“No, I had no idea what was in store for me [when I arrived in Paris].
None whatsoever. But I had a typewriter, so I started writing.” Mavis Gallant
I am ashamed to admit that I learned of Mavis Gallant’s work rather late—in 2007, after coming across an interview conducted by Stéphan Bureau and translated by Wyley Powell. Before that point, asked to name a writer who had given voice to the lives of ordinary Europeans in the aftermath of the Second World War, I would have said Heinrich Böll, Gallant’s contemporary. I had loved Leila Vennewitz’s translation of The Stories of Heinrich Böll, especially “Murke’s Collected Silences,” “Undine’s Mighty Father,” and “Till Death Do Us Part”. And the way Böll forged character and place together—forged a character from an object in “Adventures of a Haversack,” had even inspired one of my own short stories, “The Cigar Box.”
My only consolation? I subscribe to Brick, the literary magazine in which the interview appeared. So I plunged into Paris Stories, a collection selected and introduced by Michael Ondaatje, at that time one of Brick’s editors, and discovered some extraordinary writing from a highly conscious stylist. In “Irina,” for example:
“If illness became him, it was only because he was fond of ritual, the children thought—even the hideous ceremonial of pain. But Irina had not been intended for sickness and suffering; she was meant to be burned dry and consumed by the ritual of him.”
I continued through Paris Notebooks: Selected Essays and Reviews (1986) and Montreal Stories (2004), and developed a deep respect for Gallant, a writer who maintained a singular focus on her craft. There is a great deal to learn from the way Gallant wrote and the way she lived her life, and I cannot wait for her two novels, Green Water, Green Sky (1959) and A Fairly Good Time (1970) to become more easily available.
We all owe a great deal to the artists and writers at Brick for creating and sustaining a literary magazine that opens us up to sometimes overlooked writers and their extraordinary work. (By the way, Brick also published a critical overview of Gallant’s work by Russell Bank, “The Stories of Mavis Gallant,” which is worthwhile, especially for readers who like the compass of history and theme.)
NYT Obit by Helen T. Verongos (2.18.2014)