Remembering the Brilliant Stories of Mavis Gallant

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Mavis Gallant
Mavis Gallant

Reading a list of the 2014 deaths of notable people, I saw the names of many whose obituaries I’d read, but there was one I’d missed, and it came as a shock: Mavis Gallant.

Regrettably, there may be some (far too many?) for whom her name means little. They may not recognize her as one of the indisputably great 20th century writers. Part of the reason may be that although Gallant published two novels—Green Water, Green Sky and A Fairly Good Time—she was primarily a short story writer, whose work appeared almost exclusively in The New Yorker.

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How often? Sit down for this. Between 1951 and 1995 she had 116 stories show up on those vaunted pages. That’s the figure given in the obituaries I sought, but I’ll say that when I interviewed her in 1996—more about that later—she reported the number as 119.

But let’s not quibble. According to other details, she was only outdone in The New Yorker by S. J. Perelman and John Updike. It’s an estimable achievement, but it also suggests that unless readers know the magazine, they might never have known who she was and how beautifully she wrote, how she composed on a level with, say, Anton Chekhov or—for current New Yorker readers—Alice Munro. They might never have been attracted to her many published collections, the most thorough being Random House’s 1996 The Collected Stories. (The New York Review of Books has most recently published Paris Stories, a collection.)

Another reason for even avid readers missing Gallant is that she wasn’t American. She was a Canadian, who lived in Paris from 1950 until her death at 91. And although she wasn’t entirely reluctant to talk about her work in interviews, she wasn’t the type to go on book tours. As far as I know, she never sat alongside David Letterman or was even given the opportunity to turn down an invitation to chat with him about her work.

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As an expatriate Canadian living in Paris’s 15th arrondissement, Gallant had two overarching interests, two reiterated preoccupations: her Canadian birth place, revisited mainly by way of an autobiographical figure she called Linnet Muir; and foreign-born souls living in, while feeling alienated about, any of several European countries. Most likely, her second interest was as autobiographical as her first. It would explain the tenor of her fiction. From exceedingly naturalistic tale to exceedingly naturalistic tale, her characters are as uncomfortable with themselves as they are with each other. Only the best authors match her understanding of, and ability to capture, the complexities of their entangling natures.

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I’m not going to list my favorite Gallant stories, since every one is a favorite. That’s how devoted I am to her writing. I will say she had favorites. In the 887-page collection, she included only 52 of the 116 (119?), saying they were the ones she deemed worthy of reprinting. Indeed, she chose to ignore several strong ones available in the New Yorker online archives.

I wolfed down the stories for decades, so after I’d written a series of author interviews for Publishers Weekly, I told my editor Sybil Steinberg that if there were anyone I truly wanted to talk to, it was Gallant and that it so happened I was on my way to Paris for a few days. The timing was good, since the 1996 collection was then imminent. Soon I was seated with Gallant at an outdoor table on the Boulevard Montparnasse for a few hours during an overcast summer day. We were at Le Select, a bistro Ernest Hemingway mentions several times in The Sun Also Rises, even though he was later known to spend more time directly across the street at La Coupole.

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Then 73, Gallant was, I wrote, “a shortish woman, all rounded lines, with hair pushed back in two cropped russet wings on either side of her head.” As a man garbed in safari togs capered before us tying up traffic, Gallant talked with straightforward affability about her writing. She said without much prompting, “I have never believed there was such a thing as a New Yorker story. I don’t write like Nabokov or O’Hara or Updike.” (Well, she did if you consider high quality writing as the connecting asset, but then again, Gallant was responding—as many New Yorker fiction writers did at the time—to the lazy dismissal of the magazine’s contributors as interchangeable.)

Gallant also said, “It’s fragile, fiction. It takes me a long time to write a story. From three months to three years.” She thought that over, saying she liked stories to sit a while. “Then what is dead, you’ll see it immediately. You have to be ruthless. When in doubt, cut it. I write every day. I get up early in the morning and do it. People say it’s discipline. It Isn’t.”

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Because it had started to rain, we moved indoors to the wood-and-chrome surroundings. While discussing the origins of her stories, Gallant gazed around and said, “Many of them were told to me on this terrace.” There were other stories she would only hint at—stories told by concentration camp survivors, people who belonged to something she said was called L’Amicale de Auschwitz. She insisted she couldn’t retell those stories “because I wasn’t there.”

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I also asked Gallant what she was working on. She mentioned a novel due the following year called Clowns and Gentlemen, which has never appeared. She said, “I’ve been writing a book on [Alfred] Dreyfus for 20 years. The New York Review of Book has been waiting 10 years for my piece on Céline, because I want to get it right.” Neither of those materialized, either.

Yet, Gallant did get so much right. Here’s the beginning of “In Italy,” a story offered on The New Yorker’s website to non-subscribers. See if you’re not greatly tempted to seek out the rest:

The joke of it is,” Henry kept saying, “the joke is that there’s nothing to leave, nothing at all. No money. Not in any direction. I used up most of the capital year ago. What’s left will nicely do my lifetime.

 

Beaming, expectant, he waited for his wife to share the joke. Stella didn’t think it as funny as all that. It was a fine thing to be told, at this stage, that there was no money, that your innocent little child sleeping upstairs had nothing to look forward to but a lifetime of work.