Mavis Gallant may not be a household name to even the most conversant readers of fiction, but she is venerated by her fans and looms largely in the imagination of the writers who cite her as an influence. One such writer is Jhumpa Lahiri.
I had the great pleasure of meeting Lahiri at a literary festival in Ireland in September 2008 and we spoke at length about Gallant, trading thoughts on her work and wondering why she isn’t as popular as some of the other great short-story writers working today (Alice Munro, William Trevor, Lorrie Moore and, in my opinion, Lahiri herself, to name just four).
Critically, Gallant is considered one of the greatest short-story writers of all time. As with James and Chekhov, there is an instantly recognizable modern and European sensibility at work in her writing. Characters drift in and out of countries, inhabitants not simply of certain places but of the world. The big subjects – politics, war, friendship, death – are at play on an assortment of stages: on trains, in houses, over multiple continents. Her narrative techniques are hugely varied and the experience of reading her work often feels like the experience of reading a whole new kind of writing.
The story of Gallant’s life is as compelling as her fiction and almost reads like one of her short stories: she is, like her characters, the sole product of her making. She has lived bravely, rejecting the kinds of lives available to women in the 1950s and setting off for Paris from Canada, not knowing anyone, with the singular intention to write. She promised herself that if she couldn’t live off her writing by the age of thirty she would give it up. She found an agent who sold her work to The New Yorker without her knowledge, leaving her to think that she was a failure as a writer. But she didn’t give up. Her single-mindedness and determination to test her potential not simply as a writer but as the kind of writer she aspired to be have shaped her major life decisions; her commitment to her craft has come before anything else.
In Ireland, I asked Lahiri if she would be interested in interviewing Gallant for Granta. I had in mind not simply a short Q&A, but a long, conversational piece: a dialogue between two writers whose thematic and aesthetic concerns often overlap. Lahiri was thrilled at the idea and Gallant, who is an admirer of Lahiri’s work, agreed. Over the course of three afternoons in February 2009, the two spoke in Paris, the result of which is a piece spanning over forty-seven pages in the most recent issue of Granta. They then gave an intimate reading together at the Village Voice Bookshop which you can view below.
The bookshop was packed when we arrived. Gallant and Lahiri read on the second floor where people crammed in together on makeshift seats. On the ground floor below us it was standing-room only as members of the audience strained to hear these two brilliant writers. The audience was comprised mostly of French speakers and a fair number of Americans. They were students, teachers, other writers – people who first came across Gallant’s work in The New Yorker in the 1950s and people who have read every word Lahiri has written since she won the Pulitzer Prize for her debut collection, Interpreter of Maladies (2000).
The reading was introduced by Odile Hellier, owner of the Village Voice Bookshop and long-time friend of Gallant’s. This was followed by some opening words from Lahiri. Then Lahiri read from her latest collection of stories, Unaccustomed Earth (2008), and Gallant read one of her shorter stories, ‘In Transit’, and a section from her play What is to be Done?
As the video footage shows, Gallant and Lahiri are very different readers, yet both reminded me of the theatrical possibilities and the varied interpretive strategies a writer has at her disposal when delivering her work. As the post-reading questions show, Gallant and Lahiri also discuss their creative processes in particular ways. While Lahiri is happy to lift the curtain a little and give her readers a behind-the-scenes peek, Gallant positions herself firmly in the Art-for-Art’s-Sake camp, offering up no explanations and claiming she has no theories regarding her methods.
They are two writers, with more than forty years between them, whose primary experience of life has been one of feeling like the outsider – Gallant because she is an expat; the British-born Lahiri because her parents are immigrants to America. Critics and readers have been quick to notice how this sense of dislocation often informs their fiction, though as the readings make clear, what most unifies Gallant and Lahiri as writers who can be compared and contrasted is their mutual mastery of the English language; their mutual mastery of the short story.
Jhumpa Lahiri reads from her short story, ‘Once in a Lifetime’
Mavis Gallant reads from her short story, ‘In Transit’
Jhumpa Lahiri and Mavis Gallant take questions from the audience