If only Dr. Dominic Missierna could arrange for a weekly dinner with Charles Filandreux (from “Siegfried’s Memoirs” in Coming Ashore) and Henri Grippes (from “A Painful Affair” in Overhead in a Balloom).
Every year weighs heavily on these men, even though the time seems to have passed too quickly to take notice: now they feel quite alone.
“Perhaps he seemed old, but he appeared young to himself. In the shaving mirror he saw the young man he had been at university. In his dreams, even his bad dreams, he was never more than twenty-one.”
Dr. Missierna (it feels presumptuous to address him by his first name) is looking back at his life, on the time devoted to study of Saltnatek and its population. Please don’t confuse the region with Malta or Madagascar: everyone does, and it’s so frustrating for our hero.
The people there once developed an unusual form of commerce, carving a message into seashells, which were sold to visitor: “When This You See, Remember Me”. (But all that came to nought. If you spot one online for sale, snatch it up—they must be valuable collectibles by now.)
After so many years of study and contemplation, Dr. Missierna shares this detail with readers (in the course of a few pages), so we are meant to notice whether and how people are remembered.
Or, at least, it should matter, Dr. Missierna proposes. He’s wondering, however, about how (even, if!) his family remembers him. Looking ahead to Christmas time, he is unsure of his plans, worrying from the margins, unsure how to move towards the centre:
“To enter one’s own family, he supposed, one needed to fill out forms. All he would have to understand was the slant of the questions.”
He doesn’t see a place for himself in that group any longer. No longer does it come down to specific details, Dr. Missierna simply believes that the gap between himself and the younger generations (not just one, but all) is too wide to navigate:
“His grandchildren surely lived on magic. There was fresh daylight every morning. Clothes dropped on the floor were found clean and folded.”
Nor, however, is he content to simply step into the recesses. Maybe it’s simply the way of things. Maybe he should focus on tending his own garden: “But if I start minding my own business, he said to himself, I have no more reason to be.”
In her 2008 article in The New Yorker about Mavis Gallant’s short fiction, Francine Prose pulls a single paragraph from the titular story in Across the Bridge, which follows “Kingdom Come” to illustrate her admiration of the author’s succinct characterization. In just nine sentences, four characters’ lives and relationships are encapsulated.
“Each narrative offers us an entire existence (we feel that if a story doesn’t illuminate a whole life, Gallant’s not interested in writing it) and a whole world, a milieu precisely situated in time and on the map of Europe and Quebec. She builds her fictions with moments and incidents so revealing and resonant that another writer might have made each one a separate story, and she has the nerve to include dramatic and significant events that—as so often happens in life—turn out to have unpredictably minor consequences.”
Gallant also has the nerve to study the unpredictably tragic consequences of a person’s lifetime of overlooking important details.
Dr. Missierna’s loneliness was a preventable disease: his treatment will be slow to show results.
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Mavis Gallant’s stories, as I read through her short fiction. This is the fourth story in Across the Bridge. 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: “Dédé”.