Masterly Canadian short story writer and novelist who settled in Paris where she perfected her meditative, wry and lyrical style
The Guardian, Tuesday 18 February 2014
'The difference between journalism and fiction,' considered Mavis Gallant, 'is the difference between without and within.' Photograph: Eamonn McCabe
'Like every other form of art, literature is no more and nothing less than a matter of life and death," observed the Canadian writer Mavis Gallant, who has died aged 91. Gallant's body of work – a dozen collections of short stories, two novels, a play and numerous essays and reviews – more than fulfilled her belief that style is "not a last-minute addition to prose, a charming and universal slipover, a coat of paint used to mask the failings of a structure".
Her own style – meditative and allusive, dry yet lyrical – had been honed in a newspaper office. She arrived at the Montreal Standard in 1944. Had it not been for the second world war, such men's work would not have been available. She thrived on it. She was particularly adroit at captions for photo stories, but everything was her beat and her ideas were always bubbling, galvanised by her vivid conversation combined with an ability to listen.
Having published short stories locally, she decided within a couple of years at the Standard that fiction had to take first place. "The distinction between journalism and fiction," she considered, "is the difference between without and within." When the newspaper's editor advised her against it, she countered that the New Yorker's fiction editor, William Maxwell, although having declined one story, had asked her for another, which had netted her $600. Starting from 1951, the New Yorker would eventually publish more than 100 of her stories.
Drawn to Paris, she moved there before taking in London and settling for a period in Spain. While in Europe, she did not realise that the work she had left with her agent at home had continued to appear in the New Yorker; the agent had pocketed the cash while informing the magazine that she was a recluse and telling her she had been rejected. But after Gallant had re-established contact with Maxwell and discovered the truth, her career picked up momentum. She set up home in Menton, in the south of France, later in Paris, and from then on made her living by her fiction.
She was born Mavis de Trafford Young in Montreal, to English-speaking, Protestant parents. Aged four, she was bundled off to a Jansenist boarding school where French was the main language; she was bilingual by the age of eight. Her father died young and her mother soon remarried, moving to the US, where Gallant received a peripatetic education. She passed through 17 boarding schools until she fetched up with a guardian in New York, and eventually returned to Montreal aged 18. In the early 1940s, she worked for the National Film Board and married a musician, John Gallant, but their relationship foundered amiably and she was divorced by the end of that decade.
Her first collection of stories, The Other Paris, was published in 1956. In the titular story, Carol has come to work in Paris, where glamour proves elusive, and has become engaged to a colleague. "If anyone had asked Carol at what precise moment she fell in love, or where Howard Mitchell proposed to her, she would have imagined, quite sincerely, a scene that involved all at once the Seine, moonlight, barrows of violets, acacias in flower, and a confused, misty background of the Eiffel Tower and little crooked streets. This was what everyone expected, and she had nearly come to believe it herself. Actually, he had proposed at lunch, over a tuna-fish salad." Carol reflects that all will be well across the Atlantic in suburbia and the story forms an acute meditation upon illusion and reality. Gallant described her work as starting from an image around which characters evolved, with dialogue and scenes following. How it would turn out she would not be sure, sometimes putting material aside for years and, on returning to it, finding that an opening was now the ending. She likened the process to editing a film, and always urged that her stories not be read one after another.
One of her longest stories, The Pegnitz Junction (1973), opens in Paris, but belongs to a period that Gallant spent in Germany. Christine, who "a few years ago would have been thought plain", is engaged to a theology student but is staying in Paris with another lover, Herbert, and his son Bert. Events soon turn surreal, with the news of an airport strike and a return to Germany by train. Voices overlap, officials strut and the past comes to the fore.
John Updike once noted "how easily [Gallant] assumes the dry, wry, faintly harried voice of a woman-baffled male". In the story Lena (1983), an 80-year-old woman is visited in hospital by the younger husband, Edouard, whose desire for divorce she has long thwarted. It is a small masterpiece about the ties that bind; in lesser hands, its nine pages would be the stuff of a novel. Gallant's own two novels, Green Water, Green Sky (1959) and A Fairly Good Time (1970), contain, or spring from, stories.
In 1981 Gallant was made an officer of the Order of Canada; and in 1993 a companion of the order. In her 80s, several anthologies of her tales were published – including Paris Stories (2002), selected by Michael Ondaatje, and Montreal Stories (2004), selected by Russell Banks. In 2004, The Selected Stories of Mavis Gallant brought together 52 stories written between 1953 and 1995. Reviewing the book for the Guardian, Hermione Lee called Gallant "a paragon and a delight, a writer of the utmost subtlety, curiosity and attentiveness".
Towards the end of her life, she revisited her journals for publication. The New Yorker published her Parisian diary of 1968 as The Events in May; she described that memoir as a "collective dream in which an entire city played at being on the brink of civil war". As such, it was not so far from some of her stories.
• Mavis Gallant, writer, born 11 August 1922; died 18 February 2014
• This article was amended on 23 February 2014. The original described William Maxwell as the New Yorker's editor. This has been corrected.