Mavis Gallant, short-story writer, dies at 91
By HELEN T. VERONGOS
The New York Times | February 20,2014
Associated Press file photo
Mavis Gallant, the Montreal-born writer who carved out an international reputation as a master short-story author while living in Paris for much of her life, has died at age 91, her publisher says.
Mavis Gallant, an acclaimed short-story writer who was abandoned as a child and later left Canada for Europe, where she made her name writing about the dislocated and the dispossessed, died Tuesday at her home in Paris. She was 91.
Georges Borchardt, her literary agent, confirmed the death.
Gallant, who was born in Montreal to an American mother and a British father, was sent to boarding school when she was 4 and spent much of her childhood afterward without a family. When she found her literary voice as an expatriate in Paris, she created a writing life that consciously excluded the ties of marriage and children.
And yet despite this seeming unsettledness — or perhaps because of it — her stories convey a deep-rooted sense of place, inviting the reader into a Paris walk-up or a sheet-shrouded marble hall in Montreal. These were not just settings for Gallant. Canada, France and even the United States drove her meditations on regional identity, nationalism and its extremes, and the defining and restricting powers of a mother tongue.
“Hearts are not broken in Mavis Gallant’s stories,” Eve Auchincloss wrote in The New York Review of Books. “Roots are cut, and her subject is the nature of the life that is led when the roots are not fed.”
The New Yorker published Gallant’s short stories for more than 40 years — 116 of them, according to Steven Barclay, a friend and lecture agent. The pieces became familiar to readers for their embrace of life’s paradoxes: They could be tender yet cruel, tragic yet funny. Told in exquisite detail, they are threaded with ironies and reveal lives with enough histories and thwarted dreams to inspire novels.
“Every character,” Gallant wrote, “comes into being with a name (which I may change), an age, a nationality, a profession, a particular voice and accent, a family background, a personal history, a destination, qualities, secrets, an attitude toward love, ambition, money, religion, and a private center of gravity.”
In some stories she revisited characters, most prominently Linnet Muir, the independent young woman who, more than any of her other protagonists, Gallant said, reflected her own life. In the Linnet Muir stories, Gallant articulates most clearly her theme of childhood as a prison that can have destructive effects in adulthood.
Gallant also endowed children with special powers that vanish as they grow up. In “The Doctor,” she wrote: “Unconsciously, everyone under the age of 10 knows everything. Under-ten can come into a room and sense at once everything felt, kept silent, held back in the way of love, hate and desire, though he may not have the right words for such sentiments. It is part of the clairvoyant immunity to hypocrisy we are born with and that vanishes just before puberty.”
Unloving, neglectful or foolish parents abound in her fiction and arise in her essays. About her own mother, Gallant said, “I had a mother who should not have had children, and it’s as simple as that.”
Mavis de Trafford Young was born Aug. 11, 1922, to Benedictine Wiseman, an American, and Stewart de Trafford Young, who was British. Her parents, both Protestants, sent her to a Roman Catholic boarding school run by French-speaking nuns. Her father died when she was 10, she told The New York Times in an interview, “and my mother had already fallen in love with another man.”
Her mother married that man and left Canada, placing Mavis in the care of a guardian. Gallant believed her father would come for her and waited for him for several years, not being told that he was dead. She said she had never gotten over losing him.
“My father, that was the great empty chair,” she said in 2012 in an interview on CBC Radio. She told The Times: “In many, many of the things I write, someone has vanished. And it’s often the father. And there is often a sense that nothing is very safe.”
Gallant’s father was a painter, and not a terribly successful one. So was Linnet Muir’s. Both fathers died young. Linnet devotes herself one summer to seeking out her father’s friends to determine how he had died. What killed her own father, Gallant did not say.
She attended 17 schools, in Canada and the United States, “all recalled with horror,” she said. After high school she worked for the National Film Board of Canada and as a newspaper feature writer at The Standard in Montreal. As a journalist she steeped herself in her subjects and often went back to visit them.
“If I got on with the people,” she told The Times, “I had no hesitation about seeing them again — the widow of the slain shopkeeper or policeman, I went right back and took them to lunch. I could see some of those rooms, and see the wallpaper, and what they ate, and what they wore, and how they spoke, and their vocabulary, and the way they treated their children. I drew it all in like blotting paper.”
While working in Canada, Mavis Young, still a minor, married a Canadian musician, John Gallant, but the marriage was short-lived, ending in an amicable divorce. She had no immediate survivors.
Pursuing fiction, she had a breakthrough in 1950, when The New Yorker accepted her story “Madeline’s Birthday,” about a displaced teenage girl living with a suburban Connecticut family.
Encouraged, Gallant challenged herself to make a living from her writing within two years. After trying out Venice, Budapest, Dubrovnik and other places after World War II, she settled in Paris, near Montparnasse, and cleared her slate of all possible encumbrances.
“She has quite deliberately chosen to have neither husband nor children, those two great deterrents to any woman’s attempt to live by and for writing,” the novelist and poet Janice Kulyk Keefer wrote in a critical study, “Reading Mavis Gallant” (1989).
The first of her many story collections, “The Other Paris,” was published in the United States in 1956. It would be more than 20 years before her books were published in Canada.
In 1996, Random House published, at almost 900 pages, “The Collected Stories of Mavis Gallant.” She took issue with its critics.
“Everyone who has reviewed it so far mentions exile,” she said in an interview in 1997. “I got so fed up with this that I took the book and classified each story.”
Her tabulation revealed that 30 of the 52 stories concerned people who had rarely strayed from their neighborhoods.
Among them are the Carette twins, Berthe and the naïve, uncomprehending Marie, who appear in four related stories. Marie isn’t clear whether Fascism is a “kind of landscape or something to eat,” Gallant writes, and she is equally innocent of other truths. Quietly, in their shared room, Berthe “tried to tell Marie about men — what they were like and what they wanted.”
The symbiotic relationship survives from girlhood through Marie’s marriage to a “suitable” man, Louis. He “had not separated them but would be a long incident in their lives,” Gallant writes, adding: “Among the pictures that were taken on the church steps, there is one of Louis with an arm around each sister and the sisters trying to clasp hands behind his back.”
Louis dies, leaving Marie and their son in Berthe’s hands. The people around them, like Berthe’s married lovers, come and go, but the sisters remain.
Many of Gallant’s works were out of print until The New York Review of Books published three new collections in the past decade: “Paris Stories,” 2002 (selected by Michael Ondaatje); “Varieties of Exile,” 2003 (selected by Russell Banks); and “The Cost of Living: Early and Uncollected Stories,” 2009.
Among her nonfiction titles is “Paris Notebooks: Essays and Reviews” (1986), which includes her observations, published by The New Yorker, about the 1968 student uprisings in Paris. More observations of Europe, from the postwar years into the 21st century, were faithfully recorded in journals, which were being prepared for publication before her death. An excerpt from them, “The Hunger Diaries,” about her years in Franco’s Spain, appeared in The New Yorker in July 2012.
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Gallant earned numerous literary prizes, including the PEN/Nabokov Award in 2004.
She also wrote two novels: “Green Water, Green Sky” (1959), about an American mother and daughter living abroad, and “A Fairly Good Time” (1970), about a Canadian living in Paris after her marriage to a Frenchman disintegrates. But she preferred writing short stories.
“They have a natural size — length, I mean — that arrives with them,” she said.
They also possess something else, she said: an insistence that although lives may be unfulfilling, happiness in love impossible and security a distant dream, everything, no matter how grave, holds the possibility of laughter.
“I can’t imagine writing anything that doesn’t have humor,” Gallant once said. “Look at the fits of laughter that you get at a funeral, at a wake. It’s emotion, and in a way it’s relief that you’re alive.”