Mavis Gallant’s “One Aspect of a Rainy Day” (1962)

What aspect of any single day makes for a good story? A rainy day or otherwise? 

“Foreign papers exaggerate; Stefan’s mother sent him such anxious letters from Berlin! He would write tonight and tell her not to worry. Nothing was as serious as it seemed from the outside. Moreover, his superiors thought highly of him, and his work was going well.”

The aspect of a rainy day which Stefan chooses to describe in an imagined letter to his mother is not the aspect which is shared with readers.

This very short story is not about Stefan’s work, the daily details which comprise his professional duties, his superiors’ appreciation or his successes.

The letter may turn into that kind of superficial reporting, but the story is about something else, about another aspect of a rainy day.

This “One Aspect of a Rainy Day” is about two groups marching and chanting in time with their marching, about the tensions that become distilled into slogans, about the hierarchy of needs and demands in times of social stress and strain.

At first glance, the story seems to divide the stuff of stories into sides.

Into the groups with the power to issue proclamations and those who stand in the rain to listen to them being read.

Into the groups which demand statements of support (or, at least silence in the face of their decisions) and those who are willing (or tacit) supporting members.

Into the groups of people who are striking and those who are missing their labour.

Into the residents (who have a stake in a meaningful resolution of conflict) and the visitors (like Stefan, whose presence is both separate and apart from the events which unfold around him).

Into letter-writers and letter-readers.

Into story-tellers and readers-of-stories.

“The general strike made the country seem submerged; he felt as if they were walking through waves. And now a smaller strike of one hour had been called. Plenty of cars rushed by, splashing the walkers on the pavement, but some taxis pulled up to the side of the road, and some shops were locked, with the blinds drawn. The main street, which they now descended, was the highway to Paris. Here they seemed to Stefan conspicuous. How intent, how uncasual they would seem if the police should appear now! He hoped he would have time to say, ‘Excuse me, this is none of my affair.’ In Germany the police broke up demonstrations with fire hoses, and the most anyone got was a good wetting. He wondered why the French police didn’t copy this tactic instead of moving in with clubs.”

This is not what Stefan plans to write about to his mother.

It is also not how the story begins, with the fact that Stefan’s older brother, Günther, swore allegiance to Hitler when Günther was fifteen years old and Stefan was only six. Günther didn’t actually speak, but his silence was not a significant enough distinction. He was a part of that group.

The story begins with that fact but readers do not have answers to all the questions which arise in the wake of its having been shared.

Readers know that, some years later, it was raining on a day when two groups of people marching in the rain met in the streets, neither group sure what the other group had been chanting.

Readers know that this question of dividing people into groups is foolish. They are uncertain of the details which were intended to proclaim their distinctiveness.

All the other questions may be answered in a future letter.

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

2018-01-02T13:12:25+00:00

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