As a sharp observer and as a chronicler of wartime and revolutionary foment, there are a lot of good and serious reasons to read Mavis Gallant: she is also wickedly funny.
The humour in this story’s title is only accessible to readers after we have finished reading. But nevermind, because you can find other reasons to stay and enjoy reading it, until she offers you this treat.
Right from the start, the setting is meticulously created for us. The opening sentences establish the palette and the tactility of the scene; indirectly, a plethora of scents (perhaps “smells” would be more accurate) wafts up, through her phrases.
“Houses of widows on the French Riviera have in common the outsize pattern of flowers on the chintzes; there is too much furniture everywhere, most of it larger than life. The visitor feels, as he is intended to, very small.”
It’s just as well that we, readers (as visitors), feel very small. We wouldn’t want Olivia to take any notice of us. It seems like she has a lot of time on her hands, and we’d prefer to stay out of her line of fire.
“Left to herself, with the possibility of having life as she now wants it, the solitary old woman recovers a child’s dream diet, a child’s pet animals; she furnishes a vast drawing room intended for giants, and creates her mother’s bedroom, as she remembers it – bright and secret, with smooth curtains, and cats all over the bed.”
She might be, in the hands of another writer, a figure of fun. Someone to poke at, to mock. There are mockable bits, for sure. But Olivia, beneath all of that, is credible. Through and through: we believe she exists. (Depending on your life experience, you might even believe that you know/have known Olivia. Or a near-Olivia.)
But there is a darker side to her. Taking care not to delve too deeply into the story, here’s an early glimpse:
“Olivia now began to revise the instructions she had drawn up for the disposal of her own body after her death. She wishes to be cremated, which would cause one great and final inconvenience.”
How does Mavis Gallant do it? Even here, when Olivia is contemplating her final exit (the “in transit” theme erupts here, too), there is a note of playfulness. Not fun, exactly. No. Because almost immediately she outlines the specific sorts of disruption that she hopes to cause with this demand to be cremated. But she does seem to be playing a game, all the same.
The dialogue and the scenic detail in “Good Deed” are tightly drawn. Even if, at first, readers cannot get a sense of the goings-on between the characters (at least one of them decidedly off-stage), gradually the dynamics take root. And then readers can enjoy the interplay between Olivia’s overt and covert plans.
It all feels a little Muriel Spark-y, but where there would be an edge to it if Spark were to have written it, here the blade is wrapped in chintz. And it smells like violets and cat fur.
In Transit‘s stories: By the Sea / In Italy / An Emergency Case / Jeux d’Ete / When We Were Nearly Young / Better Times / A Question of Disposal / The Hunter’s Waking Thoughts / Careless Talk / The Circus / In Transit / The Statues Taken Down / Questions and Answers / Vacances Pax / A Report / The Sunday After Christmas / April Fish / The Captive Niece / Good Deed
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Mavis Gallant’s stories, as I read through her short fiction. This is the final story in In Transit. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story; I would love the company. Next collection: Across the Bridge.