My hero: Jhumpa Lahiri and Michael Ondaatje on Mavis Gallant

Two prizewinning writers pay tribute to a unique author who embraced darkness and compassion as well as humour and light

Jhumpa Lahiri

I discovered Mavis Gallant thanks to a writer friend in the mid-90s when I was just starting out writing short stories. I felt she had taken the form above and beyond what I thought it could do. She turned it on its head. I felt a great freedom when reading her, because even though her work is mainly short stories, they are their own genre in a way; they are so much richer, so much denser than so many novels. If you just read the opening two pages of some of her stories you are inundated with details, material, interior life, coming at full throttle, yet it is all very clear and one is able to follow and enter into these worlds that she creates.

But they are not predictable worlds. She doesn't move in a predictable way and that is what I found so exciting. A few stories that come to mind are "The Ice Wagon Going Down the Street", the Linnet Muir autobiographical stories and "The Remission", which I think is an absolute masterpiece. Her novel Green Water, Green Sky can be read as a collection of stories, but it is a very intense piece of writing, very dark, but light and absurd at the same time. Tonally, too, she occupies a very specific space in terms of her humour and her pitiless eye. And that is very hard to do. Her work is heartbreaking but there's a lightness to it.

Anyone who met her in person knows that she was ferocious and delightful at the same time – always smiling and laughing and being amused by things. In addition to the calibre of her writing, there is also the example of her life: the great act of bravery to leave Canada to live in Paris alone and to survive solely by means of her writing is such an extraordinary thing to have done. She was completely on her own. I admire her so deeply for giving everything she had to her creative life. That is a very rare thing, it requires such integrity, such stamina, such blind faith. Her body of work is unique and profound; I don't think there will be another quite like her.

Michael Ondaatje

For too long Mavis Gallant's stories – in spite of appearing so often in the New Yorker – have been a well-kept secret. I know authors who admit that the one writer they do not read when they are completing a book is Gallant. Nothing could be more intimidating. "The long career of Marguerite Yourcenar," Gallant once wrote, "stands among the litter of flashier reputations as testimony to … the purpose and meaning of a writer's life". The remark is an apt description of her own accomplishment.

Mavis Gallant published her first stories at a time when, as Mordecai Richler writes, "there were no more than 50 bookshops from coast to coast in Canada, most of them no more than glorified stationery stores." And six years later, in 1950, determined to become a full-time writer, she moved to Paris, where she lived until her death this week.

The landscapes she has written about range from the Quebec she grew up in to the Europe she settled in. Her Europe is a place of "shipwrecks", where nearly all her characters are seemingly far from home, in transit, overhead in balloons – her very titles signal her characters' transient and incomplete state. And in those stories she gives us an underground map of Europe in the 20th century.

In a sentence she could tilt a situation a few subliminal degrees in the mind of the reader so that we begin to see her characters from a more compassionate or more satirical position. Gallant's craft and empathy are always ahead of us. It is only when we reread her that we discover how, before we know it, she will have circled a person, captured a voice, revealed a whole manner of a life in the way a character avoids an issue or discusses a dress.

Gallant always surprised us, she never bothered with the dramatically obvious. As a writer she was beholden to no one. And for a writer whose stories could be dark and misanthropic, it is remarkable to see how many of them are also gently, continually funny, even abundant with farce.

The GuardianTramp

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