Since I began this project of rereading through Mavis Gallant’s stories, in January 2017, I’ve had this story in the back of my mind, unable to place it. I should have suspected it would reside here, in my first Gallant collection. Instead, I had begun to wonder if it even existed.
Writing about her passion for Mavis Gallant’s short stories, Francine Prose quotes a single paragraph from this story to illustrate how deftly Gallant draws relationships.
In a single adjective or gesture, in a scenic detail or an omission, readers tacitly understand a relationship’s core nature. (This New Yorker article from 2008 has the quotation about halfway through: if you didn’t already want to read Mavis Gallant, this article will secure your intention.)
Very little happens in this story. Also, everything happens in this story. Sylvie Mireille Castelli loves Bernard Brunelle, who lives in Lille, but she is engaged to Arnaud Pons, who lives in Paris. Everything turns on this matter, against the background of Paris.
The machinery in the story is largely interior, but the shifts in understanding are so marked and so many characters’ perspectives shift diametrically, that it feels both subdued and dramatic. There is gritty quotidian detail about women’s daily lives and sweeping generalizations what they can fairly expect during their lifetimes (but, also, how quickly those expectations can alter).
Sylvie is poised to cross the bridge, but when she reaches the middle something completely unexpected happens. The route from that point is not as planned. For while Sylvie’s feet are still moving towards her desired destination, her consciousness is spinning between beginnings and middles and ends.
She does know, however, exactly how things are supposed to be:
“A whole floor would be given over to my children’s nurseries and bedrooms and classrooms. They would learn English, Russian, German, and Italian. There would be tutors and governesses, holidays by the sea, ponies to ride, birthday parties with huge pink cakes, servants wearing white gloves. I had never known anyone who lived exactly that way, but my vision was so precise and highly colored that it had to be prompted from Heaven. I saw the curtains in the children’s rooms, and their smooth hair and clear eyes, and their neat schoolbooks. I knew it might rain in Lille, day after day: I would never complain. The weather would be part of my enchanted life.”
She soon realizes, however, that other women have also dreamed of an enchanted life. Other women have leafed through the pages of Paris Match and imagined themselves as Ingrid Bergman.
When she observes Arnaud’s mother, she sees wonders about the gap that exists between married women’s lives and the enchanted lives they’d once dreamed of:
“Perhaps she was recalling an evening before her marriage when she had danced wearing a pleated skirt and ropes of beads: I had seen pictures of my mother dressed that way.”
Her perception of there being an understanding between women, however, soon devolves into something more sinister:
“For the first time I understood about the compact of mothers and the conspiracy that never ends. They stand together like trees, shadowing and protecting, shutting out the view if it happens to suit them, letting in just so much light.”
It would have been possible to tell this story with Sylvie decidedly at the centre of it, but Gallant includes the perspectives of several characters and in a score of pages their perspectives change and develop.
Okay, not always: some opinions remain solidly rooted. Like this one: “Men earning pittance salaries always married young. It was not an opinion, my mother said. It was a statistic.”
Various opinions (and statistics!) draw attention to the different experiences of women of different generations, and well as to the different experiences of people of different classes.
Sylvie’s father, for instance, often meets his cousin Gustav for dinner, sometimes even in their old neighbourhood, but they “knew the difference between a sentimental excursion and a good meal”. And Sylvie’s mother chats with Claudine in the kitchen, who is the same age as Sylvie, but has been trained in cooking and serving, and is “informed about all the roads and corners of life”.
There are multiple ways of crossing the bridge presented here. At one point in the story, Sylvie’s father catches a glimpse of the Church of St. Augustin out of a window. Such a seemingly innocuous detail.
Even in this instance, Mavis Gallant is informing readers about a salient detail. One which not only frames her father’s view, but situates Sylvie’s experience for us later: “I had never been inside a Protestant church before. It was spare and bare and somehow useful-looking, like a large broom closet.”
There are limited ways to credibly resolve a story which hinges on a marriage proposal. What makes this story stand out is not its resolution, but a single moment within that resolution—a single moment which contains both celebration and resignation, right as Sylvie steps off the bridge into just one of those states.
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Mavis Gallant’s stories, as I read through her short fiction. This is the seventh story in Across the Bridge. 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: “Forain”.