Mavis Gallant, Canadian literary icon, 1922 to 2014
I was a fresh-faced Parisian-wannabe, my first attempt at living overseas, a (mostly) CanLit degree under my arm, my first job under my belt, and I headed off to the City of Lights ostensibly to "find myself." That was exactly 20 years ago this month. I arrived in Paris, immersed myself in conjuring French grammar by morning and toured Paris by afternoon and night (often late at night). Four weeks into my Parisian escape, I was woefully homesick, and that's when I stumbled onto
an author I'd read, studied, and to my now embarrassment, written verbose essays about with full intentions of one day following in her footsteps, which I did...in a way. I followed her to Paris, where the
multi-award winning short-story writer died this week.
The author had made her home in the French capital for more than 50 years. I became smitten with the works of Mavis Gallant in my first CanLit course at university. The way she crafted descriptions of Montreal and then, later, Paris, resonated with me, inspired me. I never thought I would one day meet her in person. It was a weathered, hand-written poster in the foyer of my French language school that alerted me to a free reading Gallant was giving one night in a local library in Montparnasse, the Parisian neighbourhood she'd settled in upon arriving in Paris decades earlier. I went in the hopes of hearing what she'd say about our shared homeland, her thoughts on Canada in the 1990s. Instead, she spoke of Paris, her adopted home, and of the importance of making one's home where 'it felt natural.'
(Photo courtesy of WikiCommons Images)
Gallant's reflections on 'her Paris' piqued my curiosity. It spurred me to explore her neighbourhood of Montparnasse, a one-time Bohemiam stronghold of Paris, which is home of La Cimetière du Montparnasse,
Les Closerie des Lilas
and the singularly alone skyscraper, Tour Montparnasse, But Montparnasse, as I was to learn, was and is so much more than an enclave of tourist attractions and landmark monuments.
(Photo of the iconic La Rotonde Cafe courtesy of WikiCommons Images)
It was in the colourful neighbourhood Montparnasse, once favoured by artists and writers such as Morley Callaghan and Ernest Hemingway, that you could find some of the best cafes and bars, places to hang out and talk. I spent many afternoons in cafes, such as La Rotonde, with my Becherelle grammar guide and French-English dictionary on the table, practising my spoken French with regulars. To my surprise, it felt a natural place to be, spending hours in a French cafe became second nature many afternoons each week during my time in Paris. I only spoke to Mavis Gallant that one time. At the end of her lecture she asked if there were any Canadians in the room. I was one of two to raise a hand. She looked over and smiled somewhat sheepishly. "Why are you here, stuck in a library at night?," she said jokingly, "Get out and enjoy Paris!" And so I did. Merci pour tout.