RIP, Mavis Gallant
"Anything I could not decipher, I turned into fiction, which was my way of untangling knots."
Canadian expatriate short fiction master Mavis Gallant has died at 91 in Paris, where she lived since the early 1950s.
I think being called a “maven” is about the best compliment there is.
She was best-known for her stories published in The New Yorker, especially in some very lean pre-Paris times in Spain. Last fall the magazine published some diary excerpts that reveal the price a writer paid for the freedom to create, and to live life on her own especially grim terms.
It’s a price Gallant seems to understand needed to be made, and she’s not terribly sentimental about it, which I like. Especially from a woman:
No one is as real to me as people in the novel. It grows like a living thing. When I realize they do not exist except in my mind I have a feeling of sadness, looking around for them, as if the half-empty café were a place I had once come to with friends who had all moved away.
I had again that second of pure joy I sometimes experience. It came, as always, without warning, and vanished nearly at once. I was on my way to the bakery with exactly eleven pesetas left. It is difficult to define and perhaps I shouldn’t try. It must be the highest and sharpest point of all the senses, or the mind, I don’t know. Remembering, I see myself and the street in a clear but blurry light, static, like a film abruptly stopped. I remember thinking suddenly these words, “Now I shall know,” then, when the rush of feeling I can only describe as pure joy was pulling away, these words: “This is why one lives.” It was like a wave and an inner explosion of light all at once, and not physical in any way.
Gallant, of course, was world-famous for her short fiction. What made her work so memorable? Novelist Russell Banks explains in the introduction to her “Varieties in Exile” collection:
In Gallant’s stories, the conflicts, obsessions, and concerns — the near impossibility of gaining personal freedom without inflicting harm on those whom you love and who love you; the difficulty of forgiving a cruel and selfish parent without sentimentalizing him; or the pain of failed renewal — are limned with an affectionate irony and generated by a sincere belief in the ultimate significance, significance not just for the characters who embody them, but for the author, and presumably, the reader as well.
Michael Ondaatje expounds in the introduction to “Paris Stories:”
As a writer Gallant seems beholden to no one. And for such a serious writer, one who can be dark and misanthropic, it is remarkable to see how many of her stories are gently and continually funny, even abundant with farce.
Before you go off retweeting historical photos
Read what historical researcher Rebecca Onion has to say in Slate about the proliferation of Twitter accounts pumping out loads of certain kinds of “old-timey” shots, of which there seems to be an inexhaustible supply:
Lack of attribution for the artists who took the photos these accounts use is only the beginning of the problem. By failing to provide context, offering a repetitive and restricted view of what “history” is, and never linking to the many real historical resources available on the Web, these accounts strip history of the truly fun parts: curiosity, detective work, and discovery.
And yeah, I’ve attached one as a one-time-only example. Onion’s rule of thumb: If the avatar is Abraham Lincoln, it’s likely violating much more than copyright.
The iconic face of a movement
In 1936, Marina Ginestà stood atop a building in Barcelona, an idealistic, 17-year-old socialist partisan at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War.
It was the only time she was known to have carried a weapon, but photographer Juan Guzmán snapped it, and it became one of the famous shots of that conflict.
Ginestà died this week at the age of 94; here’s her obituary in The Daily Telegraph of London. She had a full, interesting life that reflected the idealism of her youth.
'I have nothing to declare but my genius'
— Oscar Wilde upon his arrival at U.S. customs in New York, Jan. 3, 1882.
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