Mavis Gallant 1922-
(Born Mavis de Trafford Young) Canadian short story writer, novelist, critic, playwright, and essayist.
The following entry presents criticism of Gallant's short fiction from 1990 through 2003. See also Mavis Gallant Literary Criticism (Volume 7), and Volumes 18, 172.
Regarded as an important contemporary fiction writer, Gallant is particularly admired for her finely crafted short stories, most of which have been published in the New Yorker. A Canadian who has lived most of her adult life in France, Gallant often depicts the plight of alienated people in unfamiliar and indifferent environments. Populated by alienated expatriates and disillusioned souls, Gallant's stories offer insight into the contemporary human experience in Europe and North America, exposing the ironies of human nature that balance comedy and tragedy. Her fiction often conveys a sense of ambiguity about the past and its effects on the present, and routinely presents narrative conflicts that reflect the prevalent attitudes of postwar society.
Gallant was born on August 11, 1922, in Montreal, Canada. She experienced a difficult childhood, and themes of alienation and loneliness surface frequently in her stories. When she was ten years old, her father died and her mother soon remarried. Over the next eight years, Gallant attended seventeen different schools, completing her education at a New York City high school after she was sent there to live with a guardian. She subsequently returned to Montreal during World War II, and briefly worked at the National Film Board before she became a feature reporter for the Montreal Standard in 1944. While working for the Standard, Gallant began to publish short stories in a number of Canadian literary magazines. In 1950 she moved to Paris and became a full-time writer. Since that time, she has resided in Paris, although she has retained her Canadian citizenship. Her stories began appearing in the New Yorker, which has continuously published her stories since 1951. Over the next three decades, she published several collections of these stories, such as The Other Paris (1956), My Heart Is Broken (1964), The Pegnitz Junction (1973), and From the Fifteenth District (1979). In 1981 Gallant published Home Truths, which was awarded the Governor General's Award, Canada's most prestigious literary prize. The following year her play What Is to Be Done? premiered at Toronto's Tarragon Theatre. She stayed in Canada for a time, accepting an appointment as writer-in-residence at the University of Toronto in 1983 and 1984, but eventually returned to Paris. In 2002 Gallant received the Literary Grand Prix Award at the Blue Metropolis International Literary Festival in Montreal.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Most of Gallant's short stories were initially published in the New Yorker, and then published in book form. Her first collection of stories, The Other Paris, explores the theme of dislocation, particularly as experienced by Americans and Canadians in Europe, and emphasizes the ways society affects individuals. In the title story, for instance, a young American woman travels to Paris anticipating romance and adventure, but finds instead a somber postwar ennui. My Heart Is Broken, an anthology of several stories and a novella, examines the despair of a variety of exiles who inhabit a series of run-down hotels in Europe. In a similar vein, From the Fifteenth District centers on a group of North American expatriates in World War II Europe. Another recurrent theme of Gallant's fiction involves exploring the individuality of the Canadian character amid a confusing and challenging outside world. Delineating the lives of young Canadians at home and abroad at different moments of the twentieth century, Home Truths concludes with a sequence of six “Montreal stories,” which approximate the upheaval and rejection Gallant experienced as a child and adolescent in Montreal between World War I and World War II. In Transit (1988) consists of stories previously published in the 1950s and 1960s, separated into three sections that alternately focus on parents and children, adolescents, and pre-adolescent youngsters. Half of the eleven stories in Across the Bridge (1993) recount moments in the lives of the fictional Carette family in prewar and postwar Montreal, and the other half trace their fortunes as expatriates in Paris. The Collected Stories of Mavis Gallant (1996) presents a vast selection of Gallant's fiction encompassing her entire career. Paris Stories (2002) collects a variety of Gallant's best-known stories set in Paris, including “The Moslem Wife,” “In Plain Sight,” “Grippes and Poche,” and “The Ice Wagon Going down the Street.”
Gallant's reputation developed after years of relative critical neglect, especially in her native Canada, and she is now recognized as one of Canada's best short story writers. In the late 1980s critical attention to her work increased as commentators began to recognize her command of the English language, skillful use of narrative forms, and her deft character studies. Her fiction has been compared to that of Anton Chekhov, Katherine Anne Porter, Henry James, Virginia Woolf, and Joseph Conrad. Although some critics have complained that her fiction is relentlessly pessimistic and emotionally cold, others have lauded her work for its understated irony, precise attention to detail, and penetrating insight into the human condition. Moreover, several critics have commended the objectivity of Gallant's perceptions of twentieth-century world history, particularly her views of French anti-Semitism and the Fascist movement. Commentators have explored the link between Gallant's interest in art and her fiction, and have underscored the role of the narrator in her stories. Themes of betrayal, abandonment, loss, memory, cultural identity, and alienation have been viewed as central to her short fiction. Critics have also examined the significance of her expatriate perspective with respect to definitions of the Canadian character.