Mavis Gallant wrote what she knew. Her fiction often focused on
independent, alienated exiles (either by choice or by circumstance),
often women, caught between worlds, steeling themselves to persevere
through challenging environments. Her last editor at The New Yorker
Deborah Treisman, observed, "You're haunted both by the moments of
beauty and intelligence and by the scenes of devastating loneliness or
disappointment. [...] The degree of
self-knowledge was painful, the understanding of the moods and
motivations of others astonishing, but the moments of real connection
heartbreakingly rare. There was isolation, and then there was the
acceptance of isolation."
Gallant formally accepted isolation in 1950, fleeing her native Montreal
for Europe after a difficult childhood and an early unfulfilling career
in journalism. After traveling the continent, observing the
dispossessed people around her, she settled in Paris, pleased to find,
"for the first time in my life, a society where you could say you're a
writer and not be asked for three months' rent in advance." She resolved
to live off her writing or die trying: "If I could not live on it, even
simply, I should destroy every scrap, every trace, every notebook, and
live some other way." Fortunately, her short stories found a home at The New Yorker
, which published 116 of them over 40 years. (Only S. J.
Perelman and John Updike contributed more writing to the magazine.)
Though she wrote two novels, some essays, and a stage play, short
stories were her primary medium.
As a Canadian living in France
and writing short stories in English, Gallant was perhaps uniquely set
up to fall through the critical cracks. While her stories won her a
devoted American audience, it took 30 years for them to be published in
her homeland, and only after she released an anthology of previously
published work with explicitly Canadian themes (Home Truths: Selected
) was she deemed worthy of Canadian critical
recognition. Similarly, her work wasn't translated into French until the
1980s, and she remained professionally anonymous in her adopted city
until an appearance on French TV made her a minor celebrity. By the time
the 900-page Collected Stories of Mavis Gallant
hit the shelves,
however, she was recognized worldwide as one of the 20th century's
foremost writers of short fiction.
Gallant died in Paris on February 18. She was 91. Chipmunk Roasting gets seven points (2 for hit + 5 for solo).
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