Remembering Mavis Gallant

February 19, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

Mavis_GallantMavis Gallant taught me to be suspicious of adverbs. This was almost two decades ago at the International Festival of Authors in Toronto. Gallant was being interviewed by her longtime friend Mordecai Richler, and it seems to me the two must have had some kind of falling out just before walking on stage, because Gallant appeared brusque during the interview and Richler, as I recall, seemed uncharacteristically flustered. I don’t remember many details of the onstage discussion, but I do remember her counselling against the overuse of adverbs in writing. At the time, I was in my twenties, unpublished, and hopelessly naive.

Approaching Gallant in the signing line after the interview, I was terrified: if this woman could intimidate Mordecai Richler, imagine what she could do to the likes of me. Still, I screwed my courage to the sticking post, as the Bard says, and introduced myself. For want of anything more profound, I asked the famous New Yorker story writer why she thought adverbs should be avoided. “They weaken prose,” was her reply. She didn’t elaborate; she didn’t have to. Close to twenty years later, I still consider this among the most practical advice ever given me as a writer. Also among the most generous.

The inscription in my copy of the New Canadian Library edition of The Moselm Wife and Other Stories includes the date and place of this exchange: “Toronto, 27 October 96.” Although Gallant left Canada for Europe in 1950, and spent most of her adult life in Paris, a significant proportion of her fiction is set in her native country. A central cleavage in her writing is that between Europe and North America; if Munro is our Chekhov, Gallant has a strong claim to being our Henry James.

This is also apparent in the psychological acuity of her writing: Gallant pierces to the very centre of her characters with a precision that is almost eerie, and often unsettling. Gallant has been accused of being a cold writer, but I don’t think this is the case. She was, without question, ironic, and almost aggressively unsentimental, but her stories display great understanding of, and empathy for, the human condition.

Nor are they devoid of humour, as many careless readers have charged. Gallant’s wit was dry, and could be cutting, but it was always present. The author is quoted in The New York Times as saying, “I can’t imagine writing anything that doesn’t have humour. Look at the fits of laughter that you get at a funeral, at a wake. It’s emotion, and in a way it’s relief that you’re alive.”

Gallant died yesterday in Paris, at the age of 91. (Richler was fond of quoting an exchange between Gallant and an interviewer who inquired as to why the Canadian-born writer chose to live in Paris. “Have you ever been to Paris?” was Gallant’s caustic response.) Ellen Seligman, publisher of McClelland & Stewart, referred to Gallant as “a writer of great courage and accomplishment.” Alice Munro cited her as “a constant influence.” Margaret Atwood said she was “funny, quirky, and prickly if you crossed her, but kind underneath it, especially to underdogs.” Michael Ondaatje, who edited a collection of Gallant’s Paris stories, called her simply, “my hero.”

Addressing Gallant’s work in the literary journal Brick, author Russell Banks takes umbrage with those who would categorize her as a “writer’s writer”: “For what is a writer’s writer, anyhow? Merely one who honours in every sentence she writes the deepest, most time-honoured principles of composition: honesty, clarity, and concision. So, yes, in that sense she is a writer’s writer. But only in that sense.”

In the afterword to The Moslem Wife and Other Stories, Richler calls Gallant “a first-rate storyteller” who “never ran with the CanLit hounds.” Perhaps her self-imposed exile (a word Gallant herself hated) accounts for why she was not immediately accepted in her country of birth; even today, despite winning a Governor General’s Literary Award for Home Truths (1981), she is not as widely read as she should be. When Lisa Moore defended Gallant’s collection From the Fifteenth District on the CBC’s Canada Reads in 2008, her fellow panellists complained that they were unable to connect with the book, apparently assuming this to be the fault of the writing and not a limitation on the part of the reader.

I side with Moore and Banks and Atwood and Munro and Ondaatje in thinking that Gallant was not just one of the best short-story writers of her time, but one of the best writers, full stop. She was a consummate artist who remained true to herself and her vision, in the process helping to define an entire literary genre for future generations. And she taught me to be wary of adverbs, advice I still try mightily to heed. Sometimes I fail, but I trust that, wherever she is now, Gallant will find it in her heart to forgive me.

***

The conviction that she was married against her will never leaves her. If she had been born royal it could not have been worse. She has led the life of a crown princess, sapped by boredom and pregnancies. She told each of her five daughters as they grew up that they were conceived in horror; that she could have left them in their hospital cots and not looked back, so sickened was she by their limp spines and the autumn smell of their hair, by their froglike movements and their animal wails. She liked them when they could reason, and talk, and answer back – when they became what she calls “people.”

She makes the girls laugh. She is French-Canadian, whether she likes it or not. They see at the heart of her a sacrificial mother, her education has removed her in degree only from the ignorant, tiresome, moralizing mother, given to mysterious female surgery, subjugated by miracles, a source of infinite love. They have heard her saying, “Why did I get married? Why did I have all these large dull children?” They have heard, “If any of my children had been brilliant or unusual, it would have justified my decision. Yes, they might have been narrow and warped in French, but oh how commonplace they became in English!” “We are considered traitors and renegades,” she says. “And I can’t point to even one of my children and say, ‘yes, but it was worth it – look at Pauline – or Lucia – or Gérard.'” The girls ought to be wounded at this, but in fact they are impermeable. They laugh and call it “Mother putting on an act.” Her passionate ambition for them is her own affair. They have chosen exactly the life she tried to renounce for them; they married young, they are frequently pregnant, and sometimes bored.

– “Saturday” by Mavis Gallant

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