Mavis Gallant’s “Irina” (1974)

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”.

2018-12-21T17:28:49+00:00

6 Comments

  1. Andrew Blackman January 5, 2019 at 2:28 pm - Reply

    Wow, it does seem like a novel! That’s quite an achievement to cram a lifetime into a short story. I’d like to read this one.

    • Buried In Print January 9, 2019 at 9:06 pm - Reply

      It’s a rewarding read: I hope you can find a copy while you’re on the move!

  2. Kat January 3, 2019 at 4:45 pm - Reply

    I don’t remember reading this story, but I did read this collection some years ago, and I did think the stories were elegant and novelistic, in the way Alice Munro’s are. I don’t know how she gets the effect, but she does. I’ll have to put Gallant on a list, because she wrote so much and I enjoyed this collection so much.

    • Buried In Print January 3, 2019 at 10:24 pm - Reply

      Gallant’s talent is remarkable. I hope you can find some collections to add to your shelves – they are definitely keepers (and likely difficult to find in your libraries – beyond the recent NYRBs, that is). I’ve still got two years of reading planned if you care to join in. (I know how much you love to join things. Heheh)

      • The Reading Life January 11, 2019 at 3:24 am - Reply

        As I read on in Gallant, i am beginning to see her as part of a great Grand and more than a little sad tradition of European literary treatments of people somehow focused on a now decayed Cultural tradition which perhaps reached its apex in pre-World War Two Warsaw and in the glory days of The Anglo Hungarian Empire. People in Gallant’s stories have not yet found a new Cultural home. They are kind of lost characters. The central characters of “Irina” for me fit this pattern. Irina is an elderly grandmother. Her late husband was a famous writer.

        The story opens near Christmas, one of Irina’s fourteen grandchildren, a young man, has been dispatched to move in with Irina and care for her. The description of her late husband is, in my mind, supportive of my reading of Gallant:

        “Few of Notte’s obituaries had even mentioned a family. Some of his literary acquaintances were surprised to learn there had been any children at all, though everyone paid homage to the soft, quiet wife to whom he had dedicated his books, the subject of his first rapturous poems. These poems, conventional verse for the most part, seldom translated out of German except by un-poetical research scholars, were thought to be the work of his youth. Actually, Notte was forty when he finally married, and Irina barely nineteen. The obituaries called Notte the last of a breed, the end of a Tolstoyan line of moral lightning rods. an extinction which was probably hard on those writers who came after him, and still harder on his children. However, even to his family the old man had appeared to be the very archetype of a respected European novelist –prophet, dissuader, despairingly opposed to evil, crack-voiced after having made so many pronouncements. Otherwise, he was not all that typical as a Swiss or as a Western, liberal, Protestant European, for he neither saved, nor invested, nor hid, nor disguised his material returns.”

        • Buried In Print January 15, 2019 at 6:11 pm - Reply

          Dabbling in the photographs of Robert Doisneau (known for his famous image of the couple kissing in the square in Paris), I found a reference to what Jean-Francoise Chevrier called Doisneau’s knack for capturing the “shiny melancholy that separates an individual from the crowd”; this makes me think of Gallant’s knack with teasing out details to build an intricate backstory for a “minor” character.

          That passage you’ve quoted is just so satisfying: so much depth, so many questions raised (and not in the way that leaves one dangling but in the way that simply leaves us wanting to know).

          I’m glad you continue to enjoy Gallant’s stories. For me, the more of them I read, the more that I want to read the remaining stories. Whereas I wondered if, at the halfway point of this four-year-long project, I wouldn’t begin to tire of them. Certainly not.

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