Mavis Gallant, the internationally celebrated Canadian short story writer, died in Paris on Tuesday morning. She was 91. An unflinching observer of the human condition, Ms. Gallant used her journalist’s nose and cinematographer’s eye to write tense and often hilarious narratives about characters at odds with their circumstances and surroundings. As writer Michael Ondaatje said in an e-mail, “I just adored her writing. Hers are the great stories of our time. So subtle, dangerous, hilarious. The full human condition. My hero.” He edited a selection of her European stories for The New York Review of Books and wrote in the introduction, “The characters who people Mavis Gallant’s Europe are complex and various. The same is true of her protean prose. She is light years away from writers who claim a recognizably indelible style and constant landscape, although we as readers do become accustomed to her chameleon nature, her quick pace and her sudden swerves, so that we watch and listen carefully for any ground shift of humour or sadness. Her tenderness arrives unexpectedly, while her wit is sly, almost too quick. Comic possibilities are everywhere.”
Here is more reaction to the master storyteller’s death:
Margaret Atwood, novelist, poet and commentator
“Mavis Gallant was a wonderful writer, a sharp observer of human nature, a formidable conversationalist, and an indomitable spirit who made her own way, often uphill. She was funny, quirky, and prickly if you crossed her, but kind underneath it, especially to underdogs. Her unique voice will be much missed.”
Alice Munro, short story writer (in an interview with CP)
“Mavis Gallant was a marvellous short story writer and a constant hopeful influence on my life. I knew about her work and the fact that she was a Canadian and she wrote mainly short stories, which you were not really encouraged to do as your main writing … So she was important to me in that way."
Doug Pepper, publisher and president, McClelland & Stewart
“Without exaggeration she was one of the finest writers Canada has ever known. Witty, brave, honest, fiercely independent, Mavis was a stunning writer who transformed the short fiction form. She was also a woman ahead of her time, blazing a trail of independence that took courage and determination that inspired legions of other authors who count her influence as seminal to their own careers. She will be deeply missed by us all, and will live on through her many books. I am very proud to be the Canadian publisher of The Journals of Mavis Gallant, edited by Steven Barclay and Fran Kiernan, which McClelland & Stewart will publish in spring 2015.”
Jane Urquhart, novelist and poet
“It is almost impossible to imagine Paris without Mavis Gallant being there. Her courage, her fierce dedication to her vocation, and, in particular, her brilliant stories have, in many ways, defined that city for me, and for many others. Each time I saw her there she was welcoming and generous, curious about me, my work, my daughter, while I, for my own part, was aware of the miracle of being in the presence of one of the great voices of the 20th century.
“She was also magnificent in conversation; tough, witty, sometimes beautifully acerbic, then just when you least expected it, warm, almost tender. I once remarked to her that she had been so kind to my teenaged daughter who was tagging along, so inclusive. (I had never been led to believe that Mavis Gallant ‘had a way’ with teenagers.) She looked surprised, then serious. ‘I saw the light in her face,’ she said.
“I think of a story like Voices Lost in Snow, or the displaced, postwar wanderers in the collection In Transit, the ordinary Parisians in Across the Bridge. Mavis’s viewpoint was so often that of the observer, seemingly dispassionate, but with an inner emotional depth that affects readers even more strongly for its discretion.
“She found a way to carve out a writer’s life in a world that did not make it easy for her. The stories she produced in that difficult workshop, however, are a permanent gift to us all.”
Steven Heighton, novelist and poet
“I read her Paris collection From the Fifteenth District when I was just starting to write, and I thought: This is a great writer, clearly, and she’s Canadian. Which was a real inspiration to a Canadian novice reared on a syllabus dominated by British and American greats. For years I’ve thought of her and Alice Munro as two of the world’s best fiction writers, and now with Munro retired and Gallant gone, an era has passed. It’s a passing we should consecrate by reading and rereading the stories.”
Sam Solecki, editor and literary critic
“She liked to quote Rodin’s comment to Rilke that ‘il faut toujours travailler.’ And during the year I knew her when she was writer in residence at the University of Toronto [1983-84], I could often see her writer’s eye and attention click on during a casual meeting or conversation. One day we met Josef Skvorecky. After exchanging polite greetings – she admired his political mystery Miss Silver’s Past; he liked her New Yorker stories – they talked about Prague. Everything was on automatic pilot until Josef began telling the story of his half-sister who had been given up for adoption before his mother married his father. He stopped suddenly when he noticed that Mavis was watching him as attentively as a Naples pickpocket watches a Canadian tourist. He stuttered to a stop with ‘Well, it’s not that very interesting.’ Josef had never used the story in his fiction and his radar told him that Mavis was listening to it as potential material. He wasn’t going to let her have it.
“Life had been uncaring and careless with her during her childhood. As a result she was as ruthless and unsparing with her characters as she was with herself and the people around her. In life and fiction her natural tone was ironic. Munro’s stories, by comparison, are feasts of sympathy and affection. One day when we were discussing the short story writers of the post-Hemingway generation, she turned to me and said, ‘I’ll be forgotten in 50 years.’ I demurred and mentioned Babel, Platonov and Schulz, all of whom had survived against the odds. We had a falling out shortly after that and I didn’t hear from her until nearly a decade later. My daughter Vanessa, who had visited Mavis with me in 1982 at the Paris apartment on Rue Jean Ferrandi, called me one night from the University of Ottawa where she had just heard Mavis read. She had stayed for the book signing, and when it was her turn Mavis stared at her and said, ‘I know you.’ Vanessa answered, ‘I visited you in Paris. I’m Sam Solecki’s daughter.’ Mavis, still looking her in the eye, said, ‘That can’t be easy.’ She signed the book. I consoled myself with the memory of a mid-1980s Toronto dinner party held in her honour: the day after, the hostess, a writer of reputation, received a thank you note tucked into Mavis’s novel: A Fairly Good Time. She played tough.”
Damian Tarnopolsky, novelist
“A few years ago I took a correspondence course in creative writing. I had to fill out a form listing off my top three choices for mentors, and when I got the result back, I thought I’d won the lottery: I was going to be working with Mavis Gallant. The school had sent my first short story, the one that had got me in, to Paris for her thoughts. Mavis Gallant, in Paris; Mavis Gallant, of the Paris Notebooks and the New Yorker; Mavis Gallant of the Governor-General’s Award; Mavis Gallant was reading my story.
“But she was getting older, and I had to wait longer than I hoped for her to get in touch. Weeks passed, and more weeks, and every day I checked the mailbox and there was nothing. I got to know the letter carrier’s schedule very well. When the CBC said there was a collision at Mavis Road and the 403, I cursed. I was almost at breaking point by the time the first big envelope came from France, with my address in blue fountain pen. Her letter began with an apology, and then she added, ‘But writing is all about waiting.’ It was the first great piece of advice she gave me.
“There were several more like it over the next few months. She was a brilliant reader. At first she made lapidary comments about my prose, honing in on strengths and defects I was barely aware of, cracks and shadows that were invisible to me. Her precise, technical thoughts about this comma, or that simile, grew into larger thoughts about character and suspense; and then about what I was trying to do as a writer, and how I needed to think about it. They have stayed with me, and I call on them now. I find myself quoting her distinction between venial and cardinal writing sins – expressive fuzziness falls into the first category; deliberately withholding information into the second. Sometimes she said she wasn’t sure, and that educated me too. Mavis Gallant, writer, wasn’t sure how the story should end. She said it was up to me. The decision I had to make would determine the kind of fiction I was writing, she told me; it was a decision only I could make, not her.
“The course wasn’t everything I’d wanted it to be – when she fell out of touch for several weeks, I called the school. I suggested we could be in touch by fax, but she was worried that the pages would fall out of order in her apartment. I suggested e-mail, but she didn’t have a computer. I went to Europe on holiday during the course, and broke all the rules by calling her to ask if we could meet, and she told me bluntly that it was out of the question (though before we hung up, she asked me my age – she said she needed to know how old I was, to think about my work properly). Perhaps I was hoping for dramatic transformative weekly manifestos about the Power of Art; perhaps I thought she’d tell me secrets about this politician or that genius she’d known. It was something quieter that happened instead, something more important.
“It happened through her tone. When I started sending her my work, I didn’t know what a short story was, and I had no idea what she would say to me. I thought she might just tell me to stop, that I was wasting her time; I thought she might say she could make no sense of what I’d written. Instead, she became the first person whom I truly respected as a writer who made me feel that I could write. She read everything I sent her with complete seriousness, and told me what she thought was working and what she thought was not with equal honesty and clarity. She didn’t encourage me emptily or pretend that she could teach me everything, and she didn’t try to teach me to write the way she did. She gave me her attention and intelligence and perception, and by taking me seriously this way, she made me feel that I had something to offer. She was teaching me, but I felt that she was treating me as a colleague rather than as a student or a novice.
“People come into your life and change you in different ways. With some there are explosions; sometimes the impact is more subtle. The quality of Mavis Gallant’s attention – handwritten, at a distance, for a few months, many years ago – changed me. She read me like I was a writer, and that changed how I looked at myself.
“But what it meant was that I had to work, not that I had arrived anywhere. During the course, I came to see that I had to write something that arrested her; that not just anything would do. I would carry on being unsure, like she was in some of her letters to me. But by treating me the way she did, she taught me how to begin, and I’m still in her debt today.”
Ellen Seligman, publisher (fiction), McClelland & Stewart
“Mavis was a brilliant writer and observer of the human heart with all its conflicts. She was also a writer of great courage and accomplishment, who paved the way for many to follow, and who often wrote against all odds. Her passing is a major loss to Canada and the literary world.”
Erik Rutherford, writer and broadcaster
"I interviewed Mavis Gallant at Le Café du Dôme in Montparnasse in early 2006. She ordered a grand crème and a tartine and we talked. After a couple hours, I worried I'd taken too much of her time, but she ordered another coffee and we stayed longer. She asked me about my life. At the time I was near the end of a long relationship, and I'd fallen for someone else. 'Is the second person reliable?' she asked. I said, no, I didn't think so. 'Well, then you're crazy.'
"She began to sing: 'If I choose one, then I lose one... I don't know what to do... I've got trouble, double trouble... I'm going cuckoo trying to be true to two...' She said it was a song her parents had danced to. 'You asked if I had a good memory and that just bubbled up!' she said.
"At some point she sighed and agreed that I was in a dilemma, and she told me about a recurring dream that she'd had for years and years: She has to choose between two men. The men are different in every dream, and the men don't know each other. Her one obsessive thought is to keep the two men apart until she can make up her mind. 'The last time I had it, one of them was seeing me off at the airport. I suddenly realize I haven't got a ticket but the other fellow has it because he's going with me... I'm trying to say goodbye to the one without hurting his feelings... I have to make a choice, but I don't want to choose, because the minute I do, I'm not going to want him. I don't want to be stuck. And I wake up in such a state of anxiety that you wouldn't believe!'
"I responded with something vague about how the dream is very close to life, and how we are in these dilemmas all the time.
"She said, 'I think that if you're free, you are.'
Anne Michaels, poet and novelist
"Mavis Gallant's stories are almost astringent in their waking up of the reader. I feel an intense gratitude - and joy - for her unerring acuity and concision; absolute and breathtaking. She understood, in all its subtlety, the crucial distinction between making judgements and being judgmental. In this way, her stories were fearless. Her sly humour, her authority, her perception - all hewn from a clear acceptance of human frailty. Mavis was, simply, brilliant."