Imagine a ribbon. Pinch a loop of it between your index finger and thumb. The small piece you grasp is where the story begins and ends, while in between recounting “the year of shocks”.
We meet the Clairvoie family when son Luc has failed his course of study. Spectacularly failed. And this matters, we know straight away, because this story is about Luc.
And his father, Roger. Sometime after Luc fails, Roger has a second heart attack.
But more important than any heart attack, first or second, they are merely mentioned, is the series of meetings which Roger and Simone have with the school staff members who have been tasked with improving Luc’s academic performance. The meetings are counted, as well. Which seems to herald a gradual accumulation of heart attacks, likewise.
No doubt Luc’s failure has added to the stress in Roger’s life. Afterward, life changes. “His mother took Luc to the dentist, had his glasses changed, and bought him a Honda 125 to make up for his recent loss of self-esteem. Roger’s contribution took the form of long talks.”
Those long talks don’t seem stressful, only tedious. Roger recounts successes from his own life, seems to suggest that Luc only needs to repeat the pattern, which Roger has emulated, in order to avoid another failure.
Luc doesn’t seem to be getting it. “Sometimes Roger would hear him trying chords on his guitar: pale sound without rhythm or sequence.” It’s a cliché, the eavesdropping parent, who intuits chaos and misdirection.
Simone doesn’t seem to think that Roger is getting it either. She confides, to another woman, that her husband has struggled in the past: “Roger, too, had been hampered by guiding principles. As a youth, he had read for his own pleasure. His life was a dream.”
And Roger is aware that his wife has her doubts about him. His perspective is not conservative enough, not bold enough, not daring enough.
In a conversation about whether a civil war would be a good way to address social tensions, Roger is quick and dismissive: “He said, ‘There are no good little civil wars’.”
But immediately after he has spoken, he hesitates to elaborate, fails to bolster his position. “But he knew what was said of him: that his heart attacks had altered his personality, made him afraid.”
They are traditionalists, Roger and Simone, but perhaps Simone is even more conservative in her thinking. “That night at dinner Simone remarked, ‘My father once said he could die happy. He had never entertained a foreigner or shaken hands with an English-man.’”
His parents are relieved that “Luc was learning a Europe caught in amber, unchanging, with trees for gods”. They are alarmed by the rate and nature of change in the world around them.
There is a lot of talk of Algeria, the occasional outright statement, subtle references. The price of fruit was more manageable when the colony remained intact. That kind of thing.
There is a lot of fear of the new Socialist government which has taken hold. Of the idea of changing alliances and strained or fractured international relationships.
There are changes which are making it more difficult for the Clairvoie family to enjoy their status. Luc would not be having such a hard time if not for new movements towards inclusivity. This idea of everyone having access to things like education, for instance.
But does any of this matter, this old-fashioned story of a boy and his father, trying to find a balance between different and the same.
Because Luc doesn’t want his father’s life. And Roger doesn’t want his own life choices thrown into question. And he is aware that the world has changed substantially, so that what worked for him (even if one is prepared to say that it has, actually, worked) cannot be easily duplicated.
It would be so much easier if everything could just stay the same. And doesn’t that sound like so many of the headlines in the news today.
This story of Luc and his father – and the thin ribbon of time pressed between thumb and forefinger – remains relevant.
Mavis Gallant was not necessarily clairvoyant. Simply observant and intelligent.
But her story of the Clairvoie family could be set in 2019.
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Mavis Gallant’s stories, as I read through her short fiction. This is the third story in Overhead in a Balloon. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story; I would love the company. Next story: “A Painful Affair”.