Friday, 28 February 2014

On Mavis Gallant

I had a memory of a Donald Barthelme story cast in the form of an author interview and went looking but couldn’t find it. (Perhaps I was thinking of ‘How I Write My Songs’, which reads like a parody of the kind of ‘helpful tips’ sometimes offered to would-be writers.) But I did find Jhumpa Lahiri’s 2009 interview with Mavis Gallant (published in Granta), which in places itself reads like a story – a story in which the efforts of keen young writer to extract wisdom from acclaimed older writer are continuously thwarted, but always politely, by the older writer’s refusal to analyse. Examples:

JL: Chronologically, it [MG’s first novel] goes back and forth. Why did you decide to do that?
MG: I can’t tell you. It’s what I wanted.
JL: Can you talk about what inspired the story [‘The Remission’)?
MG: I don’t know. I just had an image of them getting down from the train, which I didn’t use in the story.
JL: This is one of many examples in your stories where at some point or another we’re in every character’s head. It’s an amalgam of points of view … Was this something that came easily?
MG: It must have, or I wouldn’t have done it.
JL: Was there any reason, when you were working on these stories, why you were going back to Montreal in your mind?
MG: I couldn’t tell you. If I knew that I’d stop writing.
JL: Why?
MG: Because it has to come from something unknown in you. If I knew that I wouldn’t bother writing. I’d be something else. I’d be a champion cricket player. Maybe I am a champion cricket player, in another life.
JL: Did you ever work in cafes?
MG: As a waitress?

The effect is comic. But JL’s questions are understandable. In the preface to the interview she remembers reading her first Mavis Gallant story, ‘The Ice Wagon Going Down the Street’: ‘at once dense and nimble, urgent and orderly, light-hearted and dark; about experience both predstrian and profound … It seemed to have been written in a radically different way than any story I’d read before’ – which is often how one feels when discovering a new writer, and one wants to know how it’s done. Mavis Gallant died ten days ago, aged ninety-one. Her stories are remarkable, wonderful, and they keep their writerly secrets. They were the subject of one of the earliest pieces, in 2007, in Chris Power’s online ‘Brief Survey of the Short Story’. Rather than get elbow strain from the Bloomsbury Selected Stories, which has more than 900 pages, I suggest the two NYRB books, Paris Stories (selected by Michael Ondaatje) and Varieties of Exile (selected by Russell Banks).

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