When Robert’s mother observes Alda’s signature and recognizes the pride and secrecy in its long loops and closed As, I think about the handwriting course that Mme Brounet took in Dédé.
But I also think of Mavis Gallant writing long-hand and the hours she spent studying her own cursive script. How she knew, in writing “Mlle Dias de Corta” that it was not Mlle’s pride and secrecy but the narrator’s pride and secrecy which would make this story tick.
The story begins with the “first cordial conversation” between Mme (Robert’s mother) and Mlle (Alda) and something about the way it’s laid out makes it obvious that there were a lot of other conversations, not so cordial, to follow.
But there, in that first one, Robert’s mother confides the news of her husband’s recent death and his last utterance, about her financial future, “not overly optimistic”. And Mlle. Dias de Corta’s response is left to the imagination; we hear only about her crumbs and some spilled milk. Hardly promising.
So why does she open her house to a stranger? It was “for companionship rather than income”, Mme insists. (Earlier in Across the Bridge, the Carette family suffered a similar humiliation.)
But the number of francs matters a great deal. And Mme offers her own room to Mlle. One has a feeling that she seeks her favour. Even while she is concerned about obtaining a signature to stipulate the contents of the rented room.
The more that Mme learns about Mlle, the more she disapproves. “My husband took some people on trust, too, and he died disappointed.”
Mme’s memories are mostly confined to the summer before abortion became legal in France. And even though she suggests otherwise, I think she took Mlle on trust and ended up disappointed.
Her concerns (about the increasing “colonization” of France, which plays out on a smaller scale in her preoccupation with Mlle’s heritage, for while she insists she is from Marseilles, she has neither a French passport nor an appropriate reason for her lack)? They seem to swell from paragraph to paragraph.
But simultaneously, Mme has a deep-rooted sympathy for Mlle. Now that Robert is married and no longer living at home, Mme longs for Mlle’s return. So they could “say simple things that take the sting out of life”.
She wants “the pleasure of seeing [her] and hearing from [her] own lips what [she is] proud of and what [she regrets]”. And then Mme quickly slips into reminiscences about her own youth. About the music that she loved and how well she could sing. About how she longed to work at the restaurant with her husband, but he insisted that she remain at home with young Robert. About how her “home is always ready for unexpected guests”.
I don’t think that Mlle had that many secrets, only that Mme preferred to think that the problematic details about her were secrets, so that she needn’t think about them. Mme could turn her head, the way that she did when she saw the building which once housed the family restaurant in which she never worked.
But I think that Mme has a secret. One which caused her to mark this summer’s date in this way. One which made her sympathetic to a young woman like Mlle. Who had declared her intention to move in one direction only to find that her other decisions closed off her escape routes.
For such a short story, I think this is one of my favourites. For what is left unwritten in the gaps (Forain should have approved).
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Mavis Gallant’s stories, as I read through her short fiction. This is the second last 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: “The Fenton Child”.