BANFF – Mavis Gallant, Canada’s foremost expatriate writer, is more passionate about her national identity than her readers know. “If I’d had the responsibility of children,” Gallant told me in 1992 — yes, thirty years ago — “I would definitely have come back to Canada.”
The celebrated author, who emigrated to France in 1950, said she would have wanted her children born and raised in this country — at least until they had created “a centre of gravity: I would have wanted that to be absolutely established.”
Gallant, who divorced before emigrating at age 28, said her feeling this way “actually was an obstacle to my remarrying.” It’s ancient history,” she said, but at one point she’d seen no reason to remarry “without the context of children.”
And if she had wed a second time, the “primary consideration was that the children had to be Canadian.”
All this is from a newspaper column I wrote when as the books editor at the Calgary Herald I had the privilege of spending a couple of hours with Mavis Gallant. She was staying at the Banff Centre School of Fine Arts and, when I came calling, said she needed someone to drive her into town to get some groceries.
But all this is by way of offering a shout-out to Bill Richardson, who on Substack, has been writing Grief, Memory, Three O’Clock in the Morning: My Mavis Gallant Centennial Diary. It’s a nightly journal and Richardson writes: “The focus is ostensibly Mavis Gallant (MG), unjustly overlooked in this, her centennial year. She was born on August 11, I was born on August 11: I could not let such neglect stand! I am concerned, of course, have been from the beginning, that MG be centred in the frame; but it’s been true from the get-go that these predawn outbursts are also about me: dude, it’s a diary.”
He went looking, he tells us, for a book publisher and blames himself for not finding one: “I didn’t lift the right rock. I can understand well enough how, for the generation of people who are the now the gatekeepers of our culture, MG might not be a compelling voice. She was born in 1922. She was, in her preoccupations, western, European. She did not address, often, and in a specific way, identity politics, race relations, climate change. I could easily make the case that she spoke eloquently to these and to all contemporary conundrums because her business was the human heart which is the wellspring of all our joys and woes and always has been and always will be, but who has time for that, shut up. Oh, well.” For a great deal more eloquence along these lines, go here: https://billrichardson.substack.com/.
Back in Banff three decades ago, Gallant reminded me that she had been “taken away” from Quebec at age ten and spent her adolescence in New York. “I came back to Montreal on my own to start my adult life as a Canadian.”
The Paris-based author was visiting Banff for the first time — and the one thing I neglected to mention in writing about her was that she detested the free-ranging elk. She could not understand why people would tolerate wild animals roaming through town. Nasty creatures! Dangerous!
I was there the night she concluded a bravura one-hour reading from her work with a hilarious 15-minute excerpt from a novel, a work-in-progress she called Clowns and Gentlemen. Whatever happened to that, I wonder. Mr. Richardson?
The decidedly literary crowd responded with applause and howls of laughter, prompting Gallant to observe that elsewhere, that excerpt had elicited “some very stupid political correctness nonsense.”
Next day, in a Banff restaurant, she acknowledged that this was because the section features a male point of view. The author shook her head with impatience: “I was accused of cultural appropriation.” Having written “many, many stories” from a male perspective, Gallant said: “If it comes that way. I do it.” And she quoted American novelist Norman Mailer on political correctness: “It’s an illness of the left.”
The intensely private author, who declines to comment publicly on political matters, revealed a surprising sense of humor during a two-hour ramble around downtown Banff — mostly between the lines. Asked to describe a typical day in her life, Gallant said usually she rises before 7. Over breakfast she reads the International Herald Tribune, which is delivered to the door of her apartment, and listens to the news on the radio — in English.
Gallant, who lives her daily life in French and sprinkles her conversation with French phrases – Francois Legault would be pleased — said she started listening in English after reading some of her own work in translation. The change in sentence structure “really bothered me,” she said: “I began having trouble with English syntax.”
By 8 or 8:30. Gallant is at her desk. She writes her first draft in longhand, usually on foolscap — a process that takes weeks. As she nears the end of a story, she experiences “a frantic thing. I forget to eat. I don’t see people. I just write.” In the end. she said, “I feel run over by a tank — just flattened.”
Late afternoons, Gallant does her chores — mails letters, shops for groceries, visits the dentist: “If there’s a movie I’m really crazy to see, I’ll go off and see it. Sometimes I prefer to go alone.”
Movies? Sense of humor? While waiting to have her photo taken beside my old beater on Banff Avenue, Gallant joked: “Thelma and Louise. I’m Thelma. This had better be good.”
If you’ve read this far, you’d best check out Richardson. Tell him I sent you.