The writer Mavis Gallant died last week in Paris at age 91. She published novels and a smattering of nonfiction but kept returning to short stories as her favored form for an outpouring of tales. She published a whopping 116 stories in the pages of The New Yorker.
Born in Montreal, Gallant (pronounced “Gull ANT”) settled in Paris and lived there most of her adult life. She had endured a difficult childhood (her father died when she was young; her mother abandoned her). Not surprisingly, her stories often involve loss and abandonment, disappointment, and a yearning for love.
I discovered her work in 2007 while listening to Antonya Nelson read Gallant’s “When We Were Nearly Young” on The New Yorker fiction podcast. I was blown away. I wondered why I hadn’t come across her fiction earlier, and then fed the hunger by gobbling up more. Here’s a short passage from her “Voices Lost in Snow”:
A windless snowfall. A steep street. Two persons descend the street, stepping carefully. The child, reminded everyday to keep her hands still, gesticulates wildly. There is the flash of a red mitten. I will never overtake this pair. Their voices are lost in snow.
Paris is often the setting for her stories–the streets, the neighborhoods, the walk-up apartments. She had a knack for making Paris seem known and mysterious at the same time.
I recommend her work to anyone who enjoys well-crafted fiction. But what I’m especially eager to share is another side of her. It’s a discovery I made last week when I came across video from CBC-Radio Canada. I was riveted as I listened to Gallant describe her typical shopping routine. Here are a few quotes from that interview, interspersed with photos which I took recently in Paris.
Mavis Gallant on butchers:
“One is faithful to one’s butcher in France. Always. Because you tell him what you’re going to cook. This is of great interest to him. And he cuts it for you that way… The butcher is the backbone of your cooking.”
Mavis Gallant on bakers:
“I go to a good baker. I’ve tried them all. And I go to the one I thought was best.”
Mavis Gallant on waiting in line:
“Many people who come to live in France from America find it very tedious to go from shop to shop. To queue up four and five times in a morning. I suppose it is. But I’m used to it.”
“I have only one florist. When she’s shut, I don’t buy flowers. Because I don’t think they’re as beautiful elsewhere.”
Shopping in Paris–whether for food, bread, flowers, meats, or anything–is about relationships. It’s fascinating to hear Gallant, a master at capturing situations and relationships in stories, bring her keen observation to bear on these everyday aspects of life in Paris. She knows her butcher, her florist, her greengrocer, her baker–as deeply as she knows the characters in her fiction. In typical Gallant style, she goes straight to the heart of the interaction and relationships.
From now on I will think of her as I wait in line, whether fourth or fifth or deeper in queue. Yes, to some it might be tedious. But I’m glad to know I’d be in the excellent company of Mavis Gallant when I decide to stay.
More on Mavis Gallant:
- The video “Mavis Gallant: A Canadian in Paris” can be watched on CBC Radio-Canada Archives.
- Writers Jumpha Lahiri and Michael Ondaatje talk about her influence in this article from The Guardian.
- The New York Times obituary by Helen Verongos.
- A remembrance of Gallant in The New Yorker by fiction editor Deborah Treisman.
- Writer Antonya Nelson reads Mavis Gallant’s “When We Were Nearly Young” on The New Yorker fiction podcast and discusses Gallant’s work with The New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman.
- New York Review Books Classics (disclaimer: a sibling to Markets of Paris publisher The Little Bookroom) had the good sense to publish several collections of her work. Here’s a list.
- NPR aired this interview by Frank Browning in which you can hear Mavis Gallant read a passage from “Old Friends.”