What I know now, that I didn’t know when I started to read my final three Gallant works in Montreal Stories is that “Let It Pass”, “In a War”, and “The Concert Party” are a sequence of stories.

When I had a half hour to read on a weekend afternoon, I chose to begin with the second, “In a War”, because it was the right length for that brief interval of time, whereas the first story, “Let It Pass”, is about ten pages longer.

And so I met Steven when he was an older child, and it wasn’t until I started to read “The Concert Party” in another short reading session, and saw that his character was recurring, that I thought to flip back to the first and longer story, and found that he was older still.

That’s when I realized that the stories had been arranged so that readers meet Steven when he is older and then travel back in time. “Let It Pass” appears first in the collection, and even though the narrator’s name is not at all prominent in the story about his youngest years, here his naming is a significant matter.

Looking back, he recalls:

“…I changed my signature from “Steven B. Burnet” to “S. Blake Burnet” and became, I thought, a different person. Old school friends went on saying “Burney,” but new acquaintances took it for granted my name must be Blake. I was just twenty-five, the age when new acquaintances gradually begin to fill one’s life.”

This kind of invention proliferates throughout the story. Steven also witnesses it in Lily’s behaviour (she appears in all three stories too, and she is near to his age) and in Carlotta’s (Lily’s daughter, now around the age at which readers will observe Steven in his past, in the next story).

“Lily never needed to own an inch of Europe. She could make it up. She began to invent her own Europe from the time she learned to read. There were no mermaids in Canadian waters; no one rode to Canterbury. She had to invent something or perish from disappointment. She imagined a place where trees were enchanted, stones turned into frogs, frogs into princes.”

Carlotta’s invention is the kind of thing one might call idealism or optimism or naivete. Steven recognizes it too:

“Cultural authorities the world over were prepared to encourage her by means of grants; indulgent relations were disposed to gamble on her future. I suppose it was a sign that I had lived a long time and seen a great deal that everything meant to reflect the era seemed out of date. Try to tell them it’s already been done, I thought.”

Sometimes Steven speaks his truth, sometimes he remains quiet—and in the next story, when he is shown to be around Carlotta’s age, readers see that he can’t be told either, that he doesn’t believe he’s not the first to do a thing, to feel a thing, to resist a thing, to overthrow a thing.

Another sort of invention and reinvention is visible through Steven’s observations of his aunt’s reading habits. Readers learn that she “owned two novels and a collection of short stories which she would not lend” due to her habit of underlining, because “she did not want outsiders to know her private thoughts and feelings”.

Later in life, Steven finds in his aunt’s copy of All the Sad Young Men, a collection of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short stories, “an underscored passage about the end of love, the end of April; never the same love twice; ‘let it pass.’”

He notes: “My aunt must have recognized her own stoic yearning for my late uncle, young Lieut. Cope. I knew nothing about him, except for a sepia studio portrait in First World War uniform.”

It’s revealing of Steven’s character that he doesn’t not envision another love for his aunt, that he assumes her musings on love revolve around the only man Steven has observed in a portrait on the wall of her life. (But there’s a sense that there has been another love in his aunt’s life. And there are other characters with multiple loves in their lives as the stories unfold.)

“Let It Pass” is a remarkably complex story, and I can imagine that, had I first met Steven here, then carried on with the next story to find him just a boy, it might have been even more so.

In my chosen sequence, I “come of age” with Steven and explore and discover alongside him. Had I followed the intended sequence, I would have met Steven as an adult with a barely glimpsed past, and then turned the page to enter its shadows, fragile and untrustworthy memories.

Note: This is part of a series of posts on Mavis Gallant’s stories, as I read through her short fiction. This is part of the final trio of stories in Montreal Stories. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in for the remaining stories, or visit the previous posts as you create your own mini-Gallant-reading-project. Next up, in Montreal Stories: “In a War”.