Mavis Gallant’s “From the Fifteenth District”

“Although an epidemic of haunting, widely reported, spread through the Fifteenth District of our city last summer, only three acceptable complaints were lodged with the police.”

Having read about half of Mavis Gallant’s short stories now, and never yet having met a ghost, imagine my surprise at finding three in this eponymous tale.

But, of course, as you will have guessed, these are not ordinary spectres.

They are a notch above, the kind of hauntings which pass muster with the authorities. Even with the police.

Only recently did I learn that there is no fifteenth district in Paris, not beyond Gallant’s stories.

This fact alone was surprising enough.

And, then, the hauntings.

This piece is short – only six pages – and it is character-soaked. Immediately readers are plunged into detail.

It reminds me of two pieces which appear in Going Ashore (titled The Cost of Living in the United States): A Revised Guide to Paris (1980) and La Vie Parisienne (1981).

But, here, the focus is not on the city per se.

The focus is on the ghosts.

Then again, not on the ghosts either.

Rather, on their backstories.

Then again, not on their backstories.

Instead, on the ties which remain.

Ties to memory and history and war and love and loss and betrayal and family and lovers and children and religion and minimum wage and mortality and drugs and silk and…

…oh, never mind. It’s about Paris after all.

Note: This is part of a series of posts on Mavis Gallant’s stories, as I read through her short fiction. This is the sixth story in From the Fifteenth District. 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: “Potter”. Next collection: Home Truths, beginning Feburary 5th with “Thank You for the Lovely Tea”.

The Four Seasons / The Moslem Wife / The Remission / The Latehomecomer / Baum, Gabriel, 1935 — NOV28 / From the Fifteenth District DEC5/ Potter DEC12 / His Mother DEC19 / Irina DEC26

2018-12-05T14:54:07+00:00

8 Comments

  1. Naomi December 22, 2018 at 6:42 pm - Reply

    This story surprised me, too! I had to go back and start it again thinking I must have it wrong. What fun! And I love how she got the idea for it.
    It’s interesting that her ghosts don’t want all the attention they’re getting. I love this line: “Having lived an exemplary life is one thing, to have it thrown up at one is another.”

    • Buried In Print January 3, 2019 at 10:06 pm - Reply

      That’s such a great quote, I agree. Does your library have a copy of Francine Prose’s What to Read and Why? There’s a great chapter in there about Gallant. Plus…book about books.

  2. The Reading Life December 15, 2018 at 7:45 am - Reply

    The Fifteenth District”, first published in The New Yorker October 30, 1978 (reprinted as the title story in a collection of Paris based stories) is one of the weirdest or her stories, showing a dark sense of humor one has to look for in her work to find. Featuring three ghosts, presented as if their reality is taken for granted, I think Gallant is showing us how post World War Two Paris was full of ghosts, of haunted memories of those with still strong ties to the living. I learned from the post of Buried in Print that there is no Fifteenth District in Paris. The fictional one seems to have a lot of the displaced poor, foreigners with no strong claim to be in Paris. I wondered why she made up a district?

    What made this work so much fun for me was the details about the ghosts and their interaction with the living.

    This is really a delightful story, among her briefer works.

    • Buried In Print December 17, 2018 at 5:54 pm - Reply

      Such an interesting question! Here is part of her answer from an interview in Numero Cinq several years ago:
      “It’s imaginary, but there are small things that are not, yet it is completely imaginary. At one time I thought I would like to write some stories set in the fifteenth arrondisement. It’s the largest, in a sense the newest in Paris. It’s so new that it has no cemetery. It’s where people go to live when they can’t find a flat, so it’s the most mixed area, it has no class, it’s neither upper nor lower nor middle. So everybody who can’t find a flat will find one there. It has no character. Somebody told me it had no cemetery and that gave me the idea of the living haunting the dead.”
      There’s more… 🙂

      And, agreed: the details make it work!

  3. Laila@BigReadingLife December 6, 2018 at 3:23 pm - Reply

    What a beautiful picture of Paris. I am curious about her stories but I see that Montreal Stories, the collection I own, is last in line on your list. I just ordered the Collected Stories from the main library and will get it sometime next week. I’ll try to join in on the discussion either next week or the week after that with “Potter” or “Irina.”

    • Buried In Print December 6, 2018 at 4:08 pm - Reply

      With credit to the artist, you can use photos at Unsplash without cost: there are so many gorgeous shots there, you can get lost in their collections! The Montreal and Paris stories are last only because their contents were all originally published in other collections, so the good news is that five of the stories in the collection you own were also published in Home Truths, which is the next collection in the project (next February and March). But I know that Mel and Naomi are using the volume of Collected Stories too, so you’d be in good company with that one!

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