Reading to Mavis Gallant

When I first met Mavis Gallant in the early 1990s at a reading she gave in Paris, I never dreamed I would be reading to her two decades later. But illness and macular degeneracy finally confined her to her Left Bank flat. I knew Mavis valued Margaret Laurence, but wasn’t familiar with the early African writings. She was spellbound by how in 1950 the young Laurence found herself bound for Somaliland, “bland as eggplant and as innocent of the hard earth as a fledgling sparrow” (Laurence 9). Mavis had mapped migration on the European and American continents and knew all about belief system vantage points, so she smiled when Laurence caught herself treading with Western army boots all over Eastern sensibilities.


The restored edition of Hemingway’s Paris journals had recently appeared, so towards the fall of 2012 I began reading from A Moveable Feast. The young Hemingway lived in a flat with no hot water or inside toilet facilities (which shocked Mavis), but considered himself lucky that Sylvia Beach had offered to lend him books. This piece’s open ending took Mavis’s breath away: “‘We’re always lucky,’ I said and like a fool I did not knock on wood. There was wood everywhere in that apartment to knock on too” (34). Mavis wanted to know where these pieces came from. She was flabbergasted to learn they were written in the early 1920s, misplaced, unearthed four decades later, and reworked. We discussed how wonderful they were overlaid with the older, recalling presence. Everything in the essays captivated Mavis; everything brought the two writers together. Process, production, and ground or habitat. Spoken tongue yet poetic prose. The rhythm of natural speech and an ear for melody. Always the right word, making the story come true. So Mavis followed Hemingway’s forays through their Paris cityscape like a map in her mind, entranced at the palpable descriptions. She liked Hemingway’s gripping essay on horse racing (and betting). Asked if she often went to the races, she said, “Oh yes, I found it thrilling.” She nodded energetically when Hemingway disclosed his secret: omission. What is left out “will always show” (Hemingway 222) and strengthen what is left in, making people “feel more than they understood” (71). Gallant, too, practised the unsaid. Not just the conventional ellipsis passing over event, but a lateral omission (paralipsis) sidestepping it.


By December 2013 Mavis became too ill to leave her bed and too tired to focus on books. I began to read from her own stories. One day I said I was teaching Varieties of Exile and had given my master’s class a passage from her autobiographical “Voices Lost in Snow” for their final commentary. She smiled when I offered to read her the extract. It was a remarkable experience. My listener was rediscovering the fine writing as if someone else had authored it. She empathized with Linnet, the child protagonist-narrator. She also spotted and gauged the writerly finds behind the apparent simplicity. Gallant’s scene begins with: “It was my father’s custom if he took me with him to visit a friend on Saturdays not to say where we were going” (92; emphasis added). You recognize the ritual of social cohesion. Not the practical actions that interest historians, but the symbolic actions that interest poets. Northrop Frye portrays ritual as conscious act overlaid with unconscious meaning. His “conscious waking act” with “something sleep-walking about it” (55) spotlights Gallant’s scene. Consider the skilful manipulations following the opening statement. Stretching standard tempo into slow time, then into the freeze of the pause (suspending action to achieve timelessness): “These Saturdays have turned into one whitish afternoon, a windless snowfall, a steep street. Two persons descend the street, stepping carefully. The child, reminded every day to keep her hands still, gesticulates wildly—there is the flash of a red mitten. I will never overtake this pair. Their voices are lost in snow” (92).


Colour contrasted with gesture, red on white, ground melded with sky, stillness with gesticulation, all fuse into a time shift. A historical present conflates the story told with the telling, mutates into a synoptic truth-suffused present and a boundless future. It melds with a fugacious past to form an infinite present (Walter Benjamin’s Jetztzeit), producing the quasi-surreal effect of an image—which constitutes a pseudo-presence and token of absence. Gallant mingles voice, memory, and death to move you, in the rhetorical sense of control through affect (movēre).


Sighing blissfully, Mavis said, “That’s extraordinary.” Why? Above all, the rupture in subject that occurs in dream. In this sleepwalking dynamic, the personal I becomes impersonal (the child), the inclusive we becomes non-inclusive (two persons/this pair). Through time’s thickness, the narrating subject has divorced herself from the picture of her narrated self—now a ghostly Other.



Works Cited

Frye, Northrop. Secular Scripture: A Study of the Structure of Romance. Harvard UP, 1976.

Gallant, Mavis. Varieties of Exile. Edited by Russell Banks, New York Review Books, 2003.

Hemingway, Ernest. A Moveable Feast. 1964. Arrow, 2009.

Laurence, Margaret. The Prophet’s Camel Bell. 1963. New Canadian Library, 2010.



Marta Dvořák, Professor Emerita (Sorbonne), recently authored Mavis Gallant: The Eye and the Ear (2019). She has published Translocated Modernisms (with D. Irvine), Crosstalk (with D. Brydon), Tropes and Territories (with W. H. New). Also, she has written books on writers from Carol Shields, Margaret Atwood, and Jane Urquhart to Ernest Buckler and Nancy Huston.

This originally appeared in Canadian Literature 250 (2022): 144-146.

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