Mavis Gallant’s “Paola and Renata” (1965)

The widow has let her hair go. It is half mahogany and half dull grey. Not only grey, but dull grey.

Paola and Renata’s listening that summer

One has the sense that being a widow might have brought this about. The simple act of inhabiting widowhood.

But that it was completely unavoidable in this case, because she is not only a widow, but a widow whose husband left her no security. Nothing.

And not because he did not have any to offer. But because he granted that to his mistress instead. (Her hair is not described. It must be lush and blonde, naturally sculpted into waves.)

One feels that the widow’s hair is dull grey because of this additional insult, that a deeper disappointment has left her colourless and limp.

In contrast, the youngest girl in the story has her hair put into a tail each morning. By the Austrian nurse who is caring for her this summer.

This girl is the youngest daughter of the widow. The nurse has no sooner arranged the elastic band so that the hair can be secured when the young girl disrupts the process.

This disruption occurs daily, but in the scene we observe directly, the young girl not only wriggles free but bites the nurse as well.

The nurse cries. The child – Anna – does not. The mother slips her hair into a tail without resistance. Now the little girl can go swimming.

The people whom you would expect to cry in this story, do not. Their disappointments and griefs are present but not in tears.

The widow’s friend has a stylish cut and colour. She is in the midst of negotiating a marriage for her daughter.

Her daughter and the widow’s daughters are friends. Well, not friends exactly, but friendly. Well, not exactly friendly either.

The widow’s daughter is Paola. The other daughter – the one who might be married soon – is Renata.

In the title of this story, they are presented as equals. In fact, their power and positions shift and wriggle throughout the story.

Paola’s hair is short and brushed forward in a “Charleston”. Renata’s mother pets Paola’s hair and says she wishes that Renata’s hair was like Paola’s. What she means is that she wishes that Renata could cause her as little trouble as Paola’s hair causes her, or anyone, for that matter.

Renata is causing a great deal of difficulty. Partly by having reached the age of seventeen. Partly with her bent towards deception.

Renata swims without a bathing cap, in hopes of lightening her hair, which is “Scandanavian” and floats on the water.

She is like Ophelia. But not mad. And not drowning. So, not really like Ophelia at all. Except for her hair.

And, so, the hair does matter. It is, of course, only a single detail shared about the women in the story (the help, whether Austrian – bad – or Italian – good, don’t seem to have any hair). But it is used to demonstrate the restraint and confinement which girls and women can find in various stages of their lives.

In the beginning, it is summer.

“The father had died not quite two years ago, and there was a faint new difference between the girls, delicately felt, invisible still, like the turning of summer.”

In the end, summer turns. Paola observes this directly, in terms of climate and comfort. But she is simultaneously commenting on a more profound change.

“Paola shuddered and rubbed her arms and legs with a rough towel as soon as she came out of the water. In less than a week the climate changed. They dragged their towels and cushions away from the shade of the bamboo fence and followed the sun. When they sat on the beach – Paola, and her mother, and little Anna – Paola was conscious of them as a family without men. She did not miss Renata.

‘I wish something would happen,’ she said.

‘You’ll be engaged later,’ said her mother. ‘Seventeen is too young.’

‘Can’t anything happen without an engagement?'”

Mavis Gallant’s girls do wonder whether anything can happen without an engagement.

Here, it seems that the answer is “no”.

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 discussed earlier in this reading project, as follows: Going Ashore (TOP) / Wing’s Chips (TOP) / The Legacy (TOP) / Bernadette (MHiB). This is the sixth 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: “Dido Flute, Spouse to Europe”.

2017-11-21T15:27:35+00:00

8 Comments

  1. Naomi November 18, 2017 at 4:35 pm - Reply

    How depressing… the dull grey hair and the fact that nothing can happen without an engagement. Maybe Paola will think of something to liven them up.
    And who leaves nothing behind for their children? How awful.

    P.S. I discovered today that the library has “In Transit”. It had been mis-shelved! It’ll be a while before you’re ready for that one, though. 🙂

    • Buried In Print November 20, 2017 at 9:21 am - Reply

      Yay for mis-shelving? Maybe you just need to check some backrooms, look for places that people stuff things that need repair, that kind of thing?

      It does feel like rather a sad story from that perspective. And it leaves you wondering about that marriage and how unhappy the household was while the husband was alive!

  2. The Reading Life November 14, 2017 at 11:40 pm - Reply

    Sadly neither this not next scheduled Story is in her collected stories. I wish the full,storied was published in One volume, the kindle edition of 100 storied is fairly prized at $16.95, I think maybe the publishers felt a full collection at $25.00 plus might no sell. Inspired by your event, I’m thinking seriously of a read through of The fill stories of Deborah Eisenberg, availabld in one book, 96 stories for $16.95. It would be at minimum two year project. It is also a gesture of optimism for me.

    I’m looking forward to Reading along with more Gallant stories with you.

    .

    • Buried In Print November 20, 2017 at 9:02 am - Reply

      I’m not sure what the reasoning would have been, but so far it also seems that some of the stories which are not included do not fit as tidily with the kinds of stories she wrote in later years. Some of these are very short, almost playful, experiments with glimpsing into characters’ lives. Maybe it’s such easier to try to make it seem as though that’s the “real Mavis Gallant”, rather than include some other kinds of approaches to storytelling? I’ve checked the library here and the Collected Stories by Deborah Eisenberg is available for me to borrow, although I’m not sure (from the description online if it has all 96 stories – I’ll check when I’m next in that branch, as it is also the branch with the Lowry novel we’ve discussed). Either way, I’d love to join in when you are ready to read her too!

  3. annelogan17 November 14, 2017 at 4:56 pm - Reply

    I love this focus on Mavis Gallant, I need to know more about her!

    • Buried In Print November 20, 2017 at 8:55 am - Reply

      You can find some neat things through the CBC archives if you’re keen!

  4. heavenali November 14, 2017 at 12:34 pm - Reply

    I like the way the author has appears to have used something as simple as hair to tell us so much about these characters.

    • Buried In Print November 20, 2017 at 8:53 am - Reply

      Her use of detail is fascinating, because the stories never feel cluttered with it, just as if she’s pulled the images from life.

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