© THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ian Barrett
Photo of Mavis Gallant in Montreal, Wednesday, Oct. 28, 1981. Mavis Gallant, the Montreal-born writer who carved out an international reputation as a master short-story author while living in Paris for much of her life, has died at age 91, her publisher says.
Montreal-born short story great Mavis Gallant lived in Paris for much of her lauded career and brought a European flair to her writing, but she made a big impact on the literary community in her native country, Canadian authors said Tuesday after word of her death.
“Mavis Gallant was a marvellous short story writer and a constant hopeful influence on my life,” Nobel Prize-winning short story master Alice Munro said in a telephone interview from Victoria.
“I didn’t know her well. I met her at a few conferences, I think here in B.C. But the important thing was that long before that, 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.”
Gallant died Tuesday morning in her Paris apartment, said publisher McClelland & Stewart. She was 91.
“Without exaggeration she was one of the finest writers Canada has ever known,” Doug Pepper, publisher of Signal/McClelland & Stewart, said in a statement.
“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.”
CanLit legend Margaret Atwood called Gallant “a sharp observer of human nature, a formidable conversationalist, and an indomitable spirit who made her own way, often uphill.”
“She was funny, quirky, and prickly if you crossed her, but kind underneath it, especially to underdogs,” she said in the statement.
“Her unique voice will be much missed.”
Added Michael Ondaatje: “She was our great writer. My hero.”
The expatriate, bilingual anglophone published more than 100 short stories, many of them in The New Yorker magazine and in collections including “The Other Paris, ”Across the Bridge“ and ”In Transit.“ She also wrote two novels, ”Green Water, Green Sky“ and ”A Fairly Good Time,“ as well as the play ”What is to be Done?“
“I was delighted that she was Canadian and published in The New Yorker. That gave hope to all of us,” said Toronto-based author Wayson Choy.
“But her style was a kind of brilliant, intelligent and emotional ... texture.”
Acclaimed short story writer and novelist Carol Windley said the first book of Gallant’s she read was 1978’s “From The Fifteenth District” and she “was just in awe of her skill.”
“I really enjoyed the depth, the amount of information that she conveyed as she developed her characters and stories, and the international flavour of her work,” she said from Nanaimo, B.C.
“She seemed to have such an immense knowledge of European history as well as human behaviour.”
Though she lived abroad, Gallant received several high-profile honours in her home country, including a Companion of the Order of Canada and a 1982 Governor General’s Literary Award for her collection of stories, “Home Truths: Selected Canadian Stories.”
“Without her, Canadians would not have the literary culture they now have,” said a jury in awarding Gallant the $50,000 Canada Council Molson Prize for the Arts in 1996.
“She has done extraordinary service to her country and its culture.”
Born Mavis Leslie Young in 1922, Gallant was an only child in a fractured, English-speaking Protestant family: her father died when she was young and her mother remarried.
Starting from age four, she attended numerous boarding schools in Canada and the U.S., many of which were French and had no other English-speaking students besides herself.
After graduation, Gallant returned to Montreal and landed an entry-level stint at the National Film Board and then a job as a reporter for the Montreal Standard.
In 1942, Gallant married Winnipeg musician John Gallant, but they divorced five years later.
Though Montreal’s literary scene was thriving around that time — with writers including Gwethalyn Graham, Hugh MacLennan and Irving Layton also making their mark — Gallant left Canada for Europe in 1950. She eventually settled in Paris, where she felt she could live solely as a fiction author as opposed to having to supplement her income elsewhere.
“The attitude to a writer was very important, and the attitude to a writer here is one I haven’t seen elsewhere,” she said in the 2006 Bravo! television documentary “Paris Stories: The Writing of Mavis Gallant.”
“I found 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.”
Windley said she “understood completely” why Gallant felt she had to live somewhere other than Canada.
“Perhaps it was that ability of hers to really understand a complicated, rich culture, that she felt she had to be right there in that culture in order to write about it,” said Windley.
“I think that she wrote about how difficult it was to be a woman working in journalism at that time, because she was always assigned the typical female kind of area in the news.”
Gallant seemed to find her voice in France, writing about its atmosphere through “beautiful evocations,” said Allan Hepburn, professor and chair of the English Department at McGill University.
“One of the most wonderful things she ever did was the ’Paris Notebooks,”’ said Hepburn.
“It has these wonderful evocations of the 1968 uprisings in Paris and in France generally, about the student movement and so on.”
Munro said Gallant’s “writing made many people feel that Canada had broadened out a bit.”
“She was just a marvellous writer. It wasn’t so much what she wrote about as the fact of how she wrote it. Short story writing is a special kind of writing and she did it marvellously well.”
The notoriously private Gallant did visit Canada from time to time, including a 1983-’84 return as writer-in-residence at the University of Toronto, where she later received a doctorate of letters.
She also included Canadian characters and settings in some of her stories.
“You’re always attached to the city you were born in, even if you think you’re not,” Gallant said in a 1965 interview with CBC-TV’s “Telescope.”
Gallant’s writing also earned her the Matt Cohen Prize, the Rea Award for the Short Story, a Lannan Literary Fellowship, and a PEN/Nabokov Award.
Her other honours include the Prix Athanase-David literary award from the government of Quebec, and a spot as a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Gallant also wrote, mostly by hand, in personal diaries for more than 50 years. Pepper said M&S will publish them in “The Journals of Mavis Gallant,” edited by Steven Barclay and Fran Kiernan, in spring 2015.
In a July 2012 interview with The New Yorker, Barclay — who is also a friend of Gallant’s — said she was ill in recent years and was in hospital for nine months in 2011.
And Hepburn said she “was quite frail for the last 10 years or so.”
“She didn’t travel much ... because she had osteoporosis and lots of health complications,” he said, noting the last time he saw her was around 2003, when she visited Montreal to receive a lifetime achievement award from the Blue Metropolis literary festival.
William Toye, Gallant’s longtime friend and former editorial director of Oxford University Press Canada, said she had diabetes and was admitted to hospital for some time about two years ago after passing out in her apartment and being rescued by the fire department.
She didn’t have children and was “put in the charge of the city,” he added. “The city arranged for somebody to go to her place twice a day to give her insulin and they paid for a housekeeper to visit her once or twice a week.”
— With files from Canadian Press reporter Cassandra Szklarski.