Mavis Gallant’s first sentences are clear and purposeful: they orient readers and offer a glimpse of the story’s tone.
“His mother had come of age in the war and then seemed to live a long greyness like a spun-out November.”
Another remarkable aspect of her craft is the way she broadens the capacity of a single story, which is hinted even in this single sentence, for ‘long’ and ‘spun-out’ suggest a breadth to the story that one might not have guessed from the title and, more subtly, with the mention of ‘November’ which suggests that we will have a view of the earlier months before witnessing the greyness-in-full.
We have gotten to know other mothers, in and around wartime, in this collection, but this is the most detailed and evocative depiction. Readers can picture her vividly, with sensory details (textures frequently add intensity to Mavis Gallant’s descriptions) to enliven her scenes.
“He seldom looked up – never truly saw her – a stately, careless widow with unbrushed red hair, wearing an old fur coat over her nightgown, her last dressing gown had been worn to ribbons and she said she had no money for another.”
And this is because the view of the mother comes from another observer, not the mother’s son, but from someone else who is not afraid to note how she is feeling, not afraid to look at her directly.
Not that the difficulties in their relationship are one-sided. The son has trouble asking about important things, trouble even meeting his mother’s gaze. But the mother has trouble recognizing the differences in their experiences, trouble making conversation about even simple details, which are not simple when cast against the backdrop of soldiering.
“Talking to him was like lifting a stone out of water.” And, so, the stone remains underwater.
Széchenyi Chain Bridge, Budapest, Hungary
“She felt shamed because it had not been in her to control armies, history, his stony watery world.” As a counter to the sense of shame, his mother insists on her appreciation of quality. And, because her son, although he is not a perfect son in some ways, provides for her reliably (as he is able, from a distance – always from a distance), she is able to maintain a standard which she would not be able to afford otherwise.
His assistance is vital. It is what funds her ability to visit the café which had a reputation for quality before the war, to fill her cupboards and drawers with blouses and hairclips, to buy the hat with a brim and the soft, grey (yes, grey!) gloves.
But her son’s support is not the most important part of him. His absence overshadows everything else. (Indeed, the story is not titled “Her Son”.)
And, yet, she writes long letters filled with the details of her comforts, which are only made available to her because her son remains a stone underwater and across the channel.
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Mavis Gallant’s stories, as I read through her short fiction. This is the second last 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: “Irina”. Next collection: Home Truths, beginning Feburary 5th with “Thank You for the Lovely Tea”.