Tag Archives: Literary Studies

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

Mavis Gallant (left) and author Marta Dvořák (right) share a mutual birthday celebration at the Café Vaudeville. 11 Aug, 2005. Photo credit: 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.

Marta Dvořák interviews Mavis Gallant for the Journal of Commonwealth Literature at the renowned Le Dôme Café in Paris. 21 May, 2008. Photo credit: Agnès Vérè. See DOI: 10.1177/0021989409342146

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.


Learn more about Mavis Gallant: The Eye and the Ear

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.

Boys and Girls in No Man’s Land is a Winner

University of Toronto Press is thrilled to announce that Susan Fisher has been awarded the Canada Prize in the Humanities for her book Boys and Girls in No Man’s Land awarded by The Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences.

Boys and Girls in No Man’s Land examines how the First World War entered the lives and imaginations of Canadian children. Drawing on educational materials, textbooks, adventure tales, plays, and Sunday-school papers, this study explores the role of children in the nation’s war effort.

Susan R. Fisher also considers how the representation of the war has changed in Canadian children’s literature. During the war, the conflict was invariably presented as noble and thrilling, but recent Canadian children’s books paint a very different picture. What once was regarded a morally uplifting struggle, rich in lessons of service and sacrifice, is now presented as pointless slaughter. This shift in tone and content reveals profound changes in Canadian attitudes not only towards the First World War but also towards patriotism, duty, and the shaping of the moral citizen.

Boys and Girls in No Man’s Land is the first sustained examination of how the First World War was perceived by and affected Canadian children, making it an important contribution to the social and cultural history of the war. Susan Fisher’s grasp of the literature on the subject is excellent, while her accessible writing ensures that this book will appeal to a wide audience.’
Jonathan Vance, Department of History, University of Western Ontario

Boys and Girls in No Man’s Land is a solid, well-written contribution to the history of Canadian youth literature and the cultures of childhood. Susan Fisher analyses the popular literature and reading habits of children who lived through the First World War and considers how the memory of the war is used in contemporary writing for youth. Her discussion of patriotism and the different responses to war in British and American children’s literature is particularly insightful.’
Gail Edwards, Department of History, Douglas College

‘Readers will enjoy Boys and Girls in No Man’s Land for its engaging examination of an important period in Canadian children’s literary history. Susan Fisher’s analysis of how the First World War was understood by a largely overlooked segment of the population is persuasive, well informed, and valuable.’
Leslie McGrath, Department Head, Osborne Collection of Early Children’s Books, Toronto Public Library

Congratulations to Susan Fisher!

Author Footnotes with Ryan Netzley

Early modern devotional poetry, like any poetry that’s really about love and not a shadow play about politics, history, or some other avowedly serious subject, is embarrassing.  It’s not that we cannot explain its monomaniacal obsessions and transgressive perversions, give them a reputable significance within an existing system of value or reduce them to broader goals: pleasure, ideology, salvation, communication, information, education.  However, all of these goals end up denying the value of the activity, reading, that one purportedly loves.  That’s the box in which all of the poets I analyze—John Milton, John Donne, George Herbert, and Richard Crashaw—find themselves: all are trying to promote a mode of reading that is tantamount to devotion, that respects love as such.

But that’s also any teacher’s box: how to justifying paying devout attention to something when all that really matters is the answer, the use, the end.  I do not think that this is just narcissistic shortsightedness on my part, finding too great of a parallel between what teachers and seventeenth-century devotional poets do.  Rather, it’s right to cut education funding if all we do is teach people how to locate poems, events, or phenomena within a broader system of value, and then exploit, resist, or massage these systems.  Culture and society already do that just fine.  Nor do people need to learn to think critically about this culture: that’s part of culture too.  Instead, the reading that comes out of devotional verse, the practice, shows that what we’re teaching is love, and nothing more. My book is a very small piece in the argument that love—love of the poem, love performed in the devotional act of reading—is the only valid justification for humanities teaching, and that we should embrace the embarrassing process of saying so.

So what is love? We’ve come to believe that we’ve got a pretty good bead on what love and desire entail.  Love is the completion or continuation of desire.  Desire is lack: we want what we don’t have and we are on a quest to achieve the entirely pragmatic goal of acquiring this thing that we lack.  What could be simpler?  My book contends that these confident truisms are woefully inaccurate as descriptions of how devotion and poetry work.  They also reveal a fundamental embarrassment on our parts, that we are ashamed of the improvident attention that reading, teaching, and love all entail.  A purposive, lacking desire is a means of justifying such attentions in the interest of a reputable goal: work. We insist that these poems are works, that the reading we bring to them is work, and that they are for work. We treat poems as a series of interconnected, complementary signs, conveniently replicating the complementary, interlocking disciplines that characterize universities and academic labor. Reading, though, is not the same thing as achieving such an abstract goal, even one as multivalent as meaning. It is first and unabashedly a set of irrational and purportedly shameful devotions: fandom, fanaticism, fetishism, and idolatry. Love, in this poetry, means attention without all of the explanatory and justificatory apparatuses implied by serious purpose and responsible pragmatism. That is what is most difficult, but also most vital to capture in reading and teaching this poetry: it is embarrassing but also valuable precisely because love is not work.

Ryan Netzley, an assistant professor in the Department of English at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, is the author of Reading, Desire, and the Eucharist in Early Modern Religious Poetry.