For those who haven’t yet, in the time I’ve been chatting about Mavis Gallant’s stories, read the opening of a story –
To give you a sense of all that she encapsulates in a small space, the way she creates a world in a little-more-than-a-dozen-pages-long work –
Here is how she begins “Careless Talk”:
“Their language – English – drew them together. So did their condition in a world they believed intended for men. They were Iris Drouin, the London girl inexplicably married to a French farmer (inexplicably only because other people’s desires are so strange), and Mary Olcott, her summer neighbour and friend. On a June night Mary had suddenly appeared in the Drouins’ kitchen doorway while the family were at their meal. She was Irish and twenty-seven, with the manner of a Frenchwoman of forty – foxy and Parisian in her country clothes. She was a shade too sure of herself; it went down badly in this corner of Burgundy, where summer visitors were disliked. Lounging in the doorway, letting in mosquitoes and moths, Mary addressed the men – Iris’s young husband and her old father-in-law – but her wide smile was for Iris as well. The two men went on shovelling boiled beef.”
Born in Montreal in 1922, it’s no surprise that Gallant tackles language issues. Even though she relocated to Paris in 1950, leaving behind the anglophone/francophone tension in her hometown, the significance of mother tongue resurfaces regularly in her fiction.
(In “Wing’s Chips”, there is no question that the narrator’s father will paint the Québec store sign in English, rather than French. The titular event in “The Picnic” is designed to bring English- and French-speakers together. Sarah, in “In the Tunnel” is sent to France to study civilization there, but she spends most of her time with other English-speaking people, only occasionally stepping into true village life. Cathie and Mildred, the children at the heart of “Orphans’ Progress” are temporarily removed from their life of poverty in Québec to a more “civilized” way of life in English-speaking Ontario. And, more recently, in “By the Sea”, the tourists in the pavilions on the shore are divided according to French and English.)
While working as a journalist there, she struggles to make her way in a “world…intended for men” (the Linnet Muir stories recount this faithfully). There are many memorable male narrators in Gallant’s fiction (Grippes and Poche, for instance) but she is an acute observer of inequity; she frequently situates her female characters so that they must wait and serve, frequently affords them the opportunity to exhibit their frustration or, at least, disappointment with their roles. (Like “Sunday Afternoon”, for example.)
Given the limited duration of Mavis Gallant’s own marriage (during the bulk of it, her husband was serving overseas), it’s easy to read into the “people’s desires are so strange”. Which we also see in her classic story, “The Ice Wagon Going Down the Street” (among others).
Many of her stories also take place in summer, like “One Morning in June”, “An Unmarried Man’s Summer”, “Madeline’s Birthday”, “The Rejection”, and, from earlier in this collection, “Jeux d’Ete” (the title of which also refers to the language issues). And even though it covers a much broader expanse of time, I always think, first, of the summer scenes with Carmela’s new job and home in “The Four Seasons”. It offers the storyteller a chance to build scenes with details from the natural world, like the “mosquitos and moths”, and allows the intensity of heat and humidity to build alongside the tensions in these stories.
And the action unfolds in common domestic scenarios: a father and daughter driving in a car (dealing with the ramifications of the parents’ divorce), two young women new to Paris and striving to make their rent (unable to secure regular employment or supportive relationships), a young wife travelling north with her son in hopes of reconnecting with her husband and receive support for their family.
These are stories which often consider the aftermath of war and international conflict, and they are stories which transpire kitchens and at meals, where characters shovel boiled beef into their mouths.
Tensions between summer visitors and long-term residents surface in many stories. It’s the perfect parallel for the author’s life as an expat in France, for the feeling of between-ness that she knew so well. And the conglomeration of ethnicities in this story – English, French, and Irish – represent other potential tensions (or, at least, surprise in the presence of unexpected alliances, as regards the marriage here). But perhaps even more important to note is the directed-but-not-directed-as-anticipated gesture in this story, the smile which is more inclusive than it first appears.
Mavis Gallant writes in a form which demands acuity: a first paragraph like this one not only introduces readers to the story which will unfold, introduces readers to the characters at the heart of the action, but a paragraph like this one succinctly captures the themes which underline her body of work.
If you don’t have time to read a short story (but, how? It’s SHORT!), you can still get a sense of Mavis Gallant’s world by just reading a single paragraph.
And if you’re not reading Mavis Gallant’s stories, whose short stories ARE you reading?
In Transit‘s stories: By the Sea / In Italy / An Emergency Case / Jeux d’Ete / When We Were Nearly Young / Better Times / A Question of Disposal / The Hunter’s Waking Thoughts / Careless Talk / The Circus / In Transit / The Statues Taken Down / Questions and Answers / Vacances Pax / A Report / The Sunday After Christmas / April Fish / The Captive Niece / Good Deed
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Mavis Gallant’s stories, as I read through her short fiction. This is the ninth story in In Transit. 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: “The Circus”.