This essay first appeared on Huffington Post
I’m in mourning for Mavis Gallant.
You don’t remember Mavis Gallant? If you’re older than 14, you shared a century with her characters. You would have passed them on the streets of Manhattan, or Montreal, or Paris. They were people you recognized… even if you might not have stopped to talk with them. Where you really got to know them was in the pages of The New Yorker, which published 116 of her stories over a span of 40 years.
Mavis Gallant died recently at the entirely respectable age of 91. She produced sharp, beautifully crafted and highly readable short stories for more than half of those years. Collections of her stories were published in 1956 (The Other Paris), 2009 (The Cost of Living: Early and Uncollected Stories), and a dozen more collections appeared in the years in between — it boggles the short story writer’s mind.
And here’s the rub for me: In addition to the mourning, there is envy, admiration and — to be honest — a dash of literary despair. On the one hand is the shimmering example of a writer — a woman writer at that! — still writing great stories well past the age of, ahem, this octogenarian writer. And on the other is the sheer heft of her oeuvre. One volume of collected stories alone ran to 900 pages. We are not talking pages of tripe.
Mavis Gallant understood the abandoned and deceived; her own mother deposited her at a boarding school when she was four, saying, “I’ll be back in 10 minutes.” She also understood the displaced, having left her Canadian home for France, briefly wandering elsewhere in the post-World War II years when displacement was a fact of life for much of Europe and Asia. As a woman who defined the phrase “living by one’s wits,” she turned those wits to short fiction in a singular way. She also wrote novels and essays, critically acclaimed nonfiction.
But here is another rub: On top of the lack of maternal love and affection, Gallant endured other unimaginable emotional assaults and upheavals, realities that underlie her fiction. As a girl of 10, she was lied to about her father — she waited two years for him to reappear because nobody told her he had died. She was briefly and unhappily married, and heart-breakingly betrayed by her literary agent, who pocketed the money from the first New Yorker stories while Gallant struggled with hunger and despair in Spain and France. Gallant took it all in, survived and turned her life to short fiction, to the benefit of us all.
The rubs boil down to this: Suppose you’re a writer with a plain old happy childhood? You’ve already watched with envy — sometimes admiration and way more than a dash of despair — the flood of memoirs documenting addiction, abuse and aberrations of every conceivable kind, most of which inhabit bestseller lists for months. And here are the obituaries for one hugely admired short story writer, with the news that she too has a personal depth of Shakespearean tragedy to mine. Bless her battered heart.
At least she shared it all with us, in those dozens and dozens of marvelous stories. And kept at it until the end of her 91 eventful years.
Rest in peace, Mavis.