By Alan Hustak on May 6, 2009

Mavis Gallant has spent a life time doing what many writers can only dream of – living in Paris and consistently crafting some of the finest short stories in the English language that have been published for six decades in the New Yorker. Reading Going Ashore, the thirty or so recently published short stories that Gallant wrote early in her remarkable career, not only demonstrates how durable her work has always been, but also serves as a reminder of just  how important  the art of the short story remains to those who make their living as writers.  In a digital age that threatens the survival of newspapers and mass circulation magazines, renders the novel impotent and makes biography almost irrelevant, the short story might be the last salvation for those who care about literate expression. 

As A. O. Scott wrote in the New York Times recently,  good short stories haven’t really been  taken seriously. They’ve been dismissed as classroom fodder, something “to be appreciated as an interesting excersise…. an etude instead of a sonata or a symphony.”  The form, however, has been around since Chaucer shows no sign of disappearing.  

MavisandAllan.jpgMany of the stories in Going Ashore, assembled   by  her publisher  McLelland and Stewart, were cut from  The Selected Stories, a book  that came out 13 years ago.  Although  Gallant turns 87 in August, is diabetic and in failing health, these are not the last of her output.  “I have a huge body of work, not all of it published.  I am at work on a story now, and I’m editing my diaries,” she said sounding up beat over the telephone from Paris.   “My mind is all right, but it is more difficult for me to write now. I have been typing since I was 18, but my hands are stiff, and it’s easier for me to write with a pen.”  Gallant doesn’t own a computer, and refuses to use one. “I never got into the 21st century,” she says matter-of-factly, “I don’t have a computer, for perhaps the same reason, that even as child I refused to learn how to play the piano.” Gallant lives in the heart of Paris in the stylish  6th arrondissment in the same apartment that she moved into almost 40 years ago,  with a view of  ironwork balconies on the handsome building across the street.  Although she’s made Paris her home for almost 6 decades, she writes in English as comfortably about North America as she does about Europe. Even her unvarnished work in this collection shines with descriptive detail and astute powers of observation. One story, Wings Chips, written in 1954 deals with what in today’s Quebec would be called “reasonable accommodation.” It is set in an un-named French Canadian town with  “a curious atmosphere of harshness,” and is almost autobiographical. It is about a young  Protestant school girl, not unlike Gallant, who as a little girl named  Mavis de Trafford Young, spent her summers in Chateauguay with her father, a furniture salesman and Sunday painter.  “My father was an amateur artist, but he was so devoted I thought he was a professional,” she said.

Gallant, who lent her name to the Quebec Writers Federation’s annual  literary prize for non-fiction,  was educated by nuns after her father died when she was 10, then finished school in New York. She worked briefly for the National Film Board before being hired as a reporter for the Montreal Standard, where she was paid “half the salary men were earning.’’  Journalism, she has said, “can keep a writer from getting bored, but it can also result in a writer forming bad habits.” Married briefly to a musician, she was a feminist before the word was invented.  After she sold her first short story, Madeline’s Birthday, to The New Yorker in 1950, she quit  Montreal  and moved to Paris.  Since then she’s turned out thousands of stories of yearning -  tales  peopled with characters who are adrift, emotionally insecure and often  disconnected. “Happiness,” as she once said, “is for pigs and cows.”

In this collection, she writes of abandoned children, examines cultural clashes and tells of Bernadette, a naive unmarried French-Canadian house maid who is preganant, and  skewers a racist American tourist footloose on the Riveria.  Like Munro, Annie Proulx,  those other revered practitioners of the short story, Gallant’s condensed literary  portraits examine the finer nuances of human relations. Consider this spare description of the married couple, who employ Bernadette as their housemaid.   “The Knights had been married for nearly sixteen years. They considered themselves solidly united. Like many people no longer in love, they cemented their relationship with opinions, pet prejudices, secret  meanings, a private vocabulary that enabled them to exchange amused glances over a dinner table and made them feel a shade superior to the world outside their house.” 

Some of the chapters in the book, such as A Revised Guide to Paris and On With the New France, aren’t so much short stories as they are opinion pieces. Gallant has never been shy to express an opinion.

  “One doesn’t go after a literary form, the form finds you,” Gallant says. “I have started novels,  but then broken them up into short stories. They teach you how to write short stories in university. It is considered something adolescents can do,” she quips wryly.  “Publishers will consider publishing a collection of short stories, but only if you’ve written a novel, or if you’ve produced a New Yorkerish  collection of stories. But you have to work a long time to have a collection. They don’t come out of the ground like earthworms.”   

Why doesn’t she write in French?  “Because English comes to me,” she says.  Nothing she claims can stop a real writer from writing.  “I detest amateurs. Anyone who is an authentic writer and has an authentic voice doesn’t need help from anyone.”

Gallant has donated her personal papers to the Thomas Fisher Library at the University of Toronto where they will become available to researchers 25 years after she dies.  In the meantime, she’s busy editing her highly anticipated diaries.  “Unless you have a million dollar endowment, you can’t publish everything you have written. It is just too much,” she says. “It was suggested that I pare the diaries to five volumes.  If you are going to have 10 years in each volume, I don’t want a big thing of a book,  I want a book people can carry around.” She denies suggestions made in The Globe and Mail that editing out the dirty bits from her diaries.  She says she’s revising some of the material so as not to embarrass people who are still alive, or their families. ‘I’ll give you an example, I wrote that ‘so and so’ was in Paris this week looking more than ever than a child molester. If I gave my publishers raw copy like that, some people will be offended or hurt. I don’t want to do that…25 years after everyone’s dead it won’t matter, but I don’t want to go out of my way to hurt people who are still alive.”


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