Mavis Gallant’s “The Picnic” (1952)

The weight of the brooch pulls the fabric of young Margaret Marshall’s picnic frock. It always hangs just fine off her navy blue shorts, but the light-weight dress doesn’t provide a suitable backdrop.

Scans of 2 d images in the public domain believed to be free to use without restriction in the US.

How disappointing for young Margaret, who so treasures this gift from Madame Pégorin, the photo of the woman’s beloved poodle encircled by seed pearls.

The old woman has told the Marshall children many stories about Youckie, who died of influenza shortly before the war. As often as their mother begs them not to bother the woman, they beg the woman to tell them more about the dog.

It’s sad, of course, that the children could not know Youckie. But perhaps Youckie didn’t have it so bad; Youckie didn’t have to see how far downhill things went after the war.

Quite likely, Youckie would not have enjoyed sharing a house with the Marshall family either. But, of course, the Gould family was intolerable. The father in that family was only a sergeant.

Those two little boys (Henry and Joey) caused no end of trouble. Really, they shouldn’t even be allowed to play with the Marshall children. Their father is a Major.

The Marshall family is caught between, however; they are far too good to be living in the army barracks in Virolun, France but not really good enough to be living in Madame Pégorin’s house either.

In fact, Madame Pégorin dislikes “foreigners” and “she had told the Marshall children so”. (This insular distrust appears in characters scattered throughout this collection.)

Perhaps she would not have been so bold with Major and Paula Marshall; indeed, she “tried, as well as she could, to ignore the presence of the Americans in Virolun, just as, long ago, when she traveled, she had overlooked the natives of whichever country she happened to be in”.

The Marshall children are not put off; they adore Madame Pégorin. And her stories of her poodle. And, also, the treats (sugared almonds and rum cakes) she keeps in a tin near her bed.

Anyway, “they, fortunately, did not consider themselves foreign, and had pictured instead dark men with curling beards.” (This recalls Carol’s fears in “The Other Paris”: there are many threats in this collection and just as many prejudices running beneath them)

Their mother does not encourage their devotions, but treads carefully around them all the same. She recognizes that her husband is in a difficult position, caught between two sets of expectations.

Although he has been asked to organize a picnic, this is not a simple matter. “She suddenly felt terribly sorry for him, because of all that was in store for him this day, and because the picnic was not likely to clarify his status, as he so earnestly hoped. There would be fresh misunderstandings and further scandals.”

The picnic is intended to be a clear demonstration of the amitie between the Americans and the French, but also a quiet resolution of potential (real or imagined) conflict between many other states of between-ness.

“He admired Madame Pégurin, confusing her, because she was old and French and had once been rich, with courts and courtesans and the eighteenth century. In her presence, his mind took a literary turn, and he thought of vanished glories, something fine that would never return, gallant fluttering banners, and the rest of it.”

Readers might allow their imaginations to take a literary turn as well. Maybe they will think of picnics in Enid Blyton novels or the scene in William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice. Maybe Hanging Rock will come to mind or Jane Austen’s Emma.

TNYBut the story isn’t actually about a picnic, anymore than Madame Pégorin is a courtesan with fluttering banners. It’s about the idea of everyone gathering together in simplest form.

Even though there is nothing simple about simplicity. It’s like charting the difference between poverty and minimalism. The number of objects might be the same, but it’s not at all the same story beyond the number.

What is the role of the army in all of this? Hopefully the photographs snapped by the invited journalists will clarify that. In the meantime, Mavis Gallant is prepared to expose the humour inherent in this undertaking.

“One of the research workers had, quite recently, asked Major Marshall whether it was true that when young Mrs. Gould asked Madame Pégurin if she had a vacuum cleaner, she had been told, ‘No, I have a servant.’ Was this attitude widespread, the research worker had wanted to know. Or was the Army helping break down the feudal social barriers of the little town. Oh, yes, the Major had replied. Oh, yes, indeed.”

The Marshall children wouldn’t have known about the status of Madame Pégurin’s household applicances either, but they might have been able to provide a tally of pistachio creams and spongecakes.

Only a parent, however, would have been able to make the connection between the quantity of such delicacies and feudal social barriers. And perhaps a “foreigner” is ill-equipped to determine the dimensions of social change. Particularly if their employment depends upon the belief that they are instigating it and maintaining it brilliantly and lastingly.

Herein resides the between-ness. The Marshall children’s expectations for the picnic are, relatively speaking, uncomplicated. Margaret simply wants her brooch to hang properly. They do not yet understand that they are crossing a gap if they choose to cross a field to play with the Gould boys. They do not even feel the pinch of being caught between their mother’s frustrations with Madame Pégurin and their father’s confusion about her true status in her home territory.

So many things are anticipated as failing for this picnic. The delivery of the Coca-Cola will be delayed. The movie projector will be on the fritz. The players accustomed to using the field for a football match will literally be sidelined and scowling.

The list of conflicts is seemingly endless. Far simpler to be an image, caught in a photographic plate, frozen in time. This ever-shifting world is confusing.

Sometimes all one can do is overlook the parts one doesn’t like.

Note: This is part of a series of posts on Mavis Gallant’s stories, as I read through her short fiction. This is the fifth 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: “The Deceptions of Marie-Blanche”.

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2017-03-26T10:55:23+00:00

5 Comments

  1. Naomi April 11, 2017 at 11:12 am - Reply

    Your reviews for these stories are like stories themselves – so pleasant to read.
    That dog! That could be my dog if I allowed for such a haricut! The one in the picture, though, looks like what I imagine her owner to be like, the way you described her. Bangs and all. 🙂

    • Buried In Print April 11, 2017 at 11:55 am - Reply

      That’s a good point: they are rather similar in some respects, also in the sense that we don’t get to know either of them very well, but they are both about putting forth an impressive face when they are visible. I didn’t imagine your dog that way, but that’s so nice to know. There are a pair of those which I meet on my morning walks and now I’ll think of your companion too!

      • Naomi April 12, 2017 at 8:25 am - Reply

        We have a black standard poodle, like Majnoun in Fifteen Dogs. No funny haircuts – just shaggy. What do the ones on your walk look like?
        I wouldn’t have imagined my dog that way, either – we’ve never had a poodle before – but someone was looking for a home for him right at the time we were considering getting a dog. They really don’t shed!

        • Buried In Print April 12, 2017 at 3:54 pm - Reply

          I’ve heard that and can see where it would be a real advantage. I think one looks like yours then, and the other is light brown. There are some singleton standard poodles on occasion, too, (and a small hazelnut coloured one who sometimes wants to visit) but this pair is very sociable, and I think we might become regular friends (still in the brief sniff and hello stage after a few weeks of encounters – it takes time when you’re literally passing by!).

          • Naomi April 12, 2017 at 8:10 pm - Reply

            Aww, they sound cute. And how nice to get to visit with them and not have to bring them home! Ha! I don’t really mean it… I don’t think. 🙂

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