Mavis Gallant’s “An Autobiography”

“I served coffee in cups with Liberté and Patrie and a green-and-white shield of the Vaud on them. The parents of a pupil had bought them in Montreux for me once.”

Erika is a school-teacher, in a village a half-day’s train ride from Montreux, Switzerland.

She teaches girls elementary botany. She learned about plants from her father.

He instilled in her the habit of collecting them and identifying them, recording them scientifically in a journal of discovery.

But “An Autobiography” stands in contrast to scientific process and observation.

Instead, it is about what happens when we do not have a language or a classification system which satisfies universally.

It’s not about objectivity, but subjectivity.

Montreux, Switzerland

unsplash-logoOlya P

“How much memory can be stored in a mind that has not even been developed?”

A significant character in the first of this story’s two parts is young Véronique, who was travelling under the care of the air stewardness, when she was seated next to Erika.

Erika observes how frequently parents seek to keep their children at a distance, as with Véronique. Erika’s pupils come to her for advice (their parents out of reach) and she marvels the machinations of adults who seek to be free of their children outside of school as well.

Gallant, herself, was sent to a boarding school when she was very young and she had a troubled and distant relationship with her mother, who was not a maternal figure in her daughter’s life.

When Erika witnesses young Véronique, trailing behind yet another adult assigned to care for her, after leaving the plane, readers can imagine that the swell of emotions were once felt by young Mavis Gallant as well.

So in answer to the question about how much memory a young mind can hold, readers conclude “some”.

But readers also know that Erika helped young Véronique cut the meat in her meal.

And readers hear Véronique insist, later, when questioned, that she cut the meat herself.

Why? Pride perhaps.

Or perhaps Véronique is so accustomed to making do that she has already forgotten this anomaly, the help of a stranger while travelling.

Or perhaps she is lying to demonstrate her self-sufficiency when queried later.

Or perhaps Erika has imagined herself cutting the meat, and recalls the incident inaccurately, wanting to view herself as an adult who assists children even if she is actually just as eager to be free of their neediness as the other adults whom she views critically.

There is no way of knowing: Véronique cannot be sketched and classified like a plant sample.

“I did not meet her children, but I saw her with them in a tearoom: two plump girls of about fourteen, in clay-colored tights and long pullovers that covered their sturdy hips. […] They were choosing eclairs, pointing discontented and curt. Their school had not yet taught them manners, and their mother, with a stiff smile on her lips and her sunglasses hiding her opinion, could see only the distance between what they were and what they ought to be.”

This is why, too, when Erika meets Peter and his ladyfriend, who are travelling by train with the woman’s daughters, she does not bother to discuss their past relationship.

Peter refers to it in the second part of this story. And with a sense of inevitability or serendipity.

“We were only children then. We met when we were grown up, at the University of Lausanne. It was a coincidence, like meeting today. Erika and I will probably meet – I don’t know where. On the moon.”

Quietly, to herself, Erika corrects his version of events. But later she suggests that he was not aiming for accuracy.

“It was a way of talking he had developed because it amused his wife. He knew it was no good talking about the past, because we were certain to remember it differently.”

Readers cannot quite determine the nature of the past relationship between Erika and Peter and perhaps it was never clearly defined. Erika recounts some of the contradictory stories that Peter claimed as truths when they were together. As though, even then, she had difficulty defining their relationship.

With years having passed, and with memory fallible, she seems confident that there is no point discussing any of it.

But it must have been a significant relationship, because Erika is certain that, had she asked, Peter would have remained behind, leaving his ladyfriend to travel on with her daughters and without Peter.

Peter’s ladyfriend is not properly named, she is viewed simply as an adjunct to Peter. Perhaps she is what Erika once was. Or perhaps she is what Erika would have wanted to be. Or perhaps she is what Erika sought to avoid being.

This woman is no different than the other parents whom Erika has viewed, however. When viewed with her daughters, she is distant and dissatisfied.

Erika seems smugly satisfied by the other woman’s dissatisfaction. Which is, perhaps, more important than whether Erika is actually any happier.

“I did not meet her children, but I saw her with them in a tearoom: two plump girls of about fourteen, in clay-colored tights and long pullovers that covered their sturdy hips. […] They were choosing eclairs, pointing discontented and curt. Their school had not yet taught them manners, and their mother, with a stiff smile on her lips and her sunglasses hiding her opinion, could see only the distance between what they were and what they ought to be.”

This gap is significant, not only between the expectations and reality of the mother, but the gap between Erika’s expectations and the reality of her relationship with Peter.

What makes the story interesting is that readers don’t know much about Erika’s expectations or about the reality of that relationship; instead, readers know more about the gap, feeling Erika’s loneliness and disconnect as truly as if it had been named.

Note: This is part of a series of posts on Mavis Gallant’s stories, as I read through her short fiction. This is the third story in The Pegnitz Junction. 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, next week: “Ernst in Civilian Clothes”.

2018-05-15T10:53:52+00:00

2 Comments

  1. Naomi May 16, 2018 at 10:46 am - Reply

    It’s always interesting when long ago acquaintances unexpectedly run into each other. There are so many possible outcomes, for the characters and for the reader who is trying to read between the lines.

    I think I might have the next story!

    • Buried In Print May 16, 2018 at 11:07 am - Reply

      I think you could have the next three stories. When I was in the reference library last week, I peeked at the collection that I think both you and Mel have – it’s got a great introduction!

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