In the late edition of the Sunday New York Times, on September 12, 1993 John McGahern describes “Forain” as “a story that is as close to perfection as possible”.
What a compliment. He says that “Mrs. Gallant has always written well about the Parisian emigre world, but never better than here”.
The praise rings loudly as he hasn’t been as enthusiastic about all the stories (including a couple of the Carette cycle, which I happen to love). But here, in “Forain”, he says, the “author’s sharp eye misses nothing; each detail is exact and telling”: “In ‘Forain,’ Mavis Gallant has written an elegy that is also a true celebration: it is a small marvel of wit and feeling and rare tact.”
As a prominent novelist and short story writer, John McGahern’s appreciation of “Forain” would likely have been intensified because of the glimpse offered into the publishing world.
Blaise Forain publishes Eastern European writers, even though translated fiction is not a profitable venture, even though the changing landscape of Europe has made the venture even more precarious.:
“At least once a year he committed the near-suicide of short stories and poetry. There were rewards, none financial.”
Blaise Editions is a labour of…not love, but something-like-love. The story begins with the funeral of the author at the heart of his list, Adam Tremski. (He’s expected to attend his authors’ funerals and their wives’ funerals too. A glimpse at his recent attendance schedule reveals the breadth of his literary relationships.)
Funerals are ideal settings for characters to reflect on the past, on disappointments small and large. “He went one further – bowed his head, like Tremski at Barbara’s funeral, promising himself he would keep in mind things as they once were, not as they seemed to him now.”
There are so many losses in this collection, not all of them with a burial and services. “Forain” is like a set of nested dolls, except that one loss is tucked inside another—and another, and another.
There is always a trade-off in Forain’s view. He is critical of the weather conditions at the funeral, the slippery nature of the steps leading into the church. It’s after-the-fact, but he presents his observations as though he knew that someone would fall, long before it happened.
He almost sounds a little resentful, believing that others must have had the same premonition, but they did nothing to avert the disaster. Which left Forain to take the woman to the hospital. Where he had to cover her costs. So that the whole world, from the weather-makers to the funeral attendees, was conspiring to place more responsibility on Forain’s shoulders. Those beneficent and bowed shoulders.
The story is titled for our humble publisher, but one could argue for the title of “Tremski” instead. Readers learn so much about his life and experiences through this tale. But always through Forain’s perspective, and about matters that the publisher deems note-worthy.
Forain’s observation, for instance, that many literary people like Tremski “live adequate lives without wanting to know what had gone before or happened elsewhere”; it reveals Forain’s disdain and doesn’t necessarily reflect anything true about Tremski.
Forain is both eminently capable and over-burdened. He is both orchestrator and victim, triumphant and vulnerable. And readers meet Forain on his own terms, afforded the opportunity to view all aspects of his personality. “Every light in the city was ablaze in the dark rain. Seen through rivulets on a window, the least promising streets showed glitter and well-being.”
Forain can choose to see the glitter. In his role as publisher, as distributor of stories, he is ideally situated to create a glitter-filled scene, to admire and to inhabit. Even though his hard work is unrecognized, unrewarded. After all: “Filling gaps was a question of style and logic, and could just as well take place after translation.”
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 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: “A State of Affairs”.