Don’t be fooled: it’s still about Magdalena.
Except she is called Lena by the “half a dozen widows of generals and bereft sisters of bachelor diplomats”.
They “crowd her bedside table” – Magdalena’s/ Lena’s bedside table – with “bottles of cough mixture, lemons, embroidered table napkins, jars of honey, and covered bowls of stewed plums, the juice from which always spills”.
Were it not for that final detail – “the juice from which always spills” – this could have been a story from another writer, the spilled juice reveals Mavis Gallant’s eye for detail. And her insistence on the elements of imperfection which characterize ordinary life.
Except, wait a minute, what about my theory?
That this series of stories, ostensibly about the character of Edouard, the Parisian poet who has been married twice, is actually a series of stories about the fictionalized version of Poche, from “Grippes and Poche”?
That Edouard has been renamed to camouflage the habit that Henri Grippes has maintained, a habit of writing and rewriting the life of this civil servant, real-life Poche (in a story) becoming on-the-page Poche (in the form of Edouard, in a trail of sketch-like stories)
That theory? It could still be true.
Some inconsistencies seem to exist between the stories, even those which are clearly intended to be about the same character (following the moment in which we “meet” the religion woman with her rosary in “Grippes and Poche”, a character to whom novelist Henri Grippes awaits an imagined introduction).
In one, for instance, Magdalena requires rescuing, on a wartime train, where she avoids being rerouted to face some unknown persecution (in “Grippes and Poche”, Henri mentions that he threw out a draft in which his pseudo-Poche character was in a French resistance movement). This occurs in “A Recollection”, in which Edouard marryies her, to provide a sort of camouflage.
But in “Lena”, Edouard is about sixty-six years old and Lena is about eighty. There is fourteen years between them. In “A Recollection”, during the war, discussing their marriage, that fourteen years would, surely, have seemed an even greater quotient of years, a detail worth mentioning?
But whether or not this is the case, Magdalena is an interesting character. The story begins like this: “In her prime, by which I mean in her beauty, my first wife, Magdalena, had no use for other women.”
She “saw women as accessories, to be treated kindly – maids, seamstresses, manicurists – or as comic minor figures, the wives and official fiancées of her admirers.”
And, so, she is kind to them, even though Edouard notes that “…I suspect that she was called some of the senseless things she was called, such as Central European whore’ and ‘Jewish adventuress,’ by women”.
Perhaps this is easier for Edouard to posit given that he apparently wrote Magda/Lena a letter, which she received shortly after she returned following the war (of her war experience, we know nothing), explaining that he had married another woman, substantially younger than he: Juliette.
The two women meet on one occasion which Edouard recounts in “Lena”: “I remember how she [Juliette] stared at Magdalena with gentle astonishment, as if Magdalena were a glossy illustration that could not look back.”
(For a moment, if we consider that Henri is writing Edouard, that he is a fictional version of Poche, that means we readers begin in this moment with Juliette looking at Magdalena, then zoom outwards to Edouard who is looking at Juliette who is looking at Magdalena, zoom out again to the fictional writer’s perspective, to Henri Grippes imagining Poche as Edouard who is looking at Juliette who is looking at Magdalena, and, finally, zoom out to Mavis Gallant herself, who is directing our own gaze, through Henri and Edouard and Juliette and Magdalena. That’s a whole lot of looking at Magdalena. A prismatic effect to be sure.)
Edouard continues: “I saw her through Juliette’s eyes, and I thought what Juliette must be thinking: Where does Magdalena think we’re taking her? To a wedding? Handing her into the front seat, I had shut the door on her skirt. I wondered if she had turned into one of the limp, pliant women whose clothes forever catch.”
But what a ridiculous accusation. Because if Magdalena is the woman whose clothing is caught in a door, is it not as much the responsibility of the person who is closing the door as the person whose clothing is draped precariously?
How unfair of Edouard to make this judgement. And how silly of me to be so offended on the part of Magdalena-Lena.
And, yet, Mavis Gallant has made me care for this probably fictional (no, truly fictional) woman.
But, still, I want to right the stewed plums and pull the fabric out of harm’s way.
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Mavis Gallant’s stories, as I read through her short fiction. This is the eleventh story in Overhead in a Balloon. 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: “The Assembly”.