Mavis Gallant is a bona fide trailblazer. She moved to Paris to eke out a living as a writer at a time (1950) when most women wouldn’t have dreamt of being so bold. Yes, Mavis has guts — so much so that she opened one of her books with this quote from Boris Pasternak: “Only personal independence matters.” And judging from her lively interview, she’s still as feisty as ever at age 85.
Her bravery paid off—Gallant has published over 100 short stories in her career, many of them in The New Yorker.
When she was working as a young reporter for the Montreal Standard, Ms. Gallant had a chance to interview famed French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre! With characteristic wit, Gallant told the interviewer, “I had seen that he noticed me. He liked girls. He had a wall eye, but I still noticed that the good one was swivelling….”
In addition to discussing subjects as varied as her childhood, life in post-war Europe and her ability to be hypercritical of her work, Gallant was also forthcoming about her writing — likening her process to glimpsing movie stills outside a cinema, and saying of her characters, “They arrive…. It’s like a stage and the curtains part and there’s just a phone ringing, and then someone picks up the phone…. But you know all about this woman, the one that came in and picked up the phone.”
Apparently, this way of working, of “glimpsing” a character or scene and then writing from there, was how Gallant was able to create two of the stories—The Remission and The Moslem Wife—featured in her Canada Reads contender From the Fifteenth District.
(The Moslem Wife grew out of the image of a couple walking across the Place Masséna, while The Remission began with a picture of a couple and their children descending the steps of a train.) From there, Gallant proceeded to provide her listeners with valuable insights about The Moslem Wife that should be required listening for all of us before we choose our top picks for Canada Reads.
Mavis’s talk of Paris gets one daydreaming about the City of Light, surely one of the best places on earth for a bookworm to soak up some literary history, with some remarkable book-themed sites.
Oscar Wilde’s tomb at Père-Lachaise cemetery:
Absolutely breathtaking, and covered with flowers and lipstick kisses left by Wilde fans who’ve come to pay their respects.
Marcel Proust’s grave (Père-Lachaise):
Le Sélect (99, bd. du Montparnasse): One of the many – so many you’ll never see them in one trip–bars frequented by Ernest Hemingway during his expatriate years.
Les Deux Magots (6, pl. St-Germain-des-Prés): another haunt frequently visited by Hemingway and other literati during the late ‘20s. This also seems like the kind of place Mavis would have frequented, back in the day.
Café de Flore (172, bd. St-Germain): practically next door to the Deux Magots, this establishment was the spot favoured by Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. A booth on the upper floor is kept empty in their honour year ‘round.
Shakespeare and Co. (37, r. de la Bucherie): A world-famous bookstore, whose founder, Sylvia Beach, facilitated the first publication of Ulysses. During the shop’s lengthy history, the rooms on the second floor (informally referred to as the “tumbleweed hotel”) have housed many aspiring writers and starving, literary-minded travellers.
And finally, here are some titles that should appeal to those of you who are into tough dames like Mavis, expatriates and all things Paris:
A Moveable Feast
The Rainy Moon and Other Stories (Colette)
That Summer in Paris (Morley Callaghan)
The Left Bank and Other Stories
The Great Good Place: American Expatriate Women in Paris
Anything by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Time Was Soft There
The Beat Hotel
The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book, if only because it pairs Parisian recipes with breezy reminiscences along the lines of, “one day when Picasso came to lunch I decorated a fish in a way I thought would amuse him…”