What is to be Done?
Raise your hand if you knew that Mavis Gallant had written a play. (I didn’t.)
What is to be Done? (a play) by Mavis Gallant. Premiered at the Tarragon Theatre in 1982, published in 1983. Re-issued by Linda Leith Publishing, with an introduction by Linda Leith, in 2017.
Like Gallant's Linnet Muir stories, What is to be Done? is set in Montreal in the 1940s. It features Molly and Jenny who are comrades as well as friends. They are young, one is married and the other is single. They are living in a country at war -- though the war is in some respects distant -- at a time when opportunities seemed to be opening up for women. Both of them, or each in their particular way, has the certainties and the insistence and the optimism of youth.
Molly and Jenny attend demonstrations and take informal instruction in Marxism. After Hitler turns his troops east in 1941, and voids the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, they join the call for the Allies to open a Second Front. They trust that the defeat of Nazism will result in a better world. (For one thing, surely Franco would no longer rule Spain.)
Gallant was a little cagey in interviews when asked about her own politics during those years but we can read between the lines. She described herself as “an intensely left-wing political romantic” and “passionately anti-fascist”. As are these characters. Passionately anti-fascist, but also naïve, romantic, idealistic.
And yet. The young know a thing or two that the writer, looking back from thirty or forty years, will struggle to portray without condescension.
In one exchange, Molly and Jenny reflect on the difference between love and friendship:
Molly: . . . nothing is owed in friendship. You can close the account without publishing a statement. No one can claim a right to examine the books. There are no mortgages.
Jenny: And love?
Molly: Just one foreclosure after another.
How great is that?
 From Mavis Gallant’s 1977 interview with Geoff Hancock, Canadian Fiction Magazine 39, reprinted in Canadian Writers at Work, Interviews with Geoff Hancock (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1987). Also cited by Linda Leith, in the introduction to What is to be Done? (2017) and by John Metcalf in “My Heart is Broken: In Memoriam Mavis Gallant, 1922-2014,” Canadian Notes & Queries (CNQ), Winter 2016
 What is to be Done?, scene 2, page 52 in the Linda Leith edition (2017)