An Appreciation of the Under-appreciated Mavis Gallant

The short-story writer Mavis Gallant, who died today at 91, was a writer’s writer. That is a nice way of saying that she wasn’t super-widely read outside the coterie of literary obsessives in America, the kind who flip straight to the fiction pages when the New Yorker arrives, a population which is shrinking every minute. Her ascension was stifled by all the people out there who say, “I love to read, but I hate short stories.” And that’s a shame, because she was a genius, one of the people who could best convey anger and frustration and loss in startlingly beautiful but incredibly economical prose.

I have a bias in saying that, because I’m Canadian, but more importantly because I’m a Canadian expat, and there was no one better at articulating that experience than Gallant. In the story “In Youth Is Pleasure,” her character Linnet begins to make a complaint you’ll hear any Canadian expat make if you hang around them long enough:

Part of this impermeable sureness that I needn’t waver or doubt came out of my having lived in New York. The first time I ever heard people laughing in a cinema was there. I can still remember the wonder and excitement and amazement I felt. I was just under fourteen and I had never heard people expressing their feelings in a public place in my life. The easy reactions, the way a poignant moment caught them, held them still — all that was new… What were these new people? Were they soft, too easily got at? I wondered that even then. Would a dictator have a field day here? Were they, as Canadian opinion had it, vulgar? Perhaps the notion of vulgarity came out of some incapacity on the part of the refined. Whatever they were, they couldn’t all be daft; if they weren’t I probably wasn’t either. I supposed I stood as good a chance of being miserable here as anywhere, but at least I would not have to pretend to be someone else.

I really, really, really don’t know who has described the reality of leaving a relatively buttoned-up, genteel environment for the Tower of Babel that is America as well as that. Or who also understood the tangled realities of being an Anglo-Quebecker. Or of just wanting to do something with your life.

Even if you don’t connect with her on the level of nationality, Gallant was documenting the practice of young people drafting lives in cities long before Lena Dunham was a sparkle in anyone’s eye. Try, for example, her “When We Were Nearly Young,” where the narrator finds herself living in Madrid among the aimless, and has some self-awareness about it:

I would like to tell a story about Pilar, but nobody will believe it. It is how she though, or pretended to think, that the Museo Romantico was her home. This was an extraordinary museum — a set of rooms furnished with all the trappings of the romantic period. Someone had planned it with love and care, but hardly any visitors came. If any did wander in when we were around, we stared them out. The cousins played the game with Pilar because they had no money and nothing better to do. I see Pilar sitting in an armchair, being elegant, and the boys standing or lounging against a mantelpiece; I say “boys” because I never thought of them as men. I am by the window, with my back turned. I disapprove, and it shows. I feel like a prig. I tip the painted blind, just to see the street and be reassured by a tram going by. It is the twentieth century. And Pilar cries, in unaffected anguish. “Oh, make her stop. She is spoiling everything.”

I can hear myself saying grandly, “I don’t want your silly fairy tales. I’m trying to get rid of my own.”

Going abroad didn’t solve everything for Gallant. It wasn’t just a matter of not pretending, trying to live a life as an artist. Last year, the New Yorker published excerpts from her diaries, and they detail a descent into literal starvation in her early days in Europe. Starvation, and artistic self-doubt:

I wonder why no one liked “The Legacy” [a story published in June 26, 1954, issue of The New Yorker]. I am revolted at the idea of exposing any more of the things I write. I have always despised the people who write “for themselves”—who keep things in a trunk as if they would fade or disintegrate in the light and air. Now I begin to understand it. Each story means as much to me as the one before. I think of each one as honest. If they are bad, that is something else. I wish there were someone who could say “yes” or “no,” “keep on writing” or else “give it up.” As long as there is no one but myself I shall of course keep on, but can I be trusted? And how could I trust an editor? Is he free to trust himself?

Knopf plans to publish the rest of the diaries at some point this year, according to reports. And I hope, when they do, that a small Gallant renaissance comes with them.