Magazine article The Spectator

The Language of Her Imagination

Magazine article The Spectator

The Language of Her Imagination

Article excerpt


Bloomsbury, L25, pp. 888 It is odd that Mavis Gallant, for decades publishing fiction in the New Yorker, widely translated, winner this year of the Canadian prize for a life dedicated to the arts, is not better known here. Maybe it is because in Britain we are wary of short stories and she has remained faithful to them for over half a century; or at any rate faithful to intense novels from four to 40 pages long, which is not necessarily the same thing; but short stories we call them.

She is also geographically mysterious. Born in Canada she disappeared to Paris as a young woman at the end of the second world war and it is rumoured has stayed in the same apartment and arrondisement ever since. She does not write about England. In these pages of beautiful Centaur print and ruffled edges that might have been cut by Henry James's ivory paper knife - her publishers have done her proud -- there is only one story set in England and the characters in it are all Free French.

Yet she has always written in English and still speaks English every day until noon, French after le dejeuner. The child of English-speaking Canadian Protestant parents she was sent at four to a Frenchspeaking convent boarding school (`Well, I give up,' said her grandmother) and by the age of eight, by reading English children's books, maybe in revolt, she had `absorbed once and for all the rhythms of English prose', and `English was firmly entrenched as the language of imagination'.

She left Canada at 27 frightened and ashamed. The fright was that she had inherited a flawed legacy from her father who had described himself as an artist but, she later discovered, had made his living by importing office furniture. (He died very young and she was told he had gone on holiday; this horror appears in one of her few biographical stories.) The shame was because she knew that as a successful journalist she was beginning to allow her real work of writing fiction to slide into second place. She says she has no idea why she chose Paris. She was friendless there, without connections and no job to go to if fiction failed. But having perfect French must have helped. And she can't have been unaware of the compulsion that had sent Katherine Mansfield and Christina Stead and V. S. Pritchett to Europe before her on much the same quest. And maybe, like the innocent Canadian girl in her Fifties story, `The Other Paris' she was expecting, like Christina Stead, a Paris of the imagination; warm breezes and violets on streetbarrows, shadows under bridges.

If so the illusion died for ever, as fast as it had done for Pritchett, who says, `As my French improved, Paris grew worse. It amazed me that the crowds in the streets had survived the night.' Mavis Gallant's post-war Paris was a lot worse still. The people were hungry, cynical, threadbare and hundreds of dubious refugees and illegal immigrants lurked in squats in dark alleys trying to forget the mass slaughter in their past. Bold Americans and uneasy Canadians took charge of offices where the French were given a menial status they suffered out of poverty, observing the conquerors with intellectual disdain.

However, she stayed to describe it, and nearly 50 years on is describing it still. At the end of the collection are four brilliant and funny stories of Henri Grippes, man of letters, literary if now mangy lion, still living in the archetypal tenement with cats, fighting the equivalent of the inland revenue over minuscule royalties and expenses, doing battle with his detested English counterpart, the Francophile critic, Prism, and the cockroaches under the sink. …

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