This story falls between some longer ones in Going Ashore, with Mavis Gallant’s early and uncollected stories, “One Morning in May” and “A Day Like Any Other”. Both stories in which young people’s innocence moves into the shadows of experience.
Here, too, in “Night and Day”, readers consider what comprises a life.
This is particularly pertinent, here, because the story focusses on a character who has no sense of self. Indeed, when the story begins, survival seems unlikely, the self on the verge of dissolution.
Something catastrophic has occurred and our narrator is disconnected from the world around him, unable to find the horizon, let alone to orient himself against it.
The disorientation is complete and, because the story is told from his perspective, readers struggle to gain a sense of balance.
Not only is physical discomfort almost overwhelming, but even basic information is inaccessible.
“The first thing he must remember was the name of the language these people spoke. He understood everything that was said but had forgotten what the language was called. The room was white and too bright, and the brightness was part of his pain. He lay in pain, but presently he found small discomforts just as serious. He was thirsty. The blanket covering him was heavy and coarse.”
This state of being does not endure for long. The perspective offered moves readers quickly through the stages of healing, although initially it is difficult to understand this because the reader’s sense of time is rooted in the character’s experience of time, never-ending and ever-unspooling, as is the case when one is seriously ill.
Each stage in the man’s recovery takes just a paragraph or two, but can potentially cover a substantial period of time. He is, however, unable to offer the kinds of details which readers crave. We long to make sense of things, and this eludes us.
“It’s the morphine,” said the nurse. She had a sugary voice. “You can’t focus. But you are getting smaller doses now.”
But these smaller doses are relative, and relative to an experience which remains fuzzy. It has become, however, not only bearable but comfortable, even, perhaps, desirable. Or, something like that.
“That was all. From this momentary puzzle he moved on to his new state of bliss. He knew there would be nothing but brief periods of doubt followed by intervals of blessedness. Uncaring, impartial, he remembered the name for his condition: la belle indifférence.”
This, then, is the heart of the story, as our narrator moves through the essential states of being. Not necessarily ‘night’ and ‘day’, as we might have guessed, but even more essential than that.
And, yet, survival and recovery is not all that readers might have hoped it would be. Certainly not all that our narrator would have hoped.
Even though, in the beginning, it would have seemed that having even a glimmer of hope would be tantamount to a miracle.
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Mavis Gallant’s stories, as I read through her short fiction. This is the thirteenth 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: “A Revised Guide to Paris”, as the stories between it and today’s have been covered earlier in the reading project.