The previous story ends with an imprisonment:
“He had got the woman from church to dining room, and he would keep her there trapped, cornered, threatened, watched, until she yielded to Grippes and told her name – as, in his several incarnations, good Poche had always done.”
I’m thinking that “A Recollection” is the chronicle of an escape: the character Magdalena’s escape from her author.
Not only the character’s escape from wartime horrors, but her escape from Grippes’ imagination (and Grippes, in turn, an escapee from Mavis Gallant’s imagination).
But that’s not to say that “A Recollection” is only a fragment, not a proper story. In fact, Mavis Gallant builds Magdalena in considerable detail.
The length of this story (just ten pages) raises a question of mechanics: why include so many parenthetical remarks in such a short work?
Partly, it’s a matter of emphasizing the dual nature of the timeline. The story begins: “I married Magdalena here, in Paris, more than forty years ago” and often the parenthetical remarks underscore the fact that many years have passed and provided the opportunity for a different perspective on past events.
As an extension of that, the narrator is afforded the opportunity to have grown and discovered certain truths. Observations that might have been presented with an air of romance in an earlier accounting, now contain more practical (even slightly embarrassing) admissions as asides or afterthoughts.
Like: “(I never noticed Magdalena actually reading a newspaper. She subscribed to a great many, but I think it was just to see what her friends and former friends were up to.)”
And: “(Notice how soon after thinking ‘cosmopolitan’ I thought ‘of her sort’.)”
And: “(Much greater suspicion attended passengers in first; besides that, I could not afford it.)”
Where Magdalena may have lost a bit of gloss in the intervening years, our narrator has become more attentive and innocent: thinking of others and admiring, in particular, his mother (and himself).
Like: “…(to calm my parents down, I went home to sleep)…” and “(I had no idea how actresses were supposed to look.)”
And: “(Wait, my memory tells me; not all women – not my mother.)”
And: “(In the nineteen-fifties, when I was often heard over the radio, interviewing celebrated men about their early struggles and further ambitions, I would get about two letters a year from women saying they envied my mother.)”
Misunderstandings and misdirections, disappointments and deceptions: they were sharp and vital in the past, but they are softened in memory. Most notably, Magdalena’s having been Jewish in France during WWII: told looking back, it’s something she survived, a story with a known ending, and some minor inconveniences.
Like: “They [his parents] would have saved Magdalena, if only someone had asked – gladly, bravely and without ruining my life. (That was how they saw it.)”
And: [Magdalena remembered the Viennese novelist who] “had taken some of her jewelry (she meant stolen) and pawned it and kept all the money”.
And: “(The apartment was looted during the occupation. When Magdalena came back, she had to sleep on the floor.)”
Most of all, however, these parenthetical observations build character and act like whispered confidences between narrator and reader.
How well we know him: “…(I did not separate soul from body, since the first did not exist)…”
How well we know the neighbourhood: “(A published of comic books has the place now.)”
How well we know what Magdalena would have read had she been a reader: “…(it was Bella by Jean Giraudoux)…”.
And how well we know what it is like to be on a train in WWII when accompanying a young woman who is escaping persecution: “…(no train is so still as one under search)…”.
Both Henri Grippes and Mavis Gallant have truths to share with us as readers.
And slipping them into parentheses could have the effect of making these details unworthy.
But here they are elevated, transforming ciphers on the page into believable characters.
And as for Magdalena: will she yield yet again, like Poche?
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Mavis Gallant’s stories, as I read through her short fiction. This is the eighth 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: “Rue de Lille”.