||Image And Memory
by Pleuke Boyce
'The word for "junction" in German is "knot," and how knotted
everything was, then! The Wall had been standing for two
years ... It was like a scar'
MAVIS GALLANT is the author of eight collections of short stories: The Other Paris (1956), My Heart is Broken (1964), The Pegnitz Junction (1973), The End of the World (1974), From the Fifteenth District (1979), Home Truths (1981), Overhead in a Balloon (1986), In Transit (1988); two novels: Green Water, Green Sky (1959), A Fairly Good Time (1970); one book of essays: Paris Notebooks (1986); and one play. She has published more than a hundred short stories in The New Yorker. She was in Vancouver recently, at the invitation of the Writing and Publishing Program at Simon Fraser University, where she was interviewed by Pleuke Boyce.
BiC: In Transit is your most recent book. When were the stories written? Are they your most recent stories?
Mavis Gallant: No, no, they were written in the '50s and '60s. It seems to me that the style is different, not at all the way I write now. The period, the '50s and '60s, is mentioned in the jacket copy, but perhaps there should have been something on the front cover. Some readers may have been puzzled. When you read the stories, did you think they were recent?
BiC: No, I didn't. But I wasn't sure.
Gallant: They are stories that had been published in The New Yorker, but had not been collected. The collection was my idea. I thought it would be interesting to see if they were still fresh. I asked my agent, in New York, if he thought it was a good idea. I sent him a list of titles of stories I thought might do. The Canadian and American publishers made their own choice. Three or four of the stories are different, though the two books are largely the same.
BiC: What makes you decide to put together a collection?
Gallant: I would like to have my work in print in my lifetime.
BiC: But don't you have more still?
Gallant: Yes, but I don't know where they are or where they were published. I've never kept track. I've more or less kept track of work published in The New Yorker. The only people who know where everything is, where everything was published, are academics who have written studies of the work. They know everything: when, where -- everything. But I don't. I was pleased when In Transit was well received because the stories are old. I no longer write in that lyrical way. It goes with a certain jeunesse, I mean jeunesse in a literary sense. I'm not referring to age.
BiC: So does this mean that all the stories that you've published in The New Yorker are now in book form?
Gallant: Almost. There are stories that were not published in The New
Yorker that have never been collected. And there were a few from The New Yorker that I did not include. And, of course, there are uncollected stories from about 1984 to the present.
BiC: What strikes me about your work is that you were immediately a very mature writer.
Gallant: I was not young when I began to publish. When I first sent a short story to The New Yorker I was 27 1 could have started at least six years earlier.
BiC: But "Thank you for a Lovely Tea, "for example, you wrote when you were 18.
Gallant: Oh, yes, I Wrote that very early. But not the finished version. I made a complete story of it years later. I kept all the dialogue as it was. I doubt if I could have reproduced
the way those girls talk when I was 30. There are other details I might not have remembered quite so exactly.
BiC: Who were your literary models when you started out?
Gallant: I don't know that I was conscious of having models, but I think literary models start with the very first books you read, as a child. There are wonderful children's books in English. I was an only child, and I read a great deal. I could read in English and French when I was four. A few years ago, someone in Montreal told me she remembered my father teaching me the alphabet as I sat in my high chair.
BiC: You grew up speaking two languages. How did that come about and what was it like?
Gallant: I was sent to a French boarding school when I was four. It was near where we lived, and it was probably much cheaper than an English private school, and that may have been one of the deciding factors. I really don't know. In those days, there was a Quebec school law designed to keep Catholics and Protestants in separate schools. I don't know how my case was managed, but it was. Certainly, it was not a common experience -- not in my generation. Now, things are different. Most of the children of my friends have grown up with two languages. I'm thankful that it happened to me, but the way it happened was anything but ideal. I would never have repeated the experience -- I mean that I would never have thrust a small child into a wholly alien atmosphere and environment.
BiC: Gertrude Stein once said that a writer needs two countries, the one he is born in and the one that he fives in. What is it like living in France, while you write in English?
Gallant: France never seemed remote or strange to me, probably because I could speak French, and because so many of the painters and authors I loved were French. It is still a society reflected in its art. The only society where I might feel strange or lost would be one closed to me in terms of language -- not customs. I felt lost in Finland, for instance, because no word sounded like anything I knew. But France -- I swam into French culture like a fish.
BiC: But what about writing in English?
Gallant: I would be incapable of losing English. If there was the least danger of it, I would move to an English-speaking environment. My first French books were published early in 1988. 1 had to read the translations and correct the proofs. Reading my own work, in French, had a bizarre effect on my English. I began to construct a kind of expatriate written English, using French syntax. It didn't last, of course, but I began to wonder if the overlap of the two languages -something I had always dreaded -- had finally come about. Now, I speak, read, or listen only to English in the morning. It starts the day on the English track, so to speak.
BiC: Did you like your work in French?
Gallant: I was lucky enough to have a translator who is also a writer. Pierre Robert is his name. He had come across some of my work in The New Yorker when he was teaching at an American university. When he came back to Europe, he asked a mutual friend to arrange a meeting, and about a year later showed me a story of mine he had translated, just for himself He translated two of my books, but now he is producing his own novels and stories and hasn't time to do any more. It was after reading my work in his French that I had trouble with English. That trouble didn't last.
BiC: What other languages besides English and French do you speak?
Gallant: I can get along in my infantile German -- tiny vocabulary and verbs all wrong. I used to speak Spanish fluently, and can still read it. I can read Italian -- a newspaper, for instance -- but I can't carry on a conversation. I know that my Spanish would come back if I were to spend even a month in Madrid. For Italian, I'd need a bit more time. All I can say in Russian is, "I amCanadian," and I can decipher the alphabet. I try to read the local newspapers, wherever I am, even if I have to look every fifth word up in a dictionary.
BiC: How does a story come to you, and how do you then go about writing it?
Gallant: I must warn you that I've often been asked the same question, and so my answer won't be original. The starting point of a story is, usually, an image, like a snapshot. The starting point of "The Remission," in From the Fifteenth District, was the image of an English family, two parents and three children, getting down from a train in the south of France. They are emigrating from England because the father is incurably ill, and they expect that a warmer climate will do him some good. The time is the early '50s -- although I wrote it much later, in the '70s. Who were they? Where did they come from? I can't tell you. The story begins with this, with people seen vividly -- in my mind -- in a situation. Over the next few days, a story begun in this way develops on its own. If I sat down and tried to write it, to develop it, logically, it would die on my hands. I write it as it occurs, in bits and pieces -- spans of dialogue, paragraphs of this and that. Then, after a few days or a couple of weeks, this process stops, and I type whatever I have and try to see the shape of it. I always have a beginning and an ending, though I may, later on, change my mind about both. I work on several different things at once, though not all at the same stage of development. There is always a point at which I think a story is hopelessly dull and uninteresting, and I put it away for a time. I have learned not to tear stories up, not at that stage, but to wait. I still destroy more than I complete, but I
am less arbitrary and less impulsive. When is a story finished? Sometimes I think more could be done, but that I have reached the limit of what I can do. Sometimes it seems cast, like a piece of sculpture, and any attempted change would simply scratch the surface, to no great purpose. Sometimes I feel as though the completed story already exists, and that I am trying to match it. I hesitate about saying this, because I do not want to suggest that writing fiction is magical or mystical.
BiC: Do you write quickly?
Gallant: I am a slow writer. That is why I don't produce much.
BiC: You have produced a lot!
Gallant: Perhaps, over the years. I've been told that more than a hundred stories have appeared in The New Yorker. I wouldn't know. I haven't counted.
BiC: The Pegnitz Junction, for example, how long did it take you to write that?
Gallant: The stories were written over a period of 10 years, from about 1963 to '73. The novella, from which the book takes its title, was written unbelievably quickly -- quickly for me. I began it in Germany, in Bayreuth. I used to go to the Wagner festival nearly every summer, because friends of mine who lived there were able to get tickets for me. As you probably know, tickets are almost impossible to find. That particular summer of 1963 1 had gone to Bayreuth from Paris by train. I was still in the train when the journey seemed to move into a kind of fiction. One had to change twice, in Strasbourg and again in Pegnitz. Pegnitz is the main railway junction for southern Germany. It is also a place name with historical and literary connections. The word for "junction" in German is "knot," and how knotted everything was, then! The Wall had been standing for two years. People forget now that the divide was not only across Berlin, but the whole of Germany. It was like a scar. I began to write and couldn't stop. One of my friends still remembers about that summer that he drove me around Bavaria to visit different things, the lovely Baroque churches, and that I just sat in the car, writing in a notebook, as if I were "mesmerized" -- that was his word.
The Pegnitz Junction is going to be translated into German next year, and I'm very curious to see what the reaction will be. It was a long time ago, and I was trying to understand what had taken place long before that. For the next 10 years, I kept going back to Germany, getting to know people, trying to understand. I came to the conclusion -- if there is a conclusion -- that people do not remember what they have done, but only what was done to them. Once, I was invited to lunch by a couple living near Frankfurt, who had two teen-aged daughters. I knew that the man, my host, had been in the SS. But he didn't know I knew. A relative of his wife's had told me. He was an engineer, he'd had a desk job, but it was still the SS. After lunch the two girls watched a TV documentary about the liberation of the concentration camps, and they saw what the liberating troops had discovered. And the two girls kept saying, "But how could people do this?" and he said, sincerely, "Only savages could do such things." Savages. I looked at him: he was sincere. And I thought, People don't remember what they have done, or even what they have known. What was going on in their heads? Only God knows, and I mean that literally.
BiC: You are mostly known for your short stories, but you've also published two novels. Have you written more novels?
Gallant: I am working on a novel now. It is a long story told by a man, a Canadian.
BiC: So how do you feel about your novels as compared with your short stories?
Gallant: That's the work of a critic; I can't be simultaneously close to the work and far away from it. Novels are longer and stories are, by definition, short. This particular novel moves along three different layers of time and is far too complex to be contained in a story.
BiC: Has what you thought was going to be a short story ever gone on to become a novel?
Gallant: No, never.
BiC: Arid the other way around?
Gallant: Yes. I have begun novels that broke up into related stories, and I left them at that.
BiC: Where do your characters come from?
Gallant: I don't know. Some develop from people glimpsed, just once -- on a train, in a restaurant. The character of "Shirley," in "A Fairly Good Time," grew from a young woman I saw early one morning, in Paris, in the metro. "Sandor Speck," in "Speck's Idea," was, I thought, wholly made up, but an art dealer I knew slightly thought he recognized something of himself, and he never spoke to me again. We were not friends, not even close acquaintances, but we often ran into each other; we had a few mutual friends, and we seemed to go to some of the same restaurants in Paris. After the' story came out, first in The New Yorker, where he read it, he asked me one or two questions, where had I got the idea for Speck's idea, and then, after that, he never spoke to me again. In fact, he used to pretend not to know me. It was a private obsession, I suppose. He had nothing to do with that story, except that he was an art dealer, like "Speck." I began to write Green Water, Green Sky, which is a novel, in Venice, after observing a woman and her two children at a table in a restaurant. She was American. The children seemed to be hers, but one had the feeling they didn't live with her. She was on the verge of an emotional breakdown, there, in the hotel restaurant, and the children were behaving wonderfully, the way children so often do during a crisis. One of the children was a girl of 13 or so, with the most astonishing copper hair I had ever seen. That night, I saw the whole shape and structure of the novel, and the people in it, and I began it at once, and wrote most of that night. The starting point was so strong that I finished it quickly. After Venice, I went to a remote village behind Grasse and worked at top speed and almost easily. It was almost like taking dictation. So it seems to me now, though a journal I kept at the time contradicts what I remember. Sometimes characters are quite close to home, without my being quite aware of it. In Overhead in a Balloon there is a story called "Luc and his Father." I would have sworn that it was made up, with just a few details drawn from streets or houses or families I know in Paris. So it seemed, until the story was translated into French, as Luc et son pere. Having the French characters speaking French, in a French setting described in French, gave them a different dimension. The dialogue in French gave them a French voice. I realized that I had invented only about half the story. I thought, They are the So-and-so's. What have I done?
BiC: Have they read it?
Gallant: I don't know. As it happens, they are a family I haven't seen for some years. We exchange greetings at Christmas and on birthdays -- perfectly cordial. I thought the only thing to do was to send them the French book; the translation is called Rue de Lille. There was a fair chance that they would not read as far as that particular story -- I don't think it is the kind of work that interests them much. Since then, we have exchanged the usual annual greetings and talked quite pleasantly on the phone. Either they haven't read it, as I rather expected, or the situation is such a common one in their circle (it is about the tribulations of a bourgeois couple who are trying to get their dud of a son into a top-class school of engineering) that they felt they were reading about several other people.
BiC: What would your advice be to someone who wants to become a writer?
Gallant: To read. To read and to write. What else can I say? A born writer doesn't need to be told how to "become" a writer. There's no such thing as advice.