I first encountered one of Mavis Gallant's short stories, "The Concert Party," in the 1989 edition of "The Best American Short Stories," that year's anthology edited by Margaret Atwood. At the time, I was a college freshman majoring in French. By the end of the first week of classes, it was clear how poorly I understood French, six years of junior high and high school classes notwithstanding. I had also begun to suspect that I might soon be trailing after Gallant, who died Feb. 18 at age 91, writing my own stories and in short order feeling lacerated by how bad they were.
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Evident in the opening paragraphs of "The Concert Party" are two qualities that could be classified as Gallant's trademarks: an unblinking appraisal of human frailty and a graceful comic touch. The story concerns two rival Canadian academics and spans more than 40 years in these men's lives. As her stories often do, "The Concert Party" focuses on characters living in a foreign country, France in this case, that both fascinates and bewilders them. Over the course of the story's 30 pages, Gallant seamlessly executes complicated point of view shifts; brings to startling, vivid life numerous settings and characters; and offers an arch but sensitive critique of marriage and monogamy, social class and privilege. She is a writer that other writers have spoken about with admiration and awed envy, Michael Ondaatje, Jhumpa Lahiri, Russell Banks and Atwood among them.
Like Atwood and last year's Nobel laureate in literature, Alice Munro, Gallant was born and educated in Canada. From there, however, their stories diverge significantly. Unlike her two better-known near-contemporaries, Gallant left for Europe in her 20s and never again lived for any prolonged period in her home country. She was married briefly and very young to musician John Gallant, and after an amicable divorce, she never remarried. She spent the majority of her adulthood in Paris and devoted herself wholly to writing short stories, novels and essays, rather than parceling out her days to a husband and children, where any leftover hours spent at her writing desk might have been plagued by exhaustion and guilt.
Gallant was born in Montreal in 1922 to an American mother, Benedictine Wiseman, and a British father, Stewart de Trafford Young. At age 4, despite her Protestant background, she was sent to a French convent boarding school, a parental decision which "was a singular thing to do and in those days unheard of," she later observed in the afterword to her "Paris Stories." Her father died when she was 10, and she took this loss especially hard. Shortly after his death, Gallant's mother remarried and moved to Europe with a new husband, leaving her daughter behind in North America with a guardian. Gallant was shuttled from one home to the next so often during her formative years that she attended a total of 17 schools in the U.S. and Canada. Reflecting on her peripatetic upbringing, she once said: "I had a mother who should not have had children, and it's as simple as that," according to The New York Times.
In many ways, Gallant is an intensely romantic figure: a woman who chose an intellectual and artistic life over domesticity at a time when this was not at all the norm. While working in her 20s as a journalist at the Montreal newspaper The Standard, she wrote short stories in the off-hours and eventually sold one, "Madeline's Birthday," to The New Yorker. The story's publication in 1951 launched her international career as a fiction writer.
The publication also marked the beginning of Gallant's long and happy association with renowned editor William Maxwell, to whom she felt a deep, lifelong gratitude. "He turned away the IOUs I tried to hand him, which announce just simply that I owe him everything," she wrote in the afterword to "Paris Stories," a collection of her short stories edited by Ondaatje and published in 2002 by the New York Review of Books Classics imprint.
Maxwell likewise provided the moral support Gallant needed when she decided to leave her job in Canada and move to Europe to become a full-time writer. "He asked just a few questions and let me think it was perfectly natural to throw up one's job and all one's friends and everything familiar and go thousands of miles away to write," she wrote in the "Paris Stories" afterword. "He made it seem no more absurd or unusual than taking a bus to visit a museum. Everyone else I knew had quite the opposite to say."
Before settling in Paris in her 30s, where she resided until her death, she spent time in Dubrovnik, Croatia; Madrid; Budapest, Hungary; Venice, Italy; and a number of other cities as she continued to send new stories to Maxwell and wait, often on the verge of starving, for her tight-fisted agent, Jacques Chambrun, to wire her portion of the payment for her New Yorker publications.
Some of her journal entries chronicling this hand-to-mouth period were also published in The New Yorker in July 2012 as "The Hunger Diaries." (Chambrun eventually was discovered to have withheld payment from other clients, Somerset Maugham and Ben Hecht among them.) Gallant's diaries are scheduled to be published in the next year or two by Knopf in the U.S. and McClelland & Stewart in Canada.
In "The Hunger Diaries," we meet a young Gallant whose eye is always seeking the comic or farcical detail. On a late-night train ride in Spain, all the passengers in the car attempting to sleep, she witnesses an exhausted soldier's reaction to his crying child: "Si tú no te callas, te tiras por la ventana. I immediately write (it) down, as it is the first sentence in Spanish I have heard and miraculously understood, though if he had not pointed to the window I might not have known about ventana." The sentence meant "If you don't shut up, I'm going to toss you out the window."
Call her or me out for our poor maternal instincts, but I love that Gallant is much more struck by her sudden, delighted comprehension of this threat than by the paternal frustration it conveys.
She stated in a 1985 interview published in the New York Times, "I don't think I … ever begin (a story) by thinking I'm going to write something sad and make people miserable. I just think I'm going to write something funny. There's always something that makes me laugh. I don't think I've ever written anything that isn't funny for me. And everything in life has the element of farce."
In the same interview, she also said, "I think it's true that 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, and you're often walking on a very thin crust.''
Many of Gallant's readers and critics have noted that her main theme is the effect that exile, displacement and absence have on human character. Adrift in unfamiliar places, her main characters are often highly educated and self-aware, an edge of self-mockery in their voices as they recount their difficulties in connecting with the other characters. In a Gallant story, equal economic and cultural footing is hard to find, and this disparity is more often than not a source of comedy and pathos.
Her Linnet Muir stories, considered her most autobiographical, were collected fully in "Home Truths," published in the U.S. in 1985. The title character is an aspiring young Canadian writer who works as a journalist to pay the bills. Linnet's father, like Gallant's own, is an artist.
In her long, extraordinary career, Gallant published more than a dozen story collections, two novels — "Green Water, Green Sky" and "A Fairly Good Time" — a play, "What Is to Be Done?" and a book of essays and reviews, "Paris Notebooks." Among other honors, she received the PEN/Nabokov Award, the Rea Award for the Short Story, the Governor General's Literary Award, which is Canada's most prestigious literary prize, and she was named an Officer of the Order of Canada, an honor granted in recognition of her significant contribution to literature.
Despite her massive talent, her many awards and achievements, she does not have a large readership in the U.S. The lament about unjustly overlooked writers is probably heard so often today that most people turn a deaf ear, but it is still a valid one: Gallant should have a much larger audience. With the upcoming publication of her diaries in the U.S. and Canada, she might at last find one.
Christine Sneed is the author of the novel "Little Known Facts" and the story collection "Portraits of a Few of the People I've Made Cry."
Excerpt from 'The Concert Party' by Mavis Gallant
I was in the South of France, walking along a quay battered by autumn waves, as low in mind as I was ever likely to be. My marriage had dropped from a height. There weren't two pieces left I could fit together. Lapwing wasn't to blame, yet I kept wanting to hold him responsible for something. Why? I still don't know. I said to myself, O.K., imagine your name is Harry Lapwing. Harry Lapwing. You are a prairie Socialist, a William Morris scholar. All your life this will make you appear boring and dull. When you went to England in the late forties and said you were Canadian, and a Socialist, and working on aspects of William Morris, people got a stiff, trapped look, as if you were about to read them a poem. You had the same conversation twenty-seven times, once for each year of your life:
"Which part of Canada are you from?"
"I was born in Manitoba."
"We have cousins in Victoria."
"I've never been out there."
"I believe it's quite pretty."
"I wouldn't know. Anyway, I haven't much eye."
Copyright 1988 by Mavis Gallant. First published in The New Yorker.