There are people walking the streets of every city in the world who, though their parents are alive, are orphans. There are men and women who, though married for only moments, are already divorced. There are people of every age who, though they count many siblings, are only children.
Such is the essential loneliness of the modern age, the palette on which Mavis Gallant worked her art.
An only child for real, Mavis Gallant was born in Montreal in 1922. Her father died when she was very young, and her mother’s quick remarriage seems not to have settled well. She herself married young, as was the custom of that time, but, as was not the custom, she initiated a divorce when she was but 25.
All the while, from adolescence until her late 20s, Gallant pursued a promising career as a journalist, working for the Montreal Standard and freelancing for other newspapers and magazines. When she was 28, though, Gallant took another daring step, quitting to try her luck at writing fiction. She moved to France with barely a franc to her name, and, though she had the good fortune to sell stories to The New Yorker—which would publish dozens over the decades—she spent the 1950s wandering from city to city in Europe, so poor that, she wrote in a journal, she lived “on bread, wine, and mortadella,” and what is more, knew the price of mortadella in every major European city, traveling to wherever it was cheapest.
Given such circumstances, Gallant would have been forgiven for returning to journalism; after all, there was plenty to write about in Cold War Europe, and she had an enviable eye for turning up stories. Still, she stayed with fiction, even though she complained to a companion in Spain that she no longer believed in the novel she was struggling to write.
“Write it whether you believe in it or not,” he replied, as if channeling Hemingway. So she did, though she would publish only two novels, Green Water, Green Sky (1959) and A Fairly Good Time (1970). She found her preferred form in the short story, and there she established herself early on as a master.
Critics sometimes did not know quite how to deal with Gallant. An expatriate always on the move, resident in Paris for most of her adult life, did she qualify as a Canadian writer? A specialist in viewing scenes from the outside in, her themes often touching on exile and uprootedness, she claimed as her own the silences between wounding words, the milliseconds before emotional traps are sprung, the people who, though vanished, have left tiny but meaningful traces of themselves behind.
Mavis Gallant died this month in her adopted city of Paris at the age of 91. For her part, she leaves behind a memorable body of work—as well as the example of someone who lived as she wished, on her own terms and as best she could.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor at Kirkus Reviews.