I’ve never read a Mavis Gallant short story, something that, as I write this blog post, I’m ashamed to admit. But every so often I come across a mention of this escaped Cannuck — who has lived in Paris for over 60 of her 90 years — that re-asserts her importance in the world of writing. As a result, I have a certain sketchy understanding of her life through the Globe and Mail, the Walrus, the National Post and other media outlets. The first time I really took notice was in a charming 2008 radio interview on CBC’s Writers and Company, but it wasn’t until last week, when I listened to another CBC radio interview on Ideas, that her life strongly resonated with me. She seems to have achieved something that I find deeply admirable — independence — and I wish I knew how to do the same.
After a difficult childhood (her father died when she was 10, her mother was largely absent), she married a musician, John Gallant, at 20. But the couple had different expectations. She wanted to be a writer, and he wanted her to be a traditional wife. Of course, the two proved incompatible, so they divorced. At 21, she got a job as a journalist at the Montreal Standard, but buoyed by some interest from the New Yorker in her fiction (her deepest love), she moved to Paris at 28 to focus solely on literature.
On the surface, this isn’t necessarily an exceptional tale. How many people, spurred by one romantic notion or another, have upended themselves and moved to Paris, or some other magnetic city, with dreams of being a writer, artist, actor or whatever? But several things really stick with me about her story. For one thing, in the 1940s, very few women were terribly concerned with their careers, unless that career was being a good wife. Fewer still were willing or able to divorce. The potential financial and social repercussions would have been huge. Furthermore, she didn’t just move to Paris with the hope of becoming a writer, she moved to Paris and became a writer. How many starry eyed dreamers can claim the same? She isn’t spectacularly famous of wealthy — she resides in a modest flat and has never owned anything larger than a car —but, through her work, has lived an independent life, free from apologies and cumbersome obligations. She didn’t subsist on other people’s pay cheques or slave aimlessly for an unappreciative boss.
Luck and talent might have had something to do with it — listening to her interviews, a natural wit and striking intelligence is clear — as well as a certain number of hard sacrifices. She must have been quite poor for a long time as she became established. I also imagine at times it would have been lonely, to live and work in solitude. But Gallant was single-minded. She wanted an independent life where should would be free to write, and she worked tirelessly to get it. Now, listening to her interviews (even this somewhat awkward one from the 1960s), I get the sense that she is very happy with her decisions and doesn’t regret much. She seems to have what journalist Megan Williams has described as “a hard, rigorous sort of happiness.” A happiness well-earned through tough, well thought out decisions about what she wanted from life. Alongside her independence, that is a monumental achievement. It’s so inspiring — I can only hope that one day I won’t be afraid to reach for something similar. I hope that one day my dream is clear and I’m as confidant or gutsy as Mavis. Right now, I’m the same age as Gallant when she moved to Paris. But, oh, how I’m afraid.