In the summer of 1991, as I was leaving the National Concert Hall in Dublin during an international writers’ conference, I was startled to see the Canadian writer Mavis Gallant walking alone ahead of me. She was small, had thick auburn hair and wore a red-and-black houndstooth suit and brown pumps. She crossed the street to the Conrad Hotel, where many visiting writers were staying. I found it impossible not to follow her.
Gallant was 68 then and didn’t strike me as frail, but she walked in a tentative way; when she approached the opposite curb, she paused to consider it, as if it were challenging her to leap across a creek. She entered the hotel. I trailed behind. I had read 11 of her books, marveling at the searing wit locked in embrace with bitter sadness, the intelligence wound around the loneliness. Her style was fast, knowing, brutally direct and so vivid it was outright filmic. Two years earlier she signed a book for me at an event in New York, but I was too stupidly awe-struck to speak to her then.
In the hotel lobby, four Irish women — local poets — were lounging on couches with the casual intimacy of women lying topless on a beach, yawning sumptuously, shoes kicked off, laughing loudly. Gallant stood silently near them, clearly at a loss. A conference official introduced her to the women. They said hello, extending their hands to her without standing up. I realized with dismay that they had no idea who she was.
Plenty of writers have gushed about Mavis Gallant’s work. Michael Ondaatje: “One of the great short-story writers of our time.” Fran Lebowitz: “The irrefutable master of the short story in English.” Russell Banks: “One of the immortals.” Margaret Atwood: “Wonderful.” Alice Munro: “Marvelous.” Alice Adams: “Astounding.” Why, then, did so few people know who Mavis Gallant was? Ondaatje called her work “a well-kept secret.” Yes, but what a pity to keep world-class literature a secret.
Gallant wandered off and sat in one of two empty chairs apart from the other writers. She appeared uncomfortable, isolated, out of place in her beautiful houndstooth suit. Suddenly some overwhelming impulse knocked my childish diffidence to the ground. I approached her. She said, “Yes?” smiling so eagerly that I had the impression she would have been thrilled at that moment to be addressed by any passing stranger. She invited me to sit with her. “I don’t know anyone here,” she said. “You’re only the second person who’s spoken to me since I arrived.”
I was disarmed by how uncertain and accessible she seemed. Uncertain? Forget that. With no uncertainty whatever she began shredding the writer’s conference — disorganized, haphazard and all that onstage nonsense about Europe becoming Americanized, the clichés about anti-intellectualism in America.
Eventually I said I admired her writing. She looked surprised, then pleased, then asked apprehensively: “Is that because I’m a woman? Because I read Proust, you know.”
It was like a line from one of her stories, momentarily startling, a non sequitur, until the meaning catches up with you and burrows deep, where it glows like a smoldering coal. She wouldn’t be categorized as a women’s writer, wouldn’t be categorized at all. No, I told her, I loved her work because she was a scarily great writer. Again, she smiled.
Finally, she had to travel by bus with the other writers to meet the president of Ireland. When we stood up, she held my forearm in both her freckled hands and said, “Do you want my address, Rosemary?”
Her address was so far-fetched a piece of intimacy that it had not occurred to me to want it. Floored, I took it. She hooked her arm in mine, and we went out. Boarding the bus, she said again, nervously, “I don’t know any of these people.” Somehow I found the nerve to tell her, “All you have to do is introduce yourself.” She laughed, thanked me and disappeared.
In “The Lives They Lived,” The New York Times offers unique insights, like the one above, into some of the lives that ended this year. There are a good many writers represented, such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Walter Dean Myers, Amiri Baraka, Maya Angelou, and John Cheever’s wife, Mary, but also actors, comedians, directors, activists, teachers, musicians, politicians, sports legends, and victims.