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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 ...

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.

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