On Mavis Gallant

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28 February 2011

Among Mavis Gallant‘s endless, stunning talents, she has a gift for rendering the genius of childhood.  It’s fascinating to me that women like Gallant and Elizabeth Bowen – neither of whom had children – have such deep insight into the inner lives of children and the ways in which they absorb adult existence around them.

Varieties of Exile (New York Review Books Classics Series)

The children of their fiction are clearly victims of adult flabbiness, vanity, and broken-heartedness; but these child-characters transform their own fragilities into mental strength and acuity, while they are also haunted by a poignant loneliness.  In a sense, all Gallant’s stories are about the making of an artist.

Unconsciously, everyone under the age of ten knows everything.  Under-ten can come into a room and sense at once everything felt, kept silent, held back in the way of love, hate, and desire, though he may not have the right words for such sentiments.  It is part of the clairvoyant immunity to hypocrisy we are born with and that vanishes just before puberty.

The wisdom of Gallant’s retrospective narrators is in rendering – often humorously –  adults’ failure to recognize all that the child sees and knows, treating the child essentially like an idiot; as if the adult world is actually, in any meaningful way, set off from the child’s.

“Linnet, if you don’t sit down I’m afraid you will have to go to your room.”  “If” and “I’m afraid” meant there was plenty of margin.  Later: “Wouldn’t you be happier if you just went to bed?” [...] Presently, “Down, I said, sit down; did you hear what I’ve just said to you?  I said, sit down, down.” There came a point like convergent lines finally meeting where orders to dogs and instruction to children were given in the same voice.  (from “The Doctor”)

I’m only just beginning to make my way through Gallant’s oeuvre.  Her stories are immensely gratifying, profoundly nourishing on the level of language and narrative and emotion and intellect – never sacrificing any one of these for a moment.  I’m also interested in Gallant’s life – the ways in which her life and art cross and overlay in a helix-like dance.  It seems to me that she could never have written these stories had she lived any other life, which, by all accounts, has been one of staunch autonomy; the inner and outer solitary-ness of the exile.

Here is a radio interview with Gallant from 2004 at NPR.

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