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Author Mavis Gallant photographed at the Ritz Carleton in Montreal in 2002. (John Morstad/The Globe and Mail/John Morstad/The Globe and Mail)
Author Mavis Gallant photographed at the Ritz Carleton in Montreal in 2002. (John Morstad/The Globe and Mail/John Morstad/The Globe and Mail)

Mavis Gallant: 'She belongs to no one but herself' Add to ...

This was one of those boldfaced Upper West Side literary evenings. Earlier this month, more than 700 eager fiction readers flooded into the performance centre Symphony Space, paying up to $30 (U.S.) a pop, for a special edition of the two-decade-old local reading series Selected Shorts. In the audience, Francine Prose kibitzed with Wallace Shawn. Fran Lebowitz and Monique Truong made small talk with editors of The New York Review of Books. And up on the stage, Michael Ondaatje, Russell Banks, the poet Edward Hirsch and Jhumpa Lahiri praised the guest of honour as an incandescent influence.

"These are all-too-rare occasions when we are able to gather together and honour and celebrate and visit with a great writer who is very much among us, and who is indeed still writing," said Banks. It had been nine years, after all, since Mavis Gallant had been in New York. At 84, she barely ever travels; she is arthritic, her posture is stooped, she has trouble walking and she is unable to carry anything heavier than a couple of pounds. The evening was made possible only because a friend had travelled from the United States to pick her up at her home in Paris and accompany her for the three-day trip.

"Thanks and praise to a woman whose lifetime's work has significantly extended the possibilities of a literary form I adore as a reader and sometimes attempt myself as a writer, the so-called modern short story," said Banks, who had edited a 2003 Gallant collection titled Varieties of Exile. (Ondaatje had edited a similar 2002 collection, Paris Stories.) "Thanks and praise, then, for a body of work that has helped provide moral clarity and stability in a world we can otherwise see into only dimly, a world we can otherwise only stand in unsteadily, like a drunkard in a gale."

After more than an hour of such encomiums, a warm wave of applause brought Gallant into the spotlight to read one of her short stories. But as she made her way gingerly to centre stage, she took an accidental step sideways, stumbled and almost fell. Suddenly she looked mortal, aged and the evening's subtext rushed to the surface: This was a celebration, yes, but also a farewell tour. It was a eulogy for the living.

Which may be why Gallant seemed to float just above the proceedings, as her narrative eye so often does in her writing. "I think one stays a bit outside. There's nothing else to do, otherwise you'd be overwhelmed," she explained the following afternoon in the noisy bar of the Warwick Hotel where she was staying, using a third-person frequently deployed when her emotions are the subject of discussion. Still, she said, taking a sip of Earl Grey, "I was touched." A week later, the accolades would roll in again when she became the first English-language author to be awarded Quebec's prestigious Prix Athanase-David, handed out in recognition of a writer's body of work. The honour joined her collection of previous commendations: the PEN/Nabokov Award, the Rea Award, the Blue Metropolis Literary Prize, the Governor-General's Literary Award, the Order of Canada and others.

I thought it would be easy to select a passage by Mavis to read. But for the last few days I've discovered that what is wonderful on the page, delicious with intricacy, can be difficult to read out loud. The speed of alteration, how every paragraph changes the colour of the previous one, makes it almost impossible to find a passage that doesn't mean something very different a page later. One jazz musician, trying to describe Louis Armstrong's quickness, could only do so by putting on Potato Head Blues, and asking the camera to film the shift of his eyes. - Michael Ondaatje

In person, too, Gallant is like quicksilver, sly and fast and unpredictable. Her age, bearing and high literary reputation peg her as reserved. But she has an actor's delight in public performance and is a dead-on mimic for the accents sprinkled through some of her stories and her anecdotes. (Sixty years after working in a Montreal newsroom, she can still bark like a city editor: "Gallant, where the hell were ya?") She carries into every encounter a reputation of ruthlessness, of one who doesn't suffer fools at all - gladly or otherwise. But she chuckles at the idea that she could intimidate anyone and comes off as open and generous. When an interview scheduled for 30 minutes - "she tires easily," warned the publicist for The New York Review of Books, which had co-produced the Symphony Space evening - runs overtime, Gallant insists she is fine and proceeds to chat for another hour, until she must leave for dinner.

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