“All raise hands, please, who remember Rosalia. (Camera on studio smiles.)”
You remember Rosalia, right? We met her in “A Painful Affair”, this collection’s fourth story: the dedicated servant of Miss Mary Margaret Pugh.
Miss Pugh’s artistic patronage is not-yet-transpired in “Larry” (Larry is her half-brother), it’s an already-transpired-fact in “A Painful Affair” but here, in “A Flying Start”, it’s a process unfolding.
We witness the process unfolding, but not directly. Oh, no: that would be too straightforward. Mavis Gallant reveals it to us through the eyes of Henri Grippes.
Grippes is assembling a 16-page report, “A portrait of Prism as protégé”, but although he relies heavily on Prism’s unpublished roman a clef, Goldfinches Have Yellow Feathers, there’s as much Grippes as Prism in there. (It’s up to readers to figure out how his personal slant impacts the report.)
Grippes’ piece is handwritten because he has not yet “reconciled” to typewriters but he has a reputation for scholarship. Of a sort. For more than a decade, beginning in 1952, he worked on a ministry-funded project in the arts.
This three volume set of literary biography was originally to be titled Living Authors of the Fourth Republic, but it took longer than expected to compile and had to be retitled Living Authors of the Fifth Republic. Then, in 1964, Grippes announced that he did not have enough material gathered to complete the project and left Paris for California. (The project’s mandate evolved several times and, when last Grippes heard, publication was slated for 2010.)
The matter of Grippes’ literary success is slippery. We know he was successful with Rosalia on a series of afternoons in his bedroom in Miss Pugh’s home (where he was supposed to be working on a novel). We also know that, six months after Grippes occupied that room, a new beneficiary of Miss Pugh’s patronage resided: Victor Prism.
When Prism appealed to Miss Pugh for her support, he presented to her two chapters of a novel. “She had a great fear of being hoodwinked, for she knew by now that in art deception is the rule.” (“By now”? After Grippes’ residency? Coincidence?)
In his initial interview, Prism observes an oil painting of the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian and imagines endless portraits of young men pierced with arrows, with only “a coat of varnish” to “protect them from the staring of women”.
But where is the true vulnerability in this story? Are we, like Prism, to wonder: “Are we to take it for granted that the artist thinks he knows what he is doing?” (That seems unlikely.) Or, are we, like Miss Pugh, to allow the matter to slip “into the haze of ancient social mystery”?