Mavis Gallant’s “French Crenellation” (1981)

Evidence of Mavis Gallant’s wit is abound in this super short story. Tongue firmly wedged in cheek, readers marvel with the imagined writer of this short piece.

A writer whose familiarity with French Crenellation is abundant. (Whereas the writer’s observations left me doubting my own understanding of it, so I turned to the dictionary.)

“Some women, not knowing what crenellation was for, wore it in their hair. Others believed it had everything to do with fertility – a blind credence that accounts for a swift fall of the birth rate. It was not until William Thrisbee, last in the line of native kings, published a paper proving that crenellation was an inhibiting factor that procreation resumed its normal cadence.”

Perhaps it is simply that I have come lately to the idea of Mavis Gallant with a sense of humour.

Acute observation, of course.

Extensive characterization, yes.

But I did not recognize her humour straight away.

Only via the short pieces collected in Going Ashore (also, in the NYRB collection, The Cost of Living) have I found occasion to smile. (The occasional wry smile in some of the earlier stories not withstanding.)

In “French Crenellation”, Mavis Gallant continues to explore the tensions between European and American culture (a theme which recurs frequently, rooted in her own experience having moved to Paris from Montreal and lived the remainder of her life on the continent).

She also plays once more with the idea of a writer’s importance. (If this sounds familiar, it’s because there was talk of her playing with the role of biographer in “Siegfried’s Memoirs” just a few weeks ago.)

The imagined author of this short piece is well-positioned to proclaim on “French Crenellation” in part because of his experience as General Achille Sifflet’s Chief Biographer.

And here too, our esteemed writer does not miss an opportunity to promote his scholarship, including subsequent and related works, one described in detail.

“(I think most of you are familiar with my anthology of his quips, “General Merriment,” which contains over nine hundred jokes, amply illustrated by photos of myself at home, at school, and in retirement.)”

Amply illustrated indeed. If only this collection had an appendix which included extracts from these imagined works.

Undoubtedly, they would be just as entertaining as these short-short Mavis Gallant stories.

Note: This is part of a series of posts on Mavis Gallant’s stories, as I read through her short fiction. This is the twenty-first story in Going Ashore. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story; I would love the company. Next week’s story: “The Rejection”.

2018-01-08T18:37:51+00:00

2 Comments

  1. annelogan17 January 10, 2018 at 3:33 pm - Reply

    It’s funny, I never really thought of Mavis Gallant as a ‘funny’ writer, but would you say most her stories have some element of humour to them?

    • Buried In Print January 11, 2018 at 8:34 pm - Reply

      It’s not so much that I think she is a humourous writer, but that I didn’t think she had a sense of humour at all, and clearly I was mistaken. Some of these very short pieces have an incisive nd relentless wit and I can imagine her chuckling away while assembling them! Well, quietly chuckling. Perhaps even soundlessly. But, still, chuckling.

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