Mavis Gallant, short story maven, dies at 91

Mavis Gallant, the internationally celebrated Canadian short story writer who lived and worked for most of her life in Paris, has died in the French capital. She was 91.

Mavis Gallant, 1922-2014

9 years ago
Duration 2:24
Short story maven dies in Paris at age 91

Mavis Gallant, the internationally celebrated Canadian short story writer who lived and worked for most of her life in Paris, has died, according to her publisher. She was 91.

Gallant died this morning at her apartment in Paris, according to Doug Pepper, publisher of Signal/McClelland & Stewart.

“Without exaggeration she was one of the finest writers Canada has ever known. Witty, brave, honest, fiercely independent, Mavis was a stunning writer who transformed the short-fiction form. She was also a woman ahead of her time, blazing a trail of independence that took courage and determination that inspired legions of other authors who count her influence as seminal to their own careers," Pepper said.

Considered one of Canada's finest writers of short fiction, Gallant is known for collections such as Montreal Stories, Going Ashore and 1981's Home Truths, which earned her a Governor General's Literary Award.

Many of her stories were published first in The New Yorker magazine, which nurtured her early career long before she was recognized in Canada.

Upon news of her death, fans, friends and admirers began sharing memories of Gallant. They include Nobel laureate Alice Munro and fellow Canadian writer Margaret Atwood.

"Mavis Gallant was a marvellous short story writer and a constant hopeful influence on my life," Munro told The Canadian Press in a telephone interview from Victoria.

"I knew about her work and the fact that she was a Canadian and she wrote mainly short stories, which you were not really encouraged to do as your main writing... So she was important to me in that way."

“Mavis Gallant was a wonderful writer, a sharp observer of human nature, a formidable conversationalist, and an indomitable spirit who made her own way, often uphill," Atwood said in a statement.

"She was funny, quirky, and prickly if you crossed her, but kind underneath it, especially to underdogs. Her unique voice will be much missed.”

Outsider in her youth

Born Mavis Leslie Young in Montreal in 1922, Gallant was an only child who was shunted through 17 schools in her formative years, often as the only anglophone among a francophone student body.

She worked briefly for the National Film Board before becoming a journalist with the Montreal Standard in 1944. She married musician John Gallant, but they divorced after five years.

Gallant began writing as a child, initially poetry and then short stories, which became her forte. Her earliest publishing success was in Canada, in Preview (1944), the Standard Magazine (1946) and Northern Review (1950), according to the Canadian Encyclopedia.

I believed that if I was to call myself a writer, I should live on writing. If I could not live on it, even simply, I should destroy every scrap, every trace, every notebook and live some other way.- Mavis Gallant

In 1950, determined to write fiction full-time, she left Montreal for Europe, where she bounced around before settling in Paris. She lived in a small apartment on the Rive Gauche until her death.

"I believed that if I was to call myself a writer, I should live on writing. If I could not live on it, even simply, I should destroy every scrap, every trace, every notebook and live some other way," she said in a 1996 interview with the Paris Review.

Gallant's first story in The New Yorker, Madeline's Birthday, was published on Sept. 1, 1951, and she contributed more than 100 stories to the magazine over the next five decades, later publishing them in collections such as the acclaimed From the Fifteenth District.

Theme of cultural alienation

Her work frequently deals with a sense of dislocation or cultural alienation, often among expat Americans or Canadians living in Europe. She has been known for her ability to conjure the atmosphere of a specific time period, including the war years and the period after the war in Europe.

Her Montreal Stories, a collection compiled by editor Russell Banks, describe a stifling provincial atmosphere in the city of her birth before, during and after the Second World War. The book includes a series of linked stories, considered to be autobiographical, about a character called Linnet Muir, an adolescent struggling with the limitations on her freedom.

She also wrote about Montreal in Across the Bridge (1993), though half of those stories are set in Paris.

In a 1965 interview with CBC's Telescope, she reflects on a recent visit back to Montreal and says the city she remembered is gone.

"The first visit back never works," she says. "One looks for the places one knew as a child and they are all changed."

Gallant has been hailed for the precision of her writing. She would often rewrite a whole page because a single sentence was not right.

"The first flash of fiction is like a curtain going up on stage, and you wait to see what's happening," she said in a 2009 interview with the Guardian.

Selected work by Mavis Gallant

  • Paris Stories (short story collection)
  • Home Truths (short story collection)
  • From the Fifteenth District (short story collection)
  • Montreal Stories (short story collection)
  • Green Water, Green Sky (novel)
  • What is to be Done? (play)

"The characters aren't speaking to me, exactly, but I get lines of dialogue. I know who they are, what they do and what they are saying to each other. And I know more than they do, because I know about all of them."

Her characters are underdogs or struggling to adapt to life in exile. But Gallant's tone is light and often ironic, even when describing unhappy situations.

Gallant also wrote nonfiction, including reviews and essays on French culture and society. Among the most notable is a graphic eyewitness account of the 1968 Paris student riots, published in Paris Notebooks.

In interviews she was tartly sardonic about that period, calling the French intellectuals "people with ideas who have never had to wait for a bus."

Gallant wrote two novels — Green Water, Green Sky (1959) and A Fairly Good Time (1970) — and several novellas. Her first play, What Is To Be Done?, premiered at Toronto's Tarragon Theatre in 1982.

Gallant returned to Canada as writer-in-residence at University of Toronto in 1983-84. Although she lived most of her adult life in Paris, she retained her Canadian citizenship and beginning in the 1980s was increasingly recognized for her contributions to Canadian literature.

In 2001 she became the first winner of the Matt Cohen Award, recognizing a lifetime of distinguished work by a Canadian writer. The Moslem Wife and Other Stories won the 2006 Prix Athanase-David from the province of Quebec and was considered for Canada Reads.

Gallant was named an officer of the Order of Canada in 1981 and in 1993 was raised to companion, the order's highest level.

"For more than four decades, Mavis Gallant has provided for more than one generation of writers an example of the dedicated writer who has committed her life and her writing to the pursuit of excellence," read the jury citation when Gallant was awarded the $50,000 Canada Council Molson Prize for the Arts in 1996.

"Without her, Canadians would not have the literary culture they now have. She has done extraordinary service to her country and its culture."

McClelland & Stewart is moving forward with plans to release The Journals of Mavis Gallant, edited by Steven Barclay and Fran Kiernan, in spring 2015.

With files from The Canadian Press