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What Is To Be Done?

Mavis Gallant


“Gallant’s knack for vivid detail is as assured here as it is in her most polished fiction. She’s a sharp social critic, with a gift for pinpointing sham.” – Martin Knelman, Saturday Night

“Ambitious, invigorating and blessed with a quirky rhythm which continually employs indirection to find direction out. Its generous servings of language are especially appreciated.” – Mark Czarnecki, Maclean’s

“Her fine ear for Canadian dialogue, her observations on Canadian society and her attunement to the Canadian sense of humour place Gallant firmly among the finest English Canadian writers. What Is To Be Done? is a continual delight.” – Patrick O’Neill, Atlantis

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Mavis Gallant’s only play, which premiered at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre on November 11, 1982, is a comedy that opens in 1942, in the heat of the battle against Fascism, when it was possible for Canadians to cheer both for Stalin and the Royal Family. At home in Montreal, Jenny (18) takes evening courses, as there’s nothing else to do at night with the men all off in Europe. She is impressed by her friend Molly’s copy of a political pamphlet written by V. I. Lenin entitled What Is To Be Done? The two young women are fascinated by the refugees who are flooding into the city from Europe, and they spend their spare time on left-wing political activity in support of the Soviet Union, dreaming of the new world they’re sure will arise out of the ashes of the war. By May 1945, though, it’s all too clear that the returning veterans will take back the jobs the women have been working at, and all those dreams of a better future will be dashed. 


Mavis Gallant (1922-2014) is one of the great prose writers of the twentieth century, publishing well over a hundred short stories in The New Yorker along with many collections of short fiction, two novels, essays, and the play What Is To Be Done? Her many honours include the Governor General’s Award for Fiction, the PEN Nabokov Award, a Lannan Literary Fellowship, and the Prix David. She was born in Montreal, moved to Ontario and later to New York City, returning at the age of eighteen to Montreal, where she worked briefly for the National Film Board and as a journalist for The Standard newspaper. In 1950 she moved to Europe and spent most of her life in Paris.

Before she left for Europe in 1950, Gallant destroyed all the pems and stories she had been writing, along with all the diaries she had kept. In her introduction, author and publisher Linda Leith writes that, "In the Linnet Muir of the Montreal stories and in the Jenny and the Molly of the play, we have vivid portraits of young women whose hopes and fears and passions and dreams tell us as much as we may ever know about the young woman who became Mavis Gallant."




I said to Molly, ‘It will be a clean new world, with a clean swept sky.’

Molly said, ‘No, I see it more like a big old kitchen, with everyone crowded and comfortable, and enough tea and bread-and-butter to go round.’ The first thing they’ll do now is get rid of Franco. I suppose. I mean, the men will never put up with .... but first of all, there will have to be elections. Everywhere. Spanish elections, Greek elections. Polish elections, French elections, Lithuanian elections. Austro-Hungarian .... no, that’s wrong. The men will never put up with a Fascist state. They’ve learned something over there.”



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