Mavis Gallant’s “From Gamut to Yalta” (1980)

So short. Four pages. And, yet, a man considering his entire life and the geo-political map of his day.

Its shifting (and not-so shifting) borders are intertwined with his ideas about his marriage.

This seems to draw the noose of relationship between the personal and the political uncomfortably – even laughably – tight.

“My wife agrees that had I been present at Yalta the map of Europe might, by now, be quite another kettle of fish.”

Well, perhaps she does and perhaps she does not. This is not her story.

But the teller feels the need to pull her to his side, to insist that she nearly (almost, possibly, practically) misguided him. Away from that nexus of influence.

Maybe that’s a little strong.

But certainly he hadn’t intended to marry.

And that is the first thing readers learn from him. That’s what he leads with. So we are meant to take note.

That he has taken a detour, at least, even if he was not completely misdirected.

But even while we seem encouraged to question whether her influence was not-for-the-better, we catch glimpses of him floundering.

In just four pages, there are so many references to changing times and fashions, it’s dizzying.

Which is just how our narrator seems to experience things. He whirls from one scene to the next, moving across time and space dramatically.

In the first paragraph, sound has come to the movies.

In the third, the Spanish Civil War breaks out.

In between, our narrator meets H.G. Wells who suggests that a more old-fashioned writer (Thomas Hardy) might make for a more suitable contact. (Meanwhile, our narrator was thinking that Wells resembled Abraham Lincoln.)

Our narrator appears to have fallen out of step. Not just with his own expectations of life, having married when he had not planned to, but with the wider world.

But he is not exclusively bitter and confused; his tone is measured and he openly values his wife’s contributions.

“I believe that only the tact and unselfishness of my wife allowed me to write seventy-four novels before the age of thirty.”

That’s right: seventy-four. So, perhaps he doesn’t have much in common with either H.G. Wells or Thomas Hardy after all.

Whatever he has been producing is of little importance, however, for just one paragraph later, he has left England to travel to Paris for a weekend and, when he returns, his wife informs him that the entire world has changed and they agreed that he would leave all that behind.

Now, another kind of story is fashionable, and that is what he will pursue next.

From that point on, everything changed. Our narrator still knows everyone worth knowing, it seems (the story a who’s who parade of importance marching through those four pages).

But he is not entirely happy with the kind of success he achieves.

Or, else, he feels that he should not be entirely happy with it.

Or, that, other people should be disappointed that he has not been afforded the opportunity to be successful in the ways which truly would have mattered.

Even in a very short story, Mavis Gallant crosses a substantial amount of territory. The narrator’s reflections cover a lot of ground, revealing the author’s preoccupation with European history and development and her interest in artistic and political movements.

Here, too, is a sense of the importance of a legacy, of what is built and what remains for those who come afterwards (the literary tradition, for instance, which contains Hardy and Wells and our narrator, as well as the hint of a changed-but-not-so-changed political landscape, which should have felt the effect of this talented writer’s contributions).

Although “The Ice Wagon Coming Down the Street” is a much longer story, there is a hint here, too, of the idea of a marriage’s disappointments being experienced differently by the man and the woman involved, in particular the gap between how successful and comfortable one imagined their life would be and how it actually turned out.

Som.etimes it is the question which remains unanswered which is most interesting. If he had never intended to marry, what was it about this woman that changed the course of his (and the world’s) history.

Somewhere in an interview, I recall Mavis Gallant speaking about the occasions on which a character simply emerged in her mind, complete with voice and perspective. “From Gamut to Yalta” seems to be that kind of story.

Perhaps it is not quite as satisfying as a layered and detailed exploration, but sometimes one wants a seven-layer cake and sometimes a profiterole.

Note: This is part of a series of posts on Mavis Gallant’s stories, as I read through her short fiction. The first four stories in Going Ashore have been dicussed earlier in this reading project, as follows: Going Ashore (TOP) / Wing’s Chips (TOP) / The Legacy (TOP) / Bernadette (MHiB). This is the fifth story in Going Ashore. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story; I would love the company. Next week’s story: “Paola and Renata”.

2017-11-10T17:11:11+00:00

6 Comments

  1. annelogan17 November 8, 2017 at 11:11 pm - Reply

    4 pages!!! Now that is the sign of a truly amazing writer.

  2. Naomi November 8, 2017 at 1:58 pm - Reply

    Too bad this one’s not in my book – I’d like to read what she can do with 4 pages!

    • Buried In Print November 8, 2017 at 3:16 pm - Reply

      Plus it makes re-reading really easy too! I think you and Mel have the same edition, BTW. So you and he will probably join in with the same stories!

  3. The Reading Life November 8, 2017 at 8:25 am - Reply

    This sounds like a very powerful story. It is not in the Collected stories edition.

    • Buried In Print November 8, 2017 at 9:21 am - Reply

      It’s so short, I can see why it was amongst the ones that fell between the cracks, out of print. I wish “The New Yorker” archives was more reasonably priced, so that these stories could be read more easily even without a collection.

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