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.
She has a gossip's naughty appreciation for misbehaviour, giggling over a long-ago scandal about the Tour de France cyclist Fausto Coppi, who fathered an illegitimate child with a rich Italian woman and then died after receiving a bug bite during a Kenyan safari. She warns a photographer taking her portrait that she'll put a curse on him if he allows the publication of a picture showing her mouth open. "The last person I put a curse on had a stroke," she adds with a sly smile. And she raises the infamous head butt that capped last summer's World Cup of soccer. "We're all talking as if Zidane has a great brain in that skull," she chortles. "He's got a little peanut."
There are only two subjects that bring conversation to a halt: some aspects of her relationship to Canada, and her recent writing. First, the second. She says she's got a short story in the works, and would never stop writing - she can't comprehend Alice Munro's recent announcement toying with retirement - but cuts off questions about when she might next publish.
"I have physical problems with writing, my mind goes faster than my body now, and unless you've experienced it, that's very hard," she explains.
"My hands are very stiff. Last night while I was signing, I messed up some signatures and felt very badly for those people who'd bought books.
"It's a very odd feeling when your body starts to lead a life of its own. And you feel like saying to it, 'Look, I took you all over Europe!'" She laughs. "'I treated you very well! I subjected you to culture! I gave you lashings of good wine! The least you could do is shut up, you know? Behave yourself.' But there it is. Your mind races faster than your hands can write, and that's odd, you know?"
Besides, there are her personal journals to occupy her time, 50 years worth of them, beginning in 1950 when she left Montreal for Paris. The plan is for McClelland & Stewart to publish them in five volumes, one per decade. But that's been the plan for years, and she offers no sense of when they might be ready for publication. She refuses to accept any help on the project.
It has become popular now to talk about literature in terms of identity politics. Mavis Gallant shows us that this is nothing new, that not fully belonging, of being one thing, has always been an aspect of many people's lives. Most women who write, myself included, abhor the term "woman writer," but as the only woman paying tribute to her this evening, I cannot allow this opportunity to pass without saying how much I admire Mavis Gallant in this regard. When she was 30, she inhabited a very different world from mine, a world in which equality between the sexes was not taken for granted, a world in which respect for women had constantly to be earned. Far fewer women wrote back then, and the whole life cycle of books was largely the domain of men. - Jhumpa Lahiri
Gallant's biography is well known but bears repeating, then, if only to emphasize her impressive feminist accomplishment. The only child of mismatched parents, born in 1922 and sent to boarding school from the age of 4, she endured an emotionally reserved upbringing. Her British-born father, whom she loved and from whom she inherited a dry sense of humour, died when she was 10 years old. Her mother left her upbringing to a series of schools and guardians.
Gallant married at age 20 and then landed a job at The Montreal Standard as a features writer, a position that granted her two things that aided her development as an author: an ability to skip off work in the name of research ("I could always say I was at the library") and access to the lives of people she would not otherwise have met. Sexism wasn't so much rampant as environmental: When the English-language reporters in Montreal were founding a press club, they excluded women. (Some of this sexism is threaded through her stories about the hard-bitten, Montreal-born Linnet Muir, the most autobiographical character in Gallant's oeuvre.)
In 1950, she submitted a story to The New Yorker that was rejected. Her second was accepted. Buoyed, she quit the Standard, divorced her husband (though they remained on amicable terms), destroyed all of her journals and notebooks - her desire to reinvent herself was ruthless - and moved to Paris to support herself entirely as a fiction writer. The early years were tough, especially after she was swindled by a dishonest agent. "Luckily I had a temperament to do it. I never wanted to own anything - like a bird on a branch," she said. (The name Mavis, she notes later, is a medieval word for a song thrush.)
Gallant went on to publish more than 110 short stories in The New Yorker, along with a handful of poems, news features and essays. In 1996, 52 of the stories were published as The Collected Stories of Mavis Gallant. After the book's positive reception, she says, "I finally felt reassured. Because like most writers I think you're never sure."
And yet, since then, she has barely published.
From her early 20s, when she left Montreal for Paris, she became a writer whose life and work resisted the narrow confines of national identity. In some ways this has been a small liability - not to her work, certainly, quite the opposite - but perhaps to the shape of her public career. Her fame, if you will. She has not been a writer who represents and is thus claimed for the exclusive appreciation of a single national literary readership. She's not the exclusive property of Canadian cultural consciousness, its witness and celebrant. She's not a French writer, certainly, not even a French writer who writes in English. She's not North American or European. She's a world writer who happens to tell her stories in the English language. She would probably hate me for saying this, but in an important way, like my colleagues here tonight, Michael Ondaatje and Jhumpa Lahiri, she's a post-postmodern writer, a post-postcolonial writer, a post-multicultural writer, one of those artists who refuse the hyphen and reject the claims of national fealty. She belongs to no one but herself, and therefore her work belongs to all of us. - Russell Banks
"I'm Canadian," says Gallant when people ask, and they do, all the time, and not just Canadians. She treats this fact of her life as immutable as a law of physics. "I think what defines you is not so much your grandparents or whatever, it's your early years in school. When you're a small child, you're the centre of the universe, and then there are the planets, the two big ones are your parents, and they're going around you. Your outlook on the world is settled, I think, certainly by the time you're 10."
She never had any desire, she said, in taking French citizenship. "I don't think it's up to me to tell the French how to manage the school system, or anything like that." But like many Canadians who moved abroad before the last decade or so of the 20th century, Gallant continues to carry a germ of the country's former cultural inferiority complex.
When a compliment she offers is deflected, her tone turns sharp. "That is very Canadian," she snaps. "The rejection of a compliment. It really is so Canadian. 'Oh, no, actually I'm dying of measles. If you only knew.'"
And she is perhaps still wary of the resentment some Canadians had after she abandoned the country to find her fortune elsewhere. Asked about a remark she had made recently concerning some long-ago chilly encounters with Ontarians, she bristles and threatens to end the conversation.
About an hour later, the conversation winds toward the subject of her own funeral. "I'll be incinerated and then they can just scatter me. In Paris, they can do it in the cemetery, there's a little grass place which is rather horrid in summer because it's burnt up and they don't water it. But I would be very distressed to know that I was going to be buried. I'm claustrophobic."
She wouldn't want to be returned finally to Canada?, she is asked innocently. "Oh, sweetie, honestly! Come on! No, Mesopotamia, how about that? 'Does not wish to be buried in Canada!'" she proclaims, sweeping her hands through the air as if reading a banner newspaper headline. "'Does not wish to be scattered in Canada!' 'Has washed her hands completely of Canada!' 'She wipes her feet on Canada!'" She's giggling now.
"I'm thinking of pollution, and really, I don't want to make it worse.
"I'm not very big, so pollution will be small in any case. Just a few soup spoons of self."