her influence as seminal to their own careers.” –Doug Pepper, publisher and president, McClelland & Stewart.