Having published one hundred and sixteen stories in The New Yorker, Mavis Gallant’s regular readers would have had to wait from April 15 until July 8 in 1985, to learn how life has been for the Carette sisters.
The story opens like this: “The family’s experience of Raymond was like a long railway journey with a constantly shifting point of view.”
Directly, readers are reminded of how differently Raymond’s mother and aunt view a journey, how differently time moves for them, being of another generation.
Indirectly, readers are reminded of how differently one views a single character’s experience from not only a different vantage of time in relationship to other characters, but from the shifting points of view between those characters’ author and that author’s readers.
The next paragraph begins like this: “To make a short story shorter….” But that’s not how readers will experience this story, not that shorter short story, simply a short story. And, so, we readers are reminded that this is only one version of the Carette family’s story.
Cloudscape over Montmartre, Paris
If you recall, we first met the Carette family in 1933, in the wake of a man’s death, then spent some time with them in 1949, in the wake of another man’s death. Here, in 1969, another man has died:
“(It was the summer of the moon walk. Raymond’s mother still mentions this, as though it had exerted a tidal influence on her affairs.)”
Even though I have read these stories before, I don’t remember any of the details about the Carette family, but I’m still anxious, now, about the events to come in the final of these four tales, “Florida”.
But rather than dwell on the plot developments (and there is plot here—by now readers are invested in this family’s fate and yearn to know how the women will cope, in the wake of another loss, how the decisions made after the funeral will play out), we can also peer into Gallant’s way of situating characters and readers.
How we can chuckle a little at these observations about Marie and the moon’s tidal pull and other mysteries in her life, without laughing at her. “She fainted easily; it was her understanding that the blood in her arms and legs congealed, leaving her brain unattended. She seemed content with this explanation and did not seek another.”
It is comical, but we are also pleased that Marie has someone to cover her bare legs with a lace quilt, and remove her glasses and hat, on this summer afternoon when she falls asleep. (It’s comedy with compassion; the family is making adjustments following a death, so these mystical phenomena–tides and blood–are other ways of answering the unanswerable.)
How the sisters situate themselves in terms of language remains important. From those few phrases their mother taught them, they now inhabit a world in which English has become associated with business and success. And even though Marie falls asleep during the English news and pays attention to the French, she can understand both broadcasts.
The tombstone is bilingual because Raymond’s father spoke English in the office but French at home. Berthe’s English is superior to every other character’s English, because her “th”s never degrade into “d” sounds. And Raymond’s “French filled up with English, as with a deposit of pebbles and sand”.
And how the women understand the world beyond Montréal is influenced by language but not decisively so, for instance, they imagine Vietnam to be an American place, because of the news about the war. And when a family member moves to the United States and adopts American citizenship, Marie answers by saying “that 98 percent of the world’s forest fires were started by Americans”. (Yes, the wit remains.)
The end of this story loops back to 1969 again. Raymond longs for that time, feels “homesick for the summer of 1969, for the ease with which he jumped from cloud to cloud”.
But what are we readers to make of his wish: are these stories the clouds? or, are they the spaces between the clouds? Either way, I’m all in.
Often in my reading, I find my attention begins to wander at a ¾ mark, when I’m as eager to be finished reading a tale as I am keen to continue with it, but here I am equally reluctant and eager to read, because I do want to know what’s in store for the Carettes, but I’m also concerned that what I don’t know is even more important.
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 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: “Florida”.