How can I explain how pleased I was to find Henri Grippes in one of the final stories in the Paris collection?

It’s not as though we’re friends, but I’ve been wondering how he’s been keeping. And now, with just a few of Mavis Gallant’s stories left to read (four, after today’s), here he is.

Grippes first appeared in “A Painful Affair” (1981), next in “A Flying Start” (1982) and, most recently, in “Grippes and Poche” (1982). He’s never been particularly friendly.

When the air raid siren sounds off, on the first Wednesday of every month, at noon, it “keeps Grippes’s rare bursts of political optimism in perspective and starts the month off with a mixture of dread and unaccountable nostalgia: the best possible mixture for a writer’s psyche.”

Even though his psyche is clearly not a comfortable place to inhabit, somehow the way that Mavis Gallant describes it makes me chuckle rather than grimace. (And I thrill to the unexpected musing on nostalgia, as I’ve been coming across all sorts of references since reading David Berry’s new book last month.) So, maybe I have missed him.

Not for his fashion sense, however: “As for Grippes, he had on heavy socks, jogging pants, a T-shirt with tiger-head design (a gift), and a brown cardigan with bone buttons, knitted by Mme. Parfaire two Chistmases before.”

Not for his novels, even though they’ve changed of late: “No one dies in Grippes’s novels, not anymore. If Mme. Parfaire were to be carried down the winding staircase, every inch of her covered up (the elevator is too small to accommodate a stretcher), her presence would remain as a blur and a whisper.”

Not for the conversation: “Grippes needs help with the past now. He wants a competent assistant who can live in his head and sort out the archives.”

Not for his optimistic view of the future: “By temperament, by choice, by the nature of most of his friendships, by the cross-grained character of his profession he belonged in perpetual opposition. Now a devastating election result had made him a shareholder in power, morally responsible for cultural subsidies to rock concerts and nuclear testing in the Pacific.”

But somehow, despite all of this, I’m grateful to have made the acquaintance of Henri Grippes. And it’s only partly because I suspect that he’s a stand-in for the curmudgeonly parts of writer and observer and air-raid-siren-hearer, Mavis Gallant.

Here, Gallant offers a view of Grippes’s professional integrity, clues as to how the events of his past have threaded through his writing and his life, and a powerful wartime scene which helps us understand why Henri Grippes has maintained a solitary and lonely existence. Now readers understand how haunted he has been–about how much to reveal and how much to conceal, about how easily we can betray–and be betrayed by–our loved ones.

All of Mavis Gallant’s characters have this kind of backstory; we wouldn’t believe in them so wholly without it. “In Plain Sight”, she shows us just how she does it. 

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-from-the-end story in Paris Stories. 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: “Scarves, Beads, Sandals”.