Closing the Book

Mavis Gallant died today, and the news carries a certain import for me. I’m not very well read, or particularly attached to her writing, but her story, and stories, seems to resonate with me.

If you get a chance, you should listen to the podcast reissued by CBC’s Ideas on Mavis Gallant. In it, she receives great praise and her pithy, straightforward way of speaking is charming, to say the least.

My attachment to Mavis Gallant is superficial. To me, she has come to represent an idea. It’s not her writing, so much as the ideas and memories that I attach to her name, that make her death somewhat significant.

My copy of Montreal Stories only moves when I take out and replace other books on the shelf.
My copy of Montreal Stories only moves when I take out and replace other books on the shelf.

I first heard of Mavis Gallant through a podcast. It was either on Writers and Company or Ideas, but I’m not sure. I became fascinated by her story, and wanted to start reading her work.

She was born in Montreal, but settled in Paris. I went to university in Montreal, and fell in love with the city. The girl I was seeing when I first heard of Mavis Gallant was (and probably still is) in love with Paris. Mavis Gallant is a writer, a writer’s-writer even, who writes mostly short stories, and I can’t think of a better profession. She lived alone, in a tiny apartment, for nearly fifty years. I’ve always admired those who live in austerity and stasis.

Last night, after a few weeks of wondering, I sent that girl – the one in love with Paris – an email, because I’ve been curious about how she’s been doing. I had promised her, about nine or ten months ago, that I wouldn’t contact her again, but curiosity overcame me. I never look her up, and just trust that she is well. Whenever I write to her, the last line always says that she shouldn’t feel the need to respond, and I always hope that she won’t. I regretted sending the email immediately.

Today, I learned that Mavis Gallant had died. Without belittling her death, my first thought was if I’d ever not be curious about that girl.

She, that girl, bought me a copy of Montreal Stories by Mavis Gallant, and I read through it. She bought if for me for my birthday, I think. Traditionally, I haven’t attached much importance to my birthday, but the gift was special to me. I’ve been wanting to read through it again, but it just sits on my bookshelf, and the coffee stain on it isn’t fading.

You see, I haven’t yet been more in love with a woman than I was with that girl. The pieces of her that I have with me – the book and an alarm clock that’ll never wake me up again – I keep only because I treasure something about the time that her and I shared. I have small treasures from all of my past relationships, but the ones that she gave me are effectively untouchable, and just sit wherever they are. I’m almost too afraid to move them.

But, I want to read the stories that are written on those pages. I want to read Mavis Gallant’s work. I want to enjoy the experience, as anyone reading anything should, without feeling as if the pages are somehow laden with my own beautiful memories that have become disquieting. I want to read the words with a steady, unobstructed voice.

I want Mavis Gallant’s death to be the turning point in a relationship that no longer exists. I want to believe that the world is somehow telling me that that girl is now dead to me; she has gracefully passed into a realm from which she’ll never return. I want to think that the pages she has written in the book of my life will remain as they are, to be reread only when you are ready to immerse yourself in and embrace the fictionality of the story.

The book that she bought me is complete and it will never change, much like the time that her and I spent together. The author of that book is now dead, much like the time that her and I spent together. And, much like the time that her and I spent together, the coffee stain that demarcates the book as mine will never fade, but it can be supplanted.

I don’t want to write that girl out of my story, but she really should be taking on the role of an incidental character. Hell, I should just go to a used bookstore and get myself a different copy of Montreal Stories.

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