Mavis Gallant, one of Canada’s masters of the short story, has died in Paris at the age of 91. Gallant spent most of her adult life in Paris; she moved there in 1950, and it was there that she wrote the short stories for which she would earn her acclaim. Personally familiar with the uncanny contradictions of leaving and finding homes, Gallant’s stories often track the emotional orbit of characters living in “varieties of exile”: most famously, Gallant developed a fictional alter-ego, Linnet Muir, whose experiences as an Anglo Protestant growing up in Quebec are just one among many forms of exile in Gallant’s work. Over five decades, Gallant published 116 short stories in The New Yorker. She also wrote two novels, several novellas, essays, and a play that premiered in Toronto in 1982. Her creative achievements been recognized with numerous prestigious awards and honours, including a Governors General award, a Lannan Literary Fellowship, a PEN/Nabakov Award, the Matt Cohen prize, and the Companion of the Order of Canada.
These well-deserved honours, however, cannot communicate Gallant’s legacy. For that, you must read her stories. Sandra Djwa describes Gallant’s contemporary P.K. Page’s creative life as “a journey with no maps”; one might also describe Gallant’s life and works in this way. Her story is that of an exemplary woman who forged her own way through the twentieth- and into the twenty-first century. Determined, talented, funny, attuned to the cultural and political world around her – Gallant showed us, in fiction and in life, how to explore our cultural and private imaginations. “Is that all? Is that all you expect?” Linnet Muir imagines herself asking the men she dates in “Varieties of Exile.” Expect more, Gallant seemed to say to her readers; do not follow a well-worn path just because it is the one clearly marked out on the map.
The short story is often considered the ground on which writers grow into that most serious and estimable form, the novel. If prose forms went to university, the short story would be an undergraduate, the novel a PhD candidate near completion. But this conception of prose forms as marking a writer’s formative progress misleads when we read the masters of the short story, writers like Gallant, Alice Munro, Anton Chekov, Katherine Mansfield. These writers showcase the intimate and unique magic of the form. It is a suggestive and nuanced magic, more likely to be felt than understood; with its unique and subtle forms of compression, the short story, when it is done well, haunts its reader like – to invoke another of Gallant’s titles – “voices lost in snow.” As Munro claimed yesterday, Gallant’s commitment to the short story above other forms of writing helped to chart a course for the short story writers who followed her: “Mavis Gallant was a marvelous short story writer and a constant hopeful influence on my life […] I knew about her work and the fact that she was a Canadian and she wrote mainly short stories, which you were not really encouraged to do as your main writing” (CBC).
Near the end of “The Moslem Wife” Gallant offers an image of a flash of light that might serve as a metaphor for the short story form itself. Reunited with her estranged husband after the war, Netta, the protagonist, catches a glimpse of light in a mirror:
“Desperately seeking the waiter, she turned to the café behind them and saw the last light of the long afternoon strike the mirror above the bar – a flash in a tunnel; hands juggling with fire. That unexpected play, at a remove, borne indoors, displayed to anyone who could stare without blinking, was a complete story. It was the brightness on the looking glass, the only part of a life, or a love, or a promise, that could never be concealed, changed, or corrupted.”
“A flash in a tunnel,” the “unexpected play” of refracted light that lays bare “a complete story” – this image communicates the sophistication of the short story in Gallant’s hands. Gallant also suggests that two poles complicate and structure short stories and human lives: memory and imagination. Memory reminds us of the places and people we have lost, of the selves we were and the selves we wanted to be; imagination offers hope, new worlds, old mistakes freshly made. In the last moments of “The Moslem Wife,” Netta, whose husband abandoned her in southern France during the Second World War and who remembers “the truth, the truth, the truth” of the occupation, realizes that without “the light of imagination” memory only paralyzes the one who remembers. “If I had relied on my memory for guidance,” Netta thinks to herself, “I would never have crept out of the wine cellar. Memory is what ought to prevent you from buying a dog after the first dog dies, but it never does.” Because, Gallant implies, imagination illuminates the hopeful way into new territory. We will remember Gallant, and her stories, this way — as “a flash in a tunnel,” “a promise” of the bright light of imagination that refines memory and pushes on into new worlds.