Mavis Gallant’s “Ernst in Civilian Clothes”

“It is an attested fact that he was born in Mainz. Mainz is a place he passed through once, in a locked freight car when he was being transported through France with a convoy of prisoners.”

Willi and Ernst were prisoners of war together and in “Willi”, Mavis Gallant’s 1963 story, the title character found Ernst some temporary work as an actor, while Ernst waited for his war benefits to be approved.

But Ernst wasn’t suited to the work, to the role. He was expected to dramatize a war scenario, and Ernst could not strike the right balance of emotions in a scene.

Gonsenheim, Mainz, Germany

unsplash-logoBrina Blum

Now, eighteen years after Ernst and Willi met as prisoners, Ernst is still struggling, still baffled by Willi’s ability to work in jobs which Ernst cannot conceive of doing.

In this story, Willi has work as a tour guide for a group of men who work for a company that manufactures bath salts in Germany.

Willi shows them around, takes them to the Imperial Tomb and the Eiffel Tower, and then leaves them to tour Paris. A city which is a tourist destination for them and a temporary stopping point for Ernst as well.

If temporary can be said to be the appropriate word, when one has lived in a city for eighteen years.

Ernst could be said to be between places. As much as the train travellers in this collection’s eponymous novella, Ernst is on the move.

He considers a place he passed through only once to be his birthplace.

So transient is his idea of his own self.

So fragile his sense of belonging.

Since Mainz, Ernst has “been in uniform”, on “an endless leave without the hope and the dread of return to the barracks”.

Willi got him a suit of clothes, civilian clothes, but Ernst is clearly uncomfortable in them. They are not “him”.

Nor does he understand that it was difficult for Willi to assemble these articles of clothing. Perhaps because they are so foreign to him, Ernst cannot conceive of how many favours Willi traded to put together an outfit for Ernst.

Readers have a glimpse of Willi’s disappointment, that not only did Ernst not reimburse Willi for the clothing, nor did he return any of it, but seemingly he did not see how this clothing might have held any kind of value at all.

“Nevertheless, he never switches on the table lamp, dim though it is, without fastening Willi’s cretonne curtains together with a safety pin. He feels so conspicuous in his new civilian clothes idling the whole day, that it would not astonish him if some civic-minded and diligent informer had already been in touch with the police.”

Ernst does not connect with anyone, not even Willi, He is critical of Willi’s way of engaging with the post-war world.

“Willi is waiting for the lucid, the wide-awake, and above all the rational person who will come out of the past and say with authority, ‘This was true,’ and ‘This was not.’ The photographs, the films, the documents, the witnesses, and the survivors could have been invented or dreamed.”

Willi has expectations of authority, of what has passed, of what was experienced in the past.

Ernst does not. No longer? Or perhaps he never did?

In this story, readers do not meet Ernst the day-actor, but Ernst out-of-uniform.

But his experiences of war have little connection to his outward garb and he is always in uniform.

“Is there a horror in a memory if it was only a dream?”

The story slips between time and place in a disjointed and jarring fashion, like fabric torn rather than snipped.

And just as Ernst pins together the curtains in Willi’s room – to keep out the light, the world, the remnants of war – his attempts to navigate the present-day are pinned loosely and ineffectually.

Around him, he views scenes of vulnerability and loneliness, disappointment and damage. This is as close as Ernst can get to living.

I wonder how Ernst and Willi fare in the other two stories Mavis Gallant wrote about them.

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 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: “O Lasting Peace”. 

2018-05-22T10:16:57+00:00

5 Comments

  1. Naomi May 23, 2018 at 9:43 am - Reply

    Maybe poor Ernst will rally!

    • Buried In Print May 23, 2018 at 10:41 am - Reply

      I love your optimism! Perhaps that will give him a boost… 🙂

  2. Naomi May 22, 2018 at 11:17 am - Reply

    I have to admit that I didn’t really “get” this story, besides the fact that Ernst is damaged by the war, not really belonging, not really living. But maybe that is what I’m supposed to “get”. I didn’t realize there was a previous story about Willi – I missed that one!

    I liked this: “It is a way of living, not quite a life.”
    And this: “Willi has always been ready to die… But Ernst, who has been in uniform since he was seven, and defeated in every war, has never been prepared.”
    So I imagine him wandering through life, not really living, but afraid to die.

    Now I’m curious to hear more about them. Do they show up again soon?

    • Buried In Print May 22, 2018 at 11:55 am - Reply

      Now I can’t recall where I read that there were four stories about the pair, but I did remember “Willi” because of the unusual spelling and then went digging and learned there are two more stories about them. I think some of the reprinted collections group stories by character, so perhaps the answer will present itself in time. Meanwhile, yes, Ernst is damaged and alone (even in Willi’s company) and I found the first story just as disorienting, but I suspect this is what we are supposed to take away from it. I also think it’s ironic that Ernst observes that Willi is prepared to die, when it’s Ernst who seems to be inhabiting a living death, whereas Willi is always scrambling into action. I’m not sure if Ernst is the character in this collection most damaged by the war, but he does seem to be the most alone of those who are struggling to live with its aftermath. I wonder if some of the scenes here will resonate differently if we do read the other two stories…

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