Mavis Gallant: Fighting the Get-It-All-In Syndrome
In this week’s blog post, Marta Dvořák, author of the newly released Mavis Gallant: The Eye and the Ear, discusses the making of her book, grounded in her friendship with Gallant (Paris-based master of the short story), and a common interest in visual and sound culture.
By Marta Dvořák
When I first met Mavis Gallant at a reading she gave at the Village Voice bookshop in Paris, I never dreamed that I would be reading to her two decades later, when poor health and failing eyesight confined her to her Left Bank apartment. Or that, along with her other close friends, I would take her to her final resting-place, the Montparnasse Cemetery, to be surrounded by the artists the young Mavis had crossed an ocean for. At our first meeting, the writer was delighted when I told her my favourite Gallant story was a quirky fantasy I’d just discovered in a magazine I’d been asked to review. It turned out to be her favourite too, and we found ourselves allied against The New Yorker, which had rejected the story for stomping all over plausibility. When Gallant realised we had the same birthday, August 11, she dubbed us the Leo twins, and our professional relations morphed into a strong friendship to which the very private (and famously prickly) writer granted a fierce loyalty. And triggered in me an equally strong loyalty. So naturally when my Gallant book project began to take shape, it blended essay and not-quite biography. I wanted to offer readers material drawn from private conversations and letters which would give insights into the woman in her whole habitat. Oh, not what she had for breakfast, of course. Rather her backstage views on life and art, what she read, who she saw, the pictures she liked, the films she watched, the music she listened to: questions of inclination, taste, perception, influences, and experience, all connected to writing itself.
Getting the French habitat we shared into my manuscript implied reintroducing Gallant as a late modernist in the context of her times. What she liked to read, look at, and listen to was often what the early modernists clustered in Paris did, namely Flaubert, Chekhov, Picasso, The Phantom of the Opera, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Stravinsky, Louis Armstrong, and Proust. Just what made Joseph Roth one of Gallant’s favourite writers? What game-playing did she enjoy in Ulysses, and what did she dismiss as “linguistic taradiddles”? Such adventures in sampling invited me to place Gallant in time and space, within North American and continental modernisms and postmodernisms. Reaching both forward and back, just what were her affinities and specificities with regard to other writers on the Canadian and international scenes? How could Alice Munro and Mavis Gallant be said to exemplify two different strands or senses of realism? My investigation might explain why Carol Shields in private referred to “the divine Mavis, the divine Alice” — both short story giants and the only two members in her “divinity division.”
Well, I had barely started on the Paris connection when I tripped over the book I’d just co-edited, Translocated Modernisms, which addressed certain late modernist Canadian visual artists and writers through the transnational and interdisciplinary exchanges they’d experienced in Paris. I realised that when Mavis moved to Paris in 1950, the city wasn’t just the place where the Big Four (Mansfield, Joyce, Eliot, and Woolf) had invented high modernism. It was still the planetary hot spot where visual artists, musicians, performing artists, and writers from all parts of the globe rubbed shoulders and borrowed and stole each other’s finds. I remembered that Mavis, never happier than in an artist’s studio, loved pictures and music, and I wanted to light up the representational techniques she shared with these fields. I also recalled that Mavis and the moving pictures had grown up together. She told me how she’d reeled with pleasurable shock at the huge silent black-and-white images she’d been taken to see — images which would catalyse her creative imagination.
Oh boy, so now I’d also need to plug my book into visual and sound culture. I set out to identify areas of convergence between the aesthetics of breakage of, say, Cubism, jazz, and (post)modernist literature like Gallant’s, whose sleights-of-hand and tonal shifts had puzzled general readers and dazzled scholars and writers. I finally distilled things down to the disruptive notions of syncopation and dissonance. This was a stunning breakthrough. Not just because it had never been done before, but also because it gave me a new angle from which I could do what I’d wanted to do most — show how Gallant’s work works. I saw that a stress on image and rhythm — the eye and the ear — could be the ideal basis for hands-on micro-analyses. I wanted these adventures in in-depth readings from a wide range of her stories and recently-reissued novels to light up what happens on her pages and how. I wanted to identify the writer’s unique thumb-print.
When I took stock of all my material and all my intentions, the manuscript looked like a python which had swallowed too many meals. I was still struggling with the challenge of mixing the personal and the impersonal. But the real trouble was with the book’s double approach — reading Gallant through her adopted Paris and down a winding twentieth century that neo-modernist scholars had begun to rediscover. I finally sent off a full proposal to UTP, pointing out that there was a bifurcation in the material which would allow me to split the book into two should that be preferable (published successively or concurrently with another interested publisher). My acquisitions editor wrote back that the manuscript was teeming with ideas but yes, a tad unwieldy. He invited me to concentrate on Gallant’s relations with art, film, and music, and was especially enthusiastic about the chapter devoted to the satirical techniques Gallant shares with visual caricaturists. You guessed it. What he wanted was the part I hadn’t written yet.
Marta Dvořák was born in Budapest, raised in Canada, and went on to become professor of Canadian and World Literatures at the Sorbonne in Paris, where she became a close friend of Mavis Gallant.