Mavis Gallant’s “Autumn Day” (1955)

I laid in with this story, while on a brief holiday in a small town outside Toronto. Outside, the sound of other people’s everyday morning scurried past, but I was not required to be anywhere in particular that day.

Piotr Bozyk, Click for siource credit

Salzburg Austria, Prison overlooking town [Piotr Bozyk, Click for credit]

This open-ended kind of feeling suited the story, even though it was more springlike than autumnal outside my window, which overlooked the street.

Nonetheless, this sense of suspension, the day readying to hold more exploring and experimenting than workaday life usually allows, created a space for me to settle next to Cissy, who has just disembarked in Salzburg, to meet her husband.

They were married when she was 18 and now she is 19, a wartime bride, excited but discomfited by the idea of being a wife.

Parts of this discovery seem quite lovely: she almost cries when she imagines how she must look, meeting her husband at the train station. But in fact she acts rather childishly and laments that she has nothing memorable to say.

The reality is more challenging than she has anticipated. And it is wartime. The demands overshadow her daily life, their weight in expecations as prominent as the prison overshadowing the Austrian town of Salzburg.

Cissy and Walt are boarding outside the city, in Herr Enrich’s farmhouse, along with a Hungarian couple (the husband was once wealthy but now works as a salesman) and a rabbity looking family from Vienna.

These people are truly displaced, and the American singer who remembers the house from a previous visit and returns briefly, is in transition as well.

Cissy is too young and inexperienced to understand this kind of rootlessness, and seemingly oblivious of the war, although she endeavors to follow the instructions she is given, to make friends with the other army wives. And the feminine experience of wartime life is not her husband’s experience at all. He is not in a transition: his identity remains intact.

“He hardly remembers our life on the farm. Yet those three months stand out in my memory like a special little lifetime, neither girlhood nor marriage. It was a time when I didn’t like what I was, but didn’t know what I wanted to be. In a way, I tried to do the right things. I followed Walt’s instructions.”

But Cissy isn’t comfortable with the idea of wife-ness, so she is reluctant to make alliances on that basis. Indeed, the main task Walt assigns her – to befriend his best friend’s wife – is a true burden. One only alleviated by an abundance of fruity alchoholic drinks.

“I don’t know if I was unhappy or happy in those days. It wasn’t what I’d expected, none of it, being married, or being an Army wife, or living in Europe. Everything – even conversation – seemed so much in the future that I couldn’t get my feet on the ground and start living.”

Autumn Day Music

“Autumn Day” Click for source credit

And her exposure to the other residents’ wifedoms is unhelpful.

“The bed wasn’t made; just the covers pulled over the pillows. From the back of a chair, a dirty cotton brassiere hung by a strap. The word “marriage” came into my head. It reminded me of something – a glimpse of my married sister’s bedroom on a Sunday morning, untidy and inexplicably frightening.”

She is convinced that the visiting American singer’s residency will offer a reprieve of sorts.

“Here is someone whose room won’t be dirty, who doesn’t drink all day, who won’t frighten me, who hasn’t got a husband.”

But her plan is unsuccessful.  “I’d have to manage without help, without a friend more important than Walt. I wondered if all of this – my crying, Walt being bewildered – was married life, not just the preliminary.”

And she is left with the sound of the “Autumn Day” in the background, a sad accompaniment to a fresh reality. “Your girlhood doesn’t vanish overnight. I know, now, what a lot of wavering goes on, how you step forward and back again. The frontier is invisible; sometimes you’re over without knowing it.”

Cissy is over the line. She’s crossed the border. Into some Other Salzburg. Into some other Cissy-ness.

And her previous sense of suspension, between states, perfectly encapsulated in the scene of her arrival at the train station, is not filled with pleasant anticipation.

Rather, a sense of something inescapable reflected in a scrap of worn nylon.

Perhaps this is the vinegary bit, to which Janice Kulyk Keefer referred, but for all that it is a little grim, it is credible and realistic.

Note: This is part of a series of posts on Mavis Gallant’s stories, as I read through her short fiction. This is the second story in The Other Paris. 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: “Poor Franzi”.

2017-03-06T18:32:47+00:00

5 Comments

  1. […] the narrator of “Autumn Day”, Barbara is amused by the idea of viewing herself with Mike, placing herself in an image which […]

  2. Naomi March 23, 2017 at 11:27 am - Reply

    It’s too bad that I can’t read your reviews BEFORE you read the story (ha!) – then I would know which ones to join in on! This sounds like a good one. Well, except that I don’t have the book… There’s one at the library called Selected Stories (there doesn’t seem to be ‘The Other Paris’) – I think I’ll try that one!
    I feel for Cissy, tasked with having to make friends with his best friend’s wife.

    • Buried In Print March 27, 2017 at 11:36 am - Reply

      If you can find The Cost of Living, a relatively recent collection (from New York Review Books, ironically, but then again, MG never received the recognition in Canada that the Americans and Europeans bestowed upon her work), there are more of the early stories there, including this one. (I don’t think it’s in Selected Stories, which weighs more heavily on the later stories, but it does include at least the title story). If you happen to have a subsciption to the digital New Yorker, many of her stories are available that way as well (I’d love one, but I don’t have one). Either way, Selected Stories will give you an idea of whether you’d like her (but I think you would – and many of her stories would fit with your Literary Wives project too!)

      • Naomi March 28, 2017 at 11:39 am - Reply

        There’s also no “The Cost of Living”. But I did take out The Selected Stories, even though I have already compared with your list and there is only the title story. Oh well. I have it to sample from for probably about 9 weeks. 🙂

        • Buried In Print March 29, 2017 at 12:29 pm - Reply

          It seems incredible to me that she is not more widely available in Canada, and that her fame was cultivated primarily elsewhere (that old Canadian stereotype that we do not support our own), but I just checked and our library doesn’t have the NYRB collection either! Aiyiyi. (The early collections are in-library use only, too.) But I’ll be reading her for at least three years, by the looks of it, so I’ll get to all those good stories in the collection you’ve got eventually!

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