When readers meet Gabriel it is 1960 and he is twenty-five years old, fresh from having served in the French army for twenty months in Algeria.
“War had never been declared. What Gabriel had engaged in was a long tactical exercise for which there was no compensation except experience.”
And you can do the math: he was only a boy in WWII, only a boy when his mother and father were murdered. In 1943.
in 1960, his uncle has made some inquiries: only he and Gabriel remain of the Baum family.
Fifteen years have passed since the war ended, but soon readers will catch a glimpse of Gabriel at eight years old.
“He [Gabriel’s uncle] was as different from Gabriel as a tree is form the drawing of one, nevertheless Gabriel saw in him something of the old bachelor he too might become.”
Twenty-five years old, then eight, and, also soon, Gabriel will be forty-three years old.
Time is just as important in this story as it was in “The Latehomecomer”, a delicate zigzagging across the calendar pages.
But here I want to consider the way that the war permeates Mavis Gallant’s stories.
Even in a story like “The Four Seasons”, even on the home-front, the war is always present. At first I was inclined to think it is a backdrop, but in this case, it is the foreground of the story.
But not in such a way that you would call this a “war story”. There are “old men wearing slivers of ribbons to mark this or that war” and there are “cities whose names have been swept off the map. Breslau 1884. Dantzig 1897. St. Petersburg 1901.”
But these are ways of marking absences, ways of sequestering space for trauma which has been set aside (if not forgotten). Like Gabriel’s escape. “Gabriel’s escape from annihilation in two real wars (even though one had been called something else) had left him with reverence for unknown forces.” Which leaves him not stunned by the known which happened but grateful for the unknown which did not.
In the meantime, while unreal wars are happening in Algeria, unreal wars are happening on movie sets too. Gabriel’s friend Dieter has made a career of acting in military roles in the films. He jokes about his plans to retire once he is made a general (once he is cast in the role of one, as an actor). Dieter figures “the French would be bored with entertainment based on the Occupation by about 1982”.
But this is an old joke. By the time readers slip past 1982, it’s clear that the interest in the war persists. Dieter is still employed as a soldier/actor and Gabriel is still without a pension for his service in Algeria, still alone and disconnected, still trying to assemble a life.
The next passage, quoted below, is a long one, but it’s worth the time.
Partly because Gallant does not often make direct comparisons between the ways in which her characters consider how men and women react differently in certain situations (either they do not have the time or inclination to reflect, or their lives are quiet and small and there is not a lot of opportunity to compare and make generalizations).
But partly, too, because even this passage reveals something about life in wartime, the ways in which scraps and remnants must suffice.
“A woman can always get some practical use from a torn-up life, Gabriel decided. She likes mending and patching it, making sure the edges are straight. She spreads the last shred out and takes its measure: What can I do with this remnant? How long does it need to last? A man puts on his life ready-made. If it doesn’t fit, he will try to exchange it for another. Only a fool of a man will try to adjust the sleeves or move the buttons; he doesn’t know how.”
What Gabriel means here is that he does not know how. His sleeves are too short and the buttons misaligned. And he doesn’t know how to adjust for a better fit.
And he is not alone in this discomfort. Even though years have passed and there is a span of time separating Europeans from the years in which WWII raged, people are still engaged in it, arguably engaged as much as they ever were. And, yet, there is something vitally different.
“Dieter recalled how in the sixties there used to be real French-men, real Germans, authentic Jews. The Jews had played deportation the way they had seen it in films, and the Germans had surrendered according to film tradition, too, but there had been this difference. They had at least been doing something their parents had done before them. They had not only the folklore of movies to guide them but – in many cases – first-hand accounts.”
Now they are all actors, all playing dress-up, the spectre of the past looming still but without grown survivors to offer legitimacy even to token acts of remembrance. So Gabriel – born in 1935 – has no idea how to act.
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Mavis Gallant’s stories, as I read through her short fiction. This is the fifth 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: “From the Fifteenth District”. Next collection: Home Truths, beginning Feburary 5th with “Thank You for the Lovely Tea”.