Mavis Gallant never got over being abandoned as a child — and it shaped her writing

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Audio Transcript:

Carol Hills: There was Alice Munro and Margaret Atwood and then there was Mavis Gallant. Gallant was the least well known of these Canadian women of literature, but she was just as respected. Mavis Gallant died earlier this week at the age of ninety-one. She'd been living in Paris for decades. Writer Daphne Kalotay is a scholar of Mavis Gallant's writings. She says Gallant had a hard time in her early years and it was reflected in her stories.

Daphne Kalotay: She had sort of a miserable childhood. Her parents put her into a convent school basically when she was four years old. She was living apart from home. Her father died when she was ten, her mother remarried, was really not interested in raising her. So I think she felt abandoned and never really got over that in a way.

Hills: And how did that experience inform her writing?

Kalotay: Well, on the one hand, I think she had a very generous view of children and how deeply they feel and experience the world and she expressed that so beautifully. But I think it also made her more attuned to abandonment of all kinds and the feeling of being uprooted from homes, sent around to, in her life she was sent to so many boarding schools and I think that's part of why she was able to capture the experience of so many people from World War II or refugees, people having to escape. I think that she intuited what that experience was like.

Hills: Now, I know she was a newspaper reporter in Montreal on the late 40s and then she finally decided, "Listen, I want to be a writer. I'm going to move to Paris." And It's there that she really found her literally voice. Do you see that in her writing that the location of Paris and moving there really freed her to become a writer?

Kalotay: She always said that and it's possible that she needed that distance to be able to look back on her experience and turn it into art. I do personally prefer her stories that are set in France and actually in all of Europe because she lived there among people whose lives have been torn apart and they were restarting, often in middle-age. She seemed to really be able to reach into the souls of people who were starting over and after great trauma, and I feel like those stories are the ones that are, for me, richer and more deeply felt and more meaningful.

Hills: I've read her stories in the New Yorker for years and years. Of course not in recent years because she's been old and ailing. But what's interesting is her first short story collection was published in the US in 1956, but it would be more than twenty years before her books were published in Canada. Why did it take so long?

Kalotay: It's kind of insane, isn't it? And I think this is something that, I think even Alice Munro sometimes portrays Canada this way, the sense of you're not supposed to show off, you're not supposed to shine, and this is an old-fashioned view of Canada, but the sort of restrictive world. And it was part of what Gallant was leaving, this feeling of "You're a woman. You're not supposed to speak out. You're supposed to marry and have children." and she felt that's part of why she felt she had to move to Paris. She also sometimes had a judgmental view of that lifestyle, the 1930s, 40s, 50s Canadian lifestyle. But the other thing that I actually find inspiring is that she never felt the need to hobnob with her literary circle. I know that she knew to some extent somebody like Margaret Atwood or Alice Munro, but she wasn't hanging out with writers in her country and that could be part of it too, that the publishing world there, she wasn't on their radar.

Hills: Now, you met Mavis Gallant in Paris. What led you to her?

Kalotay: I grew up reading her stories from being partly-Canadian, so we had her stories in my house, and I sensed the depth and great sadness I think in her stories as well as the humor. And then when I wanted to become a writer, I was studying her and thinking, "I can really learn from her. I want to write like this." Her sentences are exquisite, her humor is so real and even appropriate when she's writing about really tragic things, and to be able to do that, I thought, "This is what I aspire to," so I thought, "Well, if I can do this as part of my schooling and get a degree for it all the better."

Hills: What was she like?

Kalotay: It's interesting, I was terrified to meet her. I thought from her writing that she would be, I knew she was incisive, I knew she could see into the souls of her characters, so could she see into my soul and would she think, "Oh no, this is a twenty-six year old girl who is maybe not very smart."? So I was so scared and she was sitting there at this outdoor cafe like so many of her characters who go to cafes in Paris and she looked up when I came out of the metro stop. I remember I saw her and she looked exactly like her picture and I waved and she waved back and she had this beautiful smile and I thought, "No, she's a human being and she's curious and inquisitive and she wanted to meet me too". And I realized she probably saw me the way she had once been in her twenties, when she was so curious and wanting to begin to write.

Hills: That's Daphne Kalotay sharing her memories of Canadian Writer Mavis Gallant who died on Tuesday.