On May 21 2008 in Paris, Marta Dvorak interviewed Mavis Gallant at the famous Café Dome about her long career as a writer and journalist.
In remembering her career as a journalist at the Montreal Standard in the 1940s, Gallant offered up the story of how she managed to interview Jean-Paul Sartre, who was visiting Montreal as part of his lecture tour in North America.
Her recollection highlights the limitations she faced as a female journalist at the time, but also her exceptional self-advocacy and bridging of cultures. She remembers the interview as a journalistic coup: not only was she the only anglophone journalist to interview him in Montreal, she was also the only female journalist.
The following is an excerpt from Gallant’s interview with Marta Dvorak remembering her encounter with Sartre.
MG: Have I ever told you the story of how an editor of my paper reacted when I told him Jean-Paul Sartre was coming to Montreal and I wanted to meet him?
MD: No, you haven’t.
MG: He was the editor who gave you your assignments, Faites-ci, Faites-ça. And they didn’t want women around – c’était très dur pour une femme à l’époque. Somebody told me that Jean-Paul Sartre was coming to Montreal. It must have been 1947, soon after the war. …
So I went to this fellow who was always at daggers drawn with me. As a matter of fact, I met him on a street in Montreal long after I moved to France, and he said in the conversation, “I know that you didn’t like me, but you’ve forgotten what you were like. You were always trying to promote French speakers and shove in a French-Canadian actor you happened to know. You never accepted an assignment without saying, ‘Why do I have to do this when I want to do that? Why do I have to do it this way when I want to do it that way? Why can’t I go and meet a friend of this person first and …’” and he said, “you never just said, all right and went off and did it. No, we had this argument every time – it was exhausting to work with you.” I said I was sorry. So this is the person I went up to in 1947 and said, Look, next week, there’s going to be Jean-Paul Sartre and Paul Hindemith, and I would like to cover them both. Jean-Paul Sartre is going to have a press conference in the Mount Royal Hotel … quelqu’un me l’avait dit , so I knew … and Hindemith will be lecturing and I’m going to go to the lecture. So could I have a photographer for Jean-Paul Sartre? This editor sat back and said, “Listen Mavis, I’m sick to death of these French-Canadian geniuses that you’re always trying to cram down my throat” [laughs] – et c’était Jean-Paul Sartre and Paul Hindemith! So I knew there was no point arguing, and I did what one must never do and I don’t advise. I went to an editor who was over him.
MD: But it worked.
MG: This fellow was civilized. He said, of course you must do Jean-Paul Sartre, and you must have a photographer. … .
MD: I remember your mentioning you interviewed Sartre once. Was this the occasion?
MG: Yes, I did an interview with Sartre, who was charming by the way, most charming. The other reporters there were all French-speaking, and at that time Quebec was not the open place it is now. It was very closed. Sartre was on the index, the Vatican index. He was considered immoral. Sartre had a completely hostile lot of men in front of him. I was the only woman there, and I was the only one from an English paper. Someone brought his books. I remember there was a fellow next to me who brought in a book of his and was holding it up like this, with the page open, showing some infamy that Sartre avait écrit, and Sartre just didn’t know what was happening. I waited till all these jerks had gone out of the room. I had been told that he liked girls, so I wore a red coat so that he would notice me, and I went up to him afterwards before he could escape from the room. This was in the Mount Royal Hotel. I told him I had just read La Nausée and I thought il a fait quelque chose de nouveau … I was really thinking, il a fait quelque chose de nouveau. He was charming, polite, patient with my naïve questions.
MD: Such as?
MG: I remember asking, how much of you was in the main character of La Nausée , the one who sits on the park bench in Le Havre, comment il s’appelait? Antoine, oui …. He said, in anything, in any character you write in fiction, there is something of you inevitably. I don’t agree, but I thought it was very good to know, to be told that. I was just walking on air. I was in the habit of interviewing people from Montreal who were nearly greats or middle greats and they are hell to interview – oh, the vanity. And here was to me a great writer, and he was simplicité itself and gentillesse , he gave me time. I remember we were alone in the room. I walked back to the newspaper because I wanted to think it over, you know. I thought, that is how a great person should behave with a young writer, with a young reporter. That’s the way, that is right. And then I thought, one day – c’était épouvantable that I was able to think that, such immense nerve I had – I thought, one day, they will interview me. And I would be very nice to young people and I would never snub them. It was only after that I thought, kiddo, you haven’t written anything [laughs] no, nothing really worth talking about. Still I thought, one day, they’ll come to interview me.
MD: That’s a lovely story.
– Dvorak, Marta. “When Language is a Delicate Timepiece: Mavis Gallant in conversation with Marta Dvorak.” The Journal of Commonwealth Literature 44.3 (2009): 3-22.