The best stories I have ever read about Montreal are the Linnet Muir stories that appeared in The New Yorker in 1978 and 1979. Set mostly in wartime Montreal, the stories dip back into the more distant past of Linnet Muir’s—and Mavis Gallant’s own—childhood memories of Montreal in the 1920s.
They were first published in book form in Home Truths (Macmillan, 1981), a collection of Canadian stories that won the 1982 Governor General’s Award, when Gallant was 60 years old.This collection is unusual in its Canadian, and especially its Quebec focus; most of Gallant’s fiction is set in Europe, where she has lived since 1950. Home Truths may therefore provide the best introduction to her work for readers interested in Quebec. The Linnet Muir stories are not the only ones in the collection set in the city in which Gallant was born and in other Quebec towns and villages she knew as a child and a young woman.
What I love most about these stories is the vivid evocation of a bygone Montreal—its characters, its posh restaurants, its haunting beauty, and its snows. Linnet is 18 and penniless as she returns to Montreal from New York (where she has been living) in 1940 to begin her working life. It is wartime, and most of the young men are serving overseas. Linnet observes older men resentful of women in the office, men whose wives spend their time out in the suburbs, kind men who want to help a young woman find her feet, and people who remember Linnet as a child, before her father died and her mother remarried and whisked Linnet away from Montreal.
The stories set in the 1920s, when Linnet is a small child, are the most moving and poignant, as even the title of the story “Voices Lost in Snow” suggests; they also reveal her as a highly unusual child. The world of Linnet’s parents was uncommon for the time in being a world in which French and English mingled, and she herself was boarding (at the age of four) at a French and Catholic convent school she calls Saint-Louis-de-Gonzague. She was among a vanishingly small number of English-speaking children of her generation to grow up not only bilingual but bicultural.
It took many years for Quebec to accept Mavis Gallant as a Quebec writer. The Quebec Government’s literary prize—the Prix Athanase-David, awarded annually since 1969—had always gone to writers working in French. In 2006, it was awarded to Mavis Gallant.
I had been involved in nominating Gallant on behalf of Blue Metropolis twice before that. It was thanks especially to fiction writer Julie Keith, then President of the Quebec Writers’ Federation, and to Executive Director Lori Schubert, that QWF nominated Gallant in 2006, and it was fortuitous that the jury that year included writer Ann Charney, who is a strong supporter of Gallant’s work.
Gallant’s win was historic. Up until that time, Quebec literature had been defined as a literature written in French. Gallant’s win was also a key moment in the Anglo Literary Revival, which was stimulated by the creation of Blue Metropolis and of QWF, and came to fruition with fictions by Yann Martel, Ann Charney and Julie Keith as well as Edeet Ravel, Heather O’Neill, David Homel, Louise Penny, Rawi Hage, and Claire Holden Rothman, to name only these. With the recognition Anglo writers are now getting locally, nationally and internationally, this just might be a good time to nominate another English-language writer for the Prix David.
First published in QWrite, the newsletter of Quebec Writers' Federation, February 2011, p. 3.
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