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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 ...

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.”

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