“I’m forced to say that it seems very unsatisfying to me, and simply no story at all, if the ending is to be left so far in the air,” one New Yorker editor wrote in an internal memo about Mavis Gallant’s story “Two Questions,” which would appear in the magazine in 1961. (Between 1951 and 1995, Gallant published a hundred and sixteen stories here.) “Seems to me that somethingshould be completed, or it’s just a long sketch of these people in which one learns of a situation, expects some sort of resolution, and is cheated of it…. It’s like life, and not—to me—like fiction.” William Maxwell, Gallant’s editor at the magazine, replied, “I am against making it more explicit. The older I get the more grateful I am not to be told how everything comes out.”
It’s that quality—Gallant’s “like-lifeness,” her unresolved presentness—that makes her stories sit so solidly, almost bad-naturedly, in memory. They have come to dinner, and no matter the lateness of the hour you just can’t show them to the door. You’re haunted both by the moments of beauty and intelligence and by the scenes of devastating loneliness or disappointment. Haunted, too, by those moments in her biography which informed so much of her experience, fictional and otherwise: being left at a boarding school at the age of four (“The only thing I remember,” she said, “is my mother putting me on a chair and saying, ‘I’ll be back in ten minutes.’ She just didn’t come back”); not being told of her father’s death until several years after the fact; her decision to give up a reliable job as a journalist in Montreal and move to Europe, where she knew no one, in her late twenties (“I just held my breath and jumped. I didn’t even look to see if there was water in the pool”); her subsequent months of penniless hunger in Spain (while her literary agent was lying to The New Yorker about her whereabouts and pocketing her earnings); or her lacerating observations of the 1968 student uprisings in Paris, in which no one gets away unexamined (“After the fighting, the hippies emerge. Pale, sick copies of American photos seen in Paris-Match. When you hear them, they are not often speaking French—usually Dutch, English. They don’t try to stop the fighting; they merely vanish, then reappear on the ruined streets. Zéro de conduite”). If it weren’t for Gallant, I doubt whether anyone would remember those pale Dutch hippies; they, and so many other things, would be forever lost to history.
There’s an unapologetic tone to most of Gallant’s stories, as well as to the stories about her. She didn’t apologize for wanting to write at a time when women, Canadian women, as Alice Munro has documented, were not expected to put themselves forward or to speak out. She didn’t apologize for leaving Canada—and leaving her homeland forever in a quandary about the extent to which it could claim her. She lived most of her life as a perpetual foreigner, in France, childless and husbandless (an early marriage ended when she was twenty-five). Had she lived some other way, she would not have been the writer that she was. But it’s easy to underestimate how difficult these decisions may have been for her, or her vulnerability, when she made them. In a diary entry from 1960, when she was thirty-eight, she recorded a conversation with a friend, who told her:
“You are free, you want to put yourself in a box…. Is that the life you want? … Do you want every day to be just like the next? Now you are free. You haven’t a man—that is, you haven’t a man to betray you, to cheat you, and to take all your money. Install yourself in your new apartment, have all the adventure you like, but never allow any man to spend more than two evenings consecutively there.” I kept saying, “But what is to become of me?” “Nothing. You are a writer. Why do you want to be anything else…. Why do you want to be anything but Mavis?” he asked.
(Gallant kept detailed diaries for most of her life. Excerpts have appeared in The New Yorker, and the diaries are now being edited for book publication by Steven Barclay and Frances Kiernan; the first volume will be published by Alfred A. Knopf next year.)
Gallant was unapologetic, sometimes unforgiving, but also compassionate in her sympathy for the characters she inhabited and sometimes eviscerated. I came to her as a reader, years before I had any idea that I might edit or meet her. For a young woman, reading secondhand copies of the collections “From the Fifteenth District” and “Home Truths” and the novel “A Fairly Good Time,” the work was a revelation. Gallant’s characters were so interior that one had the sense they were almost trapped inside their own minds, peering outward through two circles of light. The degree of self-knowledge was painful, the understanding of the moods and motivations of others astonishing, but the moments of real connection between people heartbreakingly rare. There was isolation, and then there was the acceptance of isolation.
Gallant was also, and ever, funny. Writing, she told The Paris Review, is “like a love affair: the beginning is the best part.” In a letter to William Maxwell, early in their acquaintance, she joked, “I have another [story] nearly ready, but it is about children, and I wonder if you haven’t had enough of that from me. (1) Yes (2) No (3) Undecided (4) Never heard of Eisenhower.” The one time I met Gallant in person, in 2006, she was hunched and moving with great difficulty, crippled by osteoporosis, but she skewered two people I knew with such startling and sly precision that I was speechless for a moment, thinking I’d misunderstood—and then spent the rest of the afternoon trying to guess what soft target she’d aim for in her description of me. But Gallant’s vision is not, generally, a satirical one; it isn’t calculated for effect. She doesn’t show off. She is simply honest. In a card she sent me in early 2004, she noted, “I don’t believe any of us shed tears of nostalgia over 2003, which began with threats and ended with an earthquake. For 2004, I wish you not just une Bonne Année but une Année Meilleure—brighter and truthful.” Truthful, it seems to me, is one of the best things that can be said about her writing. Truthful, and like life.
In 1957, Gallant recorded a dream in her diary: “This is a comic dream. I dream that people keep dying in my apartment and I keep shoving them in a trunk. I keep going about to friends saying plaintively, ‘What is one supposed to do with a lot of cadavers?’ ” We all know what she did with those cadavers—the people she had met or dreamed up, assessed, dissected, described, and, with a sometimes exacting eye, loved. Her particular science was both autopsy and resurrection.