Mavis Gallant Biography
Nationality: Canadian. Born: Mavis de Trafford Young in Montreal, Quebec, 1922. Education: Schools in Montreal and New York. Career: Worked in Montreal, early 1940s; reporter, Montreal Standard, 1944-50; has lived in Europe since 1950, and in Paris from early 1960s. Writer-in-residence, University of Toronto, 1983-84. Awards: Canadian Fiction prize, 1978; Governor-General's award, 1982; Canada-Australia literary prize, 1984; Canada Council Molson Prize for the Arts, 1997; Medaille de la Ville de Paris, 1999. Honorary degrees: Université Sainte-Anne, Pointe-de-l'église, Nova Scotia, 1984; Queen's University, 1992; University of Montreal, 1995; Bishop's University, 1995. Officer, Order of Canada, 1981. Agent: Georges Borchardt Inc., 136 East 57th Street, New York, New York 10022, U.S.A.
Green Water, Green Sky. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1959; London, Deutsch, 1960.
A Fairly Good Time. New York, Random House, and London, Heinemann, 1970.
The Other Paris. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1956; London, Deutsch, 1957.
My Heart Is Broken: Eight Stories and a Short Novel. New York, Random House, 1964; as An Unmarried Man's Summer, London, Heinemann, 1965.
The Pegnitz Junction: A Novella and Five Short Stories. New York, Random House, 1973; London, Cape, 1974.
The End of the World and Other Stories. Toronto, McClelland andStewart, 1974.
From the Fifteenth District: A Novella and Eight Short Stories. NewYork, Random House, and London, Cape, 1979.
Home Truths: Selected Canadian Stories. Toronto, Macmillan, 1981;New York, Random House, and London, Cape, 1985.
Overhead in a Balloon: Stories of Paris. Toronto, Macmillan, 1985;London, Cape, and New York, Random House, 1987.
In Transit: Twenty Stories. Markham, Ontario, Viking, 1988; NewYork, Random House, 1989; London, Faber, 1990.
Across the Bridge: Stories. New York, Random House, 1993.
The Collected Stories of Mavis Gallant. New York, Random House, 1996.
What Is to Be Done? (produced Toronto, 1982). Montreal, Quadrant, 1984.
The Affair of Gabrielle Russier, with others. New York, Knopf, 1971;London, Gollancz, 1973.
Paris Notebooks: Essays and Reviews. London, Bloomsbury, andNew York, Random House, 1988.
By Judith Skelton Grant and Douglas Malcolm, in The Annotated Bibliography of Canada's Major Authors 5 edited by Robert Lecker and Jack David, Downsview, Ontario, ECW Press, 1984.
Fisher Library, University of Toronto.
"Mavis Gallant Issue" of Canadian Fiction 28 (Prince George, British Columbia), 1978; Mavis Gallant: Narrative Patterns and Devices by Grazia Merler, Ottawa, Tecumseh Press, 1978; The Light of Imagination: Mavis Gallant's Fiction by Neil K. Besner, Vancouver, University of British Columbia Press, 1988; Reading Mavis Gallant by Janice Kulyk Keefer, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1989; Figuring Grief: Gallant, Munro, and the Poetics of Elegy by Karen E. Smythe, Montreal, McGill Queens' University Press, 1992; Mavis Gallant by Danielle Schaub. New York, Twayne, 1998.
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The characters who move through the fiction of Mavis Gallant are unwilling exiles and victims, born or made. Her first collection of short stories, The Other Paris, clearly sets the tone of her work: in a series of impersonal, almost clinical sketches the lonely and displaced struggle against an indifferent or hostile world. A naive American girl, engaged to a dull American in Paris, wonders why her colorless days have no connection with the legendary "other Paris" of light and civility; a pathetic American army wife in Germany faces her stale marriage and a rootless future; a bitter, unforgiving set of brothers and sisters gathers after the funeral of their mother, a dingy Romanian shopkeeper in Montreal; a cow-like Canadian girl with Shirley Temple curls is repeatedly deceived by seedy fiancés; a traveler staying in a Madrid tenement watches a petty bureaucrat trying to justify the new order "to which he has devoted his life and in which he must continue to believe." These anti-romantic glimpses of dislocation and despair are rendered in deliberately hard, dry prose, reminiscent, like their subject matter, of Joyce's Dubliners. The narrative manner is flat, unadorned, without any relieving touches of wit—or, it seems, compassion (save for the best of the stories, "Going Ashore," in which a sensitive child is dragged from port to port by a desperate, amoral mother). Although there is an admirable consistency of theme and feeling in these stories, and a high degree of professional skill, there is little here to suggest the brilliance of Gallant's later work and her gradual mastery of longer, more demanding fictional forms.
The title of the next collection, My Heart Is Broken, reveals a continuation of the same concerns. Yet there is a good deal more vigor here, and an indication as well that the author, if not her characters, may be taking some pleasure in the sharpness of her perceptions. There is also the first clear suggestion of a problem which is to become of major importance in Gallant's later work: the eccentricity and near-madness to which her losers may be driven by want or isolation. Gallant has an appallingly accurate eye for the desperation of the shabby genteel, the Englishwomen who live at the edge of poverty in unfashionable pensions out of season, and a shrewd eye as well for the vulgarities of those who try to keep up the pretense of well being. And there is at least one completely successful story, "An Unmarried Man's Summer" which manages to combine many of the earlier preoccupations with a degree of wit and energy not present before.
Gallant's first experiment with longer fiction, Green Water, Green Sky, despite a vivid central section, suffers from an uncertainty of focus. Three of the four parts of the novella offer peripheral views of the breakdown of a young American wife, raised abroad and now living in Paris. The reasons for her drift into madness are never fully explained, although the blame must in part rest with a vain and foolish mother. Florence remains an intriguing and pathetic puzzle; our questions are unanswered, our sympathies largely unresolved. A second short novel, "Its Image on the Mirror" (My Heart Is Broken), is an unqualified success, partly because the point of view is strictly limited to one character—a device which is the source of some ambiguity here as well as consistency. The faintly repressed family hostilities which have appeared in various guises in the earlier work are now given sustained treatment. The narrator, Jean, who has always suffered from a sense of drabness and compromise in contrast to her beautiful younger sister, tries to come to terms with her ambivalent feelings. After years of apparent freedom and romance the spoiled Isobel makes what seems to be an unhappy and confining marriage; looking back, Jean is able to move towards compassion and acceptance. But to what degree is she using the narrative as a kind of revenge for the years she was forced to take second place? Is her sympathy finally untainted by satisfaction? The reader has no means of deciding, precisely because the author makes no comments on Jean's reminiscences. The uncertainty we feel at the end of the work, however, is entirely appropriate: Jean herself is still divided between love, pity and jealousy.
A Fairly Good Time is a splendidly complex full-length novel. Again the plot is familiar and simple in outline: a well-off, still young Canadian woman passes over the borders of sanity as her second marriage, to a Parisian journalist, dissolves. The reasons for her collapse, again, are hinted at rather than developed: an eccentric, domineering mother, a happy first marriage cruelly ended by a freak accident, the frustrating sense of isolation in a foreign world of would-be intellectuals and amoral opportunists—all of these play a partial role. This time, however, Gallant operates directly inside the mind of her heroine, and the result is a spectacular tour de force: the writing is disconcertingly vivid, full of the unmediated poetry of near-hallucination, yet nothing is irrelevant or misplaced. Shirley's madness has a kind of honesty about it which attracts the users and manipulators around her. The sane world of her husband's family and the Maurel family, into whose civil wars she is thrust, seems finally to offer much less integrity than her own world of memories and fantasies. At the conclusion there is just a hint that Shirley may be returning to reality, as she learns to moderate her hopes: "if you make up your mind not to be happy," runs the epigraph from Edith Wharton, "there's no reason why you shouldn't have a fairly good time."
There are no ideas in Gallant's work, no set of theses. The strong and willful may or may not succeed; the sensitive will almost certainly pay for their gifts. And if they endure, as Shirley may, or as Jean does in "Its Image on the Mirror," the only wisdom is a kind of expensive stoicism:
We woke from dreams of love remembered, a house recovered and lost, a climate imagined, a journey never made …. We would waken thinking the earth must stop now, so that we could be shed from it like snow. I knew, that night, we would not be shed, but would remain, because that is the way it was. We would survive, and waking—because there was no help for it—forget our dreams and return to life.
This is not exactly hopeful, but neither is it completely despairing: perhaps if we learned to moderate our hopes we might have a fairly good time. But Gallant's more recent collections The Pegnitz Junction and From the Fifteenth District seem to deny even this modest possibility. The mood here is that of The Other Paris; the effect is considerably more oppressive, however, since Gallant has extended the range of her style. The relatively dry, understated manner of the first books has now been replaced by a highly poetic technique in which feelings are conveyed by sudden, uncanny, and yet astonishingly precise images. Yet as before, her characters do not act, they are acted upon; they suffer, but in the end it hardly seems to matter. Life dwindles away and with it everything which gave pleasure, so perhaps nothing had much substance to begin with. The conclusion of "An Autobiography" (The Pegnitz Junction) is typical. A middle-aged woman thinks about her failure to hold onto the love of a shiftless young man called Peter (the cause of the failure is left undefined, these things just "happen"):
These are the indecisions that rot the fabric, if you let them. The shutter slams to in the wind and sways back; the rain begins to slant as the wind increases. This is the season for mountain storms. The wind rises, the season turns; no autumn is quite like another. The autumn children pour out of the train, and the clouds descend upon the mountain slopes, and there we are with walls and a ceiling to the village. Here is the pattern on the carpet where he walked, and the cup he drank from. I have learned to be provident. I do not waste a sheet of writing paper, or a postage stamp, or a tear. The stream outside the window, deep with rain, receives rolled in a pellet the letter to Peter. Actually, it is a blank sheet on which I intended to write a long letter about everything—about Véronique. I have wasted a sheet of paper. There has been such a waste of everything; such a waste.
"The only way to be free," reflects one of the battered characters in From the Fifteenth District, "is not to love." This is the freedom of isolation, madness, and death, but perhaps any escape from being is preferable to the pain of living. Thus Piotr, for example, the central figure in the novella "Potter," welcomes the imagined prospect of his death: "Oh, to be told that there were only six weeks to live! To settle scores; leave nothing straggling, to go quietly." Yet even death may offer no release. In "From the Fifteenth District," a truly harrowing prose-poem—it can hardly be called a story—the pathetic ghosts of the dead complain to the "authorities" that the memories of life and the intrusions of the still-living make any final rest impossible.
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