So busy have I been with the tenth anniversary of Canadian Writers Abroad, I overlooked the centenary of Mavis Gallant’s birth. Thanks to Bill Richardson for bringing this to all of Canada’s attention, with his commemorative online diary: Oh, MG: My Mavis Gallant Centennial Diaries, or more fully, Grief, Memory, Three O’Clock in the Morning: My Mavis Gallant Centennial Diary, on Substack. Meanwhile, what have I to add, between such summer activities as family visits and rental getaways in country and city? This, this thing that I did when I was young and ambitious. Below is an excerpt from my interview with Mavis Gallant, on March 1, 1984, and below that, a pdf file of the whole thing, originally published in Rubicon (Winter 1984-85) Number 4 and reprinted in So to Speak: Interviews with Contemporary Canadian Writers, ed. Peter O’Brien. Montréal: Véhicule Press, 1987: 250-282. The interview was recorded in Mavis Gallant’s writer-in-residence office at New College, University of Toronto. I showed up with shelf-warm white wine, and a sheaf of questions on index cards: Gallant encouraged me to open the former and abandon the latter. I began the interview with the worst possible question I could have asked.
DM: I am not going to ask you when the Dreyfus book is going to be done. I’m going to ask you what you are doing….
MG: Oh, no no no, lay off. I am absolutely sick of the subject.
DM: But, what are you doing on the Dreyfus book, what is your focus?
MG: Oh, I can talk about the focus. The focus is simply what happened from the fifth of October to when Dreyfus had his second trial in 1899. It is what happened year by year, as best we know. At the beginning there is an essay that situates it in its time in Paris, and then at the end I’m having a short thing on what became of all the people afterwards.
But I’ve been at it a very long time and there are many reasons why I simply haven’t had time to work on it as I would.
DM: About the focus. Not all works on Dreyfus deal with racism or anti-semitism. For instance, the 1954 edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica does not mention that Dreyfus was Jewish until they describe the attempted assassination in 1908 at a ceremony for Zola, which is after they describe the arrest and trial.
MG: It doesn’t mention that he’s Jewish? Well, what do they think the thing was about? Isn’t that extraordinary? I don’t think that it happened because he was Jewish. I don’t think he was arrested because he was Jewish. I think that from the moment a newspaper published the headline “Jewish Officer Arrested for Treason,” the heat was on. The press created the Jewish element, and once that was created, it was a snowball. Dreyfus himself didn’t want to … he was horrified at the idea. He was very French and very patriotic and very army and… When he’s still on Devil’s Island, he gets a letter from one of his brothers, saying, “You’re going to come back to a very changed France where people are at each other’s throats.” It is the last thing Dreyfus wants. He’s horrified. And you know, the French were lucky that he was such a passive character, because he could have led a political party, he could have led a revolution, he could have led anything. The pro-Dreyfus force was so strong, and they believed in that naive way…
Is it naive? The French — it’s not like Canadians — the French believe that when they vote it is an existential act. It’s going to change their lives. That’s why elections take on such drama in France. It is not the kitchen politics of Canada, it is something else completely. They really believe their lives are going to be changed, with a sweeping movement. Then, two weeks after the election, their lives are as before, and they turn on the people in office — I’m not joking — saying, “You don’t change my life, as I had thought.” Mitterand didn’t change their lives, except to raise their taxes. There was no fundamental change. They think that by doing this, the next day they will be different people.
DM: Is that what you were getting at in your May ’68 Journals?
[“Reflections: The Events in May: A Paris Notebook,” The New Yorker,14 & 21 September 1968.]
MG: I have not reread them, so I have no idea what I said in them. I had lent the originals to a friend who is at Oxford University, because he was writing a book about the thing. He kept them about eight years, and so during those eight years I didn’t read them. He brought them back just last summer, and I reread a little bit because I presented them to the University of Toronto library. When I reread a bit, all that struck me was that there was a rapidity in it. I remembered that I was out in the street all the time, all the time, all the time.
There were a lot of pamphlets in it that people had given me and I had picked up and so forth, and these suddenly were all shabby and shoddy, and they looked like something that had been around fifty years. Suddenly all this was old old old — that’s what struck me. But that’s not what you wanted.
DM: Do you have a favourite story that you wrote?
MG: Perhaps “Speck’s Idea.” It was published in The New Yorker in 1979, and it was in Best Short Stories 1980, the American one and the Canadian one, and has been republished twice since. I’ve never been able to read it aloud because it is too long, it’s very long.
DM: Why would you say it is your favourite?
MG: Because it’s about Paris. It’s a lot of different things that I’ve been observing about Paris, and I got them all into this story. It’s about a man who owns an art gallery in Paris. Lots and lots of things about Paris.
DM: In the introduction to Home Truths, you said that it was in New York City that you discovered for the first time at the age of 14 that one could actually be happy. What did you mean by that?
MG: Because I was in Ontario, and I’d had a very difficult — my father died and I was brought here, and I found it very strange and different. People were closed. I’m talking about before the war. I don’t want to get into a great hassle with Canadians; I say this and that, and it’s all taken out of context afterwards and thrown back at me. I really don’t deserve it and I’m getting tired of it. Life was very different fifty years ago, which is when I’m talking about, and people were very tight and closed. I can’t say that it was a very jolly place here.
I had come out of something perhaps livelier. I was coming to the conclusion that there was no way of being happy, and most of the people were unhappy, and that there was no solution. I didn’t see anyone expressing joy or gaiety or optimism, or I never heard it, and I never saw it. I was thinking that the only happiness in life was just in books and imagining, and that people’s lives were utterly drab. Even talking to you about it, I feel bent down by that awful weight I used to feel, that there was no way out and life wasn’t worth getting on with. I went to New York and that was a liberation. Simply because people were more cheerful–cheerful, that’s all–they were just cheerful and happy. One of my first experiences was going to a movie in New York City, and hearing people, for the first time in my life, laugh in the cinema. I had never heard it.
DM: Are you working on anything besides Dreyfus right now?
MG: I’m going to throw you right out that window. I’m not talking about it. I’m going to throw you right out that window. [laughter]
DM: When you go back to Paris? Will there ever be another novel?
MG: Oh, of course, yes. In fact I’ve got one that is almost finished. Everything I have is almost finished: a play, a novel, a book of history, short stories. Everything is almost finished.
DM: What are you going to do when they are all finished?
MG: By then I will be a very old lady.
DM: Have you done what you set out to do?
MG: You mean in life?
DM: Yes, or in writing, whichever you prefer.
MG: In writing, it’s never … I don’t think any writer can say, I did what I set out to do. And then, you don’t set out to do, nobody sets out with a thing, thinking that twenty years from now I’m doing that. I set out, I certainly did set out to live as a writer, and I managed it. I think that’s absolutely grand. It was a great risk. I only realize now how much it was a risk.
DM: Only now? Really?
MG: Because I kept coming back to Canada, and people talked to me about it.
DM: Did, or do, people keep asking how on earth you survived when you got there?
MG: With difficulty. With difficulty. That was a long time ago. Even now, the students, not the young students because they don’t notice, but those who are part-time, the mature students around 28… There was a student in here the other day who pointed out that I gave up a good job. I said, “Yes, of course I did, there was no other way of doing it.” I wouldn’t advise anybody to do it, because there is no job to come back to now, and not everybody is going to write better in Europe. Some people can write better in Victoria, B.C., and some people can write anywhere. It just happened to work for me. And perhaps I didn’t do enough, I don’t know, perhaps I didn’t. I wrote a lot, but I don’t think that means anything either. I don’t think it matters if you published twenty-two books or ten or three; it is the work itself.
Are we through with this? Let’s unplug it and have another glass of wine.
Click on the Rubicon cover to open or download the full interview.
How wonderful that you interviewed Mavis Gallant! I love the, “I’ll throw you right out that window,” comment. Hillarious. I enjoyed this a lot.
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