Mavis Gallant: Ageless, Acute & Aloud

Mavis Gallant, Maître of the short story, Canadian citizen and long-time Parisienne, might be 86, but she is also long on mental agility and wit and her work is not fading away. Gallant's artistry is best absorbed in the original--to read her stories on the printed page is to acquire the DNA of another life--but there are times when we can't sit down and read, and yet the mind is still hungry. Luckily there is plenty of Gallant-appreciation available on audio, most of it downloadable. I recommend tucking a good dose into your iPod--Gallant will reconnect you to the thick taproot of life. Here's a selection of what's currently available:

"Madame, je vous aime."
Just a week ago, Gallant was interviewed from a Paris radio studio by Jian Ghomeshi of CBC's Q on the occasion of the Canadian publication of Going Ashore, a collection of her "lost or missing" stories. Gallant trades repartee with an admiring Ghomeshi, who admits he has trouble keeping up with her "great mind." (Ghomeshi is the cool-headed interviewer who handled Billy Bobs' April 2009 fugue-up and mashed-potato diss with Northern aplomb.) Ghomeshi's Gallant interview features little awkwardness and much merriment, and it provides substantial insight into the author's career and scope in about 17 minutes. It's available on CBC's Q iTunes podcast (Gallant interview begins at Minute 17:30) and also from the CBC Q past episodes web page (search for "Mavis Gallant" in the archive). She talks about the process of revisiting her early stories and she relates the dramatic true-life story of her recent accident: 16 months ago she collapsed on the floor of her Paris apartment and lay there for three days until she was rescued by her concierge (Minute 25). At Minute 32, when Ghomeshi mentions the "master of the short story" honoria, Gallant deflects the title and says she is "grateful to have lasted." Though her mind "now goes faster than her hands," Gallant is still at work, editing her journals and working on a story. Praise the concierge for that.

Details Like Burrs
A Gallant Writer Celebrated, the current offering from the PRI: Selected Shorts podcast, begins with a worshipful introduction by none other than Jhumpa Lahiri, who says of Gallant, "I have re-read her more often than any other writer I know" (Minute 3:45). She salutes Gallant's intelligent, idiosyncratic vision, and lauds Gallant's use of unexpected details to go "elbow-deep" into the hearts of her characters. Lahiri hits on what makes Gallant's stories so memorable: "Once encountered, these details, however subtle, stick like burrs" (Minute 4:27). Then, most wonderfully, Selected Shorts deviates from their usual surrogate reader policy to allow Gallant to read her own "Grippes and Poche," a not-so-short story which was first published in 1982. Gallant's audio begins at Minute 9:20 and lasts about 50 minutes--pausing not recommended.

UPDATE: Granta's site has videos of a joint Jhumpa Lahiri and Mavis Gallant reading and Q & A at the Village Voice Bookshop in Paris, recorded in February 2009. (Online only; takes a while to load.) Lahiri's print interview with Mavis Gallant is in the current issue of Granta (#106); purchase required.

Taxman or Muse?
Don't be intimidated by the French names in the title--"Grippes and Poche" may be set in Paris, but it is written in English and read on this podcast in Gallant's vivacious and consonant-crisp voice. The story is rich with the perspicacity of a mature talent. It depicts its startling thesis--tax auditing as literary collaboration and inspiration--with ready poignance and well-timed humor. Early on, the live audience laughs at this example of a Gallant sticky-burr sentence: "Grippes's unwise and furtive moves with trifling sums, his somewhat paranoid disagreements with California over exchange, had finally caught the eye of the Bank of France, as a glistening minnow attracts a dozing whale."

(PRI: Selected Shorts offers their podcasts for free for a limited time period, so if you're tempted, download A Gallant Writer Celebrated now from iTunes, or from PRI's Selected Shorts site--scroll down to the "Online" link.)

Madrid on Nothing A Day
If you're new to Gallant, I recommend starting with this 33-minute New Yorker: Fiction podcast from 2007 titled Waiting. (Unusually and delightfully, these podcasts do not seem to expire from the iTunes listing or from the magazine's online audio archive, so it should be available regardless of when you come across this post.) Antonya Nelson, another élévatrice of the short story métier, selected Gallant's "When We Were Nearly Young" from the New Yorker's 1962 archive to read aloud and discuss with fiction editor Deborah Treisman (story begins near Minute 4, but the whole podcast is worth the listen ). "When We Were Nearly Young" is narrated in the first person by an underfunded expat who hangs around Madrid with an intriguing and equally peseta-less group of Spaniards. Gallant recounts their laid-back days with lyrical phrasing but resists romanticizing the characters' existential plight. The story is permeated with questions of fate and occupation and passivity. I won't spoil the (subtle) dénouement by telling more, but I highly recommend listening to Nelson's evocative reading, and to her bracketing conversations with Treisman. Treisman enacts un petit dénouement of her own in the post-story discussion by recounting the pre-internet dastardliness that prolonged Gallant's impoverishment abroad, in spite of her success at The New Yorker (Minute 30).

85 Years in 52 Minutes
In 2008 Eleanor Wachtel of the CBC conducted an especially chummy and chronological 52-minute audio interview with Gallant for her Writers & Company radio show. This episode is not currently available on iTunes, but you can listen to it online here and read a related profile here. Gallant seems to remember everything. The audio interview covers Gallant's eventful childhood, her start in journalism, her brief yet heightened encounter with Jean-Paul Sartre in Montreal (Minute 22), her move to Paris, the story of her impoverishment, and her writing inspirations and methods.

In the non-audio category:
Interviews from April and May 2009 with The Toronto Star and The Globe and Mail.
Back in 1997 Gallant kept an online diary for Slate.com describing her life in an August-abandoned Paris. I recommend all five sweet-and-savory entries, as each one offers at least one sticky-burr detail. If you don't own any books by Gallant, I recommend The Collected Stories (1996), with its handsome rouge-et-noir dustjacket and thick-cut pages and multiple decades of stories, IF you can find a copy: in the U.S. it is dégueulassely out-of-print.

1 comment:

  1. Gallant sounds like a lot of fun. Will def. add her to my must-read/listen list. Thank you for this great post!