Getting to know Mavis Gallant.
The first of a few unforgettable times I saw Mavis Gallant was in 2004 in Paris. She was eighty-two and had agreed to meet me for an interview at the Café Dome in the Boulevard Montparnasse, around the corner from the apartment where she had been living for decades. When I arrived at the old fashion “terrasse” of the Dome, framed by heavy red curtains, I found Gallant already sitting at the small table where we were to order our tea. I later discovered she must have arrived early on purpose so that I wouldn’t see her walk in—her spine was bent by osteoporosis, and the condition was most evident when she was walking. She was small and smartly dressed in a purple sweater and a checkered skirt, her hair dark red, her eyes lively with multiple shades of green. The first thing she said was: “Don’t ask me how I write. I wrote an introduction to this volume to avoid discussing such nonsense.” The volume was an Italian edition of her work that included some of her most memorable short stories, such as “The Moslem Wife” and “The Remission.”
“Very well,” I said, taking her challenging attitude as an invitation to play. “What would you like to talk about? Men?” She gave me a scornful but not unfriendly look.
“That would certainly be a better choice,” she answered, not meaning it at all. But it was a start, and I was determined to put both of us at ease by being relaxed and polite. I asked her about her husband, John Gallant, to whom she’d been married before the war. “When he came back from fighting, I told him: I want to go to Europe. And he said: I just returned from there, it’s the last place I want to go back to. So the marriage was over. But for the rest of his life he took pride in seeing himself in most of my male protagonists. And it was never true!”
She went on: “It happened the day I sold my first story to The New Yorker. I moved to Paris with a check for six-hundred dollars in my pocket. It was 1950. I was twenty-eight. And I never remarried.” She gave me a glance. “To men I never asked: do you love me? This is what wives asked—I knew it from the men. I’d rather ask: est-ce que vous êtes discret?” Then she added, in case I hadn’t gotten it: “I’ve lived very freely.”
She lived so freely—supporting herself by selling more than a hundred short stories to The New Yorker since 1951, plus publishing various collections and two novels—that she accepted whatever price she had to pay for it. “For me, money meant earning enough to buy myself the freedom to live the way I wanted and where I wanted. Some days it was meat and butter, some others it wasn’t even butter.” Her stubborn quest for independence meant, among other things, exiling herself for sixty years in a city where to this day her name is mostly unknown to readers, with the exception of some devoted and highly educated friends of hers—it seemed to me a harsh choice. “French culture is in terrible decline, have you noticed?” she said, stirring her tea in the white and blue cup of the Dome. “When I arrived here after the war, everything was filthy and shabby, but the last of the taxi drivers spoke like a poet. How I admired that!”
Hoping to hear her expand on her early life, I asked about Canada, where she’d been born. “It was provincial and depressed, most men were at war, and those who’d stayed weren’t happy to make women like me work. I didn’t go to college and became a journalist at the Montreal Standard. I interviewed Jean-Paul Sartre. He was surrounded by a crowd of morons who asked him the stupidest questions. When everybody left, I stayed on to talk with him and he treated me as an equal. Try and imagine what it meant for a girl in her early twenties!”
She was immune to flattery and intolerant of stupidity, but she was also immensely curious, and willing to find out if you were worth her time. I succeeded, eventually, in persuading her to discuss her childhood. “They fuck you up, your mum and dad: you know Larkin’s lines, don’t you?” she said. “When I was four, my mother took me to a convent and left me there without any explanation. I was wearing my best dress, a beautiful blue dress. The mother superior said: you won’t be allowed to keep that dress here. Then my mother left and didn’t come back.” She gave me a defiant look. “Don’t write that I cried, because I don’t remember crying. Even if I must have.”
Her father, whom she had loved, died when she was ten; she found out only three years later, from a family friend. Her mother remarried someone who sexually harassed her after she turned fourteen. She changed schools seventeen times, for no other reason than that her mother was crazy, and that Mavis had no desire to go home to her and her husband, anyway. Again and again she said how much being able to live by herself had meant to her.
“Do you mind if I tell you something personal?” I asked, pouring more tea in our cups. She nodded, alive with curiosity. “I married someone who was sent away to boarding school at a very early age, too, never to come back to his family. Years later, when we separated, his mother called me on the phone in a state of shock. All she said was: ‘Is it true?’ Meaning the separation. And then: ‘We should have never sent him to boarding school!’”
We both burst out laughing. “So you know!” Mavis cried. Of course I knew. I knew her life had been trapped in the contradiction between longing for the family she had been deprived of as a child, and fleeing as an adult the possibility of enjoying one of her own.
We kept in touch after that first interview, though not very often. Then one day I called her and she told me that the “wicked nurse” who was taking care of her insulin shots (she suffered from diabetes) had abandoned her “on purpose” on New Year’s Eve; she’d fallen into a coma, alone, on the floor of her apartment, for two days. The recovery in the hospital had been hell, she said; her voice was extremely animated and she sounded uncharacteristically terrified. I tried to console her telling her that an Italian translation of one of her books had been a great success—which was true. This seemed to stupefy and please her at the same time. “Really?” she kept repeating, her voice suddenly girlish.
By the time I saw her again I had moved to Paris myself. This was in 2008; we spent another afternoon at the Café Dome drinking tea and remembering friends and enemies. She loved Mordecai Richler, even if he affected that “talking about literature was for women.” And she loathed Simone de Beauvoir who, when they met, “was drunk and behaved like a royal idiot.”
Then she was in the hospital again, and I visited her with my friend Mariarosa Bricci, her Italian editor. We found her sharing a room with a very old lady who seemed to have turned to stone. “See this lady?” Mavis said when the conversation fell to French anti-Semitism. “She doesn’t talk, but if she could, she would probably complain about the Jewish lady in the room across the corridor.” I told Mavis it was strange she mentioned this, because I’d just read a passage in Edmund Wilson’s journals in which he recalled meeting her in the Paris of the sixties. He described her as “good looking—dark—and enormously clever and amusing to talk to,” adding that she might as well have been Jewish, even if she said she wasn’t. In her humiliated condition as a geriatric hospital patient, Mavis rejoiced at Wilson’s compliment, and then dismissed him as “a very a pompous man.”
Her deep friendship with William Maxwell came up. “What I liked in him as an editor was the fact that he was a famous writer but never in competition with other writers. And this is pure gold, pure kindness. He encouraged me enormously. For years after his death I kept cutting articles I thought could interest him … ” I thought it intriguing that she could speak about the past with such warmth, and still not mourn it.
“Do you realize she doesn’t need anything—no children, no family—that she contents herself with her intelligence?” Mariarosa said while we were leaving the hospital. It certainly seemed that way, but I wasn’t so sure.
The next time I paid Mavis a visit at Paris’s Hôpital Broca, where she would be confined for nine months, one crisis following another, I found her waiting for me sitting on the bed, with her bandaged legs dangling from its edge, her hair grown longer and half white. She felt rotten, she said with a furious look. “I can’t take it anymore. I want to go home.” She was outraged at her doctors, who wouldn’t let her go unless she accepted to take someone to live with her at home.
“I don’t need any help! I’m perfectly capable of living alone!” she cried. “The French health system is a totalitarian state! In any case, I feel very well,” she lied. “I’m even trying to put on a little weight to impress them. But I’m not fat, am I? Tell me I don’t look fat … ” She must have weighed about ninety pounds.
Eventually, before the summer, she did manage go home. And I stopped visiting her, both because her mind had started showing signs of weakness, and because I had begun writing about her for a book of mine, and I didn’t want to pry. But her friend and agent, Steven Barclay, who took upon himself the task of editing Mavis’s journals with her almost every day, kept me informed, and so did our mutual friend Odile Hellier, the former bookseller of The Village Voice bookstore, where Gallant had read many times.
Both Steven and Odile, of course, were at Mavis’s funeral in the Montparnasse cemetery on February 22. It was a sober affair. About fifty people, white and yellow roses, poems and writings read by friends, and the joyful surprise of a bright blue sky after some early morning rain. We were leaving the graveyard in small groups, hoping to go drink something warm, when I found myself thinking of a funny episode Mavis had once relayed to me. It had happened at the funeral of the Polish poet Alexander Wat, who committed suicide in 1967. While the coffin was carried away from his apartment and the widow was following in tears, Max Wat, the poet’s brother, had turned to Mavis and asked her: “Have you ever been to a Jewish restaurant? Because, if you haven’t, I’d like to take you to a place in the Rue des Rosiers … ” She was so appalled that he had chosen such a tragic moment to make a pass at her that she answered “Yes! I’ll accept.”
As I was amusing myself with this recollection of Mavis’s sense of humor and sex appeal, I shook hands with the writer Terry Tempest Williams, who had come to Paris from Utah to give a reading. “You know, the oddest thing happened to me last night,” she told me with pleasant familiarity while we were standing in the sun near the marble grave covered in roses. “I got myself locked into the bathroom of my hotel. For two hours! I had just taken a bath and I didn’t know what to do. So I had no choice but to open the bathroom window and lean out naked to my waist, to call for the attention of the only person in the street, a Frenchmen smoking a cigarette, who looked up at me and couldn’t help laughing while I begged him to call the concierge. It was like an act out of an opera,” she said. And I thought, here is what I’ve been looking for. One last perfect Mavis moment.
Livia Manera Sambuy is an Italian literary journalist and the author of the PBS documentary film “Philip Roth, Unmasked.” The piece on Gallant is taken from a book of “personal” portraits of writers to be published in Italy in 2015.