Mavis Gallant died at the age of 91 exactly four years ago, on February 18. She died in Paris, an ex-patriate Canadian writer who was admired by other fine writers around the world. Yet now she is at the centre of a scandal rocking the American literary firmament, from coast to coast.
Not that Mavis has any responsibility here, or is in any way to blame. On the contrary, one side in the noisy fight claims that it is defending her against a modern author who is stealing her work.
The story begins in the pages of “The New Yorker”, the magazine that for decades published Mavis Gallant’s work. In fact, only John Updike had more fiction appear in the magazine over the years than Mavis, and the role the magazine played in revealing her genius to the world is well known. On January 9th this year, however, the magazine published a piece of fiction by Sadia Shepard entitled “Foreign-Returned”.
That is the simple heading for the story. No reference is made to Mavis Gallant there, as in “A Tribute to Mavis Gallant”. There is also no specific reference such as “Based on the Mavis Gallant story, The Ice Wagon Going Down The Street.” To the unsuspecting reader, the story stands alone.
However, in a separate interview with the story’s editor, Deborah Treisman, Sadia Shepard acknowledges “a great debt” to the Mavis Gallant Story “The Ice Wagon Going Down The Street”, which she names.
Enter Francine Prose, the well-known American novelist. In a letter that sends lightning bolts from the page she accuses Shepard of stealing from the Gallant story. Her letter appeared in the The New Yorker on January 22, is and worth reading in its powerful entirety.
To summarize, it begins with Prose noting that a few sentences into the Shepard story “I began to get the eerie feeling that I knew exactly what was coming next. And, in fact I did, because almost everything that happens in Shepard’s story happens in Mavis Gallant’s story, The Ice Wagon Going Down The Street, published in The New Yorker, in 1963. Scene by scene, plot turn by plot turn, gesture by gesture, the Shepard story follows the Gallant – the main difference being that the characters are Pakistanis in Connecticut rather than Canadians in Geneva. Some phrases and sentences are mirrored with only a few words changed.”
Prose concludes by arguing strongly that “the correspondences far exceed the bounds of “debt”, or even of “homage, or of a “translation” into a different ethnicity and historical period.”
She ends with the thunderclap: “Is it really acceptable to change the names and identities of fictional characters and then claim the story as one’s own original work? Why, then, do we bother having copyright laws?”
BANG! The debate blew up with a number of writers in the New Yorker and The Los Angeles Review of Books accusing Francine Prose (and many others who criticized Shepard’s story) of racial insensitivity. Jess Row in a letter to The New Yorker actually says “…we’re not talking about the mechanics of story composition; this is a conversation about racial and cultural power and prestige”.
So where does this leave a Canadian reader? Well, I’m far from being a typical Canadian reader here, although I made my living as a Publisher, trying to anticipate the reactions of that elusive reader. But I had the honour to publish Mavis’s work, introducing her to Canadians as one of our best writers with From The Fifteenth District in 1978. We were friends, as I continued to visit her in Paris, see her in Toronto and Montreal, and to publish her magnificent stories. The classic story in question, “The Ice Wagon Going Down The Street” appears in two of our books: Home Truths: Canadians At Home and Abroad (1981, which won the Governor-General’s Award) and Selected Stories (1996).
A Canadian reader, I think will see more than an outsider in this classic story with the distinctive title. It concerns a childhood memory shared by Agnes Bruser, who grew up, Mavis suggests, “small, mole-faced, round-shouldered because she has always carried a younger child”, in a hard-striving, large Norwegian family in a small town in the Prairies. The house was so lacking in privacy that her happiest time was to slip out early in the morning in the summer. So early that, in those days before refrigerators, she could see the ice wagon making its deliveries, door to door.
Her memory of that apparently trivial moment, “Once in your life alone in the universe”, is so important to her she remembers telling it to the other Canadian she’s assigned to share an office with in Geneva. In fact, it’s the only real conversation she ever has with Peter Frazier (of the Toronto Fraziers, descended from “granite Presbyterian immigrants from Scotland” who made the family fortune that Peter at first was able to live off, until the old money ran out.)
Peter Frazier is the central character in the story, and he has little in common with Agnes from the prairies. He has never been in the West. He has never felt it necessary to gain a university degree. Agnes is so proud of hers that when she moves into the office that she has been given to share with this other Canadian she hangs her framed university degree on the wall. “It was one of the gritty, prideful gestures that stand for push, toil and family sacrifice.” On her desk she places a Bible.
You may be surprised to learn that in the, let’s say,” parallel” story by Sadia Shepard, what is placed on the desk by the Pakistani woman, Hina, to the alarm of her new colleague Hassan, is a copy of the Koran.
The anti-climactic scene in both stories follows a disastrous party at the home of influential friends from their own community. In both cases the male sharing the office resentfully with the female newcomer set above him finds himself conscripted to see her home, drunk. In her apartment, things could go very badly, but as both stories tell us, in these exact words, “Nothing happened.” Except in Mavis’s marvellous telling, when Agnes clumsily emerges from her bathroom to embrace Peter, she is wearing “ a dressing gown of orphanage wool.” Orphanage wool!
As for the Sadia Shepard story, I’m not qualified by personal knowledge to give an informed opinion. I don’t know her other, well regarded work. I know the Connecticut where the story is set, but only through one eight-month academic year in New Haven. I am amused by her impressions of how men who can do nothing well in the kitchen are expected to spring into action as experts beside the barbecue. But I can’t express any informed opinion about the accuracy of her portrait of life among expatriate Pakistanis in North America today. Although I note with pleasure that Pakistanis feature in the original Mavis story, when a standing weekend invitation by well-placed Canadian friends to stay at their Swiss summer house suddenly ends. “One Sunday Madge said she needed the two bedrooms the Fraziers usually occupied for a party of sociologists from Pakistan, and that was the end of it.” Could this reference have been what inspired Sadia Shepard to write this indebted tribute?
But I must confess that I read “Foreign-Returned” very much as Francine Prose did. Paragraph by paragraph I read saying “Oh, no, she can’t do this! Surely she’s not going to have her get drunk?” I realise, as many clever readers have written, that adapting anything, however closely, will produce something new. But what would you feel about a “new” work, where its advocate says. “And then there’s this great moment, when the magic potion works, and he wakes up with a donkey’s head on his shoulders! Did you ever hear of such a thing?”
Maybe the fanciful title that I’ve given to this article might have solved all the problems of non-attribution, if the original Shepard story had been graced by it. A Publisher’s solution, which I’m glad to offer for future reprints.
As Mavis Gallant’s friend and defender, let me end by quoting Sadia Shepard. “I believe that creating new work inspired by Gallant honours her legacy and might even bring her new readers, something that Prose and I no doubt agree she deserves.” All very well. But a more definite link with the Mavis Gallant model would send more readers her way, to their great pleasure.