Canadian Writer, Mavis Gallant. Photograph: Eamonn McCabe
Canadian Writer, Mavis Gallant. Photograph: Eamonn McCabe

Writer down. Maybe we readers need to scream that phrase the way officers scream it for fellow officers struck down by gunfire.  A great Canadian writer – Mavis Gallant – is down.

I once had the privilege of hearing her read at the Different Drummer in Burlington during her promotional tour for her Selected Stories in the fall of 1999. She had a glass of white wine in her hand, looked confident, was smartly dressed and a little tired. I came to the reading with a question in my head: I wanted to ask her about a particular story concerning Spanish characters.

Gallant saves you air fare money. You can go to Madrid or Paris or Berlin for free.

Gallant was an expatriate for most of her life, living more outside her country than in it, much like her characters. As a young journalist, she left her city of birth, Montreal, in her early twenties and arrived in Paris in 1950 and never left except for tours, ceremonies and awards. She always wrote her stories in English, but lived her days in French and wrote her non-fiction in French. She published over a 100 stories in The New Yorker.

I was barely coherent in my question. I knew I was in the presence of greatness and felt very small. I stutteringly began, “Ms. Gallant, you have a story called “When We Were Young” that takes place in Madrid and has a character named Pablo and it’s all about having friends in a foreign country and being poor together—they more than you—and having to leave them and losing touch with them but always remembering them—that story Ms. Gallant is too real to be fiction, it really happened, didn’t it?”

What a stupid question! Writers never answer questions that presume their stories are in the least autobiographical.  They’re works of the imagination, don’t you know.

Mavis Gallant cleared her throat (I was red-faced and perspiring) and said, “Yes. It’s a true story. I lived it. The things I described really happened. Thank you for remembering it. But the story’s called “When We Were Nearly Young” not “When We Were Young.” I had forgotten the adverb.

I was gobsmacked. A writer had answered an honest question honestly. A great writer with a reputation of being feisty, even scrappy, had answered a direct question, however poorly worded, directly and unflinchingly.

Later, her words about her characters came to mind. “Every character,” Ms. Gallant wrote, “comes into being with a name (which I may change), an age, a nationality, a profession, a particular voice and accent, a family background, a personal history, a destination, qualities, secrets, an attitude toward love, ambition, money, religion, and a private center of gravity.”

Robert Fulford in The National Post (Feb. 19, 2014) summarizes Gallant’s contribution to literature succinctly: “In a century when millions of humans became refugees, she was literature’s tireless chronicler of dispossession. Her characters were evicted, expelled, expropriated and otherwise moved from their homes.” She was the voice of poor boys from Madrid and those for whom the idea of home remained complicated and conflicted.

She’ll go down in literary history with Alice Munro as a world-class Canadian writer.

By J.S. Porter