As soon as I met Henri Grippes, I felt like I knew him. He reminded me of Charles Filandreux in “Siegfried’s Memoirs” (in Coming Ashore). Filandreux is a writer, all tied up in knots at the idea of writing a review he “would undoubtedly be requested to write”. Except that he’s not asked to write it.
In “A Painful Affair”, Henri Grippes expects that he would undoubtedly be requested to preside over the late Miss Pugh’s centenary. But Victor Prism is the host of the event instead.
Both men benefitted from their connection to Miss Pugh and neither man has received what he believes to be his due, in the wake of the woman’s death. Dissatisfied? Certainly. Resentful? Deep down, yes.
On the surface, the event plays out. But simmering beneath is a theme which has previously resurfaced in this collection’s first two stories: what is authentic art and what is a superficial construct? How do we know what really matters? Where do we look for truth?
In “Speck’s Idea” and “Overhead in a Balloon”, we learn that Speck and Walter have very different ideas about art (in the next story, “Luc and His Father”, we learn that son and father have very different ideas about love and happiness). Some art matters. Some work matters. And beneath all that, society is changing, sometimes steadily and sometimes dramatically. Here in “A Painful Affair”, each of Grippes and Prism believes himself to be the one who matters.
This image of the tower is so tightly focussed that, if you aren’t already thinking ‘Paris’, you might not even recognize this to be the Eiffel Tower. That’s what “A Painful Affair” is like: Henri and Victor have a long history and their relationship is complicated. Both men are preoccupied with the past and resentful and suspicious of the current state of affairs, to the point where they can’t step back to see the bigger picture.
But this is not “back in the days when Paris was still”. Avenue de Bois has become Avenue Foch. And May 10, 1968 has come and gone. (Mavis Gallant’s May 1968 Paris diaries are deservedly famous as a chronicle of revolution.)
Grippes is unsettled in the wake of Miss Pugh’s death (she is buried in Passy cemetery and there is a striking photograph here, with the Eiffel Tower in the background). Grippes considers leaving for England, where Prism now lives. But Prism suggests that what passes for shabby chic in Paris, Grippes’ niche in the social stratosphere, will get him confused for a drug dealer in London. So, for Grippes, it’s Paris or nothing. This new, changed Paris.
It’s some consolation, for Grippes, to impugn Prism’s Englishness. To observe that “Prism’s French…sounded to Grippes like dried peas rattling in a tin can”. To state that the organizers of the centenary event are not Team Grippes, rather Team Prism. And it’s their loss.
But what of this overarching concern, about what and how art matters? Both Grippes and Prism have benefitted from Miss Pugh’s support and legacy. Her impact on the art world is impressive, from the Mary Margaret Pugh Arts Foundation to the M.M. Pugh Investment Trust.
There are committees everywhere, down to the Pugh Memorial Committee. Well, it’s not like the Museum of Popular Arts and Traditions curates its own collection: people make the decisions to include and exclude specific works.
As for Miss Pugh? “She did not believe in art only artists. She had no interest in books, only in their authors.”
But is that true? She had two Caillebottes and a Morisot in a safe. Possibly only because they were valuable (but she had a Louis XVI writing table which was not only displayed openly but used). Possibly because she did not want to weigh in on what matters. (There were debates about these artists’ work as well, for instance, Caillebotte’s paintings of working-class subjects. Art, says he.)
What of the statue, which was covered with so many layers of paint that it could be mistaken for a statue of Saint Cumula although it was actually (beneath all those layers) representing the figure of General Marchand?
And what of the flying creature that looks like a butterfly but which is defined by a reference text as a moth? Or, was it the other way around? It doesn’t matter. Because the point is that it doesn’t matter what the reference text declares it to be: the questioner determines that her opinion is more valid than the official definition.
Through the layers of this ten-page-long short story, you can peer at the carved figure which is both Church and State, you can spot the 1968 Revolution, you can marvel at the green corduroy suit and the ormolu-mounted opaline urns, you can side with Grippes or, more likely (according to Grippes, anyway) with Prism.
You just go ahead and find whatever you want to find in this story. It’s what we do. And then we call it something else entirely.
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Mavis Gallant’s stories, as I read through her short fiction. This is the fourth story in Overhead in a Balloon. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story; I would love the company. Next story: “Larry”.