This summer, John Semley asks the tough questions of our nation: Are we Canadians really a funny people? And, if so, how did we get that way? Each week, for 10 weeks, he will explore a new facet of our history in humour. For the previous installment, click here.
An internal memo that made the rounds in the offices of The New Yorker regarding Mavis Gallant's 1961 story Two Questions sums up what's so great about her writing. "It's like life," one skeptical editor wrote, "and not – to me – like fiction." When Gallant passed away earlier this year, at 91, Deborah Treisman – writing, again in The New Yorker, where Gallant saw some 116 stories published between 1951 and her death – identified Gallant's "like-lifeness" as the quality of Gallant's writing that lingers most persistently, the thing "that makes her stories sit so solidly, almost bad-naturedly, in memory."
Mavis Gallant was, like a pretty much anyone worthwhile, a bit of an odd duck. She was born in Montreal in 1922. Her father died when she was 10, and her mother ditched her a few years later for a lover in New York City. Gallant bounced between schools in the U.S. and Canada, took a job at the Montreal Standard (her tenure inspired one of her funniest, and best, stories, With A Capital T), and then left for Europe at 28, carried, like so many others, on the hope that the continent's reputation for cheap rents, breezy living and salon intellectualism could accommodate the aspirations of a wannabe writer.
An expatriate living in Europe is one of the worst things a Canadian can be. We seem all too willing to vaunt any author, journalist or other creative-intellectual type who makes it in the USA, despite our generalized low-level contempt for those same United States. In a way, it makes sense. Success in America – which is bigger, and so more competitive, and so more difficult – validates the nose-to-the-grindstone Protestant work ethic that we all like to pretend we're not psychotically beholden to. It corrects for a mistake of colonization, undoes the shame of having won our sorta-Independence through diligent legislation and not bloody revolution, the quiet humiliation of even being Canadian at all. But slumming it Europe? Among the idle? The French? Like the French French? No way. No way, bud.
Gallant has no particular use for Canada, and vice versa. Her first books of stories were only made available stateside, thanks in part to the author making no effort to court a Canadian publisher. There's something unique in her voice that feels entirely un-Canadian. It's her permeating sense of irony that proceeds from an almost molecular level. And its her withering ridicule of many of her characters. This is almost always a definite no-no. Authors must always like their characters. How else are we to know that they are nice, amicable, totally easy-going and kind-hearted souls just like us? Eh?
All this scorn and irony and contempt, this un-Canadianness, this unlikeability, is exactly what makes Gallant likeable. I talked about that tension between compassion and derision a couple of weeks back, looking at the work of Michel Tremblay. Gallant strikes a similar tone. Her humour is meaner. But it's also very funny and very sad, often showing how humour (even in the form of penetrating contempt) finds a home in sorrow and melancholy. This is honest. This is "like-lifeness."
Gallant's biting humour comes to bear most fully on her Montreal stories, the best of which were collected in a 2004 edition edited by Russell Banks, titled – what else? – Montreal Stories. They orbit around Montreal, and reflect Gallant's expat sensibility. It's "wet, dark, stormy," worlds away from more contemporary estimations that regard it as "European" because some streets have cobblestones and you can drink an hour later than you can in Toronto (or, as of late, four hours later, provided you're game for drinking on some of the city's lousiest streets).
In one story, Gallant describes a small Quebec town in a way that can't help but pass for an estimation of Canada writ large: "There was no core to the place except a huddle of stores around the French church." Elsewhere, characters are either drawn back to Montreal or called away – as in The End of the World, which sees its narrator reluctantly pitched across the pond to France to reconcile with his estranged, and dying, dad. Through the eyes of her narrator, Gallant views rural France not as kindly or quaint, but a berg of backwater suspiciousness, where nurses resort to sterilizing water in saucepans.
Gallant's humour is most pointed in passages where she engages with Canada directly. In Between Zero and One, she calls out mid-century Canadian broadcasting as "flatly optimistic, read out in the detached nasal voices de rigueur for the CBC." If there's one turn of phrase that defines her contempt for Canada, it'd be "flatly optimistic." Can you think of two words that better describe Peter Mansbridge's assured, cocky, technical smile? (You can't. It's not a dare.)
Gallant is funny not only because she chucks out lines like this like it's no big deal, but because in doing so, she proves herself totally bored by the issues of Canadian identity that our literature is so obsessed with. She's Canadian by birth only. And if push came to shove, I bet a lot of us would have to say the same.
Next week: We head back into the terrain of professional humorists with a look at Will Ferguson, the guy who hates Canada, yet can't bring himself to stop writing about it.