Mavis Gallant, one of Canada’s most distinguished literary figures, died in Paris early on Tuesday. She was 91.
The funeral is planned for Saturday in Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris, the city where she had lived for most of her adult life. She had no children, and was unmarried, but had legions of literary fans and a close group of stalwart friends.
A celebrated short-story writer in The New Yorker, she published two novels and nearly 10 volumes of short fiction, winning the Governor-General’s Award for her 1981 Home Truths: Selected Canadian Stories.
Ms. Gallant had a journalist’s nose, a cinematographer’s eye and a novelist’s imagination. She combined her technical skills and sensory perceptions in the shrewdly observed and multilayered short story, a form she made her own. She was a specialist in writing about outsiders trying to insinuate themselves into alien situations and cultures, and her narratives move in waves of dialogue, observation and lashing tension. Reading her stories gives one a sense of a clock ticking, a door creaking open, or of an emotional wound about to be inflicted.
A Canadian by birth, she first enjoyed literary success in the United States, where she published more than 100 stories in The New Yorker beginning in 1951.
Although she was bilingual and lived in Paris for more than 50 years, she didn’t write in French. English was the language of her imagination. “I dream in both [languages], but nothing ever comes to me in the way of fiction in French. Even if the characters are French and live in Paris, I write in English, but I know that they are speaking French and I know what they are saying.”
Gallant’s unhappy childhood and her father’s death when she was 10 gave her a motherlode of themes to mine about children who are frightened, unloved or alone. Although an elusive quarry for interviewers, she acknowledged her childhood experience in a New York Times interview in 1985. “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.”
Early training in the cutting room at the National Film Board of Canada taught her cinematic technique as a tool in storytelling and gave her raw material to trigger stories. She had a remarkable memory, which she compared to a roll of film in which “some frames are developed and others are transparent.” She also compared it to “a kind of sieve” in which some incidents have filtered through and others have been retained.
Working as a newspaper columnist and feature writer provided a different kind of boost. “I saw the interiors of houses I wouldn’t have seen otherwise,” she said once. Many of the houses that she later described in her fiction came from assignments. “I could see some of those rooms, and see the wallpaper, and what they ate, and what they wore, and how they spoke … and the way they treated their children. I drew it all in like blotting paper.”
Her characters are frustrated husbands and wives, unhappy parents and children, lost or displaced refugees or travellers, disgruntled servants and employers, or friends whose lives are troubled or fragmented.
In an interview with The Globe and Mail in 2002, she said the people and situations for stories came to her “as a freeze frame.” She claimed she had “no idea where they come from or who they are, except that when I see them in this frame I know who they are what their names are, what their backgrounds are and everything, and then this thing comes to life in some way. I know it sounds like magic, but it isn’t. It is just the way one’s mind works, a kind of strange receptivity. For days there is dialogue and at the most inconvenient times – like when you are brushing your teeth. It comes and you sit and write and your mouth is foaming as if you are mad.”
Mavis de Trafford Young was born in Montreal on Aug. 11, 1922, the only child of an English-born furniture salesman and amateur painter and his Eastern European wife. They were English-speaking Protestants from one of the two solitudes in patriarchal, francophone Catholic Montreal.