In another collection, this story is called “One Morning in May”, and I wonder if anyone thought about renaming it “The Other Menton”. For as surely as the title story takes a young woman’s expectations of Paris and examines how they conflict with her real experience of the city, this story bursts the balloon of another young woman’s ideas about a picnic in Menton.
The string of hotels which faces the beach in Mention is renowned, the buildings named for Albert and Victoria and the Empire. Even though Barbara Ainslie is not staying in one of these, but is staying with her aunt, her residency is just as itinerant.
Not that she has experienced much of life yet. She is sixteen years old, and has been educated in a New York day school. A relatively sheltered existence.
“Barbara was conscious, every moment of the day, that she was to get something from her year in France, and return to America brilliant, poised, and educated. Accordingly, she visited all the museums and copied on slips of paper the legends of monuments.”
Already she has learned a lot. But she is not yet “brilliant” or “poised”, although still striving.
“She had read a great deal in the winter, and she could have told anyone that Africa seethed, Asia teemed, and that something must be done at once about the Germans, the Russians, the Chinese, and the Spanish or Heaven only knew what would happen.”
There are so many threats to disorder, on the political and personal levels. Barbara is on the precipice, waiting to see “what would happen”.
Mike Cahill is a little older (not much) and he is also passing through Menton, because “…his family had decided that a year in Paris would show whether or not his natural bent was toward painting. It was rather like exposing someone to a case of measles and watching for spots to break out.” (This is one of my favourite lines in this collection. Artistry as affliction!)
Like the narrator of “Autumn Day”, Barbara is amused by the idea of viewing herself with Mike, placing herself in an image which suits her imaginings.
“She carried her camera, slung on a strap, and she felt that she and Mike formed, together, a picture of art, pleasure, and industry which, unhappily, there was no one to remark but a fat man taking his dog for a run; the man gave them scarcely a glance.”
Notably, she is only interested in the perspective which includes Mike alongside.
“It had occurred to her many times in this lonely winter that only marriage would save her from disgrace, from growing up with no skills and no profession. Her own mother did nothing all day, but she was excused by having once been married.”
Barbara has no way of imagining herself in the future, no idea of who she might be.
Like the younger narrator of “Wing’s Chips”, she is preoccupied by the idea of what she is not.
“From her reading she knew that she would never meet men or be of interest to them until she could, suddenly and brilliantly, perform on the violin, become a member of Macy’s Junior Executive Squad, or, at the very least, take shorthand at a hundred and twenty words a minute.”
With all the qualities she lacks, she remains undesirable. She sits and knits while Mike paints Menton (which is not all that much different from Barbara imagining the photograph of the two of them, except that he is not interested in drawing figures, perhaps has no need to situate himself in relationship to anything else, because he is at the centre of the act of viewing, not of being viewed).
Mike has been studying with an English painter named Chitterley, who advertised his services by poster in a cafe and has a studio on the Quai d’Anjou.
In Paris, he paints “with sober patience the bridges of the Seine, the rain-soaked lawns of the Tuileries, and a head-on view of Notre Dame”. (Readers of “The Other Paris” might imagine that he is painting what Carol expected to find in the city, before she visited it.)
His paintings are large and slightly askew, which is what he has brought with him from his studies at home. (As if the scale is all out of whack, ill-fitting and lacking perspective, either from within or without.)
The artistic projects are dissatisfying and he remains insecure, but at least he has not suffered an embarrassing audition for a theatrical role (which has been Barbara’s experience). He continues to create (rather than auditioning for someone else’s creative projects).
Barbara is no good at acting, it seems, and perhaps this is why she cannot pretend that it doesn’t matter if Mike is not enchanted by her.
She craves his enchantment with her. She needs to be able to imagine herself in somebody’s image of a happy married couple.
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Mavis Gallant’s stories, as I read through her short fiction. This is the ninth 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: “About Geneva”.