Nationality: Canadian. Born: Mavis de Trafford Young in Montreal, Quebec, 11 August 1922. Education: Schools in Montreal and New York. Career: Worked in Montreal, early 1940s; reporter, Montreal Standard, 1944-50; has lived in Europe since 1950, and in Paris from early 1960s. Writer-in-residence, University of Toronto, 1983-84. Awards: Canadian Fiction prize, 1978; Governor-General's award, 1982; Canada-Australia literary prize, 1984; Canada Council Molson Prize for the Arts, 1997; Medaille de la Ville de Paris, 1999. Honorary degrees: Université Sainte-Anne, Pointe-de-l'église, Nova Scotia, 1984; Queen's University, 1992; University of Montreal, 1995; Bishop's University, 1995. Officer, Order of Canada, 1981. Agent: Georges Borchardt Inc., 136 East 57th Street, New York, New York 10022, U.S.A. Address: 14 rue Jean Ferrandi, 75006 Paris, France.
Green Water, Green Sky. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1959; London, Deutsch, 1960.
A Fairly Good Time. New York, Random House, and London, Heinemann, 1970.
The Other Paris. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1956; London, Deutsch, 1957.
My Heart Is Broken: Eight Stories and a Short Novel. New York, Random House, 1964; as An Unmarried Man's Summer, London, Heinemann, 1965.
The Pegnitz Junction: A Novella and Five Short Stories. New York, Random House, 1973; London, Cape, 1974.
The End of the World and Other Stories. Toronto, McClelland andStewart, 1974.
From the Fifteenth District: A Novella and Eight Short Stories. NewYork, Random House, and London, Cape, 1979.
Home Truths: Selected Canadian Stories. Toronto, Macmillan, 1981;New York, Random House, and London, Cape, 1985.
Overhead in a Balloon: Stories of Paris. Toronto, Macmillan, 1985;London, Cape, and New York, Random House, 1987.
In Transit: Twenty Stories. Markham, Ontario, Viking, 1988; NewYork, Random House, 1989; London, Faber, 1990.
Across the Bridge: Stories. New York, Random House, 1993.
The Collected Stories of Mavis Gallant. New York, Random House, 1996.
What Is to Be Done? (produced Toronto, 1982). Montreal, Quadrant, 1984.
The Affair of Gabrielle Russier, with others. New York, Knopf, 1971;London, Gollancz, 1973.
Paris Notebooks: Essays and Reviews. London, Bloomsbury, andNew York, Random House, 1988.*
By Judith Skelton Grant and Douglas Malcolm, in The Annotated Bibliography of Canada's Major Authors 5 edited by Robert Lecker and Jack David, Downsview, Ontario, ECW Press, 1984.
Fisher Library, University of Toronto.
"Mavis Gallant Issue" of Canadian Fiction 28 (Prince George, British Columbia), 1978; Mavis Gallant: Narrative Patterns and Devices by Grazia Merler, Ottawa, Tecumseh Press, 1978; The Light of Imagination: Mavis Gallant's Fiction by Neil K. Besner, Vancouver, University of British Columbia Press, 1988; Reading Mavis Gallant by Janice Kulyk Keefer, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1989; Figuring Grief: Gallant, Munro, and the Poetics of Elegy by Karen E. Smythe, Montreal, McGill Queens' University Press, 1992; Mavis Gallant by Danielle Schaub. New York, Twayne, 1998.* * *
The characters who move through the fiction of Mavis Gallant are unwilling exiles and victims, born or made. Her first collection of short stories, The Other Paris, clearly sets the tone of her work: in a series of impersonal, almost clinical sketches the lonely and displaced struggle against an indifferent or hostile world. A naive American girl, engaged to a dull American in Paris, wonders why her colorless days have no connection with the legendary "other Paris" of light and civility; a pathetic American army wife in Germany faces her stale marriage and a rootless future; a bitter, unforgiving set of brothers and sisters gathers after the funeral of their mother, a dingy Romanian shopkeeper in Montreal; a cow-like Canadian girl with Shirley Temple curls is repeatedly deceived by seedy fiancés; a traveler staying in a Madrid tenement watches a petty bureaucrat trying to justify the new order "to which he has devoted his life and in which he must continue to believe." These anti-romantic glimpses of dislocation and despair are rendered in deliberately hard, dry prose, reminiscent, like their subject matter, of Joyce's Dubliners. The narrative manner is flat, unadorned, without any relieving touches of wit—or, it seems, compassion (save for the best of the stories, "Going Ashore," in which a sensitive child is dragged from port to port by a desperate, amoral mother). Although there is an admirable consistency of theme and feeling in these stories, and a high degree of professional skill, there is little here to suggest the brilliance of Gallant's later work and her gradual mastery of longer, more demanding fictional forms.
The title of the next collection, My Heart Is Broken, reveals a continuation of the same concerns. Yet there is a good deal more vigor here, and an indication as well that the author, if not her characters, may be taking some pleasure in the sharpness of her perceptions. There is also the first clear suggestion of a problem which is to become of major importance in Gallant's later work: the eccentricity and near-madness to which her losers may be driven by want or isolation. Gallant has an appallingly accurate eye for the desperation of the shabby genteel, the Englishwomen who live at the edge of poverty in unfashionable pensions out of season, and a shrewd eye as well for the vulgarities of those who try to keep up the pretense of well being. And there is at least one completely successful story, "An Unmarried Man's Summer" which manages to combine many of the earlier preoccupations with a degree of wit and energy not present before.
Gallant's first experiment with longer fiction, Green Water, Green Sky, despite a vivid central section, suffers from an uncertainty of focus. Three of the four parts of the novella offer peripheral views of the breakdown of a young American wife, raised abroad and now living in Paris. The reasons for her drift into madness are never fully explained, although the blame must in part rest with a vain and foolish mother. Florence remains an intriguing and pathetic puzzle; our questions are unanswered, our sympathies largely unresolved. A second short novel, "Its Image on the Mirror" (My Heart Is Broken ), is an unqualified success, partly because the point of view is strictly limited to one character—a device which is the source of some ambiguity here as well as consistency. The faintly repressed family hostilities which have appeared in various guises in the earlier work are now given sustained treatment. The narrator, Jean, who has always suffered from a sense of drabness and compromise in contrast to her beautiful younger sister, tries to come to terms with her ambivalent feelings. After years of apparent freedom and romance the spoiled Isobel makes what seems to be an unhappy and confining marriage; looking back, Jean is able to move towards compassion and acceptance. But to what degree is she using the narrative as a kind of revenge for the years she was forced to take second place? Is her sympathy finally untainted by satisfaction? The reader has no means of deciding, precisely because the author makes no comments on Jean's reminiscences. The uncertainty we feel at the end of the work, however, is entirely appropriate: Jean herself is still divided between love, pity and jealousy.
A Fairly Good Time is a splendidly complex full-length novel. Again the plot is familiar and simple in outline: a well-off, still young Canadian woman passes over the borders of sanity as her second marriage, to a Parisian journalist, dissolves. The reasons for her collapse, again, are hinted at rather than developed: an eccentric, domineering mother, a happy first marriage cruelly ended by a freak accident, the frustrating sense of isolation in a foreign world of would-be intellectuals and amoral opportunists—all of these play a partial role. This time, however, Gallant operates directly inside the mind of her heroine, and the result is a spectacular tour de force: the writing is disconcertingly vivid, full of the unmediated poetry of near-hallucination, yet nothing is irrelevant or misplaced. Shirley's madness has a kind of honesty about it which attracts the users and manipulators around her. The sane world of her husband's family and the Maurel family, into whose civil wars she is thrust, seems finally to offer much less integrity than her own world of memories and fantasies. At the conclusion there is just a hint that Shirley may be returning to reality, as she learns to moderate her hopes: "if you make up your mind not to be happy," runs the epigraph from Edith Wharton, "there's no reason why you shouldn't have a fairly good time."
There are no ideas in Gallant's work, no set of theses. The strong and willful may or may not succeed; the sensitive will almost certainly pay for their gifts. And if they endure, as Shirley may, or as Jean does in "Its Image on the Mirror," the only wisdom is a kind of expensive stoicism:
We woke from dreams of love remembered, a house recovered and lost, a climate imagined, a journey never made …. We would waken thinking the earth must stop now, so that we could be shed from it like snow. I knew, that night, we would not be shed, but would remain, because that is the way it was. We would survive, and waking—because there was no help for it—forget our dreams and return to life.
This is not exactly hopeful, but neither is it completely despairing: perhaps if we learned to moderate our hopes we might have a fairly good time. But Gallant's more recent collections The Pegnitz Junction and From the Fifteenth District seem to deny even this modest possibility. The mood here is that of The Other Paris; the effect is considerably more oppressive, however, since Gallant has extended the range of her style. The relatively dry, understated manner of the first books has now been replaced by a highly poetic technique in which feelings are conveyed by sudden, uncanny, and yet astonishingly precise images. Yet as before, her characters do not act, they are acted upon; they suffer, but in the end it hardly seems to matter. Life dwindles away and with it everything which gave pleasure, so perhaps nothing had much substance to begin with. The conclusion of "An Autobiography" (The Pegnitz Junction ) is typical. A middle-aged woman thinks about her failure to hold onto the love of a shiftless young man called Peter (the cause of the failure is left undefined, these things just "happen"):
These are the indecisions that rot the fabric, if you let them. The shutter slams to in the wind and sways back; the rain begins to slant as the wind increases. This is the season for mountain storms. The wind rises, the season turns; no autumn is quite like another. The autumn children pour out of the train, and the clouds descend upon the mountain slopes, and there we are with walls and a ceiling to the village. Here is the pattern on the carpet where he walked, and the cup he drank from. I have learned to be provident. I do not waste a sheet of writing paper, or a postage stamp, or a tear. The stream outside the window, deep with rain, receives rolled in a pellet the letter to Peter. Actually, it is a blank sheet on which I intended to write a long letter about everything—about Véronique. I have wasted a sheet of paper. There has been such a waste of everything; such a waste.
"The only way to be free," reflects one of the battered characters in From the Fifteenth District, "is not to love." This is the freedom of isolation, madness, and death, but perhaps any escape from being is preferable to the pain of living. Thus Piotr, for example, the central figure in the novella "Potter," welcomes the imagined prospect of his death: "Oh, to be told that there were only six weeks to live! To settle scores; leave nothing straggling, to go quietly." Yet even death may offer no release. In "From the Fifteenth District," a truly harrowing prose-poem—it can hardly be called a story—the pathetic ghosts of the dead complain to the "authorities" that the memories of life and the intrusions of the still-living make any final rest impossible.
Nationality: Canadian. Born: Mavis Young in Montreal, Quebec, 11 August 1922. Education: Schools in Montreal and New York. Career: Worked at National Film Board of Canada, Montreal, early 1940s; reporter, Montreal Standard, 1944-50; has lived in Europe since 1950 and in Paris from early 1960s; contributor, The New Yorker, since 1951; writer-in-residence, University of Toronto, 1983-84. Lives in Paris. Awards: Canadian Fiction prize, 1978; Governor-General's award, 1982; Canada-Australia literary prize, 1984. Honorary degree: Université Sainte-Anne, Pointede-Église, Nova Scotia, 1984. Member: Foreign honorary member, American Academy, 1988; fellow, Royal Society of Literature, 1988. Officer, Order of Canada, 1982.
The Other Paris. 1956.
My Heart Is Broken: Eight Stories and a Short Novel. 1964; as An Unmarried Man's Summer, 1965.
The Pegnitz Junction: A Novella and Five Short Stories. 1973.
The End of the World and Other Stories. 1974.
From the Fifteenth District: A Novella and Eight Short Stories. 1979.
Home Truths: Selected Canadian Stories. 1981.
Overhead in a Balloon: Stories of Paris. 1987.
In Transit: Twenty Stories. 1988.
Green Water, Green Sky. 1959.
A Fairly Good Time. 1970.
What Is to Be Done? (produced 1982). 1984.
The Affair of Gabrielle Russier, with others. 1971.
Paris Notebooks: Essays and Reviews. 1988.*
by Judith Skelton Grant and Douglas Malcolm, in The Annotated Bibliography of Canada's Major Authors 5 edited by Robert Lecker and Jack David, 1984.
"Gallant Issue" of Canadian Fiction 28, 1978; Gallant: Narrative Patterns and Devices by Grazia Merler, 1978; The Light of Imagination: Gallant's Fiction by Neil K. Besner, 1988; Reading Gallant by Janice Kulyk Keefer, 1989; "The Short Stories of Mavis Gallant" by Diane Simmons, in Canadian Women Writing Fiction edited by Mickey Pearlman, 1993; "Spatial Patterns of Oppression in Mavis Gallant's Linnet Muir Sequence, " in Studies in Canadian Literature, 1993, pp. 132-55; "Structural Patterns of Alienation and Disjunction: Mavis Gallant's Firmly-Structured Stories" by Danielle Schaub, in Canadian Literature, Spring 1993, pp. 45-57; "Mirroring the Canadas: Mavis Gallant's Fiction" by Lorna Irvine, in Colby Quarterly, June 1993, pp. 119-25; "Slices of Life as Historiographic Discourse: Mavis Gallant's The Pegnitz Junction " by Danielle Schaub, in Historiographic Metafiction in Modern American and Canadian Literature edited by Bernd Engler and Kurt Muller, 1994; "The Secular Opiate: Marxism as an Ersatz Religion in Three Canadian Texts" by Christian Bok, in Canadian Literature, Winter 1995, pp. 11-22; "Mavis Gallant: An Oeuvre Extraordinaire" by David Finkle in Publishers Weekly, 7 October 1996, pp. 46-7.* * *
Mavis Gallant's fiction is concerned with how we confront the past, either our own youth or what we refer to as history—the collective sum of our memories. She portrays refugees, exiles, and expatriates, many of them North Americans living in Europe like herself. Often her characters are unsure of their identities and alienated from their families and their own past selves. Indeed, one critic, David O'Rourke, considers Gallant's characters to be exiles in time as much as in space; they feel "locked into a present situation, condition, stage of personal history, from which escape is difficult, and sometimes impossible." Many characters in her earlier stories live on the Riviera during the off-season, which becomes, as Michelle Gadpaille says, "a museum of mores, a fitting place to study the habits and the habitats of dying breeds."
The past gives us identity, and many characters in Gallant's fiction cling to their pasts to preserve their identities and lend meaning to the present or at least make it tolerable. Those who succumb to the ease of living in comfortably familiar ways end up paralyzed and lacking in vitality, like Walter of "An Unmarried Man's Summer," Miss Horeham of "The Moabitess," and the characters in "In the Tunnel." The tunnel of the latter story, according to George Woodcock, symbolizes the "self-repetition in which each of the characters lives and the narrowness of insight and view that limits their sense of life." Such characters do not grow or change; they view life in habitual ways that sap their spirits and leave them, in essence, dead—readers have been struck by the frequent symbolic use of physical illness and winter settings in Gallant's work.
Apart from being trapped by personal histories, characters find themselves caught up in historical movements that they cannot control or seldom understand. But history's movements cannot be resisted; when one interviewer suggested that Piotr, the Polish protagonist of "Potter," chooses to fall back into familiar patterns, Gallant said, "He is not hanging on to the past, the political system is hanging on to him."
How do characters respond to history or current events? Some, like Señor Pinedo of the story by the same name, maintain their early illusions despite everything falling apart around them. Pinedo continues to assert the glories of the Falange movement in the face of poverty and oppression. Many of Gallant's Riviera stories portray refugees from the crumbling British Empire during and after World War II, like the Unwins in "The Four Seasons" and the Webbs in "The Remission," who try to recreate old patrician Britain overseas. The Unwins have worked so hard to remove themselves from the flow of time that they remain wilfully blind to the meaning of Mussolini's rise—and so do many Italians. The Webbs similarly hold onto a way of life now no longer relevant, and it is significant that Barbara has an affair with an actor who plays typical prewar British gentlemen in films, while her husband—a real representative of the old gentry—lies dying. Other characters find they cannot escape the pain of the past, like Helena, the concentration camp survivor in "The Old Friends" who "stings" the German commissioner with whom she has lunch with her references to Germany's past (she is symbolized by the wasp she frees at the end of their most recent conversation). The commissioner represents a third way Gallant's characters deal with history, by trying to forget it or its implications. The commissioner cannot believe the holocaust was anything more than an administrative error; "a serious mistake was made," he thinks.
In "The Latehomecomer" Thomas Bestermann returns home long after other soldiers and finds that his fellow Germans, notably Willy Wehler, want nothing more than to forget the war entirely. But that, of course, means denying him, too, since he has known almost nothing but his role as a German soldier. Ernst, who appears in "Ernst in Civilian Clothes" and "Willi," has no other identity but that provided by his uniform, and he has worn many different uniforms during his life. What is left for him when the war is relegated to a safe distance in the world's collective memory? What happens to our identities when they are largely determined by events everyone wants to forget? Many of Gallant's stories focus on World War II and its aftermath because to her it was history's ultimate dislocation. As a journalist in Montreal she was once asked to supply captions to the first photographs to come out of the concentration camps, and she was too stunned by what she saw to do so. After the war she went to Europe and was again struck by the war's destructive legacy. Because of the photographs she became interested in finding out why fascism occurs, not in broad historical terms but in its personal manifestations—what she called in an interview with Geoff Hancock fascism's "small possibilities in people." She sees fascism as the ultimate form of rigid thinking, one that views the world in absolute terms, above all in abstracts that leave no room for humanity. Thus, while a small child lies crushed beneath him Señor Pinedo can only see an opportunity to reassert the glories of his old cause; as Grazia Merler says, he is "a character totally subjugated by the system," whose humanity crumbles under "his blind fidelity to rules and regulations." Of course, what we call history is only our memory of it, and our memory distorts the truth to make it more acceptable.
Many of Gallant's characters live in worlds of their own creation. Carol Frazier, of "The Other Paris," is a classic example: she refuses to see Paris as it is because the reality conflicts with the illusions she has brought with her to the city. Characters like Carol attempt to deny history by replacing it with creations of their imaginations, a hopeless task. In contrast Linnet Muir has no choice to make her own past out of what she learns from her visits to Montreal in the series of stories about her ("In Youth Is Pleasure," "Between Zero and One," and so on). Gallant's fiction portrays a constant struggle with the past. Those who cling to their pasts become prisoners of it; those who deny their pasts lose their identities. However her characters respond, they cannot escape the profound effects that history—personal or national—continues to have on the present.