In the autumn of 1950 the 28-year-old Mavis Gallant was in Paris, learning to write fiction while in danger of freezing to death. She had a huge room but a small radiator. The temperature dipped lowest in mid-afternoon and, as she wrote to her friend William Weintraub, "If I am working my hands get numb and I have to soak them in warm water. I can now understand why the French never sleep alone. They aren't any sexier than any other race, but it's the only way of keeping warm."
Otherwise, she liked Paris, and hoped to "stay for a bit." As her many admirers know, that's turned into almost 54 years. This spring, as her 82nd birthday approaches, she's editing her Paris diaries, which her publishers hope to issue in five volumes, one for each decade since 1950. The recent publication of her Montreal Stories (McClelland & Stewart), a handsome paperback collection introduced by Russell Banks (with three stories that haven't previously appeared in a book), provides a fresh reminder of her accomplishment.
She's the supreme chronicler of exile, the explorer of human displacement as an emotional calamity. In her stories, expatriates drift through Europe from seedy hotel to rundown pension, dragging their chronic melancholy behind them like a worn steamer trunk. For Gallant, these lonely people embody the drama of the age. She looks at them with a shrewd detachment that hides neither her sympathy for their misery nor her outrage at the fate that has left them unmoored and vulnerable. Few writers anywhere have such an acute sense of what it is to live forever in a place that will never quite be home.
We understand why this theme attracts her when we read the five stories she wrote in the mid-1970s about Linnet Muir, a prickly young Montrealer. Gallant has acknowledged that Linnet is "90% me" and underlined that point by naming her after a bird, following the example of her own parents (both the mavis and the linnet are songbirds).
In one story Linnet reflects on the emotional intelligence of children, who "can come into a room and sense at once everything felt, kept silent, held back in the way of love, hate, and desire," though they may lack words for those feelings.
Children lose that talent with puberty but, if they are writers, may spend decades recalling and using it, as Gallant has done so superbly.
Linnet grows up Protestant in English-speaking Montreal, among people who proudly hide their feelings. Her cold, distant parents send her to a series of monstrous convent schools; when she hears later that one of them has been demolished it feels like "the burial of a witch." She lives unhappily through "the prison of childhood," yearning for a place where she and the questions she asks will not be considered tiresome.
With the tolerance of old age, Gallant said a few years ago that "now I don't even mind that I had those experiences." She would never inflict that convent life on a child. "But still, without it, I would have become just like any other English Canadian, unable to express my feelings." Frankness is one of her strongest qualities.
Through the young people in Gallant stories we catch perfect glimpses of Montreal as it once was. One story describes Macfarlane, Macfarlane & Macklehurst, a firm of engineers on St. James Street West, which employed French-Canadian women as a file clerk, a typist and a switchboard operator. "During working hours they were expected to speak English, even to one another. The elder Macfarlane harboured the fear that anything said in an unknown language could be about him."
When the two solitudes mixed in society, which wasn't often, it was the rule to speak English. "It did not enter the mind of any English speaker that the French were at a constant disadvantage, like a team obliged to play all their matches away from home." As for the French Canadians, they ignored "the English" (most of them in fact Scots) as much as possible. A French Canadian refers to someone as "one of those Anglos with no Christian name, just a string of surnames: Boyd Markham Forrest Fenton."
Like Linnet, Gallant made her own way in Montreal and taught herself to write. She was then Mavis de Trafford Young; she acquired the surname we know in a brief marriage to a splendidly named nightclub pianist of Acadian background, Johnny Gallant.
As she was sending her stories from Paris to The New Yorker, (which eventually published more than 100 of them), she was seldom discussed in Canada. That was a matter of some annoyance to her admirers, from the early 1950s until well into the 1970s. But The Canadian Encyclopaedia oversimplifies the problem when it says she was neglected. Canada did in fact neglect Gallant, but no more than Gallant neglected Canada. She showed no interest in having her books adequately published here; her U.S. publishers put Canadian sales in the hands of representatives who knew nothing about Gallant or her work.
Canadians didn't buy her books because they were rarely available, and critics who wanted to write about her had to struggle for review copies. That period in her career ended when an imaginative publisher, Douglas Gibson, decided to see her properly published in her homeland, first by Macmillan and then by McClelland & Stewart.
It is a remarkable fact that Canada developed, in roughly the same generation, two of the greatest short-story writers in the language: Gallant, who was born in 1922, and Alice Munro, born in 1931. One went off to a great world capital, the other more or less stayed home -- today Munro lives just down the road from Wingham, Ont., where she grew up. A few years ago Gallant answered an interviewer's request that she compare the two of them: "We're very different. We've led different lives. She comes from a small town. What she makes of it is very good. I've been abroad, mostly. She doesn't travel. She doesn't like it, she says. I couldn't do that. My instinct about small towns is to run away from them. But Alice Munro has enormous appeal, believe me." They travelled radically distinct routes, but ended up together, fellow residents in the pantheon of literary excellence.