Mavis Gallant

Mavis Gallant

A weeklong electronic journal.
Aug. 13 1997 3:30 AM

Mavis Gallant

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       I'm in the Paris phone book, which means I'm a sitting duck for strangers, most particularly in summer. Some want to talk. Most want to write. What they expect from me is white magic, the revelation of a secret, the wizardly formula they think writers keep under wraps, and now and then bring out for an airing. Several airings should produce a book. A few still take me for a kind of literary travel agent. The other day I was asked, in all seriousness, where one can see authors at work in cafés. It sounded for all the world like watching chimpanzees riding tricycles: both are unnatural occupations. I have only one friend who still writes her novels in notebooks, in cafés. She chooses cafés that are ordinary and charmless, favoring one for a time, then another, as one does with restaurants. Some are near home, many involve a long bus trip. If anyone she knows discovers the café, she changes at once for another, more obscure, hard to get to. About café writing, in general, old legends and ancient myths die hard. Think of the way we touch wood--the sacred oak--to guarantee safety, even when we live in streets without trees.

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       A young composer, in Paris for the first time, told me how he heard Paris, rather than saw it, how he envisioned Paris sound in all its shapes and forms. The shape of the sound of Paris traffic is different from the sound of New York and Toronto. He drew or shaped those sounds in air with his hands. Since then, it was just a few weeks ago, I have been listening to familiar street noise and trying to see what he meant, but I attach words and images to sounds. Cars moving along Rue de Vaugirard are like gushing water, turned on and off. But a work site with a drill sounds like a work site with a drill. In Paris, streets are torn up in August, when most people are supposed to be away. The street next to mine, as well as the next one over, is closed to traffic. One is being destroyed for an underground garage, which no one wants--everyone in the neighborhood signed an anti-parking-garage petition--and the other for God-knows-what. All petitions are filed in cardboard boxes and thrown in the Seine, weighed down by dug-up concrete blocks.

       Today, August 12th, is the opening of the grouse shooting season in Scotland. Pronunciation on the BBC is increasingly inventive. One can hardly keep up. This occasion is announced on the news as the start of "grace shooting." Either it has a metaphysical significance or they are setting sights on anyone named Grace. Either way, I'd as soon not consider it.

Mavis Gallant is a writer who lives in Paris. Her most recent book is Collected Stories.