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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 ...

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.

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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.

“I invented rhymes and stories when I could not get to sleep and in the morning when I was told it was too early to get up, and I uttered dialogue for a large colony of paper dolls,” she wrote in the preface to her Selected Stories.

Her parents sent her to board at a French convent when she was 4. “The only thing I remember,” Ms. Gallant said in an interview in The Guardian in 2004, “is my mother putting me on a chair and saying, ‘I’ll be back in 10 minutes.’ She just didn’t come back.”

She was not taught written English, “the language of her imagination,” until she was eight years old, but she was allowed to read the English books her parents sent in a trunk. When she was 10, her father died from kidney disease, although she was told that he had gone on a trip home to England. Her mother quickly remarried and moved to New York – leaving her daughter behind.

“I think from the minute this break happened, she was no longer interested in her former life, she wanted a completely new life,” Ms. Gallant said in a 1985 interview. “And I was not only part of this other life, but I was the image of my father, in temperament, in appearance, in manner, in voice – a kind of living reproach. I think for that reason she saw as little of me as possible.”

Her mother sent her to relatives in Ontario and then abandoned her to a series of boarding schools – as many as 17, by Ms. Gallant’s count. The lonely girl longed for her father to reappear and rescue her and feared that he wouldn’t be able to find her because of her many changes of address.

In one of the autobiographical Linnet Muir stories (collected in Home Truths) she wrote, “My life was deeply wretched and I took it for granted that he knew. Finally I began to suspect that death and silence can be one.”

By the time she was 18, she felt that she was “of an age to make decisions.” She went back to Montreal, the last place she had seen her father, thinking that if she “got geographically out of the way” of her mother, she would be able to “breathe.”

She had begun writing fiction and poetry at her various schools and packing her efforts away in a picnic basket. She salvaged the best of this work and took it with her to Montreal, along with her birth certificate and a $5 going-away present from a friend. She looked up her old nanny and lived with her in a cold-water flat until she found a job and a place of her own.

Because it was wartime and most of the men were overseas, she found work in such male bastions as an engineering firm and at the nascent National Film Board, which was very much under the control of founder John Grierson.

The male chauvinism grated. Before she left the film board, she requested a meeting with Mr. Grierson, even though she was nothing but “an earthworm.” She demanded to know why “girls,” as they were known in those days, were never given anything interesting to do.

“If you train them, they get married and leave,” he said.

She retorted, “Well, I am married and I haven’t left,” referring to John (Johnny) Gallant, a nightclub pianist of Acadian descent, whom she had married that year and who had been shipped overseas to fight.

“And if they don’t get married, in 10 years, the place is full of old cows,” Mr. Grierson responded.

She faced the same attitude at the Montreal Standard, the now defunct newspaper, where she was hired in 1944, when she was 21. A senior editor said in her presence, “If it weren’t for the goddamned war, we wouldn’t have hired any of these goddamned women.”

She refused to do what she sneeringly called “women’s work” and eventually became a respected and sometimes controversial feature writer. Being bilingual, she could gather information in French and report in English.

About this time, a friend to whom she had shown some of her stories passed them on to the poet F.R. Scott. He published two of them in the December, 1944, issue of Preview, a small literary magazine that he was editing.

Ms. Gallant already knew she wanted to be a writer, but she feared that she didn’t have the requisite talent, that she had “inherited a flawed legacy” from her father, who she realized was a passionate, but indifferent artist.

She got over her own fear that she had no talent after her Selected Stories were published in 1996 and “I saw the reaction of the people who read them,” she said in an interview with The Globe after she won the grand prize at the Blue Metropolis Literary Festival in April, 2002. “There wasn’t anybody who said, ‘She wasted her time and ours. Why did we ever bother with her?’ ”

In the spring of 1945, right after VE day, and the liberation of the concentration camps, the art director of The Standard called her into a room where he had placed a series of photographs face down on a boardroom table. He turned over the pictures, which were the first photographs from the concentration camps, seeming, she later thought, to enjoy the effect they created on a young woman, and told her to write captions and an 800-word introduction. “Who could take that in?” she said, clearly shaken even more than 50 years after the end of the war. She thinks that pictures of the Rwandan massacre might be a contemporary equivalent.

After the war, she travelled the country with a trainload of war brides, an experience she remembered and reflected on with empathy and insight in her introduction to Joyce Hibbert’s The War Brides (1978).

She also wrote an exposé of a baby farm, which sold the babies of unwed mothers to couples who didn’t meet adoption criteria, which led to a libel suit and the closing of the illegal operation, and supplied the precipitating incident and background decades later for her story The Fenton Child in her 1993 collection Across the Bridge.

Witty and sparky, and a flirtatious conversationalist, she also outraged many readers with a piece entitled, “Why are Canadians so dull?”

After her husband was demobilized, the marriage limped along until 1948. She gave herself two years after her divorce was final “to pull myself together” before she left Canada for a new life in Paris. She was terrified of rejection, but she was also 27 and turning into the kind of person she didn’t want to be: “a journalist who wrote fiction along some margin of spare time.”

Determined to choose between one life and the other before she turned 30, she began sending stories to The New Yorker, promising herself she would quit writing fiction if none of her first three forays succeeded. She got lucky on her second shot with Madeline’s Birthday, the first of at least 100 stories that the magazine published over the next half-century. It appeared on Sept. 1, 1951.

After she resigned her job, she kept her husband’s name because it was her byline, pocketed the $600 fee from The New Yorker and a $500 going-away cheque from the publisher of The Standard, and flew away from Montreal on a ticket provided by an airline executive.

Some of the men on the newspaper told her, “You will come back with your ears drooping like a beagle,” but she said later, “If I hadn’t tried, I would have been very discontented. If I had gone back to journalism, it would not have been a tragedy because I liked the life and the freedom and I liked mucking around in other people’s atmosphere. I liked it, but I wanted something else.”

In the preface to her Selected Stories, she described the distinction between journalism and fiction as the difference between “without and within.” To her, journalism was recounting “as exactly and economically as possible the weather in the street; fiction takes no notice of that particular weather but brings to life a distillation of all weathers, a climate of the mind.”

Wanting something else was also true of her attitude to her homeland. She wasn’t trying to escape the two solitudes of the English and the French; rather, she was trying to embrace Paris. “I had Europe on the brain,” she told The New York Times in 1987. “I think it came from my reading. And, remember, I was of the war generation, so there was a great feeling of being cut off from Europe.”

Just before she left Montreal, John Sutherland, the editor of Northern Review, introduced her to a fledgling writer named Mordecai Richler, then 18, who was heading for England. “I saw this skinny kid with a lot of hair who knew it all,” she recalled in 2002. They did see each other that first year in Paris “because he was a young Canadian and there were things I admired about him.” Mainly she liked the fact that he wasn’t a whiner. “He had less money than any of us, but he never grumbled. I never heard him complain about money or this or that at a time when he didn’t have anything.”

From Paris that first autumn, she wrote to her friend William Weintraub in Montreal that the room she had rented was huge, but its radiator was small. “If I am working, my hands get numb and I have to soak them in warm water. I can now understand why the French never sleep alone. They aren’t any sexier than any other race, but it’s the only way of keeping warm.”

Obsessed by the war and its wake of physical and emotional destruction, she travelled around Europe, as her finances permitted, like a freelance journalist on a loose retainer, recording her observations of uprooted and displaced people in notebooks that she would later plunder for snatches of dialogue or flashes of descriptive setting.

“Her Europe is a place of ‘shipwrecks,’ ” according to writer Michael Ondaatje, who edited an anthology of her Paris stories, full of characters who are “permanent wanderers, though a nomadic fate was not part of their original intent. With no land to light on, they look back without nostalgia, and look forward with a frayed hope.”

He described her stories as “cubist in their angles and qualifications,” and her narrators as giving the impression of “being attached, lazily, almost accidentally, like a burr, to some character – an Italian servant perhaps, a tax consultant, an art dealer.”

She wrote steadily, sending stories to her editor William Maxwell at The New Yorker. Every so often, she would collect enough of them together for her agent Georges Borchardt to present to a U.S. publisher.

Of all her stories, her own favourite is probably The Pegnitz Junction, a novella-length story that has often been called a novel for the complexity of its narrative. It is a story made up of interweaving voices and stories, both interior and exterior that expands by the end to being not just about characters frozen by indecision, but about a country, Germany, trying to find a way to reinvent itself after its nefarious descent into Nazism and its military defeat in the Second World War.

In her early years in Europe, she lived in many short-term situations in the south of France, Switzerland and Spain, and eventually settled in the Montparnasse district of Paris, which was home to Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus in the 1950s, and the site of many student demonstrations in 1968 and during the labour and student strikes about the job laws in 2006. She chronicled the uprisings, initially for her personal notebooks, but eventually agreed to let The New Yorker publish them. (They appeared in Paris Notebooks.)

Her reportage about the civil unrest in Paris and a court case in which a teacher committed suicide after being jailed for having sex with a student, prompted Random House, her U.S. publishers, to commission her to write a biography of Alfred Dreyfus, the Jewish French army officer falsely accused of treason in the late 19th century.

Ms. Gallant worked for years on the book, but it was never finished. She said her publisher didn’t support her adequately for such a major undertaking and she became discouraged. Others suspected that after so many years writing fiction, she lost her nerve. She amassed mounds of research, which she stored in the linen closet of her Paris apartment, in much the same way she kept her early stories in a picnic hamper.

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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