Gallant in Paris 1950s

Galant Name Meaning–
French: nickname for a cheerful or high-spirited person, from galant, the present participle of Old French galer ‘to be in good humor’, ‘enjoy oneself’, a word of Germanic origin (see Gale 1 and Gaillard). Source: Dictionary of American Family Names ©2013, Oxford University Press

When I was a kid I believed all of the Hollywood guff about famous artists, but that balloon sprang a leak years ago, giving up the ghost in one long, dismal razzberry.  It’s probably because most of the famous  artists on my list turned out to be just so many inflatable dancing figures, flailing around in front of used-car lots.

Mavis Gallant has been a fascinating  exception.  Her image data hasn’t decayed over the course of her long career and the few stark lines of her biography never got larded up with celebrity gibberish.
Here’s the biographical sketch that I still find so compelling– it’s a kind of blueprint for an indestructible Avro Arrow, and it points unwaveringly at a freedom almost unimaginable for a woman artist of the 1950s:
  • her father’s early death;
  • her mother’s remarriage;
  • the new parental couple’s rejection of Mavis as the cumbersome daughter, fobbing her off on guardians and boarding schools for years;
  • Mavis as a young adult plots an escape route via a short-term marriage and journalism work, two opportunities  afforded to wartime women in Canada;
  • finally moving to Paris in 1950 to become a Writer.

Obviously Gallant was an extraordinary person.  Despite the consistent rejection by the adults she depended on, she managed to preserve her self-worth.  She believed in her own intellectual and artistic abilities, at a time when society actively denied women those dimensions and that level of agency.  No-one managed to stuff her into the curvy perfume bottle of biological essentialism: she didn’t want to be a wife and mother and made unapologetic statements to that effect throughout her life. She had lovers but eventually turned them into brothers and friends, and she was apparently an excellent friend. Her writing has the kind of  elegant detachment that advanced Buddhists strive for. Reading Gallant has been known to induce a  quizzical yet buoyant state of suspended judgment, a brush with enlightenment via the short story.

So when I struggle with my artistic raison-d’être, or find myself raging over the deathless weed that is biological essentialism, which even today has poisoned several of my friendships, I think of Gallant.  Her independence, her intellectual integrity and her art mattered.  Her spirit beckons me out of the corner of my eye, a quickly disappearing froth that belongs to a 1950s crinoline as it rounds a corner, the fluttering arc like a wing or a wave — onward.
This way, she gestured.
Quoi répondre à ce geste éloquent? Rien ne suffit que de tirer une révérence profonde… À la Gallante.

One thought on “La Gallante

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