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A Table in Paris

Stephen Henighan

Stephen Henighan remembers Mavis Gallant, the original nomad of Canadian literature, who wrote some of Canada's finest fiction at Pablo Picasso's café table in Paris.

A café table in Paris stands empty. It is the Pablo Picasso table at Le Dôme, one of the four historic cafés at the slanting intersection where Boulevard Raspail crosses Boulevard Montparnasse. Early in the twentieth century, each of these cafés buzzed with writers and artists; all are now too expensive for aspiring writers. Today’s clientele at Le Dôme, Le Sélect, La Coupole and La Rotonde is a mixture of wealthy Parisians and visitors who are giving themselves a treat. Yet in 195, when Mavis Gallant arrived in Paris, the cafés of Montparnasse were a welcome refuge for an impoverished artist.

The bohemian expatriates of the 192s—Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and their friends—had died or departed by then. The Parisian café culture of the 195s revolved around the encounter of French intellectuals such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Boris Vian and Albert Camus with writers of colour, such as the Americans Richard Wright, James Baldwin and Chester Himes, or writers from what were then known as “Third World” countries, such as Léopold Senghor of Senegal or, in the latter half of the decade, the young Mario Vargas Llosa. This scene took place farther down the hill and closer to the Seine, in the cafés of the Latin Quarter, such as Café de Flore, where Sartre is said to have written much of Being and Nothingness.

The move to the Latin Quarter relieved the pressure on Montparnasse. Mavis Gallant, who often lived in apartments that lacked adequate heating, went to Le Dôme to write because she could keep warm there. Over the years, as her reputation grew, the café’s management began to reserve Pablo Picasso’s favourite table for her. In later years Gallant lived in the seventh arrondissement (not, as readers of her fiction might suppose, in the fifteenth district), the redoubt of the city’s upper bourgeoisie. Yet writers, if they must live from their writing, cannot afford all the privileges of the well off. Gallant’s apartment on Rue Jean Ferrandi was located in a blank-faced, soulless modern building recessed in a niche that broke the stately progression of nineteenth-century façades. The respectful hush of the narrow streets of the seventh district feels very far away from the hubbub of the broad avenue of Boulevard Montparnasse, with its glaring cinema billboards, packed cafés and wandering pedestrians from all over the world. Mercifully, distances in Paris are short: one neighbourhood merges into another within a few blocks. Until her early eighties, Gallant walked from her apartment to Le Dôme; later she took a taxi. Now her table is empty.

In early 211 I was in Paris with twenty-four Canadian students and a budget that allowed me to invite speakers to my classes. My first thought was to invite Mavis Gallant. Though I realized she was elderly, an online video from 29 that showed Gallant responding to an interviewer’s questions with sprightly wit gave me hope. I wrote her a letter. Aware that Gallant was not a person who always enjoyed public appearances, I wasn’t surprised when I didn’t receive an answer. I made enquiries and learned to my dismay that Mavis Gallant had been in hospital for months. Her friends had serious doubts as to whether she would ever return to Le Dôme. “Her mind is as sharp as ever,” one friend said, “but her body won’t let her get up and leave.” I thought of the epigraph from Boris Pasternak that leads off the introduction to Home Truths, Gallant’s selected Canadian stories: “Only personal independence matters.” No

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Stephen Henighan

Stephen Henighan’s most recent novel is The World of After. Over the winter of 2022–23, Monica Santizo’s Spanish translation of Stephen’s novel The Path of the Jaguar will be published in Guatemala, and Stephen’s English translation of the Guatemalan writer Rodrigo Rey Rosa’s novel The Country of Toó will be published in North America. Read more of his work at stephenhenighan.com. Follow him on Twitter @StephenHenighan.

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