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 “About Geneva”

Even the shortest story in The Other Paris provokes a strong sympathy on the part of readers.

Bill Perlmutter: "Through A Soldier's Lens. Europe In The Fifties".

Bill Perlmutter: “Through A Soldier’s Lens. Europe In The Fifties”.Click for source details

At the heart of the story are two young children, Ursula who is older than seven and Colin who is younger than seven.

They live with their granny and their mother, who is thirty-four years old and anxious-looking but semi-youthful.

The children have just returned from two weeks with their father, who is now in another committed relationship.

Granny is openly suspicious and resentful; she does not believe the children have been properly attended to while they were away and although she recognises the limitations of her authority, she makes her disapproval known.

If she were in charge, the children would have remained in their grandmother’s flat, rather than having travelled to Nice, when they have eaten entirely too much ice-cream.

There is talk of the lake and white water birds, a parasol and a boat with coloured cushions; and someone dared to cut Colin’s curls.

It was about time, his mother declares, suggesting that a boy is not well-brought-up when tended to by women alone.

Nonetheless, as the story procedes, the mother’s capacity for acceptance and interest weakens. It’s clear she has her own doubts.

In the beginning, however, when Ursula announces that she is going to be a writer (like her father, apparently), her mother puts forth an impression of support and encouragement. Ursula’s play has a splendid line in it, about Tatiana all in gold and a Grand Duke, and her mother is suitably impressed. She even offers her a writing desk from her bedroom, which has a lock.

Granny objects, asking where the children’s mother will keep her own things if she gives the desk to Ursula. Mother insists: “I’m not writing a play, or anything else I want kept secret. Not any more.”

Raynaud Menu Nice France Gallant

Raynaud Restaurant in Nice, France 1950sClick for source details

What is a secret? Is there any way to separate it from the idea of romance? Can there be intimacy without secrets? Can there be secrets without intimacy?

Colin is not consciously keeping secret the events of the afternoon which he had with his father and the new woman; he does not recall much of it.

“As he said it, the image became static: a gray sky, a gray lake, and a swan wonderfully turning upside down with the black rubber feet showing above the water. His father was not in the picture at all; neither was she. But Geneva was fixed for the rest of his life: gray, lake, swan.”

Like Barbara in “One Morning in June” and the narrator from “Autumn Day”, Colin’s idea of the picture is preserving something pure, something worthy of notice. And, as such, it’s significant that neither his father, nor the new woman, appear in the image.

Neither, however, do the children appear. Of course, Ursula was not in attendance, but Colin was. And he has positioned himself deliberately outside of the image.

His mother cannot discern whether he truly does not remember more of the day, or whether he has begun to identify more with his father and is prepared to keep his secrets.

“But Colin seemed to carry the story of the visit with him, and she felt the faintest stirrings of envy, the resentfulness of the spectator, the loved one left behind.”

And it’s not only Colin whose loyalty is now in question. Ursula is keeping her own secrets (whether indications of her disloyalty of not).

“But how can they be trusted, the children’s mother thought. What of them can one believe?”

Ultimately, however, it is not about the children’s memories, but about their mother’s ideas about their memories and about her own memories. (And presumably, the grandmother has the same doubts about whether her own daughter is trustworthy, about how much she might alter her impressions to provoke a particular response in her own mother. Geneva: neutrality? This is a story of extremes, not moderation.)

“But, really, she doubted it; nothing had come back from the trip but her own feelings of longing and envy, the longing and envy she felt at night, seeing, at a crossroad or over a bridge, the lighted windows of a train sweep by. Her children had nothing to tell her.”

She is a woman alone, and her son has just had his first hair cut. What next?

Note: This is part of a series of posts on Mavis Gallant’s stories, as I read through her short fiction. This is the tenth 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: “Señor Pinedo”.

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2 comments to Mavis Gallant’s “About Geneva”

  • I love these questions you ask: “What is a secret? Is there any way to separate it from the idea of romance? Can there be intimacy without secrets? Can there be secrets without intimacy?”
    I hate to say it, but I think I would be unsettled, too, if my children were away from me for a long period of time, and I didn’t know what they had been doing…

    • She seems relatively comfortable with the idea of it, at least in theory, even though it seems like the father hasn’t had that much involvement in the children’s lives so far. (Maybe he was waiting until he had a girlfriend to look after them?) Perhaps because it was a less litigious time/society (Europe, not North America, and post-war), the presumption is that both parents have equal rights to spend time with the children, rather than the messy custodial arrangements made here and now. Her own mother didn’t seem to think the visit shouldn’t have happened either, only regretted that they were too spoiled there. But then, later, it’s like she – the mother – has to cope with the idea of their independence sooner than she might have had to do otherwise, and that is understandably discomfiting, especially given that they’re so young!

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