Mavis Leslie Gallant, CC, writer (born 11 August 1922 in Montréal, QC; died 18 February 2014 in Paris, France). In 1950, 28-year-old Montréal native Mavis Gallant decided to do something that many, many before and after her have done. She decided to move to Paris and become a writer. But inside a few years, Gallant did something that few, very few, have done: she succeeded. During her lifetime, scholars, critics and fellow writers acknowledged Gallant as one of contemporary literature’s foremost practitioners of the short story. Across ten collections, she wrote about early-to-mid-20th-century Québec life, and post-Second World War European life, and is often referred to as a “writer’s writer,” the kind of proprietary praise given by literary professionals to an exemplary member of their own guild, if at the expense of inviting general readers to engage with that writer’s work. Indeed, Gallant has long been subject to this kind of well-intentioned but limiting admiration, while her own decision to live away from Canada for the better part of her life limited her popularity in her native country at least by comparison to the only other writer whose works are of comparable accomplishment, Alice Munro. A Companion of the Order of Canada and a winner of the Governor General’s Literary Award as well as the Matt Cohen Award, the Rea Award for the Short Story, and the Prix Athanase-David offered by the provincial government of Québec (Gallant is the only English-language author to receive the award), Mavis Gallant was by any measure a major Canadian writer.
Early Life and Career
Gallant’s father died when she was young, and her mother and stepfather raised her at a remove, sending her to a succession of schools, which included an extended stay at a boarding school in the United States. As a young woman, Gallant worked briefly at the National Film Board of Canada before taking a job as a reporter for the Montreal Standard. In the meantime, she married a musician from Winnipeg, John Gallant, but this union was short-lived. Out of this professional and personal situation, Gallant left Montréal for Paris in 1950 and began writing fiction. Her standard for measuring the success of her venture was remarkable: she decided to submit her short stories to the premier English-language literary magazine in the world, the New Yorker, and if they accepted her work, she would take that as a signal that she was called to be a writer. They did, and Gallant began contributing regularly to the magazine from the early 1950s.
Gallant’s stories for the New Yorker were collected into a succession of books over the next 20 years, which appeared to critical acclaim in the United States and Great Britain while she remained relatively unknown in Canada. This changed in the late 1970s, when her work began to be published in Canada by McClelland and Stewart. In 1981, she won the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction for her collection Home Truths. Overall, 10 collections of her short stories appeared over the course of her career, and she was the recipient of numerous honorary doctorates and other honours, including a 1993 appointment as a Companion of the Order of Canada. A major compendium of her work, Selected Stories, was published in 1996. In 2012, McClelland & Stewart and Alfred A. Knopf announced plans to publish her personal journals of life in Paris; an excerpt of these was published in the New Yorker in July 2012.
Gallant’s fictions are intricate and precise creations that explore experiences of sterility, displacement and alienation, often without a final resolution of the human difficulties therein revealed. “Some summer or another would always be walking on her grave” is the strangely worded close to her short story “In the Tunnel,” resolving very little for a reader expecting a certain kind of closure and harmony. Instead, with Gallant, there is at best an elusive harmony, little in the way of closure, and the core meaning remains within the character herself. Here, and at the end of many other of her stories — “When We Were Nearly Young” (1960), “The Pegnitz Junction” (1973), “The Four Seasons” (1975), and “Scarves, Beads, Sandals” (1995) — Gallant invests her characters with the dignity of independence, in thought and emotion, to keep doing as they see fit, however blinkered they may be. These characters are often young women, living either in Montréal or in Europe, who are caught in difficult family situations or stuck in slack-ended careers. To make sense of their predicaments and give voice to their longings, she brings a sometimes fatalistic, sometimes sympathetic, regard for the all-too-human desires and occasionally funny cruelties that people visit upon each other. Her writing shows greater warmth when she writes about the Montréal she left behind to become a writer in Paris, as with this passage from her Linnet Muir series of stories about a young woman’s time in a bygone Montréal:
“I remember a day of dark spring snowstorms, ourselves reflected on the black windows, the pools of warm light here and there, the green-shaded lamps, the dramatic hiss and gurgle of the radiators that always sounded like the background to some emotional outburst, the sudden slackening at the end of the afternoon when every molecule of oxygen in the room had turned into poison.”
The intensity and beauty of this passage come not just from its choice and expression of detail, but from the evenness of tone Gallant achieves while building to its startling last word. This evokes an office setting in Second World War-era Montréal, or, more precisely, a certain “climate of the mind” — Gallant’s own description of what she believed literature should reveal. Ranging across the geographies of Montréal and Europe in the second half of the 20th century, Mavis Gallant evoked the climates of many minds as no other short story writer has in contemporary literature.