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Mavis Gallant, famed Montreal-born writer; at 91

Mavis Gallant wrote more than 100 short stories for The New Yorker.

Associated Press/File 1981

Mavis Gallant wrote more than 100 short stories for The New Yorker.

NEW YORK — Mavis Gallant, who was abandoned as a child and later left Canada for Europe, where she made her name writing about the dislocated and the dispossessed, died Tuesday at her home in Paris. She was 91.

Ms. Gallant, born in Montreal to an American mother and a British father, was sent to boarding school when she was 4 and spent much of her childhood afterward without a family. When she found her literary voice as an expatriate in Paris, she created a writing life that consciously excluded the ties of marriage and children.

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And yet despite this seeming unsettledness — or perhaps because of it — her stories convey a deep-rooted sense of place, inviting the reader into a Paris walk-up or a sheet-shrouded marble hall in Montreal. These were not just settings for Ms. Gallant. Canada, France, and the United States drove her meditations on regional identity, nationalism, and its extremes, and the defining and restricting powers of a mother tongue.

“Hearts are not broken in Mavis Gallant’s stories,” Eve Auchincloss wrote in The New York Review of Books. “Roots are cut, and her subject is the nature of the life that is led when the roots are not fed.”

The New Yorker published Ms. Gallant’s short stories for more than 40 years — 116 of them, according to Steven Barclay, a friend and lecture agent. The pieces became familiar to readers for their embrace of life’s paradoxes: They could be tender yet cruel, tragic yet funny. Told in exquisite detail, they are threaded with ironies and reveal lives with enough histories and thwarted dreams to inspire novels.

“Every character,” Ms. Gallant wrote, “comes into being with a name (which I may change), an age, a nationality, a profession, a particular voice and accent, a family background, a personal history, a destination, qualities, secrets, an attitude toward love, ambition, money, religion, and a private center of gravity.”

In some stories she revisited characters, most prominently Linnet Muir, the independent young woman who, more than any of her other protagonists, Ms. Gallant said, reflected her own life. In the Linnet Muir stories, Ms. Gallant articulates most clearly her theme of childhood as a prison that can have destructive effects in adulthood.

Unloving, neglectful, or foolish parents abound in her fiction and arise in her essays. About her own mother, Ms. Gallant said, “I had a mother who should not have had children, and it’s as simple as that.”

Mavis de Trafford Young was born to Benedictine Wiseman, an American, and Stewart de Trafford Young, who was British. Her parents, both Protestants, sent her to a Roman Catholic boarding school run by French-speaking nuns. Her father died when she was 10, she told The New York Times in an interview, “and my mother had already fallen in love with another man.”

Her mother married that man and left Canada, placing Mavis in the care of a guardian. Ms. Gallant believed her father would come for her and waited for him for several years, not being told that he was dead. She said she had never gotten over losing him.

“My father, that was the great empty chair,” she said in 2012 in an interview on CBC Radio. She told The Times: “In many, many of the things I write, someone has vanished. And it’s often the father. And there is often a sense that nothing is very safe.”

She attended 17 schools, in Canada and the United States, “all recalled with horror,” she said. After high school she worked for the National Film Board of Canada and as a newspaper feature writer at The Standard in Montreal. As a journalist she steeped herself in her subjects and often went back to visit them.

“If I got on with the people,” she told The Times, “I had no hesitation about seeing them again — the widow of the slain shopkeeper or policeman, I went right back and took them to lunch. I could see some of those rooms, and see the wallpaper, and what they ate, and what they wore, and how they spoke, and their vocabulary, and the way they treated their children. I drew it all in like blotting paper.”

While working in Canada, Mavis Young, still a minor, married a Canadian musician, John Gallant, but the marriage was short-lived, ending in an amicable divorce. She had no immediate survivors.

Pursuing fiction, she had a breakthrough in 1950, when The New Yorker accepted her story “Madeline’s Birthday,” about a displaced teenage girl living with a suburban Connecticut family.

Encouraged, Ms. Gallant challenged herself to make a living from her writing within two years. After trying out Venice, Budapest, Dubrovnik, and other places after World War II, she settled in Paris and cleared her slate of all possible encumbrances.

“She has quite deliberately chosen to have neither husband nor children, those two great deterrents to any woman’s attempt to live by and for writing,” the novelist and poet Janice Kulyk Keefer wrote in a critical study, “Reading Mavis Gallant” (1989).

The first of her many story collections, “The Other Paris,” was published in the United States in 1956. It would be more than 20 years before her books were published in Canada.

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