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Remembering Mavis Gallant: Why her urban stories have never felt more relevant

A lifelong migrant, Gallant never quite fit the traditional mold of the Canadian writer; far from nationalistic, her concerns were human ones.

"In the third summer of the war I began to meet refugees," runs the opening sentence of Mavis Gallant's Varieties of Exile, one of six revealing stories about Linnet Muir, a character who, like her creator, is named after a bird.

From childhood, Gallant herself was a migrant: shunted from one guardian to another after her parents' separation and her father's death, she attended 17 schools, in French and English, in Canada and the United States. She became an expatriate in her soul long before she was one by formal definition.

This experience is at the core of her relevance for today's readers: Years before Canada became a predominantly urban nation, or defined itself as multicultural, before sophomoric debates about "voice appropriation" slammed a lid on depictions of cultural difference, Mavis Gallant was showing us how to chart the richness and understand the psychological tensions of urban, multicultural life.

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The fictional Linnet Muir shares Mavis Gallant's fascination with the Central European refugees whose arrival in Montreal stimulated the young journalist's devotion to Europe's human flotsam. She left Montreal because, "I was twenty-seven and becoming exactly what I did not want to be: a journalist who wrote fiction along some margin of spare time." Freed from employment, she pinned her refugees to the page in collections such as The Pegnitz Junction (1973), which captures the contradictory psyche of post-1945 Germany, and From the Fifteenth District (1978), her homage to her adopted country of France.

Post-war Europe, though abounding in stories of cultural displacement, was a hard master. In the excerpts from her diary published in The New Yorker in 2012 (McClelland & Stewart will publish a book-length collection of Gallant's diaries in 2015), her dominant concern as an expatriate is hunger. She was on the brink of starvation in Spain when she learned that The New Yorker had published two of her stories. America's most prestigious showcase for literary prose would publish 114 of Gallant's short stories, a figure exceeded only by John Cheever.

Like her residence in Paris, Gallant's association with The New Yorker raised nationalist hackles. She never questioned her identity, writing, "a Canadian is someone who has a logical reason to think he is one." Yet during the 1960s and 1970s she was often regarded as an elitist who wrote about European haunts for rich Americans. The pre-1945 Anglo-Montreal accent in which she spoke in her rare interviews was denounced as "English."

Living in France and publishing in the U.S., she owed nothing to Toronto, the emerging capital of Canadian literature. Toronto repaid her with a diffidence that shaded into hostility. When Gallant's Home Truths: Selected Canadian Stories was awarded the 1981 Governor-General's Award for Fiction, she was both redeemed and condemned. Some critics celebrated the fact that she had found her place in Canadian literature at last, while others complained that the country's national literary prize had been given to someone who didn't live here.

Behind these complaints lay the ubiquitous, if almost never expressed, comparison with Canada's other giant of the short story, Alice Munro. For most of the last three decades of her life, it was a comparison that appeared to work to Gallant's disadvantage. Having published her early books in Toronto, Munro sailed into middle age as a regular contributor to The New Yorker. She won three Governor-General's Awards and two Giller Prizes before topping off her success with the 2013 Nobel Prize.

By contrast, Gallant's last original collection of short stories, Across the Bridge, was published in 1993. A new novel was announced but did not appear; she got bogged down in a vast non-fiction portrait of late-19th-century France that was intended to focus on the unjust conviction for treason of the Jewish military office Alfred Dreyfus. The book absorbed years of her life and was never finished.

Gallant suffered public humiliation when a new editorial team took over at The New Yorker and announced that it would no longer publish her stories. Financial difficulties and illness added to her problems. Prominent writers such as Michael Ondaatje and Russell Banks came to her aid, promoting her work and editing selections of her Paris Stories (2002) and Montreal Stories (2004) respectively. In the year 2009 alone, new selections of Gallant's stories were published in seven countries; yet at home she was increasingly seen as having come off second-best in the short-story sweepstakes.

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That outlook is beginning to shift. It will shift further as we plunge into our urban, multicultural, atomized future. Both Gallant and Munro revolutionized the short story by extending its capacity to enfold a range of times and points of view. But Munro was working a traditional vein of Canadian literature, one that dates back to Stephen Leacock's Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town (1912). Gallant opened a new seam: the short story of urban individuals who interact under the pressure of foreign histories. Where Munro's Ontario stories are set in small towns and her British Columbia settings are suburban, nearly all of Gallant's fiction is urban. Her characters are solitary figures in a cityscape, haunted by cultures, languages and pasts of which their neighbours know nothing. While many of our writers produce historical blockbusters about places their grandparents came from, few dissect the misunderstandings of the people from different continents who collide on our streets.

Flawlessly bilingual, Gallant did not mingle English and French; she saw language as a bulwark against the enticing threat of assimilation: "One needs a strong, complete language, fully understood, to anchor one's understanding." Her non-urban stories, such as The Moslem Wife, which takes place in the south of France in the 1930s, or Wing's Chips, in which a father and daughter negotiate the interactions among English-, French- and Chinese-Canadians in a small Quebec town, explore borderlands where the bridge offered by language is besieged by the chasms of divergent cultural assumptions.

Gallant was not a conventional feminist, but her insistence on the single woman's right to earn her independence remains as relevant as ever. The marriages in her stories are always on the brink of unravelling: singleness, she suggests, is our unavoidable state. She knew how it felt to be the only woman in an office of men: "that almost palpable atmosphere of sexual curiosity, sexual resentment, and sexual fear that the presence of a woman can create when it is not wanted." Her women, like her men, about whom she wrote with equal facility in stories such as Speck's Idea or Baum, Gabriel, 1935-( ), become emblems of human separation. Her wit is more savage than the ironies of Munro or Margaret Atwood because it is the reverse side of a tremendous vulnerability.

Gallant knows how it feels to be alone and without help in a foreign culture; to be at the mercy of people and rules that you do not understand. Her emotional range is greater than that of her peers because she allows her protagonists to be naive and manipulated; to fail and survive. There are no feisty heroines in Mavis Gallant's fiction; in their place, one finds people who are the point of convergence of multiple histories. The readers of our urban future will admire many writers from the past. But they will recognize themselves in the protagonists of Mavis Gallant.

Stephen Henighan is the author of a dozen books of fiction and criticism, most recently Sandino's Nation: Ernesto Cardenal and Sergio Ramírez Writing Nicaragua, 1940-2012 (McGill-Queen's).

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