A week for writers and lit lovers

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Mavis Gallant

Mavis Gallant, one of the greatest short story writers ever, died this week in Paris. Mavis thought childhood was a prison and said so in many stories. No skipping through the bluebells for tiny Mavis; she was sent to a  boarding school where she stayed for years. Mavis was the forgotten child, eventually brought up by a guardian. She longed for a visit from her father  and eventually learned he had died years before. No one had bothered to tell her.

Mavis has old Quebec skewered to the wall, the conservative noir years, the gulf between Anglophone and Francophone, the creepy silences that stifled social relations including sex, the hand of religion so dead it was rotting as it squeezed out the souls of the province's inhabitants.  I lived there and I knew it well but I cannot write it the way Mavis did.

Mavis moved to Paris and stayed there. “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).

Mavis wrote in English and all her stories, including those set in France and Quebec, give us indelible characters. Every character,” Ms. 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.”

I love the phrase "private centre of gravity." 

Twenty years ago, Mavis also told Toronto Star journalist, Joe Fiorito,  that when she was working on a short story, she would sometimes show it to her butcher and ask him to mark those places on the page where he got bored. 

Fiorito writes, "It made me draw a breath — if she was without ego in the service of her work, then anyone who is writing to be read would be wise to follow her lead."

No one could ever write like her. You end up asking yourself questions at the end of each story because Mavis, with her gimlet eye, has taken you into a life and shown you all its contradictions, not only the internal ones but the contradictions imposed by history, nationality, politics and love. 

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