Frontlines

Exile in her own write

Marci McDonald November 19 1979
Frontlines

Exile in her own write

Marci McDonald November 19 1979

Exile in her own write

Frontlines

PORTRAIT

Marci McDonald

Mavis Gallant had not cared for the photograph which showed her pinioned to her apartment sofa like some astonished butterfly suddenly caught on a collector’s skewer, wide hazel eyes fixed in terror. The fear had been real enough. She regarded the media’s incursions into her life as some people might an assault causing bodily harm—something to be avoided. But the likeness was not a true one, and she who had made a lifework out of forging images with the lean elegance of her prose, chafed at the mistake. “We’ll have none

of the wounded doe look,” she joked with the photographer, a Brazilian political refugee of sorts, who was fussing with his tripod and the temperamental autumn light. Although she never wore anything but the best of discreet Parisian tailoring, she had put on a pair of red shoes for the occasion, just in case he missed the point.

She had passed up her favorite diversion, a day at the races, for this thing she detested most — letting others try to pin her down in shadings of light and cold type. From her earliest memory

she had strained at the bonds which had attempted to hold her. She had spent the better part of her 57 years on the run—from parents, teachers, bosses, men, the whole nameless “them” who made up the expectations society had for her as a woman, and later as a writer.She had made exile her stock-intrade—her calling card in literature as well as life. The characters who peopled her fiction all seemed to be on the lam from an uncertain past, teetering between their uneasy present in some alien disappointing Eden and a future they would just as soon not think about.

But if there was something tragic shadowing them, there was nothing of the sort about herself. She wore her courage and good spirits as Frenchmen sported their red rosettes of the Légion d'honneur— to be noticed. “My life was my own revolution,” she once wrote of another girl who was not unlike her own 18-year-old self. It was not entirely coincidental that nearly 30 years ago, at the age of 28, she had chosen the way station of her lifelong escape as France, a country that had fathered so many other rebellions. 1

In those three decades she had produced more than 100 short stories and two novels which were ranked as some of the finest in Canada—indeed which some critics ventured to class as the country’s best. But through it all, she had somehow remained an outsider to what she liked to refer to as “the Canadian literary circus.” Whether it was because she had retreated behind the protective anonymity of a Paris address or because she had dared to publish in The New Yorker magazine and under an American printing-house mark, her name was almost unknown in the country that her passport and affections still called home. In Canada she had won no prizes, her stories were seldom anthologized, and trying to find her writing in a bookstore was like attempting to locate a particularly arcane 17thcentury manuscript.

One of her most recent books was late in getting to the shelves because the Canadian branch of her publishing house simply forgot to order it from the U.S. She didn’t complain: “It’s my business to write books, not to sell them.” Gallant noticed that her few carping reviews were invariably Canadian. She spent her time alternately dodging the

Canadian literary missionaries who were determined that attention would be paid her, then giving in and inviting them round for sherry.

Now, since a Toronto publisher had won over her Canadian rights—releasing her latest collection of short stories, From the Fifteenth District (see review page 57), with appropriate fanfare— there had been, as critic Robert Weaver noted in the Toronto Star, “something of the air of discovery.” After 30 years and seven books, Mavis Gallant found with some amusement that her native land had just relocated her. The irony was not lost on her, especially since the Canadian edition was an exact facsimile of the American, with some local critical commendations tacked on the back cover. But this time the reviews had been intelligent, except for one note of Montreal overpraise, from which she shrank, remarking: “After all, let’s not lose our heads. It’s only a book of short stories.”

She was feeling indulgent when a reporter called, and glad as ever to play hooky from the final draft of her enormous study on Alfred Dreyfus, the young Jewish officer who was wrongfully tried for selling French army se-

crets at the end of the last century. Since starting it in 1973, she had rewarded herself with mornings off for fiction and from those truant dawns had come two volumes of short stories, including From the Fifteenth District,

and her first play, a comedy which London’s Royal Shakespeare Company was planning to stage. “I had to do something else,” she said. “You can’t just immerse yourself in all the terrible things they do to Jews all day. At the end you want to go out and kill them all, even the victims.”

She had capitulated to an interview, but not easily. “Be warned,” she sent up the flares, “there’ll be no drumbeating.” Her apartment was small, airy and unexpectedly modern. Mavis Gallant had moved there 18 years earlier after gypsying around Europe. It was the apartment of a remarkably feminine spirit—fresh flowers bloomed in every line of vision, polished stones and silver boxes spilling fragrant potpourri studded the tabletops, and good art vied for wall space with books: here, a rare sheet-music cover by Picasso for Igor Stravinsky’s Ragtime; there, hidden behind a door, a yellowing front page from L'Aurore bearing Emile Zola’s legendary cry against the Dreyfus case: “J'accuse. "

On a long polished fruitwood table, her portable electric typewriter sat like another bibelot, too benign-looking to produce the deadly mesh of phrase

which trapped those small moments between the lines of life in merciless suspended motion. In her work, she had a deadly eye for the significant detail — the frayed cuffs of resignation, the telltale slip of a small treason, which made some critics compare her to Jane Austen, whose Emma sat half-reread on an end table. But in her life, the anecdotes were tempered with impulsive generosity and the lusty punctuation of laughter. The face that was once beautiful was still sensual, and she would weigh an Eskimo carving or finger a listener’s scarf, as if trying to fix the texture for future reference.

Everything served as grist for her mill—the seeds of some short story sewn in a notebook in hasty scrawls on the way home from a movie—and she never hesitated to mock herself. But her impeccable grooming and taste for French couture provided the perfect camouflage: to look at her, few would guess that she was a writer.

She had begun retyping the Dreyfus manuscript that morning with an eye to publishing it next year, finishing a seven-year effort which she had once imagined as two. But she had read the history books, found them boring and had dug back into the 60,000 trial documents and found them inconclusive. Finally, she had drawn on her old reporter’s instincts and gone out to interview the relics of the past, only to discover that she was the first person to think of it. “Dreyfus’ daughter is still alive and no one had ever bothered to talk to her,” she marvelled still.

Only one woman refused to see her, the daughter of a villain in the piece, who said she never received Protestants in her home. Mavis Gallant took the rebuff, but phoned back the next morning and said, “Madame, you are perfectly right not to see me. I am divorced, I drink, I gamble, I am not at all recevable. But not for the reason you gave me.”

Last winter, on another vacation from the Dreyfus affair, she dashed off a 10-scene drama—a send-up of youthful Marxism and wartime Montreal called What Is to Be Done?, which is in no small way a poke at her own earnest socialist adolescence. Greeted as a director’s dream, it was scheduled for staging this season in London, but production has been delayed. “If I had known how easy it was,” she said, “I’d have done it long ago.”

Writing had always come to her as naturally as breathing. As a child in Montreal she had retreated into books from a reality which was often too puzzling to grasp,or later too painful. At 4,

the only child of two mismatched anglophone agnostics, she was sent off to a convent boarding school which specialized in excruciating and archaic forms of Jansenist discipline. It set the tone for all her future revolts and marked her forever as an outsider, the only English Protestant in a class of Quebec Catholics who never forgave her for reciting her lessons in flawless French.

Straddling two cultures, she emerged with a unique perspective on the province, damning equally the sluggish French asleep in their “dark dreams,” and the loftily cocooned English, for whom “the rest of the continent, Canada included, barely existed.” Even to-

day she had mixed feelings for everyone except René Lévesque—“that little fascist.”

That old abandoned terrain surfaced in a series of short stories she published in The New Yorker magazine on yet another spree away from the Dreyfus book four years ago. She had just forbidden herself from escaping into any more fiction when she was shaken awake one dawn by forgotten voices. When you’re a creative person and you try to dam up your imagination,” she said, “it has a way of going under. In the course of reconstructing the Paris of the 1890s and this other man’s life, my own childhood in that other lost Montreal surged up.” The stories are remarkable not only for their poignant evocation of a Montreal that no longer exists, but for the road map they offer to a private Mavis Gallant which has always been guarded by “no trespassing” signs.

Their central character is Linnet Muir, a girl who, she has admitted, “is obviously close to me ... 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.”

Like the girl who was born Mavis

Young, Linnet Muir was torn from her roots at the age of 10 by her father’s death and propelled on a bitter vagabond existence of 17 schools in eight years. At 18 she finally fled the bondage of dependency and New York for a remembered, idealized Montreal where she tried but failed to uncover the truth of her father’s unexplained passing, which may or may not have been suicide. Like her author, too, Linnet worked at a useless wartime clerical job, joined the National Film Board and finally landed a coveted job at a newspaper, as Mavis Gallant herself had done in 1944 at the Montreal Standard, where she worked for six years as a feature writer.

She loved the freedom, but at 28 when plans for a Montreal Press Club revealed that women would not be allowed, she realized that the jovial company of the bar where she had finally felt at home “had never really liked us, after all.” The Linnet Muir stories ended there, but Mavis Gallant moved on, announcing she was going to be a writer. A colleague challenged her, saying it was rather like calling oneself an architect without building a house, so she pulled a short story out of dozens she kept in her father’s Edwardian picnic basket and mailed it off to The New Yorker. They said it was too specifically Canadian, but asked for another.

She sent them something called Madeline 's Birthday, set in Connecticut, and with that cheque, a gift airline ticket from an Air Canada PR man and $500 from the Standard’s publisher, she took flight on a route from which she has never swerved. Today she can still recall precisely who had encouraged her and who hadn’t, among the latter Morley Callaghan to whom she had been introduced at 24. “He told me it was a good

thing I had a job, that I’d never make a writer; he could see just by talking to me that I didn’t have it.” Years later in Paris, when he was congratulating himself on his part in her success, she was only too glad to set the record straight.

Her door ever since has been open for young writers, not without some betrayals, but she urged them all to strike out on their own brave paths, forgetting money. “I own nothing. What you see is all I have. I do not wish to be tied.”

She had forged her freedom, not without price, but not forsaking the rich tapestry of old cherished friends and the delights of Paris life either. Long after her divorce in Montreal from a Winnipeg musician named John Gallant whom she had once supported, she said that if she had stayed in Canada, she would have turned into one of those “sensitive housewives who listens to Brahms while she does the ironing and reads all the new books still in their jackets. But I would never counsel a woman to do without warmth in her life,” she said.

Her French friends had never read her work, and one day when the upstairs dentist’s wife told her in the elevator that her daughters, who lived in America, knew of Mavis Gallant, she was afronted at this loss of anonymity. “I regarded it as the worst sort of personal intrusion.” She likes to keep her distance—only impatient with Canadians who mistake the geographic separation for disinterest. Last week’s clippings from the Montreal Gazette haunt her from her kitchen bulletin board, and she has lifelong friends trained to send her editorial tear sheets and gossip.

Like most perceptive observers, she sees the country more clearly, once removed, just as her étrangère status gives her a lucid and searing overview of French society, where she sees the anti-Semitism of the Dreyfus case resurfacing in the updated vocabulary of the New Right. “In 30 years,” she said, “I have never been able to take them seriously.”

The photographer clicked the shutter for one last frame. An image was etched in time. He promised a “très belle photo,” but Mavis Gallant suspected she wouldn’t like it. It would not be a true likeness of her, for all images were bound to fall short of the whole truth— to be exiled from some ideal image we all carry of the world or of ourselves. As she wrote once of the work she had chosen: “All this business of putting life through a sieve and then discarding it was another variety of exile: I knew that even then, but it seemed quite rich and perfectly natural.”^