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Mavis Gallant in Paris in 2006. (Neville Elder/The Globe and Mail)
Mavis Gallant in Paris in 2006. (Neville Elder/The Globe and Mail)

Writer Mavis Gallant dies at age 91 Add to ...

To keep herself going, she developed a habit of writing fiction in the mornings, as a reward, an incentive and a way of earning money, before tackling the increasingly onerous Dreyfus manuscript in the afternoons. It was while she was trying to imagine Dreyfus in his setting in Paris that she was reminded of herself as a young woman, memories that she transformed into the Linnet Muir stories, about a girl who is living in New York, but comes back to Montreal when she is 18. “She looks at her old convent school and thinks, ‘All you have to do is wait to grow up and then you are free,’ ” Ms. Gallant recalled many years later.

Linnet Muir was named, as Ms. Gallant herself was, after a songbird. She said she could have gone on writing the heavily autobiographical stories, “but in the middle of them [William Maxwell], my editor at The New Yorker, retired and I had a new editor [Daniel Menaker] who didn’t like them. They made him impatient. He wasn’t interested in Montreal and he wasn’t interested in this girl. I could sense it.”

She recalled years later: “He wrote me a letter in which he said: ‘Some of us around here wish you would go back to writing real stories.’ That ‘some of us’ infuriated me.”

Those weasel words zapped Linnet from Ms. Gallant’s imagination. “It was as if a double door into that Montreal of the forties had gone, and I couldn’t see through them any more,” she said.

That rejection shows how sensitive Ms. Gallant was to criticism. At the same time, though, Mr. Menaker had a point. The Linnet Muir stories are fascinating for the clarity of Ms. Gallant’s physical memory of Montreal and for her nuanced grievances about her early life, but as fiction they are not nearly as multifaceted or polished as her European stories.

Her stories weren’t translated into French and published in France until 1988. She never sought promotion and said she liked being anonymous, and quietly observing her neighbours in their quotidian lives. An appearance on the French literary talk show Apostrophe changed all that. “I went out on my errands the next morning, and everywhere I went, the shopkeepers looked at me,” she told The Globe in 1996. “The dry cleaner, the pharmacist, the grocer, everyone had seen it and was astonished to see me. ‘Mais vous êtes un écrivain,’ they said. ‘You are a writer.’ ”

She and her work were feted even as her production of new stories dwindled. She received numerous honorary degrees, the Molson Prize from the Canada Council, the Canada-Australia Literary Prize, a tribute at the International Festival of Authors at Harbourfront in Toronto, the Blue Metropolis Literary Prize, the Inaugural Matt Cohen Prize, the Pen Nabokov Award for career achievement. She was also named a Companion of the Order of Canada.

The past preoccupied her more than ever in her last years because she was preparing her diaries for publication. That project, with the help of trusted friends, editor Frances Kiernan and lecture agent Steven Barclay, will be published in Toronto and New York in 2015. Tentatively titled The Journals of Mavis Gallant: 1952-1969, the book covers a nearly 20-year period from soon after she arrived in Paris through the student riots in 1968.

“Of course, it would have been best for Mavis to have seen the publication of these wonderful journals,” M&S publisher Doug Pepper said in an e-mail.  “It has taken years and a lot of hard work to transcribe them and make them ready for publication, but well worth it. They are raw, beautiful, insightful, and pure Mavis,” he said.  “She told a Paris Review interviewer that she would never write her memoirs. What we have instead is, to my mind, even more illuminating and fascinating to read.”

Her last decade was plagued by ill health and poverty. She suffered from arthritis, osteoporosis and diabetes, but a circle of close friends rallied to support her valiant spirit, her coruscating wit and her generous capacity for friendship.

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