Mavis Gallant 1922-
Canadian short story writer, novelist, critic, playwright, and essayist.
The following entry presents an overview of Gallant's career through 2000. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 7, 18, and 38.
One of the few Canadian authors to have her work regularly published in the New Yorker, Gallant has won international acclaim for her prolific body of short fiction. Peopled by alienated expatriates, time-worn spouses, and disillusioned souls, Gallant's stories offer keen observations about the contemporary human experience in Europe and North America, exposing the ironies of human nature that tread between 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. Besides short stories, Gallant has also written two novels, a play, and numerous essays and reviews. Long neglected by Canadian readers until the late 1970s, Gallant has since become celebrated as one of Canada's best known authors at home and abroad. Critics and academics alike have frequently compared Gallant to a range of authors, including Henry James, Anton Chekhov, George Eliot, and Katherine Anne Porter.
Gallant was born Mavis de Trafford Young on August 11, 1922, in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, to an Anglo-Scottish father and an American mother. When she was ten years old, Gallant's 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. Returning to Canada during World War II, Gallant 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. During the late 1940s, she married pianist John Gallant; the couple later divorced. In 1950 Gallant resigned from the newspaper and moved to Paris in order to pursue her writing career full-time. Gallant has since resided in Paris, although she has retained her Canadian citizenship and maintained close ties with Canada. Soon after arriving in Paris, she began publishing work in the New Yorker, which has continuously published her stories since 1951. Over the next three decades, Gallant periodically gathered these stories, along with several novellas, in such collections 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 won the Governor General's Award, Canada's most prestigious literary prize. That same year, Gallant was appointed as an Officer of the Order of Canada, eventually elevating her rank in 1993 to Companion, the order's highest degree. Following the premiere of her play What Is to Be Done? at Toronto's Tarragon Theatre in 1982, Gallant briefly stayed in Canada, accepting an appointment as writer-in-residence at the University of Toronto in 1983 and 1984. In 1986 Gallant published Paris Notebooks, a collection of her nonfiction work for the New Yorker that examines French culture and society. During the 1990s, Gallant continued to gather her New Yorker material in such volumes as Across the Bridge (1993) and The Moslem Wife and Other Stories (1993). The recipient of numerous academic honors, Gallant was feted in 1993 during an evening-long tribute at the International Festival of Authors in Toronto. In 2002 Gallant received the Literary Grand Prix Award at the Blue Metropolis International Literary Festival in Montreal.
Most of Gallant's short stories initially appeared in the New Yorker, before they were periodically collected and subsequently published. Gallant's main narrative aims have consistently focused on the development of a specific situation from the intellectual and emotional perspective of specific characters, particularly favoring the expatriate condition. For example, Gallant's first collection of stories, The Other Paris, explores the expatriation and dislocation of Britons, Americans, and Canadians living in postwar Europe. 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 set against 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 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. Arranged by the date of the stories' settings rather than by the chronology of publication, The Collected Stories of Mavis Gallant (1996) presents a vast selection of Gallant's fiction encompassing her entire career, the only such collection of Canadian literature by a single writer. Although the pieces featured in The Collected Stories do not represent all of Gallant's short fiction in print, the volume is over eight hundred pages long.
In 2002 Canadian author Michael Ondaatje edited a new collection of Gallant's fiction titled Paris Stories. The work reprints a variety of Gallant's best-known stories, including “The Moslem Wife,” “In Plain Sight,” “Grippes and Poche,” and “The Ice Wagon Going down the Street.” While she is best known for her short fiction, Gallant has also produced several notable works in other genres. The first of her two novels, Green Water, Green Sky (1959) follows the destructive relationship of a mother and daughter living abroad. A Fairly Good Time (1970) constructs a narrative around a Canadian woman living in Paris who is haunted by her own isolation and the collapse of her marriage. Gallant's only work of nonfiction, Paris Notebooks, gathers a cross-section of Gallant's essays and criticism on French culture and society that originally appeared in the New Yorker, including an introduction to the autobiography The Affair of Gabrielle Russier (1971) and her own eyewitness account of the 1968 student riots in Paris. Gallant's play, What Is to Be Done?, is set during World War II, dramatizing the struggle of two young, idealistic Canadians with communist sympathies.
Critics have widely acclaimed Gallant's short fiction, particularly after her rise to prominence in Canada during the early 1980s. For much of her career, criticism of Gallant's work has been limited to brief reviews in popular magazines and newspapers. However, academic scrutiny of Gallant's fiction has grown since the late 1980s and has continued to expand since the publication of her Collected Stories in 1996. Many reviewers have noted Gallant's command of the English language and skillful use of narrative forms, remarking favorably on her biting sense of irony. Another strain of commentary has focused on her deft character studies, demonstrating Gallant's empathy with individuals caught between cultures. Additionally, several critics have studied the objectivity of Gallant's perceptions of twentieth-century world history in her cumulative work. Scholars have also examined the significance of her expatriate perspective with respect to definitions of the Canadian character. Due to her Acadian heritage and intimacy with the English history of French Canada, several Canadian literary academics have compared Gallant to author Antoinette Maillet, whom many scholars respect as an authority on Acadian culture. Although most critics have singled out the “outsider” perspective of Gallant's fiction for particular mention, many of these same readers have also applauded the distinctly Canadian consciousness that pervades her fiction.