This year the Blue Metropolis Festival, Montreal’s annual literary festival, dedicated the opening event to Mavis Gallant who passed away earlier this year. Afterwards, Linda Leith, founder of Blue Metropolis and friend of Mavis Gallant, gathered writers, friends and fans together to pay tribute to her.
The stories painted a colorful picture of an entertaining conversationalist, an acute observer, a reluctant interviewee, a quick, incisive wit, an independent woman, a determined hard-working writer (over a period of ten years, she wrote 1,000 pages of a never-finished non-fiction book on the Dreyfus affair), a person who took great pleasure in her daily routine of ordering the plat du jour at her favorite bistro after her morning’s writing.
As a very young child, excited at meeting the Mother Superior, she wanted to wear her most beautiful dress (which had a lovely long sash) for the occasion. The disapproving Mother Superior reprimanded her. “We don’t dress like that here,” she was told.
Her first reading: Mavis was in her element, her audience enthralled, all except for one man who kept complaining he couldn’t hear.
Maurice Forget (what a raconteur!) described his meeting with Mavis when he was a baby which of course he only knew through hearsay. His parents went to listen to a friend sing at the Ritz At Night. Also performing that night was Johnny Gallant. Everyone was keen to hold baby Maurice and he was passed around. In due course the baby was offered to Mavis Gallant. She declined the privilege.
That baby story reminded me of a story told by Linda Leith at her lecture on Mavis Gallant a few weeks ago. When informed that Alice Munro was a greatly loved author, Mavis responded: “A writer is not a teddy-bear.”
Quite apart from her stories and the clarity and precision of her writing that I frequently turn to for inspiration, I also have to thank Mavis Gallant for an historical sense of Montreal.
This might seem an odd thing to say in tribute to a fiction writer but I mean it as a huge compliment. She brought her characters, the eras, and the city so alive, that when I walk in Montreal, I swear I can breathe in the Montreal of those times.
In “The Fenton Child”, a young woman helps Mr. Fenton pick up an adopted baby from the nuns. Mr. Fenton lives on rue Crescent. This street in Montreal’s Golden Mile was one of delightful solid two, three or four storey houses with interesting idiosyncratic decorative fronts. A good address…but the street was changing.
“I consider it a privilege to live in Montreal. I was born on Crescent and that’s where I intend to die. Unless there’s another war. Then it’s a toss-up.”
“Crescent’s a fine street,” said the doctor. “Nice houses, nice stores.”
[…] “Sure, there are stores on Crescent now, but they’re high-quality,” said Mr. Fenton. “I could sell the house for a hell of a lot more than my father ever paid. Louise wants me to. She can’t get used to having a dress shop next door. […] It’ll take a lot more than a couple of store windows to chase me away.”
[…] “See the houses?” she said [to the baby]. “One of them’s yours.” A few had fancy dress shops on the first floor. Others were turned into offices, with uncurtained front windows and neon lights, blazing away in broad daylight. The double row of houses ran straight down to St Catherine Street without a break, except for some ashy lanes.
After the Blue Metropolis opening, I finished the evening with my own homage to Mavis Gallant: a stroll down rue Crescent.