Gallant, Mavis 1922–
Gallant, Mavis 1922–
PERSONAL: Born Mavis Young, August 11, 1922, in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. Education: Educated at schools in Montreal and New York, NY.
ADDRESSES: Home—37 West 12th St., New York, NY 10011-8502. Agent—Georges Borchardt, 136 East 57th St., New York, NY 10022.
CAREER: Worked at National Film Board of Canada, Montreal, early 1940s; Standard, Montreal, Quebec, feature writer and critic, 1944–50; freelance writer, 1950–. Writer-in-residence at University of Toronto, 1983–84.
MEMBER: PEN, Authors Guild, Authors League of America, American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters (foreign honorary member), Royal Society of Literature (fellow).
AWARDS, HONORS: Canadian Fiction Prize, 1978; named Officer of the Order of Canada, 1981; Governor General's Award, 1981, for Home Truths: Selected Canadian Stories; honorary doctorates from University of St. Anne, Nova Scotia, and York University, Ontario, both 1984, University of Western Ontario, 1990, Queen's University, 1992, and University of Montreal and Birnap's University, both 1995; Canada-Australia Literary Prize, 1985; Canadian Council Molson Prize for the Arts, 1997.
The Other Paris (short stories), Houghton (Boston, MA), 1956.
Green Water, Green Sky (novel), Houghton (Boston, MA), 1959.
My Heart Is Broken: Eight Stories and a Short Novel, Random House (New York, NY), 1964, published in England as An Unmarried Man's Summer, Heinemann (London, England), 1965.
A Fairly Good Time (novel), Random House (New York, NY), 1970.
The Pegnitz Junction: A Novella and Five Short Stories, Random House (New York, NY), 1973.
The End of the World and Other Stories, McClelland & Stewart (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1974.
From the Fifteenth District: A Novella and Eight Short Stories, Random House (New York, NY), 1979.
Home Truths: Selected Canadian Stories, Macmillan (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1981, Random House (New York, NY), 1985.
Overhead in a Balloon: Stories of Paris, Macmillan (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1985, Random House (New York, NY), 1987.
In Transit: Twenty Stories, Viking (Markam, Ontario, Canada), 1988, Random House (New York, NY), 1989.
Across the Bridge: Nine Short Stories, Random House (New York, NY), 1993.
The Moslem Wife and Other Stories, McClelland & Stewart (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1993.
The Collected Stories of Mavis Gallant, Random House (New York, NY), 1996.
(Author of introduction) The Wandering Jews, W. W. Norton (New York, NY), 2000.
Paris Stories, New York Review Books (New York, NY), 2002.
Varieties of Exile: Stories, New York Review Books (New York, NY), 2003.
(Author of introduction) Gabrielle Russier, The Affair of Gabrielle Russier, Knopf (New York, NY), 1971.
(Author of introduction) J. Hibbert, The War Brides, PMA (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1978.
What Is to Be Done? (play; produced in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, 1982), Quadrant, 1983.
Paris Notebooks: Essays and Reviews, Macmillan (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1986.
Contributor of essays, short stories, and reviews to numerous periodicals, including the New Yorker, New York Times Book Review, New Republic, New York Review of Books, and Times Literary Supplement.
WORK IN PROGRESS: A novel.
SIDELIGHTS: Canadian-born Mavis Gallant is often described as one of the finest crafters of short stories in the English language. Her works, most of which appeared initially in the New Yorker magazine, are praised for sensitive evocation of setting and penetrating delineation of character. In the words of Maclean's contributor Mark Abley, Gallant "is virtually unrivaled at the art of short fiction"; an exacting artist, her pieces reveal "an ability to press a lifetime into a few resonant pages as well as a desire to show the dark side of comedy and the humor that lurks behind despair." Time contributor Timothy Foote called Gallant "one of the prose masters of the age," and added that no modern writer "casts a colder eye on life, on death and all the angst and eccentricity in between."
Since 1950 Gallant has lived primarily in Paris, but she has also spent extended periods of time in the United States, Canada, and other parts of Europe. Not surprisingly, her stories and novellas show a wide range of place and period; many feature refugees and expatriates forced into self-discernment by rootlessness. As Anne Tyler noted in the New York Times Book Review, each Gallant fiction "is densely—woven, … rich in people and plots—a miniature world, more satisfying than many full-scale novels…. There is a sense of limitlessness: each story is like a peephole opening out into a very wide landscape."
Dictionary of Literary Biography essayist Ronald B. Hatch observed that the subject of children, "alone, frightened, or unloved," recurs often in Gallant's work. This, he noted, reflects Gallant's own difficult youth. The author underwent a solitary and transient childhood, attending seventeen different schools in the United States and Canada. Her father died while she was in grade school, and her mother, soon remarried, moved to the United States, leaving the child with strangers. Reflecting upon how her formative years influenced her writing, Gallant told the New York Times: "I think it's true that in many, many of the things I write, someone has vanished. And it's often the father. And there is often a sense that nothing is very safe, and you're often walking on a very thin crust." One advantage of Gallant's far-flung education has endured, however. As a primary schooler in her native Montreal, she learned French, and she remained bilingual into adulthood.
Gallant matured into a resourceful young woman determined to be a writer. At the age of twenty-one she became a reporter with the Montreal Standard, a position that honed her writing talents while it widened her variety of experiences. Journalism, she told the New York Times, "turned out to be so valuable, because I saw the interiors of houses I wouldn't have seen otherwise. And a great many of the things, particularly in … [fiction] about Montreal, that I was able to describe later, it was because I had seen them, I had gone into them as a journalist." She added: "If I got on with the people, I had no hesitation about seeing them again…. I went right back and took them to lunch. I could see some of those rooms, and see the wallpaper, and what they ate, and what they wore, and how they spoke,… and the way they treated their children. I drew it all in like blotting paper." From these encounters Gallant began to write stories. In 1950 she decided to leave Montreal and begin a new life as a serious fiction writer in Paris. At the same time she began to send stories to the New Yorker for publication. Her second submission, a piece called "Madeline's Birthday," was accepted, beginning a four-decade relationship with the prestigious periodical. Gallant used the six-hundred-dollar check for her story to finance her move abroad. Paris has been her permanent home ever since.
Expatriation provided Gallant with new challenges and insights that have formed central themes in her fiction. In The Other Paris and subsequent story collections, her characters are "the refugee, the rootless, the emotionally disinherited," to quote a Times Literary Supplement reviewer, who added: "It is a world of displacement where journeys are allegorical and love is inadequate." Gallant portrays postwar people locked into archaic cultural presuppositions; often dispossessed of their homes by haphazard circumstances, they are bewildered and insecure, seeking refuge in etiquette and other shallow symbols of tradition. Time correspondent Patricia Blake maintained that Gallant's "natural subject is the varieties of spiritual exile…. All [her characters] are bearers of a metaphorical 'true passport' that transcends nationality and signifies internal freedom. For some this serves as a safe-conduct to independence. For others it is a guarantee of loneliness and despair." Gallant also presents the corollary theme of the past's inexorable grip on its survivors. In her stories, New York Review of Books essayist V.S. Pritchett contended, "we are among the victims of the wars in Europe which have left behind pockets of feckless exiles…. History has got its teeth into them and has regurgitated them and left them bizarre and perplexed." Whether immersed in the past or on the run from it, vainly trying to "turn over a new leaf," Gallant's characters "convey with remarkable success a sense of the amorphousness, the mess of life," to quote Books & Bookmen contributor James Brockway. Spiritually and physically marginal, they yearn paradoxically for safety, order, and freedom. "Hearts are not broken in Mavis Gallant's stories," concluded Eve Auchincloss in the New York Review of Books. "Roots are cut, and her subject is the nature of the life that is led when the roots are not fed."
Most critics applaud Gallant's ability to inhabit the minds of her characters without resorting to condescension or sentimentality. Abley claimed that the author "can write with curiosity and perceptiveness about the kind of people who would never read a word of her work—a rarer achievement than it might sound. She is famous for not forgiving and not forgetting; her unkind-ness is usually focused on women and men who have grown complacent, never reflecting on their experience, no longer caring about their world. With such people she is merciless, yet with others, especially children bruised by neglect, she is patient and even kind. In the end, perhaps, understanding can be a means of forgiveness. One hopes so, because Mavis Gallant understands us terribly well." In Chicago's Tribune Books, Civia Tamarkin suggested that Gallant's works "impose a haunting vision of man trapped in an existential world. Each of the stories is a sensitive, though admirably understated, treatment of isolation, loneliness, and despair. Together they build an accumulating sense of the frustrating indifference of the cosmos to human hopes."
While best known for her short stories and novellas, Gallant has also penned two novels, Green Water, Green Sky and A Fairly Good Time. Hatch contended that these works continue the author's "exploration of the interaction between an individual's thoughts and his external world." In Green Water, Green Sky, according to Constance Pendergast in the Saturday Review, Gallant "writes of the disaster that results from a relationship founded on the mutual need and antagonism of a woman and her daughter, where love turns inward and festers, bringing about inevitably the disintegration of both characters." Elmer Borklund, writing in Contemporary Novelists, found Gallant's first attempt at longer fiction to be less successful than her short stories: "Green Water, Green Sky, despite a vivid central section, suffers from an uncertainty of focus." Borklund also faulted Gallant's portrayal of the daughter's descent into madness, stating that "Florence remains an intriguing and pathetic puzzle; our questions are unanswered, our sympathies largely unresolved." In contrast, Borklund had high praise for Gallant's second novel, describing A Fairly Good Time as "splendidly complex … a spectacular tour de force: the writing is disconcertingly vivid, full of the unmediated poetry of near-hallucination, yet nothing is irrelevant or misplaced." Lighter in tone than its predecessor, A Fairly Good Time follows the blundering adventures of a Canadian, Shirley Perrigny, her life in France, and the dissolution of her marriage to a Parisian journalist. Hatch noted that the novel "may well be the funniest of all [Gallant's] works…. As a satire on the self-satisfied habits of the French, A Fairly Good Time proves enormously high-spirited. Yet the novel offers more than satire. As the reader becomes intimately acquainted with Shirley, her attempts to defeat the rigidity of French logic by living in the moment come to seem zany but commendable."
Home Truths: Selected Canadian Stories, first published in 1981, has proven to be one of Gallant's most popular collections. In Abley's view, the volume "bears repeated witness to the efforts made by this solitary, distant writer to come to terms with her own past and her own country." The stories focus on footloose Canadians who are alienated from their families or cultures; the characters try "to puzzle out the ground rules of their situations, which are often senseless, joyless and contradictory," to quote Nation reviewer Barbara Fisher Williamson. New York Times Book Review contributor Maureen Howard observed that in Home Truths, Canada "is not a setting, a backdrop; it is an adversary, a constraint, a comfort, the home that is almost understandable, if not understanding. It is at once deadly real and haunting, phantasmagoric." Phyllis Grosskurth elaborated in Saturday Night: "Clearly [Gallant] is still fighting a battle with the Canada she left many years ago. Whether or not that country has long since vanished is irrelevant, for it has continued to furnish the world of her imagination…. She knows that whatever she writes will be in the language that shaped her sensibility, though the Canada of her youth imposed restraints from which she could free herself only by geographic separation. Wherever she is, she writes out of her roots…. Her Montreal is a state of mind, an emotion recalled, an apprenticeship for life." Home Truths won the 1981 Governor General's Award, Canada's highest literary honor. Books in Canada correspondent Wayne Grady concluded that it is not a vision of Gallant's native country that emerges in the book, but rather "a vision of the world, of life: it is in that nameless country of the mind inhabited by all real writers, regardless of nativity, that Mavis Gallant lives. We are here privileged intruders."
The New Yorker has been the initial forum for almost all of Gallant's short fiction—and much of her nonfiction, too—since 1950. Critics, among them Los Angeles Times reviewer Elaine Kendall, felt that Gallant's work meets the periodical's high literary standards; in Kendall's words, Gallant's stories "seem the epitome of the magazine's traditional style." Readers of the New Yorker expect to find challenging stories, and according to Hatch, Gallant offers such challenges. "The reader finds that he cannot comprehend the fictional world as something given, but must engage with the text to bring its meanings into being," Hatch wrote. "As in life, so in a Gallant story, no handy editor exists ready to point the moral." Foote expressed a similar opinion. "Gallant rarely leaves helpful signs and messages that readers tend to expect of 'literature': This way to the Meaning or This story is about the Folly of Love," the critic concluded. "In the end the stories are simply there—haunting, enigmatic, printed with images as sharp and durable as the edge of a new coin, relentlessly specific."
In Transit, published in 1988, consists of twenty stories that appeared in the New Yorker during the 1950s and 1960s. Most of the stories in this well-praised collec-tion are set in Europe and portray the sense of dislocation experienced by various expatriates, refugees, tourists, and natives. In the title story, French newlyweds overhear the dispute of an older American couple while waiting in a Helsinki airport lounge, inducing private reflection on their own nuptial misgivings. Gerald Mangan wrote in the Times Literary Supplement, "Elegant wit and a pin-sharp intelligence give her prose a dazzling surface; but her characters live entirely by their own lights, by virtue of a compassionate imagination, and she is generous enough to leave all the judgments to the reader." According to Ronald Bryden in the New York Times Book Review, "Transit, noise, and the symbiosis between them, one might argue, are Mavis Gallant's major themes—noise, that is, in the philosopher's definition of data that carry no meaning to the senses they fall on." He added that Gallant "spends much of her work demonstrating quietly how much of language, culture, and their ideological designs on us is simply noise to most people, in this shifting world where fewer and fewer of us are at home, linguistically or otherwise."
Across the Bridge, a collection of short stories, appeared in 1993. In each of these pieces, most set in either Montreal or Paris, Gallant explores the familiar themes of dislocation and alienation as reflected in arranged marriage, language, national identity, and modern consumer society. John McGahern wrote in the New York Times Book Review, "French is the natural language of many of her characters, and it is a palpable presence in her lucid, elegant sentences." McGahern added, "The general climate of the bourgeois or petit-bourgeois world she describes is philistine, never more so than when airbrushed with culture: Proust or Chateaubriand is interchangeable with Gucci or Armani." Barbara Gabriel wrote in a Canadian Forum review, "As always in Gallant, the main protagonist in these stories is history itself. Readers who have followed her as one of the great chroniclers of the human fallout of World War II and its redrawn borders, will see the special ironies in the new twists and turns of fate inaugurated by the fall of the Berlin Wall." McGahern similarly commented on "Gallant's remarkable gift for introducing whole lives and future histories in a few swift, brief strokes." Rita Donovan observed in a Books in Canada review, "Gallant writes of her origins from 'away'; this is interesting, first, because her grasp of Montreal, and the Montreal of the past, is undiluted and, second, because it ties in nicely with many of her other stories that deal with the emigre experience."
The Collected Stories of Mavis Gallant appeared in 1996. This nine-hundred-page volume brings together over fifty stories, all selected by Gallant, covering the span of her career from the 1930s through the 1990s. America contributor Judith Farr noted: "Although each story is memorably distinct, the fictional world Gallant creates has recognizable characteristics that have remained the same throughout six decades. Her characters mostly inhabit European or Canadian cities, where they are for various reasons not quite at home and where perils, great and small, await them." Gallant has arranged the collection chronologically, with the addition of four sections devoted to recurring characters. The stories centering on the character Linnet Muir, who often describes her youth in Canada, are probably the most autobiographical of Gallant's creations. The lighter side of her work is most apparent in the final section of the book, devoted to the adventures of the French literary hack and charlatan Henri Grippes, who supports himself in style by means of one scam after another. Pearl K. Bell, writing in New Republic, stated that a "rich and tantalizing lode of absurdity runs through all of the Grippes stories," and felt they offer "splendid proof that Gallant in her seventies has not lost her touch." Farr felt that language—"its uses and disuse, how it is regarded, learned, avoided or even transcended"—is one of the central keys to understanding Gallant's fiction. She found The Collected Stories to be a book in which "there is a largesse of sympathy that recalls both fluent speech and compassionate silence." Bell stressed the fact that although the flavor and concerns of New Yorker fiction have changed radically over six decades, Gallant has remained a significant contributor to the magazine. She saw this as a testament to the "steadiness and subtlety" of Gallant's stories, concluding that "her sober commitment to reality has not wavered."
Gallant's collection Paris Stories appeared in 2002 and was edited by renowned author Michael Ondaatje. The book compiles the best of her many short stories set in Paris. Her usual cast of characters appears, including the expatriate, the disillusioned youth, and the exiled family member. Critics consider Gallant a master at re-introducing these characters in new and unusual ways.
Critical reception to Gallant's work has been almost universally positive. Washington Post Book World reviewer Elizabeth Spencer suggested that there is "no writer in English anywhere able to set Mavis Gallant in second place. Her style alone places her in the first rank. Gallant's firmly drafted prose neglects nothing, leaves no dangling ends for the reader to tack up…. She is hospitable to the metaphysics of experience as well as to the homeliest social detail." Grosskurth wrote: "Gallant's particular power as a writer is the sureness with which she catches the ephemeral; it is a wry vi-sion, a blend of the sad and the tragi-comic. She is a born writer who happens to have been born in Canada, and her gift has been able to develop as it has only because she could look back in anger, love, and nostalgia." New York Times Book Review contributor Phyllis Rose praised Gallant for her "wicked humor that misses nothing, combined with sophistication so great it amounts to forgiveness." The critic concluded: "To take up residence in the mind of Mavis Gallant, as one does in reading her stories, is a privilege and delight."
Gallant told Publishers Weekly interviewer David Finkle: "It's fragile, fiction. It takes me a long time to write a story…. You have to be ruthless. When in doubt, cut it…. I write every day. I get up early in the morning and do it. People say it's discipline. It isn't."
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