100 Years of Mavis Gallant

Her stories are about the cost of living and the cost of love. It’s why they still endure

An image of Mavis Gallant.
(Sophie Bassouls / Getty)

This August marked the centennial birthday of Mavis Gallant (1922–2014), who is known primarily for her short stories, many of which were published in The New Yorker and later turned into acclaimed collections, and two novels and nonfiction essays. Somehow, I’d never read Mavis Gallant when I was very young, even though we were both born in Montreal, and I am fond of writing from my home city. Of course, I’d heard her name, but that was about it. Her work was never assigned in any of my English literature classes at McGill. I even took a year-long course on Canadian women writers, but her stories were not touched upon. I do believe, though, we find writers when we need them most. I was in my mid-twenties when I heard her voice on a car radio. She was talking about how all she had ever wanted to do in life was write. She went off to Paris so she could do only that. It was exactly what I needed to hear at that moment. I went to the library and checked out a pile of her collections and never looked back.

Over the past decade, I have remarked on a renewed interest and curiosity in Gallant’s writing. She has been republished by New York Review Books’ Classics imprint, and I keep seeing her name bandied about on Twitter and amongst book addicts. In Wes Anderson’s 2021 film, The French Dispatch, the character Lucinda Krementz, played by Frances McDormand, is largely inspired by Gallant. I did not know, before the film came out, what a big influence she’d had on Anderson’s oeuvre. But it also immediately made sense to me. The attention to peculiar and mundane details is similar. And, like in Anderson’s films, Gallant’s stories are filled with eccentric and wise children.

Gallant’s own childhood was characterized by abandonment. She was sent to a boarding school at the age of four. She attended no less than seventeen such schools, rarely seeing her parents. In fact, she was unaware her father had died until much after his passing. Her mother had simply left her at a relative’s house, where she was told that her father would arrive for her shortly, which, naturally, he never did. Her only constant companions were her piles of children’s books. She had a deep, deep affection for them.

I could understand why. When I was young, I assumed these books were written by other children. Because they speak to the existential concerns of children. And, when you are neglected as a child, you assume these concerns are entirely unknown to adults. Otherwise, why would they treat you so abominably—as though you have no feelings at all?

Like Gallant, I was sent away early in my childhood, at the age of five. I went to live with my mother’s relatives in the United States, and then, when I was seven, they returned me. I was put on a plane to go live with my father in Montreal. It was the dead of winter, and it was a big, noisy city. I wept because I was sad to be away from my mother and my previous home. My father then beat me and told me he would do it again if I ever cried about my mother in front of him. I was never allowed to say I missed her either. So I did neither.

And, like Gallant, I retreated to books. I’d spend entire weekends at the children’s library. I would be sitting on the steps before it even opened, waiting for the doors to be unlocked. The world of books was my home. Whereas in life a child is never allowed to speak of their abuse, it is acknowledged in books that terrible things happen to children and that tragic fates befall gentle fawns and neurotic rabbits. Gallant had the sort of parents that protagonists often have in children’s books: the ones that send them off to relatives or boarding schools or abroad. She never quite belonged to one, or any, place. She was a well-dressed vagabond since she was a little girl. A child who becomes an adult too soon retains a childlike sensibility when they are fully grown. She seemed to regard children as being more profound and emotionally mature than adults.

Gallant had a brief and unsuccessful marriage. After her divorce, she decided she was done with the domestic life. She decided to move to Europe, never marry again, and have no children. When she was twenty-eight, she went to Paris—the way so many others did back then—in order to be surrounded by art and to be a writer. But she eschewed the over-the-top, libertine lifestyles many expat writers, like the Fitzgeralds and the Millers, espoused. Instead, she sat at her desk in her little apartment and worked all day. She marched down the Parisian streets in sensible heels and prim, elegant suit dresses.

In The French Dispatch, Lucinda Krementz dispenses with her lover without ceremony or remorse. This is probably a commentary on the view of love in Gallant’s writing, which is decidedly unromantic. But her writing is surprisingly hilarious and wonderful and more real because of it.

In her story “Potter,” a Polish poet falls in love with an adorably tender, young Canadian woman. He is always trying his best to get her to commit, even though he can offer her nothing. But she lives off of having affairs with different men. She is an escort of sorts, although she never comes out and says it but simply gives the poet details of her dalliances and leaves him to make of her life what he will. That is romance in Gallant’s world.

Gallant is always concerned with the cost of living, which includes the cost of love. I related to this so much. I remember, when I was a young single mother, I came to the conclusion that romance was too expensive. I would have to pay for a babysitter and drinks and movies. I could not afford a husband. Romance was not for someone as broke as I was. I remember watching Titanic at the time and thinking it was probably for the best that Jack died. He would have gotten Rose pregnant, and she’d shortly be living with six kids in a tenement, begging the butcher for a deal.

This idea of the larger-than-life artist was popularized by the Romantic poets. They lived decadently, abused narcotics, and slept with whom they pleased. Percy Shelley was a paragon of this lifestyle. But what was his wife Mary doing while he cavorted wildly with Lord Byron? She was continuously falling pregnant, trying to raise babies, and grieving dead babies. Shelley’s first wife, after he abandoned her, threw herself into a river while she was pregnant and drowned.

I tried to live that Romantic lifestyle when I was in university. But then I got pregnant—like immediately. And, instead of having wild nights of debauchery with like-minded writers, I found myself sitting in a circle in a support group for young mothers as we went through piles of donated clothes. I found myself washing soiled cloth diapers, as I was saving money and didn’t buy disposable ones. I found myself looking through sales racks at a warehouse for a pretty dress for under $10. The neighbour came over once and offered to sell me a Ziploc bag of old makeup; she needed to pay her electricity bill. I bought it from her and have worn her shade of pink lipstick since then. This wasn’t the stuff of fiction. How was this an artist’s life?

But this is the world I recognized in Mavis Gallant’s writing: people living in the most extraordinary of circumstances. People dealing with poverty and abandonment. People wondering how they will pay the rent, putting together meals, riding on trains, meeting after long absences, dealing with failure, pouring their hearts out to strangers at cafes. In A Fairly Good Time, her protagonist, Shirley, “picks up” odd women, ones who seem lost and vaguely troubled, who get her into melancholic and squalid circumstances.

In the short story “The Remission,” a young girl takes a lift from a man in a rainstorm. She brings him into her house to introduce him to her mother. The girl’s father is dying and oblivious to reality. The handsome stranger ends up never leaving, becoming the mother’s entertaining ne’er-do-well lover, even with her husband still in the house. In “The Moslem Wife,” a husband returns after World War II to visit his wife, whom he abandoned for another woman, to see if she will take him back. After going for a walk with him in the square, she thinks, “What the hell.” It is better to live with a womanizer who makes her laugh at night than to live alone in the hotel she runs.

In the short story “Virus X,” a young woman ends up going on an extended vacation from hotel to hotel with another woman she barely knows and doesn’t quite like. The other girl only irritates her further and further. And yet, such is life.

You have different boundaries when you are a single woman. Everybody trespasses on them. Nobody quite respects your time. It’s as though a single woman should be caring for as many people as possible. My life was filled with strangers I never invited in. There was a Polish woman from across the street who would bang on my door and sell me dish soap that didn’t make suds. An elderly man in my building would walk in without knocking and claim he was once the director of a German opera house. A beautiful Mexican girl with five children liked to lie next to me in the park and talk about how beautiful downtown was. I would have boyfriends whom it would be absurd to refer to as the “love of my life.”

While in her early twenties, as war tore up the world, Gallant honed her skills as a journalist in Montreal. As shown by the successive waves of feminism, war can be liberating for the women left behind. It was only the absence of men that allowed her to be offered such a job, although she had to accept being paid half the salary of her male colleagues. She developed a deft and odd journalistic eye for detail, one she carried through her work in the years that followed.

In Paris Notebooks, a collection of essays and reviews, Gallant finds herself right in the middle of the 1968 uprising in the eponymous city. She documents the slogans and arguments and swelling of the crowd and the advancing of the riot police. But then she agrees to watch her friend’s child for the morning, as all schools have closed. A stickler for fashion, Gallant approves of the child’s looks: “He trotted along, in his teal-blue corduroy velvet costume Mao and his soft Chelsea boots—very elegant.” And then she proceeds to take the boy along with her as she roots through the trash and checks park benches for the latest edition of the then-hard-to-find Le Monde so she can keep abreast of the news. She then returns the child to his mother, with a curt prediction about how he’ll speak to women when he’s thirty, and goes back to the riots.

That is why you have to read Gallant slowly. Otherwise, you will miss the tiny paragraphs, like that one, sandwiched between scenes of protests and chaos. That is what being a woman is. You take these moments to spend with a child or organize your bookshelves in a pretty way. Gallant—even in the midst of an uprising, when streets are blocked, businesses are shuttered, schools are closed—notices that a florist is still open and stops in to buy a bouquet of roses.

I wonder if my life would have turned out differently if I’d read more writers like Gallant before going to university and getting pregnant. One needs to have heroes who live under similar societal constraints in order to know how to break free of them. She appeals now to a modern sensibility. Women artists have created personas that are more to their liking and healthier, ones that embrace the realities of being a woman and making a living. Now we have celebrated writers like Elena Ferrante, who chooses to have nothing known about her private life, and Sally Rooney, who lives in a small town in Ireland, married to a guy she met in college. Morgan Parker has written about having been single her entire life and her attempts to find a partner.

And Mavis Gallant, despite having been born 100 years ago, continues to startle with her mopey, impertinent, vulnerable, and persevering women.

Heather O’Neill
Heather O'Neill is an award-winning novelist and essayist. Her works include Lullabies for Little Criminals and The Lonely Hearts Hotel. Her most recent novel is When We Lost Our Heads. She lives in Montreal.