Mavis Gallant: Québécoise writer who settled in Paris and found a home for her masterful short stories in the pages of The New Yorker
Thursday 27 February 2014
Mavis Gallant carved out an international reputation as a master short-story author while living in Paris for decades. The bilingual Québécoise started out as a journalist and went on to publish well over 100 s hort stories, many of them in The New Yorker and in collections such as The Other Paris, Across the Bridge and In Transit. As an émigré, she often wrote about foreign cultures.
"Her voice was a defining one for New Yorker fiction: clear, sharp, penetrating, often breathtaking in its ability to dissect human emotions, motivations, flaws, and moments of grace," the New Yorker's fiction editor Deborah Treisman said. "She was an observer, a portraitist both of social niceties – no gesture went unnoted – and of the brutality of what can happen in our own minds."
Born Mavis Leslie Young in Montreal in 1922, Gallant was an only child in an English-speaking Protestant family that splintered: her father died when she was young, and her mother remarried. From the age of four she was sent to numerous boarding schools in Canada and the US. Many were French-speaking, and she was usually the only English speaker.
After graduation, Gallant returned to Montreal and landed an entry-level stint at the National Film Board and then a job as a reporter for the Montreal Standard. She married a Winnipeg musician, John Gallant, in 1942, but they divorced five years later. In 1950, when she was 28, she kept a promise she had made to herself to leave journalism by the time she was 30. She travelled round Europe, living on her New Yorker fees and by giving English lessons.
"I live on bread, wine, and mortadella," she wrote in her diary in Madrid in 1952. "Europe for me is governed by the price of mortadella." She gave herself two years to succeed, and did. Her first internationally published short story, "Madeline's Birthday", had appeared in The New Yorker in 1951, and more followed, but her agent pocketed her fees and told her the stories had been turned down. It wasn't until she looked at a copy of the magazine in a library that she realised. She contacted the celebrated New Yorker editor William Maxwell, and a 25-year literary relationship began.
Though Montreal's literary scene was thriving at the time, with writers like Mordecai Richler, Gallant said she moved to Europe when "Canada in the early '50s was an intellectual desert. I wanted to live in Paris and write nothing but fiction and be perfectly free. I just held my breath and jumped. I didn't even look to see if there was water in the pool."
Gallant felt at home in Europe, gaining an acceptance that she felt she never would have back in Canada, she told a 2006 television documentary, Paris Stories: The Writing of Mavis Gallant. "I found for the first time in my life a society where you could say you're a writer and not be asked for three months' rent in advance."
Gallant didn't often write about herself, but more often of people who, like her, lived in exile. Some of her early life was revealed in the collection Home Truths. In a series of stories, she invented a young Canadian woman, Linnet Muir, who lives in New York and is then hired by a Montreal newspaper during the Second World War. Like Muir, Gallant remembers hearing her boss say that the only reason they hired her is because the men were away.
Gallant told The Paris Review that writing is like "a love affair: the beginning is the best part. I write every day. It is not a burden. It is the way I live."
Mavis Leslie de Trafford Young, author: born Montreal 11 August 1922; married 1942 John Gallant (divorced 1947); died Paris 18 February 2014.
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