Mavis Gallant’s “La Vie Parisienne” (1981)

“My name is Renée. I am fifty-four years old. For twenty-seven years I have been the concierge at number 7, rue de Grenelle, a fine hôtel particulier with a courtyard and private gardens, divided into eight luxury apartments …”

In Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog, readers cosy up to the concierge of number 7, and it’s easy to imagine that kind of spirit penning the documents included in Mavis Gallant’s short piece, “La Vie Pariseienne”.

“TO ALL TENANTS: The intolerable and discordant sounds echoing at all hours throughout the building have been narrowed down to five apartments, thanks to the patient efforts of M. and Mme. Joseph Carlingue, who took turns listening at doors. So that the Nuisance Committee can complete its dossier before the next General Meeting, please state if you are the Edith Piaf, the two barking poodles, the military side drum, the electric typewriter, or the Twilight of the Gods.”

In fact, the piece reads like an item stored in a file folder wedged behind the toaster in a concierge’s flat.

You can imagine the file card with the above notice falling out when you pull the folder towards you.

Then, some smaller slips of paper would fall out, like the one about the mice.

Inside would remain some full sheets, with generous margins, like the one with the list of questions about toothbrushes, its corners dog-eared and some nearly torn, with vague stains scattered across the heavily-inked typeface.

I am reminded of the sisters who share a flat in “The Cost of Living”, the Tate sisters, and their experience of their neighbours (especially Sylvie “the coarse and grubby Degas dancer” and Patrick), as well as their experience of the city.

“Often after Christmas there was a fall of snow, and one could be amazed by the confident tracks of birds. But in a few weeks it was forgotten, and the tramps, the drunks, the unrepentant poor (locked up by the police so that they would not freeze on the streets) were released once more, and settled down in doorways and on the grilles over the Métro, where fetid air rose from the trains below, to await the coming of spring.”

This view of Paris fits perfectly with the writer of the guidebook in the last short story I read, “A Revised Guide to Paris”: this is not the city of lights and chocolate and croissants.

But it is a believable scene. Not sketched all at once. Readers have to work for it. “Some assembly required.”

If you peer closely, readers can imagine the rough and hasty motions required to post such notices for the tenants.

And you can hear the high heels worn by the resident “Edith Piaf” flouncing – no, tromping – up and down the stairs.

Note: This is part of a series of posts on Mavis Gallant’s stories, as I read through her short fiction. This is the seventeenth 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: “Willi”, as the stories between it and today’s have been covered earlier in the reading project.

2017-12-18T19:56:12+00:00

10 Comments

  1. Deepika Ramesh December 20, 2017 at 12:09 am - Reply

    This sounds so delightful, B.I.P. Every quote made me smile and laugh. I loved this post. Thank you so much for sharing.

    • Buried In Print December 22, 2017 at 5:14 pm - Reply

      Your sister would approve, I’m sure, having seen all the prettiest and amiable-est sides of Paris on her journey! grins

  2. annelogan17 December 19, 2017 at 10:32 pm - Reply

    ha! the nuisance committee, I love that 🙂

  3. iliana December 19, 2017 at 6:34 pm - Reply

    This sounds so wonderful. Truly armchair traveling!

    • Buried In Print December 22, 2017 at 5:13 pm - Reply

      It’s the kind of story that makes one want to mini-binge on Paris stories!

  4. Heavenali December 19, 2017 at 3:18 pm - Reply

    I’m liking the sound of this writer. That second quote is really lovely.

    • Buried In Print December 22, 2017 at 5:12 pm - Reply

      I do think you would appreciate her, but I understand that she’s not easy to find, especially these early stories.

  5. whisperinggums December 19, 2017 at 5:06 am - Reply

    Did you read The elegance of the hedgehog? For some reason I couldn’t get into it. I only tried a few pages – and it’s rare for me to put a book down – but something in me just didn’t want to persevere.

    • Buried In Print December 22, 2017 at 5:12 pm - Reply

      It took me three tries but I did love it in the end. I am a very moody reader, and sometimes things just don’t take the first (or second) time!

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