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A table in Paris: Remembering Mavis Gallant

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Photo: flickr/danxoneil

A café table in Paris stands empty. It is the Pablo Picasso table at Le Dôme, one of the four historic cafés at the slanting intersection where Boulevard Raspail crosses Boulevard Montparnasse. Early in the 20th century, each of these cafés buzzed with writers and artists; all are now too expensive for aspiring writers. Today's clientele at Le Dôme, Le Sélect, La Coupole and La Rotonde is a mixture of wealthy Parisians and visitors who are giving themselves a treat. Yet in 1950, when Mavis Gallant arrived in Paris, the cafés of Montparnasse were a welcome refuge for an impoverished artist.

The bohemian expatriates of the 1920s -- Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and their friends -- had died or departed by then. The Parisian café culture of the 1950s revolved around the encounter of French intellectuals such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Boris Vian and Albert Camus with writers of colour, such as the Americans Richard Wright, James Baldwin and Chester Himes, or writers from what were then known as "Third World" countries, such as Léopold Senghor of Senegal or, in the latter half of the decade, the young Mario Vargas Llosa. This scene took place farther down the hill and closer to the Seine, in the cafés of the Latin Quarter, such as Café de Flore, where Sartre is said to have written much of Being and Nothingness.

The move to the Latin Quarter relieved the pressure on Montparnasse. Mavis Gallant, who often lived in apartments that lacked adequate heating, went to Le Dôme to write because she could keep warm there. Over the years, as her reputation grew, the café's management began to reserve Pablo Picasso's favourite table for her.

In later years Gallant lived in the seventh arrondissement (not, as readers of her fiction might suppose, in the fifteenth district), the redoubt of the city's upper bourgeoisie. Yet writers, if they must live from their writing, cannot afford all the privileges of the well off. Gallant's apartment on Rue Jean Ferrandi was located in a blank-faced, soulless modern building recessed in a niche that broke the stately progression of 19th century façades. The respectful hush of the narrow streets of the seventh district feels very far away from the hubbub of the broad avenue of Boulevard Montparnasse, with its glaring cinema billboards, packed cafés and wandering pedestrians from all over the world. Mercifully, distances in Paris are short: one neighbourhood merges into another within a few blocks. Until her early 80s, Gallant walked from her apartment to Le Dôme; later she took a taxi. Now her table is empty.

In early 2011, I was in Paris with 24 Canadian students and a budget that allowed me to invite speakers to my classes. My first thought was to invite Mavis Gallant. Though I realized she was elderly, an online video from 2009 that showed Gallant responding to an interviewer's questions with sprightly wit gave me hope. I wrote her a letter. Aware that Gallant was not a person who always enjoyed public appearances, I wasn't surprised when I didn't receive an answer. I made enquiries and learned to my dismay that Mavis Gallant had been in hospital for months. Her friends had serious doubts as to whether she would ever return to Le Dôme. "Her mind is as sharp as ever," one friend said, "but her body won't let her get up and leave." I thought of the epigraph from Boris Pasternak that leads off the introduction to Home Truths, Gallant's selected Canadian stories: "Only personal independence matters." No­­thing seemed sadder than that the original nomad of Canadian literature had lost her independence.

Anyone who has read Gallant's superb novella, "Its Image on the Mirror," grasps the importance of her having come of age in the 1940s, when the departure of Canadian men for the Second World War released women from traditional roles. Rather than submit to relegation to the kitchen when the men came home in search of wives, Gallant left for Europe. This decision was not a flight from Canadianness, as a certain unfair strain of commentary insinuates; rather, it became, over time, the image on the mirror of the Canadian predicament. No other writer explores with such piercing understanding the social and class assumptions that old-stock English and French Canadians bring to their encounters with other cultures; these dynamics are as important at home as they are abroad. 

In an age when we are all to some degree expatriates, Gallant is one of the charter explorers of modern expatriation. This became clear to me on the only occasion when I saw her in person, in 1992 in Montreal. Gallant was on a panel on Anglo-Montreal fiction. The younger writers on the panel extolled multiculturalism as the force that distinguished contemporary Montreal writing from that of the past. Gallant grew impatient. "It's always been a cosmopolitan city," she said. "Why do you think I became interested in Europe?"

"In the third summer of the war I began to meet refugees," opens "Varieties of Exile," the third of Gallant's six linked stories about Linnet Muir, a solitary young woman coming of age in wartime Montreal. This sequence is often seen as the work where an elusive author reveals herself. Yet Gallant reveals herself everywhere: her short stories are more direct and spontaneous than those of her only obvious peer, Alice Munro, whose confected ironies often act as a form of emotional self-protection. The patterns of Gallant's own childhood--the expatriate father who is dying at a young age, the self-centred, unfaithful mother -- are discernible even when the stories are not set in Quebec. Two of Gallant's most striking achievements, "The Moslem Wife" and "The Remission," gain their power from reworkings of these patterns among English families living in the south of France. Yet the emotions contained in ­Gallant's stories are accessible to anyone who has ever felt a sense of displacement. I discovered "When We Were Nearly Young" as I was about to turn 30, when I had spent long months footloose in Europe and was convinced that no one back in Canada understood me. Gallant's story showed me that others had felt this way, that someone did understand me. Many Canadians, though, have never completely understood Mavis Gallant. It will be left to future readers to recognize that much of our finest fiction of the post-1945 era was written at a café table in Paris.

Stephen Henighan’s translation of the Angolan writer Ondjaki’s novel Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret will be published by Biblioasis in 2014. Read more of his work at geist.com and at stephenhenighan.com.

This article originally appeared on Geist Magazine and is reprinted with permission.

Photo: flickr/danxoneil

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