We mean it kindly, when we say that a short story contains a novel.
For many of us are novel-lovers, first or only, and, so, this seems a high compliment.
What we are observing is how quickly an author can beckon us into the heart of a character, how deftly she can create a life, with all its dark corners and celebrations, all its monotony and flagrance.
Irina is one of those characters. As a starting place for Gallant reading, “The Ice Wagon Going Down the Street” and “In the Tunnel” are strong choices: much anthologized and complex. But a story like “Irina” is half the length and the whole package.
Readers meet Irina and her grandson, Rini, straight away; he has been sent to spend Christmas with her (and what a timely read, yes, indeed).
Rini needs watching (while his mother recuperates and his father worries for the future of their family unit) and Irina needs company (because she is a widow).
This is the central pin upon which the story hinges, but readers also know the history of Irina’s marriage, the professional accomplishments of her husband, the names of their five children, the changing habits erupting out of her widowhood, and many other details.
Somehow none of this feels like clutter, rather, reportage. It also doesn’t feel like a creative writing exercise because one has the sense that, had she chosen to do so, each of the named characters’ stories could have been written down like Irina’s.
The story begins with Irina when she is old:
“Now, in old age, she had no excuse for errors. Every thought had a long meaning, every motive had angels and corners, and could be measured. And yet whatever she saw and attempted was still fluid and vague.”
But we also have a sense of her own experience of childhood. And, in the next sentence, a glimpse of the middle of her life, too:
“’If people can be given numbers, like marks in school,’ she said, ‘then children are zero.’ […] ‘Zero.’ She held up thumb and forefinger in an O. ‘I was there with my five darling zeros while he…. You are probably wondering if I was ever happy. At the beginning, in the first days, when I thought he would give me interesting books to read, books that would change all my life.’”
And we glimpse the desperation and resignation of a young woman, before marriage, before the dream of countless interesting books to read:
“You see, in those days women had nothing of their own. They were like brown paper parcels tied with string. They were handed like parcels from their fathers to their husbands. To make the parcel look attractive it was decked with curls and piano lessons, and rings and gold coins and banknotes and shares. After appraising all the decoration, the new owner would undo the knots.”
We even, through Rini’s experience, catch a hint of Irina’s childhood, through the commentary and observations of his experience in Irina’s home.
It feels like a lifetime because the story does span a lifetime. And because we observe it in a single reading session, it feels like a great distance to have travelled in the time that it takes to read twenty pages.
It feels like something remarkable. Because it is.
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Mavis Gallant’s stories, as I read through her short fiction. This is the 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 collection: Home Truths, beginning Feburary 5th with “Thank You for the Lovely Tea”.