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.