Friday, February 28, 2014
Thursday, February 27, 2014
by Adam Leith Gollner
February 18, 2014
Mavis Gallant was a family friend of ours. My mother knew her well. I remember her visits when I was a child: she was so intelligent, wry, and observant—so funny and so cool, with her Parisian air of detachment. She was fascinated with my platinum-haired younger brother, Julian, whom she deemed a “changeling.”
While passing through Paris in my late twenties, at work on my book The Fruit Hunters, I once stopped in to bring her a letter from my mother and some flowers. Not wanting to interrupt her writing, I suggested coffee or a glass of wine. She insisted we meet at Le Dome for lunch.
I arrived five minutes early, left her bouquet on the table, and went out to pick up a Herald Tribune. Workers were marching in the streets as part of a general manifestation against the government. By the time I returned, she was sitting there, beaming. She waved at the protesters, she whose May 1968 diary for The New Yorker concluded, “I am convinced that I have seen something remarkable.”
We had oysters. She chose Cancales, which she said were the tsars’ favorites. The oysters arrived shucked, but still attached to their bottom adductor muscle. “The difference between France and North America,” she explained, as though letting me in on a highly confidential secret, “is that the French like their oysters living and North Americans like their oysters dead.”
We spoke about writing, and living, and Montreal, which she left as a twenty-eight-year-old reporter to become a writer of short fiction in Paris. She didn’t like being around other writers, she confided, but she’d make an exception for me. I protested that I wasn’t yet a writer, that I wasn't even sure I’d be able to finish a book. She spoke with acceptance, and some sadness, of the Dreyfus book she’d toiled on for years before finally shelving it. “I still have a thousand pages of it sitting in a linen closet, underneath my towels,” she said, looking up in resignation.
I thought of that indelible scene in The Other Paris, the one where a chunk of plaster bearing the foot of a nymph detaches itself from the theater ceiling and crashes to the floor.
Mavis seemed genuinely curious about my quest for fruits. I was en route to the Seychelles, once thought to be the literal site of the Garden of Eden. She spoke of how wonderful it would be if paradise turned out to be real, if we could taste its fruits in this lifetime. “Imagine?” she said. We both did so for a moment, and I wished I could see what she was seeing.
When we parted, on the boulevard du Montparnasse, I leaned over to give her a kiss on the cheek. “If you do find paradise,” she said, turning to leave, “send me a grape.”
She’ll be missed and mourned by all of us who knew and loved her, as well as those who admire her stories. Whether or not paradise exists, may you rest in peace, Mavis.
Adam Leith Gollner is the author of The Book of Immortality, which received the Mavis Gallant Prize at the 2013 Quebec Writers’ Federation Awards.
Mavis Gallant, 1922-2014
Courageous, spirited, she devoted her life to writing fiction
BY NANCY BAELE, OTTAWA CITIZEN FEBRUARY 19, 2014
Author Mavis Gallant in Bistro St. Andre.
Photograph by: John Mahoney, The Gazette
I first met Mavis Gallant in February 1988 when I was sent to Paris by the Citizen for the Degas exhibition, curated by Jean Sutherland Boggs, which would open the new National Gallery building on Sussex Drive. I had read and re-read Mavis Gallant’s stories and hoped she would agree to an interview. She suggested we meet for lunch at Chez Josephine on rue Cherche Midi, close to her apartment. She was seated at a table under a large mirror when I arrived. I remember being surprised at how petite she was, and how she had a singular beauty, dependent as much on her quick intelligence as on her fine features and dark hair.
The conversation flowed easily, touching on the feeling of abandonment she had had, when, as an eight year old in New York, she discovered that her mother and her stepfather had left her alone for an indefinite period. She wondered how long the food in the refrigerator (half a chocolate cake) would have to last. That was the only reference she made to the difficult childhood I had read about, marked by a series of uprootings, starting at the age of four when she was left in a French Roman Catholic boarding school in Montreal, the only English Protestant. Later, her parents separated and for years she didn’t know her father had died. She thought he had abandoned her. At the age of 18, she returned to Montreal, worked for the National Film Board, then as a journalist for the Montreal Standard. She was married briefly to John Gallant, a pianist, before leaving for Europe. While we ate, she talked about the Dreyfus research she was doing for a book she ultimately decided not to write.
Over our 26 year friendship, I have often thought that Gallant was the perfect surname for Mavis Gallant. Courageous, spirited, she left her job as a successful journalist in Montreal in 1950 to devote her life to writing fiction. Her journals, which she faithfully kept throughout her lifetime, attest to the financial hardships and crises of confidence that she endured before becoming a fiction luminary in the New Yorker. Highly admired for a style that coalesces memory, history and time with subtly penetrating insights into human consciousness and character, she is, as Michael Ondaatje wrote, “brilliant at tilting a situation or a personality a few subliminal degrees in the mind of the reader so that he discovers himself located in a strange new place, seeing something from a more generous or more satirical position.”
This literary alchemy took place in the studio apartment which she rented for more than 60 years on rue Jean Ferrandi in Montparnasse, Paris. She died there Tuesday surrounded by her books and paintings, with friends by her side. In the last two years of her life, when she was in failing health, she could see, from her bed, the writing table with its typewriter and files, look out the window at the wrought iron balconies of the apartments opposite, glance at the ceiling-high bookshelf at the foot of the bed, the books interspersed with small bird sculptures. Even during the last months of her life, when she had difficulty with conversation, she gave the impression of having a rich interior life, one still involved in the creation of a Mavis Gallant fictional world.
I was reminded of our first meeting when, this November, I passed a Dreyfus sculpture daily en route to her apartment. Our friendship has been sustained by letters, phone calls and sporadic visits. When Mavis turned 80, we met for lunch at a restaurant near Colette’s apartment in the Palais Royal and walked back by the Tuileries where cardboard figures of Minnie and Mickey Mouse were doing a fantastic tap dance to the boom box music of a vendor. Mavis and I stood there, laughing at Minnie’s agility, ready to believe every word we were told about the amusement we would have at home when we turned on our own radios and watched her hoof it. That memory came back as Mavis and I sat at her kitchen table in November and I saw Minnie staring down at us from the side board. On the shelf above was a photo of Chekhov, and another of Mavis, at the age of three. In one of our silences, I put the photo of her younger self on the table. She looked at it with the perceptive, considering eye that has been the bedrock of her fiction.
For a belated 85th birthday celebration, we went to Le Dome. Not only is Mavis’s literary style distinctive, so was her fashion sense. She was wearing a rich plum-coloured knit skirt with different hem layers in delicate hues. During the taxi ride, the driver told her a story about a Canadian woman and a Frenchman who had marital difficulties which Mavis said must stem from the fact the man was gay or had another woman. “Neither,” the taxi driver said, “He was too attached to his mother.” Mavis reflected on how the term Momma’s boy has gone out of use. The taxi driver, charmed by her engagement with his story, gave Mavis his arm, escorted her to Le Dome where she was greeted warmly by the head waiter, “Ah, Madame Gallant,” and shown to her special “Picasso” table. That night, she spoke about authors she admired: Brecht and Celan, Proust and Celine, Marguerite Yourcenar and Anatole France whose novel, la Dame des Osiers, she found exceptional.
Five years later, restaurant evenings were difficult. She had been hospitalized for almost a year and I wondered if she would ever be able to go home but thanks to friends, she returned to her apartment. “It is wonderful,” she said, “I am so glad to be here. Perhaps I am seeing it as lovelier than it really is.”
On our last day together, I read Irina, from Paris Stories. Then we sat looking at the paintings that meant so much to her, in the space where, for decades, her life and art were one.
by Mavis Gallant
Friday 23 March 1990
This morning in front of the Felix Potin grocery store, rue du Cherche-Midi, Mme D., my next-door neighbor, came alone dragging her shopping cart, full of items bought en fonction de her chronic constipation. She said, “The concierge is catching it from the building manager! She’s spent more than seven hundred thousand francs on cleaning products.” (She meant Old Francs, of course. Owing to a nationwide inability to move a decimal point, thirty-two years after New Francs were inaugurated Mme D. still cannot name the coins and banknotes in her handbag.) Apparently the concierge has sent a letter to the building manager naming the tenant who throws unwrapped cat litter followed by floods of liquid disinfectant down the garbage chute. “This is known as informing,” says Mme D., who is friendly with the cat lady. “Well, now it’s her turn to catch it. Her, and her princessy manner. Believe it or not, at the last general meeting we sat discussing the concierge until eleven at night. She’s got half the house against her.”
“The way she dressed. She takes herself for a lady. She behaves as if she owns the concierge’s lodge. She even had me visit it to see how she’s fixed it up. Why should I visit the lodge of a concierge?”
I know but do not say that the concierge uses my phone to call her relatives in Portugal, sometimes, if I’m out of town. Judging from the phone bill she doesn’t say more than, I’m fine, how are you. When another tenant caught her doing the same thing the concierge wept and said, “Don’t tell my husband.” By her Brechtian rules we’re fair game. She says this is the worst building she’s ever worked in.
Now, she’s in trouble over the anteroom outside her lodge, the space where mail is sorted and our extra sets of keys are kept in a locked cupboard. She had filled the room with pots and pots of plants, so that it looked like a flower shop, and hung bird prints on the walls and put up starched white curtains. There was deep resentment about her having decorated the room “as if it were parts of her lodge.” From now on she is to be allowed just one green plant. Selected, important tenants will each be given a key so they may wander in and out and prevent the concierge from imaging she owns this space. “Elle fait trop dame,” my upstairs neighbor explained when I remarked that all this was pretty silly. (This neighbor’s grandfather founded a famous store near the Opéra, where generations of Parisian brides bought their trousseau linens.) Thank God I don’t have to attend meetings where they talk about the concierge until eleven at night; I rent my apartment and don’t have a voice. I am content just to lobby my landlord, without changing the subject, on how I think he should vote. Owing to his respect for writers, though he never reads anything that looks like a book, it sometimes work.
Sunday 25 March 1990
People I know who had no great use for Alice S. as an actress seem hungry for details. The house, and her shuttered windows, appear on TV like a celebrity. Strangers collect in the street as if visiting a shrine. She was an eccentric, a deliberate, a calculated oddity, with her wide-brimmed garden party hats and long cigarette holder, the butt of male comedians and imitators on chat shows. Once a few years ago when we were both standing in the street, waiting for taxis, I asked her why she put up with it—just like that. She said in a normal, not an affected, voice that I didn’t understand her career, that it was important to be recognized and talked about. When the car came for her it wasn’t a taxi but an open car with two young men in it, one in the backseat. The driver leaned over to open the door from the inside but when he saw me staring changed his mind and got out and came round to usher her in. His face and manner were supremely insolent: he was playing it for the fellow in the backseat and for a total stranger. Meanwhile she swept in, holding her hat. Did she have on long gloves? I mustn’t add props to the scene. Impossible not to think of Gloria Swanson, andSunset Boulevard, except that Alice S. was in a real world every minute, every second, playing the idea of an actress, a grande dame, a monstre sacrée. I’d like to take it one further and say she knew it was a joke, but I can’t be sure.
Mme B., the concierge, tells me what happened yesterday. (Some of the friends who called me this morning kept asking if Alice S. had really died; there were contradictory stories going about.) Friends or relatives had arrived before the firemen, who were supposed to be giving first aid. The friends or relatives wouldn’t let them in. They kept issuing statement, “A.S. is alive and under intensive care.” Meanwhile the captain of the fire brigade—pronounced caption by Mme B.—sent for the police. That was how conflicting stories occurred. The capitan told Mme B. that her loved ones would not accept the truth, and that she was “dead, dead, dead.”
Wednesday, February 26, 2014
by Mavis Gallant
Chose cinema over potatoes. I found myself watching the women’s clothes, drinking in their texture, appreciating every bite the actors put into their mouths. When one of the characters (because of some imbecility of the plot) wore old clothes and pretended to be poor, I was furious and felt cheated, having chosen this over a meal. Now I really understand why the Italian poor detest De Sica and neorealist films, and why shopgirls like heiresses and read every line in gossip columns. I mean, I understand it, and not just intellectually.
Mavis Gallant, ‘The Hunger Diaries: An artist’s apprenticeship,’ in The New Yorker, July 9 & 16, 2012 p 50