By J.S. Porter
She was coming to The Different Drummer in Burlington, and I had a question for her. My question was one that readers were prohibited from asking writers. Writers found the question degrading, insulting, commonplace. They would either refuse to answer on the grounds that it was beneath them, laugh in derision, change the subject or in a prolonged staredown imply your utter ignorance of all things literary. Well, of course, stories are made up and have no connection to real events or real people. Don’t you know that?
Mavis Gallant, a Montrealer who has lived in Paris most of her life, uses French in her everyday life, but she writes in English. She’s built an international reputation on her ability to tell stories, stories frequently published first in The New Yorker. I’m told she’s in the French countryside now, at one time not far from fellow Canadian, Norman Levine.
In the bookstore, Gallant held a glass of white wine in her hand; she looked confident, smartly dressed, a little tired. Burlington was just one more stop in an endless chain of stops on her promotional tour for her Selected Stories. That night she read a couple of stories; but not the one from Spain, not the one that makes me cry, not the one I heard her read on the CBC some years ago, not the one written for The New Yorker in 1960 and later put in her 1988 In Transit collection, not the one called “When We Were Nearly Young.”
One of the stories she read made reference to French Protestants. Gallant patiently explained how this noble minority in France spoke an especially elegant French to which the likes of Andre Gide and Roland Barthes leant their voices. She read well. She sat down and waited for questions.
You can divide the world into two groups: the Munro-eans and the Gallant-ians. Munro-eans like to hang out in a small town in Huron County and get all the gossip of local civilization from the corner store. Gallant-ians like to travel. Mavis Gallant uses a telescope to Alice Munro’s microscope; she gives you wide panoramic views of European capitals. But I’m speaking in crude metaphors. Gallant also uses the microscope to show you little lives in big vistas, just as Munro fits a wide-angel lens over her microscope to see the large patterns inherent in small lives. Either would be a worthy recipient of the Nobel Prize for literature.
I like geography with my fiction; I like to know what they eat in Paris and how long the lunch is in Florence and what the weather is like in Berlin. So, I number myself among the Gallant-ians. Why then was I hesitating to ask a question of the matriarch of my clan? Simple: She had the reputation of being crusty, even testy, and I had an absurd question.
I mulled things around in my head, chose my wording carefully and shot up my hand. She acknowledged with a nod. “Ms. Gallant, you have a story called “When We Were Young” that takes place in Madrid and has a character named Pablo and it’s all about having friends in a foreign country and being poor together—they more than you—and having to leave them and losing touch with them but always remembering them—that story, Ms. Gallant, is too real to be fiction, it really happened— didn’t it?” I spoke in torrents, ungrammatical barely coherent torrents. I spoke the way a river speaks that overflows its banks and has no check upon its liquidity.
Breathless and red-faced, I sat down, forehead perspiring. I had made a fool of myself. I had asked the unforgivable question, the unaskable question. There was a long silence in the room. The others in the audience must have known that I’d crossed a line.
Mavis Gallant cleared her throat. Then she said, “Yes. It is a true story. I lived it. The narrator was me. I knew and loved Pablo and the others. The things I described really happened. Thank you for remembering it. But the story’s called ‘When We Were Nearly Young’ not ‘When We Were Young.’” Ah, I had forgotten the adverb.
I sat stone-faced, head bowed, dazed, in deep reverie. I really hadn’t asked the question, had I? She really hadn’t answered it, had she?
I don’t know why I seem to prefer stories that I think really happened to stories I think are just made up. I don’t know why knowing that Gallant had lived her story in the flesh, not merely in her imagination, filled me with such satisfaction. I should know better. I studied literature once. It’s all about masks and indirection, narrators and invention. And yet I wanted to believe, and needed to believe, that Mavis Gallant’s story was true; it really happened; it was more than literature; it was life.
I left The Different Drummer feeling on top of the world. A great writer had come to town. A great writer had answered a question no self-respecting person asks and no self-respecting writer answers. A great writer had put in my mouth an inextinguishable flame of the real. I left a happy man.
- published in The Hamilton Spectator, September 3, 1999.