I think of Virginia Woolf’s essay and cabin, Vita Sackville-West’s tower, and Carlyle’s study, their necessary, self-imposed isolation, and wonder how Jane Austen managed to produce six scintillating novels, at least two of which are masterpieces, in the midst of the busy domesticity of a small house where servants and family bumped against each other crossing a threshold.
Mavis Gallant: The Writer as Rapscallion I, by Linda Leith
The epigraph to the introduction Mavis Gallant wrote to Home Truths (1981) is Boris Pasternak's “Only personal independence matters."
Gallant's desire for independence, which shaped her life as a writer, seems to me a good way in to her work. It allows us to hear her voice at its feistiest, and it allows us some sense of the connection between the life she led and the work she wrote.
Independence shows up in almost everything she said and wrote about her childhood in Montreal and about her youth; it comes up in much of her fiction, too, when she when writes about strong-willed fictional characters, most of them women and girls, who feel confined -- and who are determined to escape.
Many of her fictions are set in different parts of Europe, where she lived for more than sixty years. For a reader new to her work, my recommendation would be get hold of the series of six Montreal stories that she wrote about Linnet Muir, who is a character who shares some characteristics with Gallant herself.
The most beautiful of these stories – the most beautiful short stories I've ever read about Montreal – are two stories set in the 1920s, when Linnet was a little girl, as indeed Mavis Young was a child born in Montreal in 1922: “Voices Lost in Snow” and “The Doctor.”
Linnet left Montreal when she was ten years old, after her father died and her mother remarried, and she spends eight years at schools in Ontario and in New York, returning to Montreal in 1940, when she is eighteen. She finds work, and eventually becomes a journalist for a weekly newspaper called The Lantern, as Gallant herself became a journalist with The Standard. The first three and the last of these six stories are set in the 1940s.
These stories were all written in the late 1970s and first appeared in The New Yorker in 1977 and 1978.They were collected in Home Truths in 1981, Gallant's collection of stories about Canadians at home and abroad, which won the Governor General’s Award for fiction. They can be found in her Selected Stories (1997), as well, and in Montreal Stories (2004).
She insisted that they were not autobiographical stories, which is the context within which I first got to know her. When I first read these stories in The New Yorker, I was so taken with them that I wrote a review article on them for a magazine that no longer exists, Montreal Review. I had some questions, so I wrote to Gallant.
She responded threateningly, saying that if I were to say anything that would suggest there was anything autobiographical about the stories, she would sue me and the magazine that published the piece. I went ahead with the article and sent a copy of it to Gallant on publication. She responded, saying it was fine. “Such a relief!” she added. For me, too.
This is what she herself has said about the Linnet Muir stories: “She [Linnet] isn’t myself, but a kind of summary of some of the things I once was. In real life I was far more violent and much more impulsive and not nearly so reasonable” (HT xxii).
To be continued.
© Linda Leith, 2014
An audio recording of the talk was broadcast by CKUT here.