Open a book this minute and start reading. Don’t move until you’ve reached page fifty. Until you’ve buried your thoughts in print. Cover yourself with words. Wash yourself away. Dissolve. Carol Shields Republic of Love

Mavis Gallant’s “Poor Franzi”

At one table, we have the Wrights, on the crowded hotel terrace, with the Austrian mountains playing picture-postcard for the family, who has journeyed from Baltimore.

They’re a cranky lot, with daughters Coralie and Joan having had a different set of expectations for their travels, which neither their mother nor their brother Charlie shared.

Mountains viewed from Salzburg - Click for credit

Mountains viewed from Salzburg – Click for credit

Mind you, Charlie seems to be having a fine time, having cosied up to a young English woman, Miss Mewling. (Whether for her own sake, or due to some deeper frustration with their brother, the sisters are none too fond of Miss Mewling.)

And when Mrs. Wright comments on the fact that young women get carried away and cause difficulties on a journey, the sisters are quick to observe that young men (i.e. Charlie) do get carried away and cause difficulties as well.

As you can see, there is no need for another table in Mavis Gallant’s story.

And, in fact, the Wright family was not cast as the main lot in this story either. The story opens with the Baronin Ebendorf, who is being introduced to Elizabeth Dunn at the next table. The Wrights have to turn to see.

And, they do.

As do we, readers.

It’s a queer twist in the mechanics of the story, because immediately readers must sort out all the family connections and the relationship between Elizabeth and the Wrights (there is none, not yet, anyway, and only barely, even later) and it’s all a little overwheming.

It would have been much simpler if readers were presented with the old woman and stayed with her point-of-view.

But, in fact, the Wrights are there to make a good deal of noise, but we are meant to keep our eyes on the Baronin. And she, in turn, has eyes only for her grandson, Franzi. Yes, “Poor Franzi”.

Even while she is taking Elizabeth Dunn’s hand, the Baronin’s gaze is fixed on Franzi. There: there is the story we are meant to see.

And, yet, there is not much of a story there. We have to hear from the Wrights about how much the Baronin adores her young grandson, how she longs for his company and how oblivious he appears to be. The story seems to be all about what has not happened. About meetings on the terrace which did not transpire.

Also, about who has something and who has nothing. When Miss Mewling corrects a disparaging remark made by Coralie (about the aid money America has sent to these countries), observing that the Baronin was unlikely to have received such monies personally, readers are alerted to the class matters at work.

From the better-off table, it is observed that Franzi’s car is old, seemingly held together by string, and that Elizabeth must be at least twenty-eight years old.

And, in turn, readers are offered a glimpse of Elizabeth’s thoughts, as she struggles to imagine the old grandmother, with her sunburned hands, sitting in a garden chair while Elizabeth’s mother messes about with the roses (an act of homage, not labour).

She, the old woman, “looks like nothing”, according to Coralie. But Elizabeth too, observes the financial state of the Ebendorf family and considers a disparity. She only belongs in her old house. “Being old, the house was damp; the leaded vine-encumbered windows admitted chunks of greenish light. Winters, in the rainy season, the old woman remained in bed for days on end.”

Elizabeth is American, like the Wright family. Franzi looks Danish, though. So, he is good-looking, fair and bright, but Miss Mewling warns that they “all have a little Czech, although they deny it”. The idea of these two ‘worlds’ colliding is, at best, awkward and, worse, unsavoury.

Brick GallantElizabeth is thinking about what life would be like married to Franzi. “She often did this, weighing her marriage as if she had shopped out of season for a costly and perishable fruit.”

The matter takes on a new urgency when the Baronin dies and Elizabeth attends the service in Franzi’s place. Franzi takes a business meeting instead. Franzi, with his “bemused and distant” smile, which inspired people to call him by his Christian name.

Franzi’s looks are significant. It’s the look on his face, when Elizabeth has tried to subtly urge him to take the bill at the hotel rather than allow the Baronin to pay, that Elizabeth observes: his blank look. “Elizabeth, who had read a great deal about love but was ignorant of its processes, found the look adorable.”

The remnants of the Baronin’s life are meagre, as is the service. Which is, ironically, attended by the Wright family and Miss Mewling, but not “Poor Franzi”.

Franzi’s blank look is likely on his face again, when a neighbour ashamedly mentions the costs related to the service, when the neighbour accepts the responsibility for paying the sum, as though it was simply another hotel bill. But “Poor Franzi”.

“What will happen to me if I marry him, she [Elizabeth] wondered; and what would become of Franzi if she were to leave him?”

It’s not openly declared, just how much of the story’s title is intended sympathetically and how much is intended ironically. Elizabeth’s decision is not openly announced either.

But just as readers are instructed to look in unexpected directions, we are given a clue in the summary of Franzi’s sister’s life.

Adelaide does not make an appearance in the story; she has no seat on the hotel terrace.

And her story does not leak out in dialogue and grievances, rather is tidily displayed as follows: “His sister had married and gone to Australia, and she had not written to anyone for three years. Her husband farmed, her children were called Ian and Doreen, and she would have left them all in a minute had there been anywhere else to go.”

Outside, on the afternoon I am reading this story, it is grey and damp and dull. From my window, I can see the corner of a small city park, with its mounded and rounded flowerbed. It is dark and empty. Things do not seem to grow there: one day it is like this, another day it is filled with growing things.

The arrangement differs according to the seasons, transplanted by a team which completes the task (which includes the symmetrical bed on the opposite side of the street, which has an even smaller greenspace, not even large enough to hold a bench) in a couple of hours.

Most of the time, the park is empty. One man comes regularly and sits on the bench with his terrier on his lap, both of them staring outward, mostly straight-ahead. Another woman comes regularly in fine weather, spreads a cloth and stretches in the shade of a maple tree, surrounding herself with small entertainments which she cycles through for a couple of hours (the length of time it takes to plant an entire park). A young couple take turns bringing their black dog, standing with their backs to the traffic and throwing a bright orange ball towards the corner of the space until one of them tires of the game (seemingly always one of the two-leggeds).

Mavis Gallant takes transitory spaces and looks for a story. But where she does not tell a story is just as interesting as where she chooses to tell a story.

“Poor Franzi” is, ironically, not Franzi’s story. But whose story is it?

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 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: “Going Ashore” (which also appears in some other collections as outlined in the schedule).

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